My Tryst With Juvenile Dramatics

June 27, 2018

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

June 26, 2018

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!

Underage Invitations

June 18, 2018

There are many distasteful aspects of social life in Delhi. There is the habit of brides and grooms turning up late to their own weddings, the associated late start to dinner, the tiresome status signalling, and the very specific subset of status signalling that is the gentlemen’s silk kurta with pyjama. All of these have existed for years, and some of them may even be peaking. But in the past few years, a new and revolting trend has emerged – the invitation issued in the name of underage family members.

This is, for example, the invitation to somebody’s fiftieth wedding anniversary or seventieth birthday party that comes from their grandchildren; who might not even have started school. At a slightly less extreme level is the wedding party invitation for a twenty two year old issued by their seventeen year old sibling. The worst I’ve ever seen has been a wedding sangeet invitation supposedly from the groom’s two year old nephew, which even came written in baby talk. Hindi baby talk, in Roman script. ‘Mere tata ke sangeet pe daroor aana’ or some such emetic nonsense. Horrible.

Who do these people think they are fooling? Who is seriously going to believe that little Aarav, with his vocabulary of five hundred words, and pocket money of two hundred rupees, has single handedly managed the catering, venue, bartender, and guest list? It may seem like a cute, even good idea, at the time of writing out the invitations, to have them go out from a five year old. This will be limited to the actual hosts, and last a few moments. The eyerolling, and the judgement of the many guests who receive the invitation, will last much longer, and be felt by many more people.

If I were feeling cynical, I would dismiss this as merely another form of humblebragging; one in which parents, or even grandparents, depending on who is actually paying and organising the shindig, try to play down their responsibility. That sort of thing is tiresome. In my even more cynical moods, I would suspect the hosts of trying to turn the focus away from their hospitality (which is both virtue and skill) and instead trying to point out that they have offspring (which may or may not be virtuous, and requires such little skill that practically everybody does it). And at my most cynical, I would suspect that this sort of thing is a desperate gambit to turn both the focus and the presents away from the people being celebrated to the child-hosts. “Oh, our parents’ friends didn’t even know that we have children? Well, let’s send them the anniversary party invitation from Aradya, and maybe she’ll get some presents too. With the cost of nursery schools today, she’ll need it.”

I am no longer as cynical as I used to be, though. Some combination of age, experience, and the love of a good woman has led to me becoming more compassionate and charitable. And so I can as well see this sort of cutesy symbolism being motivated by entirely pure intentions. “My parents are in their seventies, and my kids aren’t even five yet,” thinks the hapless host. “By the time my kids are able to have a half decent conversation, their grandparents might be ravaged by dementia. The two generations will barely know each other. Having them symbolically host the party is the least I can do to forge some sort of connection, or at least signal to society at large that there is one.”

All very well-intentioned, yes, but even this sort of motivation only undermines the dignity of the actual adult hosts. And if we look at things dispassionately, even the initial regret that sparks this motivation may be misplaced. Yes, perhaps the new generation of children will never see or remember their grandparents having a relationship with them that goes beyond baby talk. But that is the price we pay for the age of marriage and childbearing increasing over time. And considering that this increase in the age of marriage has led to more education, more liberty, and more happiness for everybody who’s spent their young adult years exploring their lives, careers, and choice of partners instead of being frogmarched into a mandap; it seems like a bargain price to me.

On Annotating Your ebooks

June 9, 2018

For almost a week, the people I follow (and the ones whom the algorithm shows me anyway) on Twitter have been polarised about this tweet:

and the reply to it:

The responses I have seen to this have ranged all the way from people who run book clubs or discussion groups and think that these sort of features would be very welcome; to outraged readers who don’t want yet more Silicon Valley algorithmic social feeds messing up something that has been quite joyous for them right now.

I myself fall more towards the outraged end of the scale than the enthusiastic end. The reasons for this might be boring, but in the process of discussing them, I will end up sharing what I think is the best way to annotate books and share them; and that might be useful to the public at large. So, here we go.

My first reactions to the original tweets were:

  1. Good lord, this already existed eight years ago. It was called a book blog.
  2. Existing apps already do this! What more do you want?

That was then. Now, I am trying to write out a less snarky, more useful, response. The problem is, I don’t know what the original posters want to do with either their or other people’s annotations and marginalia. So I will list out the reasons highlight things in books, and take things from there. I went through the past few months of highlights, and counted the following reasons I might have highlighted a passage:

  1. In sheer appreciation of the language or how well a sentence or paragraph was constructed. For example: “Call me Jimmy. Your mother’s brother’s wife’s sister’s second husband is my father. Blood is thicker than water.”
  2. I read something interesting and decided to set a quiz question around it.
  3. I read something that somebody else (one person, multiple people, a group of people, or multiple groups of people) would enjoy reading, and want to share it with them, with or without context.
  4. I find it intriguing and would like to blog my thoughts about it.
  5. It’s a reference to another book, and I want to make a note to get that book as well.
  6. As a slight variant to #5, it references say a movie or a piece of music, or even a product or something to eat, and I want to make a note to watch, listen to, or buy it later on.

Other people will have their own reasons, of course. There’s an important point to make here though. Except for #1, all these reasons require me to perform some mindful action beyond simply highlighting the passage.

  • Setting the quiz question will need me to actually rewrite the factoid in the highlight (along with perhaps two or three others), or download related photos or media; and then save the final question somewhere
  • Blogging my thoughts about what I’ve highlighted means I have to clear my head, put my thoughts together, and write the blogpost out
  • Getting the book means searching my libraries and reserving it; or adding it to a shopping website wishlist
  • For listening to a referenced piece of music; or watching a referenced movie, or buying something, I would have to search for it and add it to a queue to get to when I have the time to devote

What about the case of sharing it with somebody who might be interested? It sort of dovetails with what the original tweets were talking about, but the thing is, this sort of sharing is best when I am providing some context to what I am sharing. For example, “Remember when we were talking about how terrible and scary the street lighting in Delhi is? This is what Jane Jacobs wrote about safe streets.” Yes, there are going to be times when I share something without context, if the passage is just intrinsically funny, or touches upon an injoke or shared experience so close that it needs no context, but without the ability to provide context – by typing it out, or adding a voice note, or in any other way, sharing is going to be quite useless. In fact, by adding to the stream of notifications which the recipient is already receiving through the day, it might even be a hostile act.

Compared to all the actions I listed above, actually retrieving the highlights is a very quick and painless procedure with existing technology. The difficult part isn’t retrieving highlights, but being disciplined enough to do things with them.

If you have the discipline, the existing Kindle app for Android already lets you do all this with a few taps. If I could build up the discipline, this is how I would do it:

  1. Read the book on a Kindle, so that my device wouldn’t interrupt me with other notifications while I was reading.
  2. Highlight along the way.
  3. Before starting the next book, sync my Kindle, and download the read book to the Kindle app on my phone as well.
  4. The copy on my phone has all my highlights. I can open the highlight view, and then deal with each highlight one at a time, using the relevant Android share method, as follows:
    1. If I had highlighted something for a quiz question, share it to an Evernote notebook or Trello board of quiz questions; and then consult that notebook or board whenever I was sitting down to set questions
    2. If I wanted to share it with somebody, share it to my email, or messaging app, and forward the highlight, with necessary context
    3. If I wanted to write about it, share the highlight to an Evernote notebook or Trello board of writing ideas
    4. If I wanted to buy something, open goodreads, or amazon, or any relevant shopping website on my laptop at the same time, and add it to the relevant wishlist
    5. If I wanted to listen to, or watch, something, add it to a queue on youtube, or a todo list where I was saving things to look for

I’m reasonably sure non-Kindle ebooks let you do this easily enough as well; and for that matter, if you come across something interesting even in a paper book, you can take a photo and let OCR do the initial work before sending it on the relevant app.

For now, I’m still mystified at what the original tweeters wanted to do with their friends’ highlights, marginilia, or even summaries that they couldn’t have done by reading reviews or notes from somewhere else. And though I touched upon it before, I’ll mention again that without knowing just how these highlights are shared, there are real problems of noise and spam in this sort of indiscriminate sharing of what somebody has highlighted.

  1. What are the privacy settings on what I’ve highlighted? I don’t want the public to know if I’ve highlighted something to set a quiz question on it. But I might also want exactly one other person to see the highlight if we’re setting the quiz together.
  2. In this hypothetical service where my highlights are open to the public, just how does the public see what I’ve highlighted? Are they going to see everything? Or is a Facebook News Feed type algorithm going to decide what is worth seeing?
  3. In this hypothetical service where I get to see everybody’s highlights, am I able to receive a highlight that has been picked out by my friend for me? Or am I only getting a firehose of notes and marginilia, with no way to decide what is relevant?
  4. And is this feed of my “social reading” going to be filled with ads?

In conclusion, I personally would not pay extra for books if I could see what my friends had highlighted. But if I really trusted my friends’ books recommendations and ability to pick out amazing passages, I would encourage them to do this with thought, word, deed, and cake; and if I really trusted strangers’ book recommendations, I might well encourage them to blog a lot more by contributing to their Patreon. I just hope that more people do the same before reading recommendations go the way of Facebook.