Sunday, January 25, 2009
Then people asked me to get a credit card. "You need a credit card for everything. You need it if you want to buy a car, if you want a loan, if you want this, if you want that" and I ask "it isn't enough if I have the bank balance to buy these things ?" and they go "oh honey, if you have a good credit rating, you can pay all these loans little by little. If you show them you're responsible with your money by paying off your bills like a good girl, then they know you're going to be responsible with your money, and then they'll give you a loan, so you can buy things that you don't have money to buy right now but you know you're going to get later. Welcome to capitalism. There are always ways to make money". Oh nice. Nice. That sounds, fair and simple, say I, and off I went to get my credit card. Essentially I was going to try and get a good credit rating by buying lots of starbucks coffee. There wasn't much I wanted you see ? But as luck would have it, my credit card application co-incided with mr lehman falling down like a brick of blocks (oh not my term. Some paper said that. I figured out by this time that mr lehman kinda didn't wanna fall, but the higher ups decided not to help him. Sort it out yourselves you lil children, said they), and AIG (that name stuck because of those TATA AIG ads from back home) was getting bailed out (because the children were truly in a terrible mess) and merill lynch was getting taken over. Essentially, lots of stuff was falling apart. And the country was trying to elect its first black president, end a coupla wars, maybe start a few other wars, spread peace, stop lending money to bad bad people, and figure out a way to decide who good people were, who bad people were, try and reiterate that they really were the global leader ( we will be with you in sickness or in wealth)... and amidst all this my credit card application got rejected. So I call the credit card company to be politely informed that I have no credit card history. "Yes ma'am. That's exactly what I'm trying to do. Have a little faith in me. I am a good girl". But well, no one trusts anyone these days. So that's that.
By this time of course sub prime crisis was a very powerful world. On the way to dinner at udupi cafe, a friend's uncle explained how people got loans even when they didn't actually prove they could repay it, but of course things were going to get better and everyone believed it. All I could think was "and they let these people buy houses but they didn't give me my credit card ? C'mon brother".
What a weird weird world this was getting to be. People were living in gingerbread houses. When it rains, we'll stay inside the house and we'll keep ourselves dry. In the summer, we shall eat our gingerbread. By next monsoon, gingerbread is going to get cheaper and we'll repair the house with this cheaper gingerbread. And when it rains we'll go back into this house and keep dry. We're eating and living at no cost. Wow. What cunning ways to do stuff. What, ultimate belief in the happenings of gingerbread. Did we learn nothing from hansel and gretel ? Nothing at all ?
How people make money out of lending circularly is something I will never understand. I know it falls from interesting math equations. That's very nice. Please feel free to bandy unintelligible equations at me. But I think using common sense is more appealing. Especially if you want me to start being responsible for my actions, then I need to make sense of my actions. If I lend you a banana, and you lend the next person a banana and that person lends me a banana, we still have only one banana. How silly is it to think we have three bananas. Ask my monkeys ( those organisms that are way below the evolutionary ladder, with a less developed brain). They know it. That's why they never share their bananas. They chatter away and do silly things and do not engage in speculation and would rather eat one banana today instead of waiting on the three quarter chance that they'll get three bananas tomorrow. And we say that it is because monkeys have limited ability to be able to factor time into their decisions- well thank god for that. Because we humans do such a neat job of it don't we ? I may not know a lot of economics ( oh heck. I know none), but I could've toldja that its a waste building a lot of houses, that people who spend more than they have are always gonna spend more than they have, but honey, there's got to be money somewhere, and you cant keep circulating it, because well... you're all going have to pay up someday.
A so called investment advisor advised my friend "don't pay off your balance every month. Keep some of it and pay it off next month. Pay the interest and your credit rating will improve because it shows you can carry credit wisely" Of course you're going to improve my credit rating. You're interested in the interest aren't you ? But watch out. You're tempting me to never pay back. That's what the sub-primes did didn't they ? The joke's on you bozo. No wait, the joke's on them. No wait... umm... oh shit... its not a joke anymore is it ?
And then today, I try finally to apply for a credit card again. And I get a huge spiel about my interest, how it was between 3 and 9 percent plus prime rate as defined as the highest number in the wall st journal in the last 90 days and that right now it was at 4.5 % bringing the apr to between 8 and 13 %. And I wondered... who really understood all this ? Everyone just saw that as a rule interests were getting lower, and it happened like that for a while now, and maybe the engine's stopped whirring crankily and was finally coming to a standstill. Oh ... the engine was just about gathering steam.
The story goes....
"The people decided their city should have a tower so immense that it would have "its top in the heavens."(וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם) However, the Tower of Babel was not built for the worship and praise of God, but was dedicated to the glory of man, with a motive of making a 'name' for the builders: "Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'" (Genesis 11:4). God, seeing what the people were doing, confounded their languages and scattered the people throughout the earth."
Did we want to reach for the heavens ?
Guilty as charged.
Did we want a glorious name.
Guilty as charged.
Were we greedy ?
Guilty as charged.
Were we disrespectful to the age old supply-demand spiel ?
*ahem.... there's always going to be supply, we're always going to demand no *
oh... we dont understand, is it ok? will you let me off the hook ?
Ignorantia juris non excusat. You aren't excused from not knowing the law.
But no one explained to us.
And that's our collective problem innit.
As the story of Babel goes... we now have our languages and our equations and our crazy models reduced to a bunch of terminologies that no one understands.
We believed that someone understood. That if it should all collapse, that someone would have the key to putting it all together. And in all possibility it would never collapse, so really we were only just panicking. And so we decided to go high up into the heavens, when we really ought to have simply sat around and built houses with roofs just high enough to keep us warm and dry for a reasonable period of time... until we find ourselves in a better position to live in a slightly better house. There's that age old story about the hare and the fox. There are lessons to be learnt in such stories. It never does anyone any good to try act too smart for one's own ignorance.
Now, the tower stands unbuilt.
And we dont understand.
No one speaks the same language anymore.
No one understands anything anymore.
And while we can blame those silly tower builders forever, we encouraged them too.
And now we don't know how to fix it.
And that's the story of the housing babel.
- In idiotically simple terms
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Thankfully, slumdog understood it. The movie used english- true. But it used it smartly. The characters evolved to be english speaking characters, either by eking out a living by posing to be tourist guides at the Taj Mahal that abounds with foreign tourists, by working in call centre agencies that teach you to speak good up being able to speak pretty decent english. It was gratifying to me that it wasn't an indian movie simply translated into english- but a movie in which the chosen language of choice continued to matter and thoroughly a product of circumstance.
When I realized it was a movie made by non-indians I became wary of characters saying extremely poignant things. It is true that as a culture we grow up with tolerance to a lot of bullshit. It is both the boon and bane of the society. It is a boon because we manage not to crumble and fall, but a bane in that we never find sufficient drive to build something sturdy out of ourselves. But I can vouch that most indians aren't philosophical. We say our prayers and pray to our gods in blind faith. We do not have time to analyze our lot in life and to develop philosophical views that make our lives easier. When a beggar says he feels full in his heart and cannot care about his stomach, he is saying it because of lack of choice, not because he truly believes it. He would still devour any decent meal and perhaps even sell his heart. Enough poor Indians sell their organs at measly prices. I couldn't digest Shantaram precisely because the characters were too articulate, too profound. Everyone was breaking into unnecessarily poignant speeches. Indians tolerate. But they do not necessarily adore their tolerance. We tolerate simply by compulsion.
Again,slumdog did not make this galling blunder.Slumdog has a very bollywoody script. The fact that the movie ends with the hero and heroine dancing to a filmi number is attestation to it. The less said about a.r rahman's music, the better. It is ill-fit.Slumdog tells the story of a man trying to unite himself with his childhood lover from the slums. In their years they've met, parted and met again, always believing that it is their destiny to be together.They have some sense of right and wrong. There are no black and white. Not all stealing is bad. Not all honesty is good. Destiny, a powerful theme in indian movies, is easy to identify with here. What is interesting of course is the way this simply theme is portrayed. By showing the entire story as flashbacks of how the man accidentally happens to know the answers to the questions of the show "who wants to be a millionaire", it makes for watching an entirely different kind of movie. Money and women, the policeman intelligently notes, are the reasons we make most of the mistakes in our lives. As the inspector tries to find out how the man knows all the questions for the answers and how disgraceful it is to want so much money, we realize how much the man has been risking his life to be united with his true love. In true bollywood style, we expect that he will. But slumdog could have well been a story based on a true life incident. It needn't be bollywoody at all, for none of the characters or events were exaggerated. And that I thought makes slumdog a cut above the rest.
Finally, I loved Salim's character with all his dilemmas. Who does he truly love ? Himself ? Money ? Latika ? Jamal ? Power ? His vacillating tendencies set the movie forward at every step. Jamal and Latika's destiny are actually written by Salim, who at every juncture chose to take the situation in his own hands while Latika and Jamal were mere puppets to what Salim decided he wanted most on a particular day. As a kid he chooses his brother but lets go of Latika. Later, almost jealous of his brother's longing for her, he claims Latika as his. Later still, he lets go of her in hunger for power. And finally he tragically lets go of himself. Were it not for his erratic decisions,slumdog would never have become a millionaire. And we see that Jamal and Latika are confused between self-preservation and their love for the other. They want each other, but not at the cost of their lives. It is this that brings the movie from filmi pedestals to reality. And they aren't sure how they can be together, alive, whole and happy. And each time they aren't brave enough to re-write destiny. And simply because its a bollywoody movie, or perhaps there is enough luck to go around in the real world, they do unite at long last. Salim, though had the courage to write his own story, yet not enough luck to live long enough. As the movie will repeatedly remind you, some things are written and some aren't.
In the end Slumdog isn't necessarily a meditation on Indian diaspora. But it definitely is a beautiful painting, that allows you to get a sense of what it is to be in india; to have faith and dreams and to gamble with them. And as with any beautiful painting, necessary artistic licenses must be taken, or otherwise it would just be a boring photograph in a auto-point-and-shoot-full-flash-mood that is simply all detail and no story.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Not a lot of things make me lose my sleep. If I’ve had a productive day, and I feel tired enough, a long uninterrupted slumber is inevitable. But there are those days when try as I might I cannot get myself to sleep.
I try and think of something that will hopefully engage me until sleep encompasses. Counting sheep never works. I have a very bad imagination when it comes to picturing sheep in my head. I can at the most picture one sheep. I am reasonable at counting numbers in order. It doesn’t take me long to get to one, and its never been enough to validate a speech bubble over a drooling face that says zzz zzz. I’ve always had a problem with my position. When I was a baby and used to be rocked to sleep in those cradles made out of a cotton sari, hanging from a hook in the ceiling, my mom used to shake the cradle wildly so that I’d be forced into a new hopefully sleep encouraging position. When I finally stopped sucking my thumb and got rid of my security blanket, the question of where to keep my hands became unanswerable.
There are about a trillion positions for my hands, each as uncomfortable as the next. There’s exactly one position that my hands will find acceptable. The odds of my finding that one position is distressingly low.My legs are fine. One knee over the pillow, the foot under it, the other leg pretty much anyway anywhere ( nope, its not a prosthetic limb, anywhere within the realm of being attached to my hip) and I’m set. My hands aren’t too easy to please. But I have gotten better at it over the years, and I’m making tremendous progress in hypnotizing them to do exactly what I want. Hypnotizing of course requires tremendous concentration. Just when I think that I’m there, that I’m finally going to be eased into a dreamland where nothing makes sense, there’s a phone call that requires my hand to be projected from its current very stable hypnotized position and phut, my hands go back to their tantrum throwing selves again.
Afternoon naps are another thing that I’m incapable of. When I was a toddler I’d spend afternoons wreaking havoc in the kitchen, breaking pots and pans, slipping in water and my parents would sleep blissfully through everything, only to find the kitchen in an utter mess. When there’s the odd free afternoon I can only manage a half hour, even that at the risk of unmanageable hands at night. I’m sensitive to a rustling leaf, a dog barking, and a phone ringing about three houses away, and those irritating tunes cars play while on reverse gear. Sometimes I hallucinate a noise and awaken. My family is blessed with people who can sleep anytime anywhere anyhow. It used to be one of the reasons that convinced me that I was adopted. I’m not apparently. The one time I truly slept in the afternoon was when I went on a self-designed diet. All I drank was water for one and a half days, and I ended up falling flat on the bad, completely oblivious to phone calls, doorbells ringing in which time my mom almost went to the police. She could see my footwear and bags inside the house through the window, but couldn’t get me to open the door. 2 hours after she came home and found that she couldn’t enter, I woke up and opened the door vaguely hearing banging. I opened the door with a knife behind my back, because I’ve never known my mom to bang, just as she had never known me to sleep through the sound of a doorbell.I use my sleeplessness as radars. Unlike those blessed people who can sleep regardless of what happened in the preceding day, my day affects my sleep to the extent of depriving me of it. When I find that my hands are behaving as though they belonged to someone else, its always one of two things. Either I’ve had an exceedingly unproductive day, a day during which I did nothing and spent most of it doing something very similar to staring aimlessly at a white unblemished wall. Or I’ve done something that I ought to feel guilty about, taken a decision that wasn’t completely thought through, rash, irrational, and in a wild passion to please/infuriate someone else. Somehow the signboard that says “exit to a good night’s sleep” always evades me and I end up taking a U turn a long time later. It may be staring at me right in the face, but what use is that to someone whose eyes are shut. More often than not, I end up reversing my stand the next morning, all red eyed and gloomy faced, causing a lot of people to believe that this new decision is even more hurried, anxiously taken and unreasonable than the first one. I’m asked various forms of the question “why”- from “how can you”, to saying my name repeatedly, to comical looks, to “huh”. Hell, I’ve just got to have a peaceful night’s sleep, because plainly put I cannot count sheep.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
The overbearing, inviolably certain, strong headed and firm willed Sister Aloysius suspects father Flynn of inappropriate behavior with the only black student of the school who is also an altar boy. Her suspicions are aroused by the adorably naive sister james who expects life to be in black and white. Sister Aloysius is certain of father Flynn's activities despite her ability to prove anything and despite his insistence that he is innocent. In the end she manages to force him to leave the school as she vows that she will go as far as it takes to get him out. Sister James is always doubtful and unclear and is never sure what to conclude. In the end of the movie, we still do not know if father flynn is guilty or innocent.
In this playoff, the audience is forced to question its own prejudices. At the end of the movie, almost all of is will realize that the movie is structured to leave no clue of father flynn's innocence or guilt. Yet our biases will see us tending towards one side.
There will be those of us who believes in father flynn's statement of compassion, that he really had the boy's best interests at heart as all right-minded priests ought to have, and that his sweet nature was wrongfully exploited and abused by the towering sister aloysius. In sister aloysius hatred for frosty the snowman, or intolerant of even the tiniest of transgressions, we will find claustrophobia, and regression. In her certainty of action we will find vendetta. In her advice to sister james to hang a picture of the pope (any pope, even the older one) so that she may spy on the children as she is facing the board, we will find cunningness. They will find it endearing that the priest is willing to admit that he has made mistakes in the past and will conclude that they are not related to the accusation being made. And they will pity him for the fact that sister aloysius would've gone to any lengths to tarnish his reputation and will believe that father flynn had much integrity of character to refuse to reveal why he was taking such special interest in the black altar boy.
And then there will be those of us who will feel certain like sister aloysius. Experience, says sister aloysius, allows her to be good at judging character. We will feel the same way. A man that does not cut his nails, that is extremely lenient of misdoings among his students, who encourages students to fall in love and dance, must have the same unexacting standards of himself. In a brief conversation with his students, he tells the boys if all girls reject them, they should become a priest. We quietly wonder if as a priest, he is considering a third option- young boys. He too must be a loosely moraled disrespectful person, we will reason. In his refusal to defend himself, we will see inability of a defence. In his gift of a dancing girl to the black boy, we will find inappropriate attachments. And in all his sermons we will see a veil of self-protection.
And finally there will be those of us like sister james hoping fervently that some one would just prove something, for we cannot take the burden of inference. Sister james after all has joined the church because she loves the simplicity, the set of clear-cut rules, and the simple elegant hymps and songs. We will want to be fair, just and objective but will find it difficult not to find faults in both father flynn's behavior or sister aloysius's treatment of him. Why won't father flynn explain himself and clear his name. What can be important. Perhaps he is guilty. But perhaps he is protecting the boy. How honorable. Why wont sister aloysius let go. Why can't she be more willing to let her students have fun. Why is she so incapable of human feeling. But then we see her helping out and protecting a nun that is going blind and realize that she too is good at heart. And we will go round and round in circles never understanding what is going wrong, and eventually we will want so badly to make a decision, as ill-informed as it might be if only to be able to sleep better at night.
Doubt then is a journey of self-discovery for each member of the audience. Even as it is portraying the hierarchy of the church and the various reasons that people choose to join it- simplicity for sister james, compassion for father flynn, discipline and rigour for sister aloysius , it plays with the audience's own bias to either judge too quickly or tread too carefully. In this quest for truth, each character makes transgessions within the hierarchy of the church. Sister adams yells at sister aloysius, a senior. Father flynn talks to sister james without a third party present to witness any declaration he makes. And sister aloysius breaches hierarchy many times, by talking to the boy's mother, by disrespecting her senior father flynn. As the truth comes to the fore, god, the church and rules are swept behind. They want to know so that they can sleep at night.
Doubt is full of nuances and subtleties trying to win you over and convince you that the priest is guilty now, and innocent again and guilty again. We feel compelled to read into every dialogue, every little act so that we can understand the players, because it is only then can we convince ourselves who the villain is- proper sister aloysius who seems to have never made mistakes in her life or the loving priest who thinks life is about making mistakes, learning from them and growing above them.
In the end we will never know.
And that is the unsettling strength of doubt.
An operatic crescendo that reaches the climax and then never comes down to hit the root note.
And we are left on that crest, feeling helpless, knowing that there is no respite.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
Let's start with the aircraft service that desperately needs more airplanes if it aspires for any kind of excellence. Even as I type out excellence, I realize I've dug my own grave. By today's standards the aircraft service I refer to is probably considered excellent. Why ? Because it manages to maintain a high profit margin. How does it do that ? It crams too many people in too few planes. It takes care of them with too few people. There are no 24 hr manned desks in the airports. They use their manpower wisely by manning the desk only for a few hours around the time of the flight departure. Another way to increase profit. They tie up with other airlines. Another way to increase profits. They are, in other words, simply excellent, bringing the
entire world to your doorstep. It is such smart cost-cutting techniques that make traveling by air such an affordable nuisance. It is going to grow to the point where mankind will depend on it to the extent that any overhaul of the behemoth will be impractical and impossible. What complain can you have of services that manage to bring the world to your doorstep ? My complaint is, by the time I open the door to get to this world, I am so miffed that I simply do not want the world. I'd rather have my door open to a simple, decent, predictable, faithful yard. Maybe even a few weeds won't really bother me.
So they have this way of bringing all the passengers from far and wide in india to brussels. They then mix em up and redistribute them to many place far and wide in the US. It's a lovely idea. Until, one of the incoming flights gets delayed at Brussels. Then all the outbound flights have to wait until this incoming flight arrives. When I was going from Pitt to Chennai, my only problem was the wait. The wait, I managed to deal with by sleeping on one of the many couches that brussels airports is so thankfully filled with. When I was coming back however, I had a connecting from new york to pittsburgh. And of course, if my flight to new york got delayed because of fog in delhi, then I'd miss my connecting. What do I do, I asked ? Of course, there are
three different answers you get. And you are faced with this daunting task of figuring out which of these three people are saying it like it is. Of course, they've been taught to apologize profusely. That bit truly is very endearing. One of them told me that the staff were working at the reconnecting and will make an announcement. Wow! I thought. Efficient. But it is also true that most of these people will not do anything for you until you tell them to. We're a species that try and perfect the art of doing nothing in order to get rewarded. Another told me that I will have to arrive at new york and talk to the jet airways staff.But my connecting is american I screamed. h! Then you'll have to talk to them, they said. I didn't wanna believe any of them.
Then someone came up with this brilliant solution of routing me through newark because that flight was actually on time, and I could take the continental airline from newark to pittsburgh. Interesting. They could do all that ? Wow. The digital age and all that spunky stuff I thought. Sure. Go ahead I said. But... my checked bags ?The checked bags were sitting in a red box (the transit box), and by policy they could not be taken out until they reached jfk. Security is always the most pressing issue see ? It was getting muddier already. How in the world was I supposed to feel comfortable to go to Pitt via newark on the continental, while my bags would come to
pittsburgh via jfk on an american airlines.It looked like an ingeniously architectured passing the blame game. Ingenious- defined as the inability of me to figure out who to sue (continental, jet, american, the wright brothers ?) should I be insane enough to sue. There were too many factors involved. I couldn't trust anyone could do it right. But of course, me being terrorist suspect and all, cannot be allowed to walk into that red box and say "that and that- they are my bags", and wheel them behind me to the newark flight. It actually only need be that simple. But it is so full of loops that mr terror can use, that simple minded souls such as I are being forced to live
extremely complicated lives. I am not allowed to walk into mr red box. I had to renege control of my own darling bags. This is the mad world we're living in. And the story got worse. At pittsburgh I was supposed to file a claim about this weird baggage story at the continental desk. And the continental people would take care of bags that were going to come on an american flight.
If Alice, of alice in wonderland were with me, she'd have tagged along with me instead of the hare or the mad hatter. Lewis caroll would have taken my story instead of his, because I was living in the land of "curioser and curioser". With some reticence I managed to get myself to newark, where the continental staff had no clue about my situation. Speak to the jet staff they said. The jet staff of the jet desks that get manned only for a few hours a day. By this time I had a cruel cold. A cold is the one of the most annoying things in the world that can happen to you. It puts you in a limbo- you aren't truly ill, but neither are you fully well. And when you fly with a
cold your ears get blocked. And i was finding myself doing way more speaking than a nose and ear blocked person ought to. With all the echoing in my own ears I wasn't speaking loud enough for anyone.And when I did speak loud enough, they asked me not to panic. Whether god was by my side, holding my hands, nudging me to be as good a person I can be, I cannot say. But I can vouch for a certain mr murphy seriously considering marrying me for life in sickness and in health(muted whispers), for better(muted whispers) or for worse, till death finally, and thankfully rents us apart.
Then the jet airways at terminal B give me this piece of ancient looking paper that was supposed to be presented in order to obtain a boarding pass at terminal a. And with that boarding pass I had to proceed to terminal c where my flight was scheduled to leave 4 hours later. Back to the present. That 4 hours is now.I just passed security clearance. Another one of those banes of terrorism coming free with air travel. You get to be frisked. You've to take of your shoes and your belt. You are expected to limit cleansing fluids to 6 oz. And finally, sometimes they will
sweetly tell you that you have been selected for "digital screening". They make it sound like its a great treat, almost making you feel like you had to have worked and toiled long and hard in this and previous lives (where I hope to god and hubby dr murphy that I had the sweet fortune of dying a natural death). And after passing digital screening, I sit here waiting for my flight to leave, knowing that when I get to pittsburgh, I'll have to file a baggage claim with continental, who I expect are going to look at me cluelessly as I explain to them what happened. And somehow if my bags don't come they'll offer me compensation. There are many other compensations I would like. Like maybe merging all the continents together into a modern day pangea. Or maybe making hyperspace travel a reality.
There's that age old philosophical question. If you were to replicate someone molecular by molecule, bond angle and bond distance to bond angle to bond distance, with no space for error at all (Heisenberg's uncertainty be damned) will this new person be the exact same as the old person. I believe fervently, that it s/he will be. If there is no error at all, the person, and the emergent behavior will be the same. And of course, there are going to be errors, and I may end up being a slightly different person, and so, they say, is the disadvantage of hyperspace travel. But honey, I'll so take that. Because, this real time travel, its making me a person I don't wanna be. Its called bitter. I live in the hope, that hyperspace travel will not do that.
And as I write this, my parents are traveling rather peacefully from chennai to bangalore. In the irctc (indian railways) everything proceeds like clockwork whether you are making profits or not. And they managed to do this even in the days without the computer. There's clearly a lesson to be learnt in all this. We should simply leave flying to the birds and the penguins of madagaskar animations, and restrict ourselves to foot and sea. The only air travel we should be doing is when our soul finally departs the body as we rest in peace after having lived a comfortable, non-annoying life. Amen!