My Tryst With Juvenile Dramatics

I have always had a low grade resentment towards children’s theatre, and had expressed this resentment back in the early days of this blog. Back then, I had cited three unpleasant run-ins with the activity. Those wounds have healed somewhat, but my suspicion of the theatre remains.

These days, my main problem with children’s theatre is the claim its practitioners make – that it is a cure for shyness. My reaction to this claim is very much like the reaction of the X-Men to the ‘mutant cure’ – rage and insistence that there is nothing to cure. Shyness, I tell everybody who will listen, is a personality trait and not a disease. It can often be a very useful personality trait, in that it rescues you from prolonged interaction with other people, who can often teach you stupid things that it will take a long time to unlearn. This is all the more poignant considering that shyness isn’t even  communicable. Even if you’re not shy yourself, you don’t risk catching it from a shy person. So why not just let them be?

Recently I remembered that I had forgotten to write about my first ever, probably formative, encounter with juvenile dramatics. I may as well tell the story now.

The story dates back to either Class 5 or Class 6 – more likely Class 5, so sometime between April 1992 and October 1993. My aunt Gugloo1 Masi had arrived from the United States (or possibly France) and was in Delhi visiting her parents, in-laws, cousins (which included my mother), and friends (which included either Lushin or Lilette Dubey – possibly both, as she had been to school or college with one of the Dubey sisters). Anyway, as things turned out, Gugloo Masi was at the home of whichever of the sisters was her friend – probably Lushin – and invited my mother to come over and meet her there. Ma in turn took me along. Once we were there, the three ladies became engrossed in conversation. I became engrossed in the bookshelf.

The bookshelf was magnificent. It stretched from floor to ceiling, and my nine or ten year old self could only examine the upper shelves by dragging a chair from the writing table to the shelf and then clambering on top. It had what looked like the collected works of Agatha Christie, whom I had started reading in the summer of 1991. If I remember right, the Harper Collins paperbacks in those days were priced between Rs 75 and Rs 125; and seeing the collected works, as it were, in the wild, free for the picking, was a powerful stimulus to my soul. I gazed at the bookshelf in rapture. Conversation from the sitting room, some of it to do with the benefits of theatre in curing shyness, drifted through, but I paid it no heed.

Alas, my plans of communing with Agatha Christie were scuppered by Ma, who yelled at me for climbing on people’s chairs without their leave, and we eventually left, though in the intervening period Lushin Dubey said I was welcome to visit the bookshelf again.

Some weeks later, Ma informed me on a Sunday morning that an opportunity to visit said bookshelf had come up, and I excitedly accompanied her to the Dubey house. It was only once I got there that I realised that I was the victim of treachery. True, the bookshelf was still there, and it was still full of Agatha Christies. But my path to it was blocked by about eighty children who were there to audition for Peter Pan – or possibly The Jungle Book – and to my horror, I found that I was expected to do the same.

I was taken in hand by a girl, one or two years older, who explained what I had to do in the audition. I would play a young child, she would play my older sister, and a third person would play a drug dealer. The drug dealer would offer me a sweet, I would accept, my sister would see me taking unidentified substances from a stranger, and rush over to a) make sure I didn’t swallow them b) warn me about the danger of taking things from strangers c) warn me about the danger of drugs. She asked me if I had got all that. I said I had. So she kicked off the audition.

Things started smoothly. The drug dealer did indeed ask me if I wanted a sweet. So far, so good. But at this point, reasoning that I already knew about the dangers of drugs and strangers thanks both to the initial briefing and in general being a well read and informed person, I might as well come to the same conclusion as the script with far less tedious exposition. So the audition went more like this:

Drug Dealer: Do you want a toffee?
Aadisht: no.
Drug Dealer (unprepared for this): what?
Sister (rushing up): Don’t take that toffee from him!
Aadisht: I didn’t.
Sister: what?
Aadisht: I don’t take things from strangers.
Sister and Drug Dealer: …

At this point the actress playing the role of the sister suggested that I wait on the staircase, which I did until Ma came to take me away.

As things turned out, I did not get the part, and my habit of skipping to the end when I already knew the answer meant that I spent the next five years having marks cut in maths and physics exams for not showing all the steps. But most importantly, I never got to read the promised Agatha Christies. Very possibly my lingering resentment towards juvenile dramatics has its origins there.

Pastry and the Progress of Civilisation

On the weekend gone by, I was attending a class on how to cook Hokkaido Cheese Tarts and Xiao Long Bao, the famous and delicious soup filled dumpling. The class was a birthday present from my darling wife, and as birthday presents go, has been the best one since she got me Ticket to Ride, which continues to provide hours of fun to this day. In time to come, the ability to make xiao long bao or cheese tarts may provide more cumulative pleasure and meaning than Ticket to Ride. But why speculate? For now, I shall write about the insights I gained during the class.

As I went through the class, the teacher pointed out that xiao long bao, for all its fame, does not have particularly exotic or expensive ingredients. It’s made with flour, minced pork, gelatin, and the same seasoning ingredients – sesame oil, vinegar, soy sauce, and salt and pepper – as are found in any East Asian chicken. The only really unusual ingredients are yeast and gelatin, which are procured easily enough. The reason you have to pay almost a dollar a dumpling, said Ms Tan, is that making the dumplings is both time consuming (you start the night before by adding yeast to the flour) and highly skilled; and that restaurants have to scour China to find skilled dumpling makers. Xiao Long Bao, she said, was all about the people making it, and not about what they were making it from.

This, I realised, is an interesting parallel to my older aunts’ and uncles’ idea of a good time. But as I thought more about it, I also realised that it is brought about by dramatically different circumstances. Let me elaborate.

My older aunts and uncles, all born before 1947, started adulthood as post-Partition refugees in Jammu and Delhi. Those were bleak years, not just for refugees, but for India as a whole. Material luxuries were scarce, or didn’t even exist. Automobiles and telephones were on a waiting list. Fruit and butter were major treats. But even with fruit, variety was limited; and so the treat was more to have a lot of a single kind of fruit, than to have many different kinds of fruits.

The thing that wasn’t scarce in those days was people. And so for my older relatives, their idea of luxury involves people doing work for them. The more work, the better. For my bua, bliss is having her driver drive around in the rains with no destination in mind. The driver, who has to control the car in miserable weather and driving conditions, may disagree. But anyhow. As they – and India – became richer, they started treating themselves to newly available material goods as well, but never quite lost the habit of thoroughly enjoying themselves by getting other people to do the work on their behalf.

Today, the situation is dramatically different. Free economies, free trade, and internet shopping, among other things, mean that we are spoiled for choice when it comes to material things; and they all cost much less thanks to the Chinese manufacturing miracle. Smartphones and motorcycles are within everyone’s reach! There are five different kinds of grains in the market. The fruit shop has fruits from all over the world, and farmers in Uttarakhand are now growing zucchini. What a cornucopia!

The trouble with cornucopias is that if everyone1 can have a smartphone, a smartphone ceases to be a signal of status and wealth. So if displaying your status and wealth is important to you, you can’t really do it with material things; unless you get really rare and exotic material things. Or, you could buy things which require something else scarce to make them – that is, skills. Such as xiao long bao.

So, sixty years ago, when money was limited, but things you could buy with it were even more limited, the only way you could show off was by buying labour. Today, money is widespread, things you can buy are even more so; and so the only way to show off is again by buying labour. What a full circle, and what a sandwich generation it makes those people who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s and could impress others with laptop computers or automobiles.

This is possibly overgeneralisation, but I think there’s another difference between buying labour in a scarcity era and in a post-scarcity era. In the scarcity era, you paid for conspicuous waste, like having five domestic servants run around to find your glasses; while in the post-scarcity era you pay for conspicuous skill2 like folding the perfectly symmetrical dumpling. Which brings us back to the class.

At the end of the class, I can testify to the importance of skill. Making the dumpling dough is easy enough, and the stuffing is even easier. But picking out the perfect quantity of dough, rolling it out into a flat disk that’s thinner on the edges, and then folding the disk into an aesthetically pleasing dumpling are skills that take probably take months of practice to get right. Frustrated at my fumbling efforts, Ms Tan frequently took over the doug rolling herself, and the bun folding even more so. About twenty dumplings in, my folding technique finally became adequate, if not good. It was hard to overcome habit and heed Ms Tan’s advice to do the folding right rather than do it quick3.

During the class, demonstrating a method of squeezing out dough, and noting my Indian origins, Ms Tan told me that it was the same method as would be used in making pratas. Too embarassed to admit that I have never made a paratha by hand, and buy frozen ones from packets when forced to make them for myself; I merely nodded; but this observation, coupled with her comments about xiao long bao being all labour and skill and not material cost, made me remember a classified advertisement that had gone viral a few years ago.

I’m not sure if the classified was real or a photocopied joke, and I can’t even find the image any more, so I’m describing it from memory. It was in Tamil, and listed several job openings, along with the salary offers against those openings. Beginner software engineers, or something similarly white collar, were being offered 8000 rupees a month. A parotta master (or perhaps it was a dosa master) was being offered something much higher – ten or twelve thousand rupees a month. In general, people were amused at a blue collar occupation making much more than a white collar occupation. Further commentary, if any, focused either on the utter commodification of IT skills, or on pointing out that domestic and cooking skills were actually in very short supply and worth paying for. But it was only on Sunday that I realised that Douglas Adams too had made a pertinent comment on the situation, many years before the classified had come out. It is this quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series:

The history of every major Galactic Civilization teds to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?’

So yes, a parotta master making more than a software engineer has a lot to say about the dignity of blue collar jobs, the commodification of coding skills, the changing demographics and economic fortunes of South India, and our tendency to carry around too many expectations. But at a very big picture level, it also suggests that South India, as a civilisation, has started the transition from Inquiry to Sophistication. Hurray!

The Propensity for Narrative

One of the most interesting books I’ve read in the last seven years has been Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour. For many years, I have been somewhat restrained in expressing my fascination with this book. This is less because of the dubious reputation evolutionary psychology has (and evopsych underpins the book), and more because Miller’s conclusions so precisely matched my own thinking (which did not even have the backing of evopsych) that I was unable to decide if I was a genius or if Miller was talking something so banal that I thought of it too. Anyhow, that (along with laziness) explains why I am writing about this book almost six years after having first read it.

In Spent, Miller makes the case that all of modern civilisation and consumer capitalism is the outcome of our genes’ desire to pass themselves on. We want to have sex, and therefore we want to attract mates, and therefore we want to signal how great we are, and in the process we buy things which we hope will signal said greatness.

Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to make an impression on other people’s minds than to enjoy owning a chunk of matter—a fact that renders “materialism” a profoundly misleading term for much of consumption. Many products are signals first and material objects second.

Miller says that when you come down to it, there are only six unique traits which we actually signal: intelligence, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extraversion. Meanwhile, brands and their managers themselves catch on to our desire to signal these traits and tailor brand images to associate them with particular traits. So, for example:

  • The Economist associates itself with intelligence
  • Mountain Dew associates itself with openness to experience
  • Life insurance companies, especially in India, associate themselves with conscientiousness and stability (but to be fair, what else will they associate themselves with)

To some extent, this association may actually have a basis in the product itself. At other times, it exists only in marketing communication (really, just how much will 15% sugar water that looks like urine make you more open to new experiences?). But howsoever strong or weak the connection, at some point consumers will take it seriously.

At about the fifteenth chapter, Miller gives up description and takes up prescription. And that is what this post is really about. Everything until now has only been background. (Sorry.) Miller says:

… buying new, real, branded, premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option. It offers low narrative value – no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product’s design, provenance, acquisition, or use.

He continues with a long list of things that buying premium products fails to accomplish, but what I’m really interested in is the point about narrative value. On which note, let’s skip a few paragraphs in the same chapter, and go to Miller’s parable of a high powered lawyer who decides not to read GQ, drive to Neiman Marcus, and buy shirts; and instead:

… he could have driven to the nearest thrift store, used its logical arrangement of stock by garment type, size, and color to quickly identify some interesting shirts, tried them on, picked one, and bought it, in a total shirt-purchase time of about one hour. If his wife doesn’t like the shirt, no problem: it only cost $5. It could be burned impulsively on the barbecue to display his respect for the wife’s superior aesthetic judgement, and she would love him for it, and they could have connubial canoodling for two whole hours, and he would still come out ahead. Plus, the whole episode would make such a great dinner-party story.

(Incidentally, the above paragraph illustrates the appeal of Spent. Even if its argument is claptrap – and I have still not been able to find a reason why the argument is claptrap – the writing is so deliciously self-assured and sardonic that you will love the book despite its claptrapness. But back to narrative value for now.)

For many years, amazed at how much Miller and I thought alike, especially when it came to the bit about narrative value, I used to feel dismay and frustration watching people buy expensive brand name products that had little underlying utility, and brag about them with little underlying justification. This would be more sharply triggered with some product categories than others. Flooring, for example, is a product in which this rankles even today. Why buy Italian marble at Rs 650 a square foot, when tiles do the job at Rs 110, or when red oxide gives you the opportunity to talk about how you once read Amulya Shruthi’s blogpost about it and were utterly carried away by her reminiscing.

With other types of consumption, my reaction was more amusement and derision than frustration and rage. Luxury handbags, for example. I have once had the privilege of hearing a Bavarian thatha who manufactures glue rant ferociously about how useless the quality of these handbags is. And to this day, seeing people talk about Hermes or Louis Vuitton bags makes me giggle as I recall that rant, and mentally thank them for spending so much money to bring that back for me.

But, to really, really get back to narrative value. After three years of either rage or amusement, I began to wonder about why people could not see this for themselves. And I then began to wonder: what if some people simply do not have the capacity for narrative?

After all, we are living in India, where so many, too many, parents react in horror if their children reads “storybooks”, or anything other than assigned textbooks. There is also the disturbing push to see the Mahabharata and Ramayana as literal history instead of inspired and wonderful fictional fantasy – and that means that any attempt to build upon  or remix the narrative will be seen as ruining the story instead of improving it. But even if you think that these explanations are rubbish, do consider the possibility that something – Twitter, TV news, the Gods know what – is leading to people having lower and lower capacity for a deep narrative – and that as their capacity drops, the only narrative they can absorb are shallow brand identities like “Italian marble = made it in life” and “iPhone = pinnacle of usability”. And thus luxury marketing marches on.

Tangential points have arisen during the writing of this post that are perhaps too big to be footnotes:

  1. If you take Miller’s point about signaling at face value, the troll tactic that accuses you of ‘virtue signaling’ whenever you talk about feminism, human rights, or some such becomes both additionally tiresome and easily refuted. The correct answer to being accused of virture signaling then becomes: “Yes. And your point is? Signalling virtue is what has allowed us to leave the savannah, invent agriculture, start the Industrial Revolution, and bring about the gigantic improvement in longevity, health, wellbeing and prosperity that has culminated in you barging into my replies. So what is your fucking point exactly, and do you imagine that your barging into my replies is anything other than your own attempt to signal audaciousness and knowledge?”
  2. The value I place on a good dinner-story is so high that it has led me to maintain grudges against family members that have run for up to fifteen years (and counting). My motivation for this is that making up with said family members would, at best, give me a decent relationship with somebody extremely boring at best and annoying at worst. But carrying the feud on lets me tell stories about it for the amusement and entertainment of friends and family members whose presence is actually enjoyable, and with whom the relationship strengthens and deepens by sharing such stories and judgement.
  3. The Discworld, of course, takes the narrative capacity up to an extreme, and runs primarily on the power of narrative and less so on the laws of physics. If you accept Miller’s thesis, then conspicuous consumption of branded merchandise is the anti-narrativium. Jaguar and Jimmy Choo are therefore the agents of the Auditors of Reality.
  4. Punjabi pop music, in recent years, has been severely namedropping brands associated with such conspicuous consumption. That needs a blogpost in itself and I hope you will hold me to writing it.

Hope, Faith, Love

About a month ago, I read Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues. What a book! In a year where I have read so much great nonfiction, this stands out for voice, ambition, scale, and provocativeness; and I feel that this is one of those books that influences you for life.

There is so much happening in The Bourgeois Virtues and I am so badly out of touch with writing long and focused articles that I can’t do justice to the whole book here. I will say that there’s lots to agree with, lots to disagree with, and even more to go back and reread before committing myself to agreement or disagreement. But for now, here is a quick reflection on the bit of the book that affected me most personally.

McCloskey speaks of seven virtues, and divides them into the four classical or masculine ones:

  1. Justice
  2. Prudence
  3. Courage
  4. Temperance

And the three Christian and feminine ones:

  1. Faith
  2. Hope
  3. Love

At present I can’t say if the reasons she gives for calling them feminine or masculine are faff or not. So let’s not get into that. Let’s not also get into whether her definitions, or expositions, of the virtues are valid or not, and simply take them at face value. What I found interesting was how she chose to talk about the three Christian virtues.

Faith, says McCloskey, need not necessarily be religious faith. Instead, she gives it (among other definitions), a definition that sounds very close to sanskaar. She says that it is a sense of connection with the past, or where you come from, or where you are rooted. So it need not be faith in God, or your church, or your religion. Even a sense of nationalism, or connection with something you were born with, or into, will qualify as faith.

Hope, she says, is the forward looking twin of faith. It isn’t concerned with where you came from, but where you think you’re going. It’s a positive feeling about the future.

And love need not be romantic love. Family relationships, kindness, charity, and any feeling of wishing well for another whether or not you get anything out of it counts as love, according to The Bourgeois Virtues. That’s possibly the widest (and some would say vaguest) scope of the three virtues, and accordingly, the most interesting.

Now, most of the book left me feeling excited but also skeptical and thinking I should read it once (or many more times) again. But the description of these three feminine virtues left me feeling a bit shaken.

Why so? Because looking at my surroundings and circumstances, I find it hard to have faith, even in the expansive way McCloskey describes it. India and Delhi in particular are short on empathy, and heavy on filth and pollution. The religion I was born to, even if it started with magnificent philosophical underpinnings, is now characterised by superstition and pettiness, and the horrific taint of the caste system. Even if I take refuge in having been born into Arya Samaj, a relatively progressive corner of Hinduism, the past few years have left me with the gloomy conviction that Arya Samaj has moved from reforming Hinduism to being coopted as an apology for its excesses to those who want further reform. (That probably needs a blogpost in itself). At best, my faith can be tied to my family’s success and values, but even that requires careful cherry picking and ignoring all the shit my relatives have pulled (fraud, passive aggression, wastefulness, financial insecurity, getting themselves conned, and more). But perhaps those tiny patches of success could form a foundation for faith.

What about hope? Well, it’s there in the short term. But, again, as I look at the world, and see temperature rise hurtling past two degrees Celsius, my hope for the long term is also dwindling.

Which means that the only (feminine) virtue left to me is love. Oh no. Five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that wishing my fellow humans well was the only path to a virtuous existence. Even today, I feel I would be happier if half the human race didn’t exist (and with the exception of about two hundred people, I wouldn’t really care which half disappeared). And with such an absence of a proclivity for love, I still have to take it up as the only way to lead a useful life.

Well, I had better get to it then.

The Taxman and my Grandfather

Two weeks ago, the Hindustan Times had an interview of Arun Jaitley, in which he made this depressing statement:

Shouldn’t the taxmen have some idea about the correlation between your income and expenditure or the correlation between your income and lifestyle?

As far as I’m concerned, no they bloody shouldn’t. Accepting reluctantly that I do have to fork over about a quarter of my income in order to provide for my government’s questionable expenditure choices (an airline? really?), I draw the line at said government also demanding to know the complete details of my lifestyle on threat of financial penalty. Is nothing private? Can I no longer buy web hosting, Cities: Skylines, or The Princess Diaries XI: Royal Wedding without Jaitley poking his greasy nose into the affair? Moreover, if there is already sales tax and service tax, why do the taxmen give a damn about the correlation between income and expenditure? And as long as I pay everything on time and accurately, why is my lifestyle under suspicion from the get go?

This excessive preoccupation with other people’s lifestyles reminds me of the story of how my grandfather disliked Jammu.

My grandfather was a great man who climbed out of poverty thrice. The reason once wasn’t enough is that the first time he did it, Partition pushed him back into destitution, and the second time he did it, his sleazy younger brother pushed him back into poverty. But he kept going, like Chumbawumba.

On his third climb out of poverty, he was living in Jammu and running a small business, which had its office not too far away from his home. So rather than pack a lunch box, he would walk home every day for lunch, and then walk back to work.

One day, on his walk home, he was accosted by a stranger who told him enthusiastically, “Dharam Swarup ji, the matar pulao at your home smells excellent!”

He himself hadn’t know what was being made for lunch, but a stranger did (even if the reason for this was the prominent aroma of Jammu rice). He didn’t have any clue who the stranger was, but the stranger knew who he was. And this complete stranger had no compunctions about accosting him on the road.

Eventually my grandfather moved to Delhi, and as he was a great man, made sure that he brought all his relatives along with him. And for many years to come, he told these relatives (who then told me) this story to explain how rotten Jammu was, and how it was full of busybodies who kept sticking their noses into other people’s business (and kitchen windows).

Presumably this is not merely a Jammu problem, but an Indian small town problem. Which would explain why Arun Jaitley, despite having left his small town forty years ago to study, practice law, and practice politics in Delhi, is still obsessively peering into other people’s lifestyles. Woe.

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.

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.

Ten Minutes in the Kitchen

My blog is at risk of sounding like a paid promotion for Philips. A day after writing about buying Philips LED bulbs, I am now writing about their new ad campaign to promote self-examination for breast cancer. Rest assured, though, that it’s just a coincidence, and do consider that I have been blogging so little that I don’t think Philips would even bother paying me.

Anyway. I saw the campaign being mentioned on social media about a week ago, at which time I quickly scrolled past. Then I saw a print ad on the weekend, and successfully ignored that. However, this evening, I heard a radio spot, got intrigued, and came back to look for the video spot. Here it is. It combines some of my favourite things: communicating without speaking, yuppie couples, and kitchens.

The radio ad I heard this evening isn’t quite as impressive. For starters, the husband in the radio ad seems far less competent. Unlike his counterpart in the TV ad, he can’t just make food by himself. He calls up his wife to ask for the recipe for dal. This left me wondering:

  • Why on earth do you need a recipe for dal of all things?
  • If you have to call up your wife to get instructions for making dal, don’t you end up wasting almost as much time of hers, and possibly more, as you save by making dal?
  • Seriously, why couldn’t he just look up YouTube, any of the multiple food channels on television, a cookbook, or just search the internet for a non-video recipe?
  • Will this incompetent chap who doesn’t even know how to learn how to make dal eventually follow in the noble footsteps of Samar Halarnkar and Max da Vinci and become a married man in the kitchen on a frequent basis, or is he just going to do this whenever his wife needs to self-examine?
  • What about lala couples who have domestic help to do all the chores anyway?
  • What about ladies who are widowed, have husbands who are living away from them, or aren’t married at all?

And, along with all of this, well, good for Philips India, but what made them decide on this good cause in particular?

I suspect that the whole point of the campaign is not to get more women examining themselves for breast cancer (though that would be a nice and positive side effect if it happened), but to get more husbands doing chores (which is valuable for its own sake and would also be excellent if it happened).

Now, telling husbands to do chores only for ten minutes a month may not seem like a lot as far as the wife is concerned. There is of course the possibility that the husbands will discover (to their own surprise) that they like doing things for their wives on a regular basis, or even that they enjoy doing the chores for their own sake. (Don’t knock that last possibility. Ironing is extremely relaxing.) And even if they don’t really enjoy it, maybe husbands will do it out of sheer competitiveness if they see other husbands doing it and bragging about it. Let us wait and watch.

Why, though, does Philips want husbands doing household chores? What’s in it for them?

My conspiracy theory is that they are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, a desire for less breast cancer, or a desire for more equitable marriages; but to sell the household appliances they make. What Philips is probably counting on is that husbands who have never done chores before will, once finally exposed to actual housework, realise what their wives have been going through and then rush to automate all these tasks as much as possible. Having realised the difficulties involved in getting ironed clothes, warm daal, or clean floors, they will at long last get better tools to achieve these, and immediately purchase mixies, vacuum cleaners, air fryers, or steam irons; to name but a few products in the Philips India range. Meanwhile, their wives, who had been wanting better equipment all this while but couldn’t convince them, will probably roll their eyes, grumble a bit about how long it took for the husbands to wake up to reality, and afterwards, hopefully, enjoy the benefits of increased automation, even if not the benefits of their husbands doing the work regularly.

If my conspiracy theory is correct, clearly somebody at Philips India is extremely subtle and patient in expanding their market size. Respect, I say. Respect.

What I Did On My Diwali Holiday

These are the lampshades in my parents’ drawing room:

2014-10-23 13.57.10

 

As you can see, they are shaped like pitchers. To put a light bulb in or take it out, you have to get a ladder, lean over the lampshade, and extract or insert the lighbulb from above.

Unfortunately, since the lampshades are open from above, this means that dust keeps falling into them. This is what the lightbulb looks like when you take it out:

2014-10-23 13.57.19

 

Look at the crust of dust on the base. Ew. And that’s just the bulb itself. The inside walls and bottom of the shade were even more gross. It doesn’t really come out clearly in photos just how disgusting they were, so I’ve not put any photos here. But it was awful. Some of the shades had a year’s worth of dead insects resting at the base – moths and honeybees that had flown too close to the light and had their wings singed. CFLs are better than incandescent bulbs, but still generate enough heat to knock out a small insect.

This called for a day of cleaning. These were my tools:

2014-10-26 13.31.35

Two toothbrushes, paper napkins (I really need to get a roll of kitchen towels for this house), and a bottle of Hawaiian white rum (made in Moradabad).

2014-10-26 12.41.29

I’m so posh that I only drink imported liquor, and use the Indian stuff only to clean things with. Jokes aside, this was a bottle that hadn’t been opened for about eight years, and when we did open it, we found it had gone bad. Since then I’ve been using it to clean bicycle gears, window panes, and on Diwali, lampshades. The dark part at the bit is sedimentary dirt.

After some trial and error, I found that the ideal way to clean the lampshades was to first brush inside with a dry toothbrush to dislodge the dirt, then dip the other toothbrush into the ‘rum’, and brush inside the lampshade again, and then to wipe the dirt off with a paper napkin. Since this was probably the first time the shades had been cleaned in a couple of years (if not more), this is what the napkin looked like at the end of cleaning two shades:

2014-10-23 14.07.13Eurgh.

I eventually finished cleaning lampshades for about half the house, which took at least ten tissues, and replacing blown out lightbulbs (where nobody had realised they were blown out) with new ones.

By the end of this, the combination of new lightbulbs and cleaner lampshades meant that my parents’ home was much better illuminated. Coincidentally, all this happened on Diwali, but I hadn’t planned it that way. It just happened to be the first holiday where I had free time at home since the time I bought a ladder to do carry out this exercise.

Anyway, the entire exercise taught me two things. The first is that some lampshade designs are far better than others. If the top is closed instead of the bottom, the lampshade stops being such a dust trap. For example, these lampshades in my parents’ living room turned out to be much easier to clean:

2014-10-26 14.13.56

Unfortunately, this design comes with problems of its own. Specifically, since you have to screw the bulb in from below instead of above, you can’t hold it from the base. So, if you’re doing this with an Osram CFL, you have to hold the bulb by the lamp instead of the base, and in this position you risk cracking the glass.

 

2014-10-26 14.06.12

This damn thing is flimsy as hell. Which is why I’ve now ordered thirty 7W Cool Daylight LED bulbs, which give even better illumination (particularly after the lampshades have been cleaned), for a third of the power consumption. The cost of the bulb is of course slightly alarming, but considering in Delhi I have to pay almost seven hundred and fifty rupees for a not even great cheeseburger, I can rationalise the purchase price to myself by not eating out for a few weeks. And, of course, for the next few days, until my Amazon delivery lands up, I can go around telling people ‘पूरे घर के बदल डालूँगा!’

The best design, of course, is the panel that goes into the false ceiling and then is protected from the elements. Which brings me to the second thing I learnt.

The second thing I learnt is that protecting your electrical fittings from the elements is particularly important in Delhi. To live in Delhi, is to wage a constant, losing war against dust.

Where does this dust come from? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing these are the most likely candidates:

  • The Thar desert, from where it’s blown all the way to Delhi because Delhi, Rajasthan, and Haryana have no forests to act as breaks. This is what I remember being taught in school. Perhaps it’s accelerated recently.
  • Unburnt particulate matter from all the cargo-three wheelers that I see making cargo deliveries in Delhi. Seriously, I see these only in Delhi. In TN, everyone uses the Tata Ace, which I think is far more reliable, even if not necessarily cleaner. I have no idea why the switch to Aces hasn’t happened in Delhi.
  • Or maybe it’s just all the clean car and truck engines, that despite emitting very little particulate individually, just overwhelm Delhi when all taken together,
  • Construction sites where sand hasn’t been properly secured. You see this all over Delhi. People by sand by the truckload, dump it on the road by the side of the construction, and then let wind blow it away. It’s horrible in Gurgaon, but Delhi is pretty bad too. Construction has skyrocketed in the past few years, thanks to Metro building, flyover building, and house reconstruction all over Delhi after building byelaws were changed to allow you to have four floors and parking instead of three floors. Anecdotally, the last type of construction is the most indisciplined when it it comes to just dumping stuff on public roads and not storing sand safely.

The battle you face in Delhi then, is only proximately against dust. It’s ultimately against widespread small-scale assholery committed by people not giving a shit about keeping their construction sites clean, picking up after themselves, or tuning their engines, because what the hell, it’s more of a problem for other people than themselves.

I fear that this (along with Delhi’s traffic, people bursting crackers, and people littering) are all prisoners’ dilemma problems, except with ten million prisoners instead of two. Which means that the best course of action is not to wait for a solution, but just get the hell out of Delhi (again).

Unfortunately, that may not be feasible in the short term. But then in the short term, I can keep on changing my home’s bulbs, fixtures, and lampshades. And maybe, just maybe, the extra cleanliness and reduced maintenance will give me the money and peace of mind to come up with a miracle solution to the problem of dust.

 

Would You Pledge Money if I Rode for Charity?

I started bicycling last year. I’ve been doing it regularly now for a little over a year, and I’ve improved a lot in the past six months especially. I can now easily ride 40 to 50 kilometres a day. If I practice really hard, by December 2013 I could possibly be riding a hundred kilometres or more a day without wearing myself out. If I achieve that sort of stamina, I could conceivably complete the Tour of Tamil Nadu (a thousand kilometres in a loop through mostly flat terrain in Tamil Nadu) or the Tour of Nilgiris (only eight hundred kilometres, from Bangalore to Chamrajnagar, but almost all of it through hilly terrain).

Both these tours are in the end of December, so I have eight months to train for them. Both tours also let you associate with a charitable cause and ride to raise awareness about what they do, and money to help them do it.

So let’s talk numbers. The registration for either tour will be approximately 18,000 rupees. The costs of transporting my bicycle from Delhi to South India, the costs of additional gear and provisions, et cetera, could come to about seven or eight thousand rupees. Let’s say twenty five thousand rupees total for the venture. I’m pretty confident that I can raise twenty five thousand rupees from my freelance writing from now until December.

However….

If I’m getting this money from my freelancing anyway, I could just donate it to a charity of my choice straight away without going through the rigmarole of riding through South India. The activity only becomes worth it if you guys pledge to support the charity if I complete the ride, and end up donating more than twenty five thousand.

So I’m now asking you straight up: if I rode either the Tour of Tamil Nadu or the Tour of Nilgiris (I have three months to decide which), would you pledge money to a charity? If you would, please leave a comment.

Ideally, mention how much money you’d contribute in the comment, but if you feel shy about doing this in public, you can instead ask me to email you for the amount. If I get pledges for more than twenty five thousand rupees, I’ll do one of the rides instead of just donating my money directly.

Fine print:

  1. My charity of choice is Pratham, which does a bunch of stuff related to education in India, including monitoring school effectiveness, conducting interventions in education and child nutrition, and creating teaching material. I’d love it if you donated to these guys.
  2. But if you would rather contribute somewhere else, that’s okay too.
  3. It only counts if you’re donating over and above what you usually would. If you’re already giving ten thousand a year to a charity of your choice, please don’t do it again, just under my name. I’m asking for something extra.

And now, I’ll leave it to you to do the pledging in the comments.