Friday, April 28

Without words

The origin of the phrase "No news is good news" can be traced back to 1616 and King James I. The bloke may have casually looked into a crystal ball, seen today's media malaise and Twitter madness and calmly prognosticated his advice, which I heartily subscribe to.

Why did I sign up for Twitter in 2011? A shamefully weak need to conform I suspect. I do not have a FB account, have disabled all of Google's social tentacles and felt the need to keep up with the happenings of the day. What it certainly wasn't for was the present's endless barrage of rumour-mongering, desperate embellishment of minor incidents, opinions and worst of all, opinions on opinions that plague and spread faster than viruses through the third world. 

And lest we forget, open letters, that vile class of 'content' that stands alone in its pretentious horror.

I vented my frustration at this state of affairs to a wise friend who has patience aplenty. He laughed gently and suggested I curate my Twitter feed better. I took his advice and failed miserably, simply because some of the allegedly well-meaning people I 'follow' simply don't know when to call it a day. I'll see an article they've written or retweeted and click on said link. It will be followed by a putrid torrent of similar pieces, every one of them separated by some barely minuscule differences and accompanied by the same fucking hashtag, lord help us! Yes, I read, understood and respect your position on a matter, your philosophy on the government, every avatar of '...archy', life, the universe and everything else. Is there any need to keep dancing gleefully on the corpse of your viewpoint until the end of the world?

Being rather cerebrally challenged, eons passed before I cottoned on to the fact that this cycle of content was making me anxious. Be it news or opinions, it seemed I could not swim, only sink rapidly into the internet morass. It was so addictive, it became part of my morning ritual to sign into Twitter and check in once an hour throughout the day.

I feel like most platforms are bubbles that usually only serve to reinforce one's cognitive biases. And what passes for news is manufactured controversy. A singer makes a comment about prayers, a girl says something about war, an actor discusses his worry or a politician points out how horrible economy class flights are and fin. That's all the media, trolls and other content churners need to distract all & sundry, sucking everyone into a whirlpool of commentary and outrage. Heck, even serious issues such as a Machiavellian universal ID system become noise when the well-intentioned keep squawking about it every hour of every day. Get a hobby, you guys.

This 2-week hiatus from normal life (what a tragedy life has become) has allowed me to experiment with staying off Twitter and away from any news. Completely. And you know what? I haven't missed out on anything. No friend or family member has peered at me, aghast that I have no knowledge of some fresh or stale perfidy or foolishness. And my anxiety is reducing. If anything, I am now determined to keep this state of grace going as long as possible, even after the customary Murine jog-trot commences in a week's time.

I reckon Thomas Gray wasn't too far off the mark in 1742 when he said "Ignorance is bliss".

Song for the moment: Gossip in the Grain - Ray Lamontagne

Wednesday, April 26

The shortest straw

I am in between jobs right now. Not jobless, though I've had the chance to experience that twice. No, between wrapping up at the previous workplace and joining the new one, I flimflammed and hoodwinked my way to a 2-week break.

Now here's the situation. I am 34, single, without any serious responsibilities and with a reasonable amount of doubloons in the bank. Most people in these shoes would have planned or simply trotted off on a nice vacation somewhere. I am not most people. And it is only now that I am experiencing the power of conditioning (not air conditioning... egads, this summer heat). You see, for 2 and something years, I've worked, without a break. I take my weekends seriously and made it known loud and clear that I was not prepared to hotfoot it to the office to show "commitment". Every now and then, official working weekends couldn't be helped, though any sharp-eared character could have heard my jaws grinding in irritation. Unofficially, I reckon there were almost none where some ideas or scripts did not have to be thought of or fleshed out. So, now that 2 actual work-free weeks have been presented to me, I don't know what to do.

Sure, I wake up latish, enjoy every sip of filter coffee with gusto and loll over breakfast. There are no trains to catch, mails to check or deadlines to meet. Yet, I can feel something gnawing at my gut. This scenario feels wrong. I know, I know... it's crazy and stupid but try talking my brain out of it. I wander about the house in the somnolent Pune afternoons, read books in various rooms, gulp down glasses of iced tea, water the plants and generally mooch around in the accepted fashion. God knows I need this vacation. But I'm not enjoying it 100%. That's frustrating the dickens out of me.

For one thing, everyone and their uncles asks the standard question "Oh, why aren't you taking a trip somewhere?" As if I were the village idiot to whom this idea never occurred. I flash the weary smile of a latter day Stylite and explain my predicament. There's no one to holiday with. My friends are busy working or simply do not have the time. And I'm rather fed up of doing things by myself. Alone. I live alone, I travel singly (though I am given the opportunity to get intimately acquainted with a variety of sweaty armpits and backs on the Bombay trains), I cook meals for one and yes, there's no one in bed except me. After a point, it begins to try a man's soul. Even one in admittedly as limited a supply as mine.

I used to enjoy taking solo trips. I have no problems eating in restaurants or watching movies by myself. Heck, some weekends I am happy as a clam to be left to my own devices. Par ab mujhse na ho payega. So, I am pottering around the house, playing cricket in the evenings, arranging to meet old friends for lunches or dinners, and yes, even blogging. But it isn't joy, jollity and song.

However, one unexpected benefaction of my time has been to my patti (grandmother). Her annual visit to Pune has coincided with mine. That does mean I cannot lurch home late at night smelling like a brewery (these old folks have noses that would put wolves out of business). Though that is the least of her worries at present. The change of weather has given her a nasty cold & cough. The pater is rather getting on in years himself and busy to boot and the sibling has balanced work and life to ensure absence from home for most of the day. This has left the resident dogsbody to perform the medication ministration, as it were. That's fine by me.

One of my earliest memories of childhood is of suffering from chickenpox at the age of 2. I vividly remember a fever that left me delirious and the acute pain of a sore throat. I lay in a much-washed, cotton-soft sari clad lap, being fed rasam-rice by hand. That was my patti. Over the years, there have been many occasions her love, care and cooking have soothed my illnesses away. Now, it's my turn. Not because there's a debt to repay but because love works in many a mysterious way.

Life has a funny way of coming full circle, what?

Song for the moment: Anthem - Leonard Cohen     

Monday, April 24

What's on my mind

The 10th anniversary of this blog went by in March. I'd thought of writing something on the day, about the occasion but was defeated by a score of genuine reasons and a handful of lazy excuses. I cannot actually comprehend just how much the world has changed since the afternoon I tentatively began typing the title of my first ever post. I don't even remember why.

There I was, proverbially dazed and confused in a university city in the deep South of the US. Lonely, homesick and unable to overcome the feeling that I'd committed a ghastly mistake by picking Birmingham. I was halfway through my second semester and filled with regret that I'd taken on an unbelievably difficult Law course (that I'd never use). That Spring, I'd visited friends and family in NYC, which added to the black depression I was under. NYC was everything Birmingham was not; loud, lively and crowded. Since I barely had the money to cover rent every month, taking an impromptu trip home was out of the question. So, I took comfort in the written word.

How different things were! Facebook was a brand new phenomenon, tentatively creeping across college campuses throughout the country. My roommates and friends, always more enthusiastic than me about anything except beer, dove into the experience with gusto. Heck, Google itself was only working its way to a state of omniscience. Phone cards were zealously compared and hoarded, Indian food was bought by walking 5 kilometers to a Chinese store and songs from the film Gangster and others by Himesh ruled many a private music play-list. Yep, truly bizarre. We had no cars and depended on the University bus service or the charity of senior Indian students to visit the far away Walmart and Sam's Club. And boy did we have to make those trips count.

We gave each other haircuts, cooked langar-scale meals and got wasted on weekends. It was a mindbogglingly simple life, yet filled with struggles every day. Some of my friends found their courses tough while others needed to work off-campus at night to make ends meet and have enough left over to pay their student loans. We had left our homes behind and had no idea what lay ahead. The horizon of the future seemed so far away then, I can honestly say that being 34, single and working as a copywriter in Bombay was not in the top 200 scenarios I'd considered. I'm sure I'd never even thought of so many possibilities. We were living day to day and everything seemed an adventure.

And what was I? A mix of too many things, most of which were temporary coping behaviours. I felt like a marionette, my every move and decision made in a stupefying haze. The US was a shock to my system but it was also the freedom to shake off the deadweight of who I'd been and find out who I actually could be.

Sometimes, I reread my old posts. Some make me cringe. Others bring a teary smile. And there's always a sentence or a turn of phrase so amazing, I wonder how I had the chops to write it.

Of course, over time my writing has changed. I have experimented with different styles, tried to please my audience occasionally and even poured my heart out using heavy doses of euphemism. There have been posts I have loved and those I have disliked. Many I should have not published and some I never did write. This blog is a chronicle of 10 years of me and my experiences and memories of the US, Cambodia, Pune and Bombay. It was started by a 24 year old boy in the computer lab of his department building on a Spring evening so sunny and beautiful, his heart ached. Today, it is being written by a 34 year old... someone, in the middle of the night in his home city. And, in a way his heart is still aching.  

This is blog post number 300. Only a handful of you may have read every one of them. Thank you for that. And, I am also grateful to the set of circumstances that led me to start this blog. It hasn't been the greatest ride. But it isn't over yet.

Song for the moment: Wish you were here - Pink Floyd

Hello, Goodbye

21st April was my last day at work. It was not easy to accept the finality. How could it be? You don't put your heart and soul into a place for 2-and-something years and walk off, nary a qualm. At least I don't.

I've quit two ad agencies prior to this and the only feeling I had both times was relief. At the end of 2013, I was determined to work in mainline, desperate to get away from a ship that was drifting and a captain whose obsessions and excoriations made Ahab look like a choirboy. The next workplace was in Fort and it was simply terrible. A sweatshop where I lost 6 kilos in 11 months and almost gave up on advertising as a career. I jumped that ship without a life-raft, lifebuoy or land in sight. I'd swim to safer shores or sink into another line of work. Just as the sharks began to give interested looks, my most recent workplace threw me a lifeline, for which I am and will be eternally grateful.

Having an eccentric, eclectic and sometimes downright brilliant yet moody boss has its own charms and challenges. I joined the best team in the office on 5th Jan 2015. We truly were the A-team, the group other juniors hankered to join. By the time I said my farewells, we had become the W-team, the people in our boat frantically rowing in unison but inching towards the lip of the waterfall nonetheless. Office politics can be brutal and I had grandstand box seats to the tragedy of a team casually broken apart by a leader with an absolute lust for power and control and all the charisma of a moldy cube of paneer.

But the office and my boss had saved my career. So, I gave it my all. Fighting with the servicing over ridiculous deadlines, berating the planning for a complete lack of any planning and chivvying my team-mates along to push us over the finish line. Day, week, month, year. My longest holiday was 2 days, initially because I just couldn't afford to take a break and later because I did not know how to. We saw some successful days and many more middling ones, the kind where we'd just want to get the assignment out of our collective hairs after one too many rounds of feedback from our clients.

This job can break you. I almost did go to pieces, sobbing uncontrollably in my boss's cabin on one memorable occasion. It doesn't even have to be anything big. Just a lot of small frustrations and stresses, piling up on your shoulders over time until an off-the-cuff remark punches a neat hole through your equanimity. You, your colleagues and your seniors can keep talking about not taking the job so seriously but try telling that to an Indian marketing manager or brand associate. I have yet to meet a more repulsive species of person in my line of work, though there are a few senior people in advertising who are no better. We seem to have replaced our 333 million gods with just one - money. And he is a powerful god, able to transform into the sword of Damocles within a minute.

"If this is how long the work takes, this will be the last time we will be working with you."

"Either do this job or I will call for an agency review."

"We're calling for a pitch."

"Client ne bola hai... karna hee hai."

These are the sentiments that grease the sprockets of the ad industry, never mind what one big-shot has written in his autobiography. If anything he's probably single-handedly responsible for clients thinking it is okay to ask for work at 10 pm or on the weekends. And while my agency personifies this subservient attitude to a high degree, there are many others who are slowly being sucked into the morass. Or walking into it voluntarily. Everyone needs the money.

I woke up this morning with a dreadful thought. That I've stepped off the train at a junction and am watching my colleagues wave to me, even as their lives move on. My path, struggle, journey and destination are no longer theirs. It's not as if I won't jump back into the bogie with them. I can't.

Many of my colleagues said they'd miss me. I did not know how to respond so I smiled awkwardly and mouthed empty platitudes. But the truth is, in my mind's eye, I am watching the train disappear in the distance.

And it feels like abandonment.

Song for the moment: Don't you forget about me - Simple Minds

Tuesday, April 4

Smiley Faces

A small room.
An absurdly minuscule kitchen.
Rows of vessels of different textures winking in the light.
Barani jars of mango pickles made in 4 ways.
Cylindrical aluminium patrams packed with the summer's quota of vadaam.
Stainless steel ones, some of which reveal home-made thattai, thengoyl and cheedai, if you're lucky. 
A stone grinder-mortar-pestle that weighs a ton and hasn't moved in years.
An ancient fridge in repose.
A large drum of water.
The floor of greenish tile.

On which a little boy sits cross-legged.
The small plate before him full of ice-cold mor-chadam.
Separated into morsels with his fingers.
Scooped up and held aloft. Waiting.
For his grandmother to smile and churn the vettal-koyambu with a karandi.
And let a few drops fall into the waiting palm.
Over and over.

What do we call this confluence of hot & cold, tangy & mild, solid & liquid?
This quiet intimacy of a mealtime ritual between a pati and her peran.
Every moment as delicious as the next.

A childhood pleasure. 
   
Song for the moment: Crazy - Ray Lamontagne (Original by Gnarls Barkley)