Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Losing everything

A month and a half ago, a minor fire broke out at my workplace. It was caused by a short circuit in my boss’s cabin. Fortunately, it occurred in the night when no one was around, and even more fortunately, it was spotted by security personnel who quickly contained it even before the fire brigade arrived. But the cabin was completely destroyed. One half was a black, charred mass of paper and wood; the other half was covered with soot and embers. The soft board, once a colourful collage of photographs and Post It’s, was scorched to bits, exposing the wooden frame behind it. The telephone was a mangled, fused heap. There even was a black spot on the 25-foot high ceiling.

My boss was in a mild shock that day. She lamented about losing her papers, photographs and other paraphernalia which she’d accumulated over the last 18 years. As I brushed away the embers from my desk, a sudden fear gripped me. What if the fire had spread to my cubicle which was adjacent to her cabin? My thoughts immediately went to the printouts of all my work neatly stacked in the drawers. I’d harangued the art director for almost a year to collect all those printouts. What if the fire…? I quickly made plans to transport all my work home.

It took a moment for the absurdity of that plan to sink in. If tragedy chose you, there was no escape. I was as vulnerable at home as at any place on earth. The reality and inevitability of loss never hit me harder. I did a quick mental inventory of all the things that were dearest to me. My heart lurched when I thought of my precious books. Anything, but them, I decided.

This half-forgotten incident and the accompanying thoughts came back to me as I watched the tsunami coverage on TV. There was that phrase repeated over and over again… ‘People who have lost everything...’ Amid all the heart-rending scenes of loss, there was one that disturbed me immensely. A Muslim man was offering prayers alone in a corner of a dargah. The reporter mentioned that ‘he’d lost everything’. Everything included three children and all seven grandchildren. He spoke in a sad yet calm voice while the translations appeared on screen. ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. It is the cycle of life.’

Perhaps he was numb with shock, but his calm acceptance disturbed me more than all the grief stricken images I had seen. My mental inventory of a month-and-a-half ago never featured people. It was just too terrifying to do that. I cannot imagine what coping mechanisms he, and others who’ve lost ‘everything’, will use. I cannot imagine what the days ahead will be like when the numbness wears off. I can only pray, and help in a very small way.

P.S. Amazing efforts at Tsunami Help. A never-before reaction to a never-before calamity! Do visit and help.

Monday, December 20, 2004

SWADES: A review

It was a rare event for me – watching a Hindi film, and that too on the weekend of its release. But the unusual publicity stills of Swades and the buzz surrounding it, had peaked my curiosity. Luckily, J had extra tickets and I tagged along, despite the fact that it was a 10 p.m. show. My brain usually downs the shutters at midnight and everything after that is a blur.

But I had no problem staying awake, even though my neighbour on the left went into a mouth-agape slumber post interval. That’s one thing that can be said about Swades; it’s an engrossing film even though it proceeds at a bullock cart pace.

The theme of an NRI coming face to face with the real India has been explored before; in Hyderabad Blues, for instance. But where the protagonist of Hyderabad Blues feels disconnected and disillusioned, Mohan Bhargava of Swades gets into action right from the start. Whether it’s pulling down caste barriers, canvassing for education, bringing electricity to the village or charming the uptight school teacher, he does it all in fewer than 5 weeks. Hindi film heroes!

However, despite the crusading, Bhargava comes across as earnest and credible. He starts out as the unwitting do-gooder, but the turning point is when he goes on a journey and sees the poverty-stricken face of rural India. The scene which underlines his transition is poignant; the Bisleri-toting Bhargava buys a cup of water from a waif at a railway station, and tears roll down his eyes as he drinks it. The Non-Resident Indian finally becomes a part of the Indian reality.

But symbolic gestures are few, and the film does get rather preachy at times especially about Bharatiya parampara and sanskriti. But Bhargava echoes my sentiments when he tells the village elder who gloats about India having values and culture, ‘That’s what we always take refuge in.’ He even boldly goes on to say that India isn’t a great nation, but has the ability to become one. He lays bare all of India’s shortcomings, but most importantly, gets down to action. Like he says, everyone blames the system, but we are part of the system. So rather than passing the buck, he gets the villagers to be participate in generating their own electricity supply.

For once, it seems like reality has caught up Hindi cinema. No designer villages, no buxom gao ki goris doing ‘item numbers’, no photogenic mustard fields. The faces are real. The problems are real. The dust and grime is real, disconcertingly so. Only the frequent songs remind you that you’re watching a film.

It’s hard to imagine Shahrukh Khan minus the hammy, bumbling act. But his is an amazingly restrained performance in the film. As an NRI struggling to come to terms with an India stuck in a time warp, he is credible and endearing. I can’t say the same of the female lead though. Her manicured nails and dainty mannerisms stuck out in the ‘real’ picture. Call me picky, but Bhargava’s nanny, Kaveriamma, also struck a discordant note. A fine performance notwithstanding, I couldn’t help wondering what a south Indian was doing in a distinctly north Indian village. Or did I miss a national integration message here? Hmm… maybe I should leave logic at home next time.

Minor peeves aside, I liked the film. The director has bravely sidestepped many of the clichés one has come to associate with Hindi films. I liked the fact that Bhargava chose to leave the village despite being guilt-tripped about sanskriti and parampara. And that his decision to return isn’t impulsive but well thought through. The supporting cast is excellent, especially the postman and the dhaba owner. The humour isn’t forced, thankfully. Little gems stand out. For instance, the nanny asks Bhargava, ‘Tumhara nasha kaisa hai?’ and it turns out she’s asking about NASA!

Images from the film were still unspooling in my mind, when we trooped out of the theatre at 2 a.m. It was extraordinarily late, even for a late night show, but that’s because the 10 p.m. show had started at 10.45. The reason for the delay couldn’t have been more ironic - a power failure during the earlier show!

Yeh jo des hai mera…

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Tuesday with Teresa

Continued from An Introduction to Spain

I had asked Teresa to meet me at the Regal Cinema in Colaba. As my cab reached the venue, I spotted her looking a trifle lost. She was wearing what appeared to be a cross between a kurta and a nightie. On closer inspection, I decided it was a nightie.

‘Can I hug you?,’
she asked, ‘It’s a custom in Spain and it’s been so long since I hugged someone.’

I was too bewildered to refuse. But I was struck by her candour. And her loneliness.

‘So what did you do in the last two days,’ I asked. We were standing on the steps of Regal Cinema. Except for a few stragglers, there was no one around.

Teresa began to reel off the tourist spots that she’d visited, occasionally consulting her Lonely Planet. I was impressed.

‘You went on your own?’
I asked.

‘No, the security guard in my hotel came along,
’ she replied.

But she ended up seeing a lot more than the Lonely Planet recommended. Apparently the ‘Mumbai darshan’ had ended at Chowpatty. And as they sat on the beach eating bhel puri, the security guard decided he’d found the love of his life…

‘He tells me I love you and want to marry you,” she said, arms flailing again. ‘I say, it’s ok. You’ll meet someone else. But he starts hugging me. And kisses me on the cheek.’

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for Teresa someone saw this amorous exchange and alerted the police, who promptly took them both to the police station.

‘The police tell me such behaviour is not tolerated in our country. I tell them I didn’t do anything. But they say I shouldn’t go with such people,’ she said, all too rapidly.

The police interrogated her for a couple of hours. Later, one of them softened a bit.

‘He explains how I must not trust people, how I must be more careful. And he tells me, if you don’t have a friend in the city, I will be your friend.’

Uh-oh I thought. The sordid saga continues…

Thankfully that was the end. The police detained the security guard and allowed her to leave.

‘Did you complain about the guard to the hotel in-charge,’
I asked, knowing her reply fully well.

No,’ she said, ‘I didn’t want to get him into trouble. He’s very young boy and just very lonely.’

She brushed away all further objections and asked instead, ‘What you think of my dress?’

I made polite noises about the nightie while she raved about the colour and the print. She chattered happily. The ‘sight-seeing’ incident of the morning was now behind her.

We walked down Colaba causeway looking for ‘Indian clothes’.

We stepped into one of the export surplus stores, with clothes spilling out of boxes and racks, almost onto the pavement. I tugged at a pile of clothes, so did Teresa. One thing became clear; our tastes didn’t match. So I let her do the tugging.

She settled on three pieces, preening in front of the mirror. The owner refused to bargain, curtly pointing to the ‘fixed price only’ cardboard sign. Teresa paid up and we exited from the cramped, airless store.

‘Thank you, Layla’, she said, when we could breathe again, ‘now you must let me take you for a meal.’

Sure, I said, feeling no need to be coy and polite with Teresa. I suggested Kailas Parbat, a place well known for North Indian snacks.

Oh yesterday this lady invited me to her house for Indian food…’ she said casually, as we walked down Causeway.

I was immediately suspicious, quite expecting another unpleasant episode.

Over ‘bahut bahut kam teekha’ pani puri and dahi sev batata puri, she shared about her dinner experience. She had been sitting on a bench on the Apollo pier and had struck up a conversation with another woman there. After the usual pleasantries, the woman on the bench insisted on taking Teresa home for dinner.

Teresa went on, ‘I had dal, roti, something made of brinjal, and lots of water,’ she said waving a hand in front of her mouth, as if to put out an imaginary fire.

We laughed. Thankfully, the dinner didn’t have a dark side to it. But I told Teresa that she shouldn’t trust people so easily.

‘I know, but people are so nice too,’ she said, her eyes shining. ‘I trusted you and see…’

I didn’t know what to say. I felt a bit protective about her because she was alone. But she seemed to know what she was doing and was ready to accept all outcomes. I marvelled at her equanimity.

We exchanged email addresses. And she surprised me by signing her name in Hindi.

‘I can write a little, but I can’t speak much,’
she laughed.

‘Oh, you have a year to learn’,
I told her, and instinctively hugged her.

I haven’t heard from her yet. But I’m sure she’ll pop up in my inbox one of these days, relating some adventure, some experience. I only hope they’re good stories.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

An introduction to Spain

I met Teresa at the 1-day Vipassana course at Gorai last Sunday. She was a plump Spanish girl, ostensibly in her late 20s and spoke English with a charming accent and with much flailing of hands. She wore a white kurta and beige cotton trousers, and said a respectful ‘Namaste’ to everyone who smiled at her.

One of the assistants asked if I could drop her off at the railway station. I agreed. Another middle aged woman in a bright yellow sari volunteered as well, presumably captivated by Teresa’s profuse Namaste’s. The three of us walked to the Esselworld pier to take the ferry to Gorai.

I didn’t want to seem intrusive, but I was curious about Teresa, about what drew her to Vipassana. She had no qualms sharing, thankfully. She said that she worked in a bookstore in Spain, and was introduced to Vipassana by a friend two years ago. But there were no introductory courses in Spain at that time, so she travelled to France. ‘I stayed at the centre for 3 ½ months,’ she said, ‘I did a 10 day course each month and assisted at the centre for the rest of the time.’

She laughed at my incredulous expression and offered by way of explanation, ‘After I did the first course, I felt I wasn’t ready to get back into the world, so I stayed there for a while.’

In the ferry, the yellow sari lady pulled out a single toffee from her bag and offered it to me. I made polite noises and declined. She offered it to Teresa who accepted it delightedly. The yellow sari lady looked very gratified and boldly pushed another toffee in my palm.

‘Your country is very nice,’
she said, ‘but not so nice for me to buy things here. If I go to buy Indian clothes, they charge me double.’

I sympathised with her, and impulsively offered, ‘Would you like me to take you to some places in town?’

She readily agreed, without any coyness. Her trusting nature amazed and worried me.

The auto drivers on the other side of the creek called out respectfully when they saw the three of us, ‘Yes medem, Boroli teshun?’ Respect turned into belligerence when I flatly told them I would only pay by the meter. Finally, one acquiesced and we headed back into the chaos of the city.

‘Obviously Vipassana made a big difference to you, since you decided to come here…’ I murmured, hoping it didn’t sound nosy.

She nodded and added, ‘But everyone in my family thinks I’m…’ She tapped the side of her head and pulled a comic face. ‘My friends say, we respect your decision, but they don’t understand it. I feel so lonely in my country.’

So that’s why she headed eastwards. She had a year’s visa, an open ticket and no plan. She was to go to Igatpuri, do a few courses, serve at the centre and then head out to the Vipassana centres in Bodh Gaya or Nepal.

‘I feel good being here. I feel happy,’
she said.

She was either supremely equanimous or supremely naïve, I decided. She’d just told me of the harrowing morning spent going round in circles and getting fleeced by cab drivers on the way to Gorai.

We were stuck in an almighty traffic jam for a while. Finally, the ‘source’ of the jam lumbered into view. An elephant!

Teresa clapped her hands and exclaimed, ‘Oooh, Ive never seen an elephant before.’ I started laughing and almost had a choking fit when she said, ‘Aaj main bahoot khush hoon.’ Even the hitherto unimpressed auto driver gawped at her in the rear view mirror.

The hordes at ‘Bolivari station’ (as Teresa called it) played the usual ‘avoid-subway-dodge-traffic’ game. I looked at Teresa to see if she was overwhelmed by it all. She seemed caught up in the adventure of it.

The yellow sari lady couldn’t keep up with the conversation in English, so I stopped every few moments to translate. Suddenly Teresa asked her, ‘Aap khush hai.’ The yellow sari lady blinked in surprise.

Teresa turned to me, ‘Is that an inappropriate question?’

I guessed the yellow sari lady had a problem understanding the accent and translated. She looked surprised again, like the question had never occurred to her, and said bemusedly, ‘Main khush hi to hoon. Khush na hone ki kya baat hai.’

She went away shaking her head. Meanwhile, Teresa was captivated by the food stalls at the station. ‘Do you want to have a juice?’ she asked. I looked warily at the nimbupani wondering if she had the stomach for it. She seemed keen, so I suggested a Frooti. She sipped it and smacked her lips, marvelling, ‘In my country the juices are so watery. This is so tasty and thick.’ I couldn’t help laughing, because I disliked Frooti for the same reason.

‘So we meet on Tuesday?’ she asked a little anxiously. ‘If it’s out of your way, I could come to Bolivari’.

When I assured her that it was no problem, she thanked me and then hugged me.

‘Um… hasta la vista,’ I murmured. She threw back her head and laughed.

Next: Tuesday with Teresa.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

An evening with R

Everyone in college referred to him as ‘the mad Bawa’. And truth be told, R did act a little crazy. A permanent fixture on the last bench – when he did attend, that is – he’d compose songs with banal lyrics, and suddenly start singing them in class, startling professors and classmates alike. His antics had everyone in splits and many a boring lecture was livened by a teacher’s attempts to rebuke him. But R’s heart was in the right place, even if his head wasn’t. And he and I became unlikely but thick pals.

One day, after drifting for several years, R announced that he was going to appear for the IAS exams. Understandably, this pronouncement was received with rapidly lowered jaws, hoots of disbelief and even hysterical laughter. The guy who barely scraped through college was going to take on the toughest exams in the country. He really had to be crazy!

We met a couple of weeks later outside the public library where he spent a good part of his day, arriving with the first rays of the sun and leaving only when the staff forcibly ejected him. The gold-rimmed glasses gave further testimony of his newfound zeal.

“God, I stink,” were his first words to me. “Here see…” he thrust his armpit into my face. I turned my face away and laughed. Same old R, I thought.

But as the evening unfolded, I was forced to rearrange my views about him. His insights on racism, politics and Indian history astounded me.

“Jews have been persecuted by the Romans, Nazis and even Shakespeare,” he thundered. “Ever noticed how he constantly refers to ‘Shylock, the Jew’?” He didn’t just read 5 newspapers every day, from cover to cover, he even annotated them, adding his own insights. He dashed off fiery letters to editors for factual inconsistencies, using words like circumlocution and obloquy. Could this be the same R who struggled to pronounce ‘industrialisation’ during a college seminar, I wondered? Important dates, famous speeches – he was quoting them verbatim!

“You know I’ve always liked learning”, he said and when I snorted in disbelief, he hurriedly continued, “It’s just that I hated cramming. Now that I understand what I’m studying and can write stuff in my own words, it’s actually fun to study.”

“Fun, yeah!” I nodded stupidly.

In fact, I did a lot of nodding that evening. Firstly, because it took me a while to adjust to this new avatar. And secondly, because on seeing my incredulity turn to admiration, he just didn’t want to stop.

“One of my dreams now,”
he admitted, “is to lecture at college.”“Maybe I could even counsel the kids, giving them my own example.” We both burst out laughing.

It was a crestfallen R who called me a few days later to tell me that he hadn’t cleared the preliminary exams. As I sympathised with him, he brightened up and said, “Now I’m more confident than ever of passing the next attempt.” And I believed he would. After all, I had seen miracles happen…

P.S I'd written this some time ago. Since then R had a change of heart and got into business, a very successful one. However it was that one evening which changed my perception of him as a class jester forever.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Proof that anti-ageing creams work…

I was using a moisturiser on my face when Alison came up and asked me sternly, 'Leela, what are you doing?’

The question ended in a high-pitched squeak. I wondered exactly what I was being chastised for.

She wagged her inch-long index finger at me and in a tone dripping with authority, said, ‘That cream is for big people, not for you and me.’

Being mistaken for a 4-year old feels ridiculously good!

Wednesday, November 10, 2004


I am utterly fascinated by the Amreekan flair for the dramatique.

Do check out the gallery!

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Snide and Prejudiced

I will always be indebted to the gentleman or lady who coined the word execrable. My deepest gratitude also goes out to the one who came up with egregious. Thanks to these thoughtful folks, I can now describe the movie Bride and Prejudice without resorting to such weak, ineffective words like bad, appalling, disgusting, awful, terrible.

I saw it early this week and it wreaked havoc with my digestion for two days. I did my best to obliterate it from memory, but yesterday I read an interview with director, Gurinder Chadha, in an old issue of Time Out and the bile rose again…

‘I never intended to make a Hindi movie, it’s not my sensibility’,
she says. Truer words were never spoken. She goes on to say that hers is ‘a British movie that pays an affectionate tribute to Hindi cinema’. Perhaps in the same way that Judas’ kiss was affectionate.

Let’s overlook for a moment the effrontery to Jane Austen in the title. Let’s also excuse the absurd lyrics, dance epidemics and tepid dialogue. Out of the goodness of your heart, excuse Aishwarya’s incomprehensible indignation, Aishwarya’s credibility as a rustic Amritsar kudi, Aishwarya’s unidentifiable accent. While at it, condone the lack of chemistry, and surfeit of melodrama, which seeks to gleefully announce, ‘We are like this only.’

Now, that we’ve pardoned the whole balderdash, let’s come to the unforgivable part. How could a director who crafted the little gem called Bend it like Beckham go so wrong? How could someone who had discovered a warm, funny, inoffensive way of portraying Indian foibles, successfully cast the spotlight on the crudest, crassest, vilest behaviour of Indians? How can she claim to be ‘pissed off by films that parody Bollywood’ and then perversely misrepresent not just Bollywood, but India?

And who do we have to blame for this travesty of a movie? Believe it or not, Aditya Chopra! 'It was after seeing Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayengethat I decided to make my version of a Hindi film,' says Chadha and adds, 'I later told him that if Bride and Prejudice falls flat, I’d blame him.'

Aditya, I want my money back!

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Cinderella at the Ball

I’m a bit of a disgrace to the media fraternity (and sorority). 7 years of working in high profile advertising agencies and a media behemoth, and yet I cannot claim first name familiarity with any ‘celebrity’. Some of the biggest pashas of print sit less than 20 feet away from my work desk. From time to time, friends in other news agencies update me on gossip about them. My customary excuse to pass up most late night schmoosing is that it conflicts with my bedtime.

As it happens, in media, all virtue is a vice. Proclaiming utter disinterest in the Who’s Who, Who’s with Who and Who did What Last Summer can be bad for business. If not for these tantalising details, what are people going to buy your newspaper for? The news? Uh-uh, it’s no good being high brow with high society.

Luckily for me, redemption came in the form of a wicked looking black envelope. Two passes to THE ultimate crash course for social ignoramuses – The Bombay Times 10th Anniversary Bash. Months of gaucherie could be purged in single night, I thought gleefully as I set off with a photographer friend.

I came away suitably enlightened. Presenting the 10 invaluable lessons gleaned from the Bombay Times 10th Anniversary Bash:

Lesson No. 1
High fashion is remarkably low cost. All you need are sequins worth Rs. 20 from Crawford Market. Tack them onto a lacy bedcover or curtain or laundry bag, and voila, you’re haute tamale!

Fashion for men: Anything tight and tacky. Allowing Calvin Klein to peer over the top of your trousers is vital. If you’re really cool, sport a thong and show it off prominently.

Lesson No. 2

Never ever question people’s fashion sense. If the high priestess of fashion, Rekha and the ultimate gay style icon, Imam, sashay in wearing tent like robes, well tent-like robes are in.

Lesson No. 3
Be careful, be very careful at the food courts. Ask detailed questions about each item even if it makes you look foolish. After all, it’s better to eat crow figuratively than to come away with a mouthful of raw oyster.

When it comes to cheese, follow a sniff and nibble routine. Do not pop a sizeable chunk like the woman next to you, especially if the cheese is ‘Gorgonzola’, unless of course you like the taste of rotting flesh. (Still gagging)

Lesson No. 4
It’s possible to have 5 margaritas, 2 tequila shots and one Vodka with tonic and still be unnaturally sober. It boils down to a simple technique: Lift long-stemmed, wide-mouthed margarita glass from counter, steer yourself across narrow corridor teeming with sozzled, flying limbs, reach your corner, spot one remaining sip of margarita, down it. After 20 minutes, repeat the process.

Lesson No. 5
When Abhishek Bachchan, up in the DJ console, suddenly points at you with a look of recognition, do not instinctively entertain hopes of being the Next Big Thing. He’s merely waving to your photographer friend. Make a mental note however to keep in touch with photographer friend more.

Lesson No. 6
Tall, dark and handsome is soooo out, so last decade. Old, bald and iconic is in.

If you are a male model, learn to deal with loneliness or hang out with other model buddies. And watch as guys blessed with a face that only a mother can love, dance with a bevy of bootylicious beauties.

Lesson No. 6

Hah, to all you atheists! There is a God and his name is Alyque Padamsee. Else explain how a 75-plus, concave-postured relic can part crowds on a packed dance floor with a statuesque teenager clutching onto him like he was a Baywatch lifeguard? Oh no, there is a God and I’m a believer.

Lesson No. 7
You can be Andre Nair, chairman and CEO of the most powerful media network in South East Asia and still cut a ludicrous figure on the dance floor, especially when you dance with actions to ‘Yeh Wada Raha’. Note to self: If you intend to stay in media it’s a good idea not to let him catch you laughing.

Lesson No. 8
You don’t need cricket records to tell you Michael Slater is a gifted player. He’s a natural when it comes to scoring.

Lesson No. 9
A family that parties together stays together. Take for instance, the Vengsarkar family. Perhaps the current day team picked up the famous ‘huddle’ from this foursome.

Lesson No. 10
There is a certain advantage in being a Who’s Not. Nobody notices that your blue handbag and black shoes don’t quite match…

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The loose ends...

... happen to be on a stout rope. One end's tied to a peg on the ceiling, the other around my neck.

After a month of browbeating the cable guy, the connection's been restored. Now, my new computer's crashed. And this cybercafe lacks inspiration.

A spare laptop, anyone??

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Tying up loose ends...

Will be back next week. Happy Dussera. :-)

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

SONGLINES: Bruce Chatwin

‘In Alice Springs – a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers – I met a Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals….’

The opening lines from Songlines create an air of intrigue befitting a whodunit, rather than a travel book. For instance, my thoughts were, who were these men in long white socks? Why Land Cruisers? And what was a Russian doing Down Under?

The rest of the first chapter is equally taut. Dispensing with rambling descriptions that characterize travel writing, Chatwin tells us about the Russian, Arkady Volchok, and his unusual vocation.

Arkady first worked as a school teacher on an Aboriginal settlement near Alice Springs, when he came across the Songlines – the invisible pathways criss-crossing Australia. According to Aboriginal myth, totemic beings wandered over the continent singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – birds, animals, plants – and thus sang the world into existence.

A railway line was being constructed through Alice Springs and the authorities were wary of treading over the sacred ground. Here’s where Arkady came in. He’d built a special friendship with the Song-men and could work with them to ensure that no sacred site was disturbed.

Arkady was married, even had a daughter of 6, but no longer lived with his wife. Chatwin’s description of Arkady’s union is wonderfully wry…

‘On the Acropolis in Athens, there was a dusting of snow and only one other tourist: a Greek girl from Sydney. They traveled through Italy, and slept together, and in Paris they agreed to get married.’

Likewise, the portrayal of their separation…

‘After a single summer, in a tin-roofed house that heated like a furnace, they began to drift apart.’

The chapter ends with the enigmatic introduction of Arkady’s secretary…

‘…a pliant brown girl in a brown knitted dress. She smiled and said, ‘Hi Ark!’ but her smile fell away at the sight of a stranger.’

Do Arkady and the construction group steer clear of the Songlines? Are the Aboriginals lying in wait to sabotage the construction? Is there more than meets the eye between Arkady and his secretary?

Find out more after I read the book…

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Absolute Lee 2.0

With sincere apologies to Client Servicing

There was one question that remained unanswered during all my years in advertising – why would anyone, in their sane mind, join an ad agency in Client Servicing?

It was undoubtedly the shittiest job in the agency – liaising between bull-headed clients, creative prima donnas, cold number-crunchers in media, impudent cut paste artists and incompetent bosses. The balancing act turned them into vacillating, conniving, annoying dimwits, who were equally loathed and laughed at. They were derided as ‘postmen’ and ‘flunkeys’ and those were the printable terms. To insult a copywriter or art director, you spat out, ‘@$# Servicing!!’ It was hard to like yourself when you were Client Servicing.

The point of this ramble is that in the last month, I’ve come to empathize with this reviled bunch, having unwittingly slipped into their shoes myself.

It started when I decided to revamp the blog.

Nothing too fancy, I said to myself. (All bull-headed clients start out that way.) The intrepid yet unsuspecting Spaceman Spiff volunteered to do the programming, and tossed in a few ideas. Yes, no, yes, no, no, no, no, went ‘client servicing’ (at the behest of the ‘client’).

The old Art Partner called to say, ‘It’s a boy!’

Congratulations, congratulations… psstcanyoudesignmyblog… congratulations. When you’re Client Servicing, scruples mean nothing.

An illustrator friend was similarly arm-twisted for an illustration ‘…which should be distinctive to the blog and also epitomize the essence of it…’ Illustrator friend pulled out his dictionary, forgetting for a moment that Client Servicing uses words to detract from one immutable fact – ‘I don’t know what in hell’s name I’m talking about’.

Thankfully (for still-nonplussed Illustrator friend) one of the illustrations worked in a ‘dipstick survey’.

Next, Art Partner with baby in one hand and mouse in the other, produced two simple, scintillating designs. Spaceman was informed thus:

Day 1: Design 1 is final!
Day 2: Design 2 is final!
Day 3 (a.m): Um.. let’s go with Design 1.
Day 3 (p.m.): Make that Design 2…

It’s not hard to lose friends when you’re Client Servicing.

Spaceman mailed requirements, Art Partner went to work. Art Partner mailed requirements, Spaceman went to work. Client Servicing with a feigned casualness (and having plied them with gmail accounts) huffed and puffed down their necks.

Full circle, it is. From looking down my Copywriter-nose at them to joining their oily ilk. But there’s one thing Client Servicing does quite generously. And that is, allow the names of the Creative team to precede their own on the award form. So here goes:

Design: Monisha K.

Illustration: Avinash V.

Programming: Spaceman Spiff

@$# Servicing: Leela A.

P.S. It’s been a year (already!) on the blog. Thank you all for your encouragement.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

In Absentia

Net connection's down again :-I Hence this absence. Will start 'afresh' next week :-))

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

In the eye of the beholder

Recently, I accompanied my friend, B, to buy a perfume. Now, B is a determined-but-leisurely shopper. Neither snappish salespeople no closing hours can coax her to rush with her shopping. So I didn't immediately brush off the salesgirl who came up to me and asked, 'Madam, are you interested in a free Revlon makeover?'

After confirming that it was indeed free, and seeing that B was not even halfway through the dozen perfumes, I agreed.

The 'free makeover' zone was the teensy space between the counters of two cosmetic brands. The Beauty Advisor (or the politically corrected 'salesgirl') steered me onto the stool and appraised my face. I was sure it resembled a wrung-out towel, since we'd just left office. Her face was impeccably made up of course, to the point of being a little excessive. Violet eye shadow and a matching shade of lipstick tend to stick out a bit.

'We'll start with a Revlon cleanser and a Revlon toner',
she bubbled. A cotton swab with cleanser went over my face, followed by another swab of a melon-scented toner. I could feel my pores tingling.

'Now I'll outline your eyes with the Revlon eyeliner,'
she said. Smart girl, I thought. I used to work on a rival cosmetic brand a few years ago, and we'd always recommended makeovers. Now I was getting to test its efficacy.

'You have nice high cheekbones. Blush-on suits you very well,'
she remarked. The colour on my cheeks was not entirely from the blush.

A lip pencil came next and outlined the contours of my mouth. Meanwhile, B had taken a break from the fragrances and come over to watch me. Her appreciative expression changed when the Beauty Advisor applied a pale lip gloss. I glanced at the mirror quickly. It looked like I'd swallowed a saucer of mercury. No lip gloss, I shook my head. She looked at me thoughtfully and nodded, 'Let's go for a liquid lip colour. Revlon has recently come out with a new product...'

She applied the lip colour and I looked to B for approval. A knot of curious shoppers had gathered and were watching intently.

'Doesn't make up really suit her?' the savvy Advisor asked B.

Another advisor chimed in, 'Your skin is ideal for make up. See how it highlights your eyes.'

One of the shoppers asked, 'Show me the lipstick you've used on her.'

'Not lipstick, this is a liquid lip colour,'
corrected the Advisor.

'Psst.. madam, would you like anything from Maybelline', the advisor who'd chimed in, called out surreptitiously.

I smiled indulgently, seeing right through this whole marketing shtick.

But then I remembered that my eyeliner was almost over. Also, this eye pencil was much better than the one I had at home. And coming to think of it, this bronze liquid eye shadow might come in handy for a dressy evening...

B and I laughed heartily as we exited the store a few minutes later. She was empty handed; I was 700 bucks lighter.

Nothing like a free makeover to perk up an evening.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Help! The teens are taking over

Episode 1: Mind that Doll!

I was flipping through a magazine at work yesterday, waiting for the muse to descend. And that’s when I spotted her.

She looked cool, aloof yet mind-blowing even in a school uniform. Although, if that was a uniform, then the school could only have been, ‘St Lucifer School of Higher Seduction’. The white shirt was missing several vital buttons and the skirt was intriguingly abbreviated. Her pout certainly didn’t convey, ‘Dang! Jasma got more marks than me in History.’

She was Babydoll - the toast of the music video circuit. She was only 18 but her list of achievements was considerably longer than her skirt. She’d bagged a role in an international music video which also featured Beyonce (of Destiny’s Child). But she was to do more than strut her stuff. A trained classical singer, she was to lend vocal talent to the song titled, ‘Simple Things in Life’. Bollywood had been seduced too. She’d signed a film, ‘Daag: Shades of Love’ which was a ‘sensitive love story” in which she had a ‘hardhitting role’.

The part that intrigued me was her reply to the question, ‘What were you doing before your discovery?’

She replied that she was studying Psychology in College and that, ‘Industrial psychology always interested me.’

My eyebrows flew up. Industrial Psychology is about as interesting as watching a remix video featuring Anupam Kher. Of the 6 papers in the BA Psychology, IP was the second most tedious and mind-numbing.

My eyebrows stayed suspended while she explained why Psychology interested her.

‘I think it’s because psychology is all about reading the human mind, it’s about analyzing behaviour. And I’m very judgmental, so I think that’s why I love it.’

Jeez, what was I thinking when I chose to major in Psychology? Ah yes, I thought it would help clear the clutter in my mind…

Episode 2: Hack & Hacker

In the evening, I stopped to browse at the Oxford Book Store. As I walked in, I saw that irksome notice, ‘The Cha Bar will remain closed on account of ….’ I didn’t need to read further. It always meant the same thing – an event featuring a boring, pompous oration by a wannabe author/director/playwright with journos hanging on for trite soundbites.

I hated being deprived of one of the few real indulgences in life – sitting in the Cha Bar, sipping on a Latte and snacking on the armful of books gleaned from the shelves.

I scowled as I passed the agog audience and cast unclean looks at the speaker who was droning about Internet and dotcoms.

I walked off in a huff and as I waited for the guard to hand me my bag, the speaker’s words floated towards my unwilling ears… ‘I want to thank my publishers for speeding up the publicity of the book, when I told them I was returning to the U.S…’

My eyes fell on the notice I’d ignored earlier and my jaw skidded to the floor.

The ‘wannabe author’ was Ankit Fadia, a 19-year old computer hacker who’d just written his third book! Between foiling the attempts of Pakistani hackers to deface Indian websites and tutoring computer experts in the CBI and FBI, he’d sold 80,000 copies of his books. Now, he juggled classes at Stanford University, lectures on corporate network security and book release functions.

Earthlings, needn’t fear a superior alien species taking over the planet. The teens are doing a pretty good job!

Friday, September 10, 2004

The Amazing Tiffin Box: Complete Series

The Amazing Tiffin Box I: Save Our Stomach

The Amazing Tiffin Box II: The Interview

The Amazing Tiffin Box III: Despatches from S.A.S.S

The Amazing Tiffin Box III: Despatches from S.A.S.S*

*Streehitavardhini Audyogik Sahakari Sansthan.

Continued from The Amazing Tiffin Box I: Save Our Stomach and The Amazing Tiffin Box II: The Interview

* Green Tea (with honey, no milk)
* Apple –1
* Sweet Lime - 1
* Grapes – 1 bunch
* Bananas – 2

That was *breakfast* on Day 1 of my newest attempt to beat IBS. Between 6:30 a.m and 12 noon, each time my yet-unsuspecting stomach emitted a ravenous growl, I pulled out a Tupperware container and started munching. But I still felt peculiarly empty. I checked my watch with increasing frequency as lunchtime approached.

Lunch started off with another Tupperware tiffin filled with salad, followed by rice, dal and steamed vegetables. Nuts and dryfruits replaced the canteen teatime snack. And ignoring the tendency to dawdle, I raced home to dinner at 8.

That night, I wrote in my diary, ‘Day 1 – still alive.’


By Day 5, things changed. I wasn’t just alive. I felt good!

Since my attention was focused on co-ordinating all those Tupperware containers, it took a while before I realized that the gripes had eased. The fires of hell burnt less brightly. And my waking thoughts weren’t of gloom and doom.

But two years of trying out iffy remedies unsuccessfully can’t be obliterated. Where allopathy, homoeopathy and ayurveda had proved feeble, how could a crazy diet which contradicted popular beliefs, succeed. And that too, in just a few days?

So I reined in the optimism and continued hauling my mini-army of Tupperware. Contrary to my initial concern that I would find this diet oppressive, I actually began to appreciate the discipline it brought in my life.

Two weeks later, I danced up the stairs of the Health Awareness Centre and almost hugged Pink Lady. I couldn’t wait to tell her how I was a new person – inside out.

She smiled and thrust a 3 page review form in my hand, ‘Fill this form first.’

Later, we talked about my improvement and she suggested minor changes. For instance, she said it was ok to eat white meats but to avoid cereals and meat at the same meal.

Finally, we got around to the tiffin. She said she would start it from the following week. I danced all the way back to the office.


The tiffin arrived… and brought with it our daily dose of lunchtime entertainment.

Work stopped in the department and colleagues pushed their tiffins aside to make way for The Amazing Tiffin Box. The air would be taut with greedy anticipation as I pulled out the wire frame with the four tiffins…

“Beetroot cutlets with mint chutney!!”

“Sprouts in tamarind sauce!”

“Tomatoes stuffed with american corn!”

“Steamed dumplings in peanut sauce!!”

Wasn’t health food supposed to be bland and boring, colleagues drooled enviously. If the creative rendition of ordinary vegetables and cereals whetted everyone’s appetite, the flavour had them in raptures. Quite a feat actually, when you consider the meager use of spices and the complete absence of oil, salt and sugar. (Lemon and tamarind replaced salt, jaggery substituted refined sugar.)

I thought I’d gotten used to their precision and attention to detail. Until they sent me Burmese Khao Suey one day! Now, Khao Suey is essentially noodles in a broth (non-veg mostly), served with a variety of garnishes. The Amazing Tiffin Box turned out the following…

Tiffin 1 - rice noodles
Tiffin 2 – broth(veg, of course)
Tiffin 3 – four different garnishes ranging from crushed peanuts to springs onions
Tiffin 4 – A flyer with a short history of Burmese Khau Suey, how to mix all the ingredients and the nutritional benefits of the meal.

Lunch wasn’t just lunch anymore. It was a culinary adventure! Once in every couple of weeks there’d be a printed leaflet tucked into the tiffin detailing the Centre’s philosophy on different foods - ‘Why Meat is not for us’, ‘Shake the salt habit’, ‘Soft drinks: hard on the body’. There was a detailed explanation too on the ‘water theory’. Since the diet recommended a good amount of juices, fresh fruit and vegetables which have over 70% water content, one didn’t need to drown ones insides with 16 glasses of water. (All of you, who swear by water therapy, take this with a pinch of organic salt substitute.)

I relished the food, of course. But more than that, I was floored by the passion which went into the preparation and presentation of the meal. Now, I could appreciate the song and dance over an interview. Because of the effort required, they couldn’t supply more than 200 tiffins at a time, and quite often there was a ‘waiting list’. (I was surprised at having missed that impediment!)

There was another quirk – no tiffin during the month of May. I’ve heard of two reasons. One, was an annual vacation cum rejuvenation for their entire staff and two, fresh food spoiled easily at the height of summer. From all that I’d come to know of Streehitavardhini Audyogik Sahakari Sansthan (that’s what I wrote on the cheque each month), it just seemed like the thing they’d do to uphold their standards.

The Amazing Tiffin Box satiated, entertained and restored me for over a year and a half. I stopped it six months ago for several reasons, prominent among them being, I didn’t want to get too used to a good thing. IBS has long been history, but I continue to follow the schedule and the broad guidelines.

On some days, when the food at the ‘Less Oily and Spicy’ counter in my office canteen is egregious (‘The sprouts are too hard’… ‘the vegetables are overcooked’… ‘what’s THAT in the rice’…) I think fondly of The Amazing Tiffin Box and wonder what delightful surprises it might have held...

P.S. For all you IBS-afflicted out here, hope you won't go by the info on this post. Try this instead.

Friday, September 03, 2004

The Amazing Tiffin Box II: The Interview

Continued from The Amazing Tiffin Box I: Save our Stomach

Look out for the ‘hand’, I was told.

My cab pulled up in front of the Congress office at Dadar, with a large mural of the party symbol. Adjacent to it, was a nondescript two-storey building with a tiny board over the entrance, ‘The Health Awareness Centre’.

I entered a small room, which led to a spiral staircase on the right and opened out into a large kitchen on the left. A dozen or more workers in smocks and caps were filling row after row of shiny tiffins. With anticipation mounting, I climbed the staircase.

The room at the top was bright and airy. There a few low tables and wicker stools arranged around them. Potted plants and wooden bookcases lined the walls. Pithy quotes on health also dotted the room. It didn’t seem like a formidable setting for an ‘interview’.

'Can I help you?',
a petite, bespectacled woman in a pink salwar, asked me.

'I'm here for the interview', I stammered.

She disappeared into another small room and came back with a 6-page form.

"Here fill this first", she said.

Either this was an endurance test or they were trying to dissuade me from getting the tiffin. Whatever the case, I decided they’d have to try harder. I sat down on a wicker stool and started filling the form, detailing my medical, mental and emotional history. A small ball of fear began forming in my afflicted gut. The thoroughness of the investigation made me suspect that I was in for a major overhaul.

I handed over the completed form to her. She looked at the form and then peered at me over her glasses, ‘So tell me, what’s the problem?’

That was my cue to spew. Two years worth of gut-wrenching tales poured out.

She nodded grimly and said, ‘Hmm… I see the problem. But you’ve to be prepared for drastic changes.’

I nodded anxiously.

(A note before I proceed: The following stunts have been performed by an ahem.. expert. Please don’t try them without prior consultation with a nutritionist.)

'You eat a heavy breakfast?’,
she asked

I nodded.

'That's got to stop. Eat only fruits until noon.'

This went quite contrary to the ‘breakfast like a king’ idiom I’d grown up with, but I continued nodding.

'You consume milk and milk products?’, she continued

I nodded.

'That has to stop. Your body doesn’t need it and it interferes with your digestion.’

I’d dismissed lactose intolerance as a new age fad. In fact, I was sold on the ‘Doodh doodh’ commercial on TV. But she gave me a slew of reasons why milk was anathema.

'How much water do you drink?’
she asked

3-4 litres a day, I said, sure that this would earn me merit.

'It's too much. You don’t need more than 2-3 glasses.'

Now, this was too much for me. Everyone concurred when it came to water – that you could never get enough of it. For the first time I was being told it was straining my kidneys.

She systematically eliminated foods from my diet - non-veg, alcohol, sugar, foods with refined flour, oily food, even wheat products. I saw my social life wither with her injunction to eat dinner latest by 7.30.

What CAN I eat, I asked, feeling weak and malnourished.

Plenty, she said enthusiastically. All fruits, all vegetables, sprouts, dry fruits, juices, unpolished grain, green tea…

Whee! I thought cheerlessly.

She gave me a detailed explanation of the body’s functioning and how to maximise energy. She wrote down a chart of what I should eat and when. And she wrote down a long list of donts, underlining the key words, just in case I missed them.

I didn’t mind following this eccentric diet (she made very convincing points and I was too weak to protest.) But what worried me was the logistics of carting all those fruits, vegetables and dryfruit to work.

Suddenly, I remembered the real reason why I was here. The tiffin! I asked her when she’d start me on the tiffin.

She thought for a moment and said, 'Start this routine and I’ll check your improvement in two weeks time. Then, we’ll talk about the tiffin.’

I staggered out of The Health Awareness Centre clutching my diet chart and nutrition primer. Not getting the tiffin was bad enough. But now, all my ideas of nutrition were turned on their head. I didn’t think I could even drink a glass of water now without worrying about my kidneys.

That evening, I went and bought out the neighbourhood grocer. My mother shrieked when she saw the mountain of fruits and vegetable in the fridge. But I was determined.

Two weeks, she said. Let’s try this for two weeks then.

Part III – Despatches from Streehitavardhini Audyogik Sahakari Sansthan

Monday, August 30, 2004

The Amazing Tiffin Box I: Save Our Stomach

My 5-year stint in advertising left me with one unfortunate legacy – IBS.

For the uninitiated, IBS is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (although in my case it was Infuriated Bowel Syndrome). I won't get into stomach turning details but it was like having ones innards skewered and roasted over flaming coals. Stress, late nights and irregular mealtimes stoked the conflagration. Hell wasn't a myth. It was the hollow below my ribs.

Remedies were aplenty but they were as effective as dousing a forest fire with a pail of water. Still, I grasped at every straw. I drank water until it gurgled out of my ears. I ate high fibre and low carb foods. I took double helpings of boiled lady finger. I dabbled in Ayurveda. One week I tried remedies for pitha dosha, the next week, for kapha dosha… I drove waiters batty by dithering over a simple menu… I become a hypochondriac, a chronic worrier which only encouraged the IBS.

And then one day, I chanced upon the tiffin box.

At lunchtime, my colleague pulled out a grey metal tiffin box. It looked like any of the millions of tiffins that are supplied to offices all around Mumbai. But when she spread out the four steel boxes, I was captivated.

I've a bit of experience with tiffin providers. What is expansively called 'Salad' is one slice each of wilted tomato, cucumber and onion. Only potatoes and chickpeas qualify as 'Vegetable'. And the curries are so explosive, they leave burn marks on your ears.

"Have a bite," offered my colleague as I gazed goggle-eyed at her tiffin.

There were two salads – one with crunchy greens, the other with healthy sprouts. Wisps of aromatic steam curled lazily from the rice. And the gravy wasn't flaming red but mild ochre. My long-suffering stomach rumbled in delight. I helped myself to the proffered bite and demanded, 'Give me the number!'

I called up immediately after lunch.

Me: Hi, I'd like to order your tiffin.

Voice (starchly): We do not run a tiffin service. *click*

I turned to my colleague indignantly.

She smacked her head and said, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I should have told you. She doesn't usually send you the tiffin until you go for the interview.'

My stomach problems were affecting my hearing, I was certain. Did she just say interview?

"Yes, interview," continued my colleague, 'she's into this nutrition thing and takes it all very seriously.'

I was intrigued. Somebody actually had the gumption to call oh-so-busy office goers for an interview - for a tiffin box! Most tiffin providers threw in a free trial as an incentive. The person who ran this health outfit was either plain dotty or else, was supremely confident about her work. And that's exactly what I needed – someone who had answers. For once, hope rose instead of bile… I called once more and made an appointment for the ‘interview’.

Part II - The Interview

Sunday, August 22, 2004

In search of Prabal Fort

Many years ago, when in College, I'd gone on a monsoon trek. And the resulting trauma almost put me off trekking for life. To begin with, it was a night trek, my shoes were all wrong, my bag wasn't waterproof and my dinner was a sodden mess. The spare clothes were also soaked. And to make the ignominy more thorough, we lost the trail.

Faint memories of that fiasco stirred in my mind when I signed up for the trek to Prabalgad on Independence Day. Of course, I was a more experienced trekker now, but one didn't take a trek rated 'Difficult in the monsoons' lightly. What added to my nervousness was that two of my friends, both first time trekkers, had also signed up. In convincing them that it would be fun, I hoped I didn't make it sound like an easy amble.

But when we reached the base village of Poinje, just a few kms. off Panvel, and saw the lofty slopes smothered with every hue of green, and not a soul in sight, all concerns fled. 'Let's GO!' said 15 pairs of itchy feet.

Crash! My friend, S, stepped on a mossy patch and found herself nose to the ground. We hadn't even left the village.

'Watch your step, don't fall,' cautioned someone, in what proved to be the most useless bit of advice in the whole day.

We crossed the little hamlet and headed out into a wide expanse of green. It was 11 a.m. but the scowling, low-hanging cumulonimbus, created an end-of-day feeling. The peak of Prabalgad, shrouded in mist, seemed unbelievably distant. 2318 feet, said the guidebook. Of the fort itself, not much was known save the fact that the Great Maratha Warrior had wrested it from the Mughals in 1658. I couldn't wait to see the view from the fort ruins. I couldn't wait to have my head in the clouds.

We squelched through the moisture-soaked earth. Initially, I tried to avoid getting my shoes wet by stepping nimbly over stones. I gave up when I realized that the only way to keep them dry would be to walk on my hands. We waded through streams and bent low as we hacked through overgrown thickets. Crabs dozing in little puddles, scuttled away as fast as they could.

The rain swooped down on us intermittently; unqualified windcheaters offering little resistance. I couldn't even remember the last time I drank the rainwater streaming down my face. It was unbelievably pleasurable.

We started the steep climb to the second plateau. Although we were alone, the woods were far from silent. Birds chirruped, brooks gurgled, mosquitoes hummed, we grunted. The trail was all but washed away at places. And after climbing a particularly steep and slippery patch, we scrambled onto a flat, green expanse of land.

The view on almost every side was heartbreakingly beautiful. Peaks rose and fell, rose and fell in wide sweeping arcs. Prabalgad, Irshalgad, Kalvantini durg… all so much closer now. I was transfixed by the sight of billowing clouds racing towards an immutable peak and getting torn to shreds. The swirling mists created an effect of 'smoking mountains'. What time was it? The gray clouds gave no clues.

Somehow I’d always thought of gray as gloomy. But it seemed to bring out the rich green hues of the surrounding foliage so stunningly that I didn’t want the sky to be any other colour.

And then the perfect picture got marred.

‘We’ve taken the wrong trail. It will be another 3 hours to the fort,’
said the trek leader. ‘We have two options – continue or head towards the village’.

Sanity would have chosen the latter, considering there were far too many first timers and the trail was almost non-existent. But we were the ‘let’s-give-it-a-shot’ kinds. We started climbing. Correction, we started scrambling on all fours, gingerly treading our way. And we slipped and tripped like sozzled barflies.

We’d almost gotten ¾ of the way to the top, when a decision was taken not to go any further. We stopped for lunch at a waterfall and then started the precarious descent. More slipping and tripping.

I was disappointed at not having reached the peak. But S & P were exultant. ‘I’ve never done anything like this before’, said P. ‘I’m so glad I came along’, marveled S. And my spirits lifted a bit. Prabalgad could be conquered another day.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

What's worse?

An insight: People who carp and whine about life being full of problems have no real problems at all...

A couple of days ago, I visited my friend Ro. One of her twin boys, K, was just back from a week long stint in the ICU. In the last five months that they've been here, little K has been hospitalised almost every month for a variety of infections. During the last ICU spell, the hospital didn't permit parents to stay overnight. So when K was back home, he became a little insecure about being kept on the bed. He cried if he wasn't carried all the time. During the time I was there, his eyes were heavy with sleep, but he'd fight it off and keep an alert watch. He still had the remnants of a bad cold and his tiny frame heaved feebly as his lungs threw up copious amounts of phlegm.

'Poor boy is going through so much,' cooed Ro, stroking his curls. 'But you're going to get better, you're going to be a strrrrong boy,' she nodded and smiled at him. And K beamed in response, his eyes flashing.

She turned to me and said, 'We're so fortunate that he's mentally alert. At least we know he'll get better. We might have to do a couple of operation, but he'll be well for sure.'

I was astounded by her attitude as usual. And then she told me of the woman who's 3-year old son shared the ICU room with K. Chatting with her, Ro discovered that she had twin sons as well. But the child who was at home was stricken with cerebral palsy.

'I tried telling her that things would be ok,'
said Ro, 'but she shrugged and said that it was irreversible'.

'But would you believe it,' continued Ro animatedly, 'she was saying that she was fortunate that she lived in a joint family where everyone took turns to look after the palsy-afflicted boy. And then she started telling me of someone in a worse situation!'

Apparently this woman was expecting triplets. But the doctor's insistence on delivering the babies without a caesarean meant that one baby died at birth and both the surviving babies had cerebral palsy.

I wonder what this woman would have made of her situation. But I've reason to believe she would have considered herself fortunate because of someone who was worse...

An Insight (contd.): People who carp and whine about life being full of problems have no real problems at all. People with the real problems are busy counting their blessings.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Do-it-yourself guide to card making

It took a handmade card from D to remind me of what I'd been missing.

I had griped some months ago about the vanishing tribe of greeting cards. Of how phone calls, emails, e-cards and sms had replaced the once-cherished cards. I had proclaimed loftily then that I would revive this almost extinct tradition. But sometime early this year, my resolution fell by the wayside. Birthdays came and went with guilty reminders, but I just couldn't summon the enthusiasm...

... until D's card arrived in the mail.

It reminded me of the cards I used to make - a picture from a magazine stuck on a square of card paper, a few words rendered in calligraphy and a little decoration. Considering D had made it a month ago and posted it early to ensure it reached me in time, it made me feel inordinately good. So when my birthday calendar reminded me of two very close girl friends' birthdays, I decided to get back into the act.

First, I pulled out the 'magic box' - a cardboard box crammed with cuttings from newspapers and magazines, culled over 12 years. Sifting through 3000 pictures can be a bit cumbersome, so pictures have been sorted under various heads - guys, girls, children, couples, abstract, toons and so on. I pulled out the 'girls' section, started thumbing through it and waited for the magic to begin...

I don't know how it happens, but it's never failed this far. I think about the person, tick off the dominant qualities (or quirks) and even as I sift casually, my mind is uncommonly alert. Hmmm.... ohhhkay.... maybe.... nevvah.... BINGO! There is always a picture that's a dead ringer, a perfect match. For instance, I had a friend from Delhi who jocularly referred to South Indians as 'nariyals' (coconuts), which irked me no end. Incredibly, she married a South Indian. My magic box threw up a picture of a coconut seller with a raised sickle, ostensibly to thwack a coconut but for some reason his gaze was fixed steadily on the neck of woman at his stall, who looked distinctly Northie! The Nariyals strike back, I wrote.

Coming up with ideas for ads is a struggle in comparison.

Back to the cards, I found the pictures I was looking for, and started tossing around words to accompany them. Meanwhile, I started on the next task - choosing the right paper. No tacky chart paper will do. Hand made cards need hand made paper. The thick roll from Chimanlal's tumbles out. And with it the age-old dilemma... Use it? Hoard it? I can't help getting rather attached to the blood red Moonrock and pink Pigskin, silk fibre cream and petal pressed ecru, ridged sunshine yellow and gold-flecked turquoise. I once had a sheet with coriander leaves pressed into it and it broke my heart to use it.

I selected the matching paper with a sigh and started cutting it up. The room looked like it had been hit by a hurricane, but my mind was still incredibly focussed.

Picture and paper selected, I headed for the stationery drawer. Here's where my true obsession reveals itself. Water colours, photo colours, brush markers, gel pens, blow pens, calligraphy nibs, chisel nib markers, oil paint crayons, water colour pencils, stencils - I run a mini-stationery store. Truth be told, I've been shortchanged in the drawing department. So to counter my meagre artistic skills, I muster up all kinds of stationery resources and a little calligraphy to make the cards presentable. It's worked this far.

A card is incomplete without an envelope. So out came the envelope box with recyclable envelopes of every shape, size and hue. If a card refuses to fit into any of the existing ones, a little snipping achieves the task, or else a new envelope is made. The little strips of leftover paper are used to add colour to old envelopes and cover up post marks.

Why don't you get into the greeting card business, friends and relatives have asked? I've considered that option but somehow it doesn't appeal. The thrill comes from creating a card that is an accurate reflection of the person. And for that, I need to know the person. 'One size fits all', just won't work.

Because the entire process is time consuming, cards have to planned and made well in advance. Quite often it doesn't happen, but when the muse knocks, ideas fly fast and thick. And everyone gets a card - the boss, colleagues, Alison, even the dentist.

Do the recipients hang on to the cards, I've often wondered wistfully, or is it just tossed away after the special day has passed. A chance conversation with Ro (another personalised card-maker) reassured me a bit. 'I have every single hand made card I've ever received', she said.

Coming back to the two cards I started out with, I found myself sealing 9 envelopes. I'd been oblivious to life around for 4 hours. My fingers were sticky and paint splattered, the room was in a mess, mum was in a tizzy... but there was a warm glow of satisfaction. And anticipation.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Last year...

- Trekked 17,500 feet in the Himalayas

- Did the bungee jump – 180 feet

- Ran the Half-Marathon - 21 kms

- Won an Indian advertising award

- Was nominated for an international advertising award

- Got the biggest raise ever

- Started a blog

- Made friends-for-life through blogging (some of who I haven’t met yet)

- Got 5 articles published

- Got written about in a newspaper (Page 3 ;-)

- Did Vipassana

- Found answers finally…

… 30, here I come!

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Two for the road…

Over the years I've used several euphemisms for the Bombay Curse. 'Reading time', 'thinking time', 'nap time' – I've called it. But there's no escaping the tedium of the daily commute. On most days I stoically submit to the three-hour bedlam, but on two occasions last week, I was almost grateful for it.

Episode 1: Taxi Philosophy
Time: 9:00 p.m.

A steady drizzle pounded the pavement. I made a dash for the solitary taxi parked close to the office entrance. When he heard my destination was the nearby railway station, he disdainfully waved me away. I was about to mutter darkly when impatient honking interrupted me.

Another taxi had appeared and the driver was craning out of the window, beckoning me. Half-expecting to be refused, I belligerently called out the destination. He nodded and turned the meter.

His uncharacteristic willingness already had me on the back foot. And then his next statement knocked me over.

"Insaan apni maut nahin chun sakta, to savari kyon chunta hai?"
(A person can't choose his own death, so why get choosy with passengers?)

Coming from a Mumbai cabbie – a species known for their hauteur – that was profound. I checked for signs of inebriation, but he seemed sober. If anything, he was lost in thought as he negotiated the traffic.

"Madam, Bharat ki aabadi kitni hogi?"
(What's the population of India?)

I had barely recovered from the previous statement.… 1 billion, I blurted.

"Billion matlab? Mujhe karod samajh mein aata hai."
(What does billion mean? I can understand crores.)

I wrestled with the numbers a bit and then said, 'Billion matlab sau crore'.

"Aur Amreeka ki aabadi kitni hogi?"
(And what's the population of America?)

I felt like an unprepared contestant at Mastermind.

"Tees karod," I bluffed confidently.

He mulled about this for some time, while I braced myself for the next salvo.

“Sirf tees karod? Wahan ki gaurment har aadmi ki acchi dekhbal karti hogi, na?”
(Only 30 crores? The government must be taking good care of the people, mustn't it?)

And then having worked it all out, turned around and triumphantly told me, "Aabadi his sabse badi majhboori hai, madam."(Population is the greatest disadvantage.)

I was expecting a rambling debate on politics, but his simplistic deduction was beguiling. I couldn't help smiling. The conversation would've been interesting if I didn't have to alight just then.

I was pulling out the change, when he started honking again. A couple with a sleeping child had just been waved away by another fickle cabbie. He beckoned them. Without waiting to hear the destination, he turned his meter.

Episode 2: Auto Philanthropy

Time: 1:00 a.m.

I was headed home from a dinner that had gone on a little too late. We were passing a deserted stretch when I noticed the auto driver peering at me in the rear view mirror. I've done a few late nights in advertising to know how to handle creepy drivers. I stared back coldly.

He anxiously asked, 'Madam, time kya hua?'

Without taking my eye off him, I told him it was one in the morning. There were icicles hanging on every syllable.

He looked almost relieved, "Mujhe do bajhe tak vapas ana hai. Mera kutta biscuit khane aayega."(I've to return by two a.m. My dog will come for his biscuit.)

Was this some sort of code, I wondered?

I didn't have to speculate for long. He happily told me. He usually parked his vehicle outside the colony, from where I had got on. At 2 a.m., he'd make his way to the tea stall and when he returned, he'd unfailingly find the driver's seat occupied by a stray dog!

No amount of prodding dislodged the dog. Finally, he'd pull out the biscuit bought at the tea stall. The dog would climb down onto the floor of the auto, munch on the biscuit and then go off to sleep. The driver would squeeze into the back seat.

What happens if you get a passenger and can't return in the night, I asked?

He smiled, “Woh mere liye subah tak rukega. Isliye main wapas aane ki dekhta hoon.”
(He waits for me until the morning. So I make sure I return.)

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Allez, Lance, Allez!

‘Since when have you been interested in sports?’ asked my dad, surprised, as I beat him to the newspaper today and turned to the last page.

For someone who professes zero interest in any sport, I’ve been scanning the sports pages with an uncharacteristic zeal lately. The reason: Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who’s racing to an unprecedented 6th consecutive win in the most arduous sporting event in the world - the Tour de France.

I’d heard of Lance Armstrong fleetingly as a cancer survivor-turned-Tour winner. But it was only when I recently read his biography that I understood just what cancer survivor meant.

Oddly enough, his book is titled, ‘It’s Not About The Bike’. I say odd because his life story reads exactly like a bike ride on the Alps – tortuous uphills, heart-stopping downhills, insane hairpin bends and blinding pain.

Born on the wrong side of the tracks and raised by a single parent, Lance fortuitously discovered a talent on the bike. He raced out of a life of mediocrity and into the elite corps of cycling. In 1996, at age 24, he was the number one ranked cyclist in the world. He had everything – a dazzling career, a lucrative contract, a spanking new home. And then cancer knocked.

For Lance, life didn’t come to a standstill, it catapulted downhill. One day he was diagnosed with testicular cancer with metastasis to the lungs, and the next day he was in surgery to remove his testicle; a week later, the cancer had invaded his brain. He had less than 50% chance of surviving. Could life get worse? Apparently, yes. He discovered too late that he had no health insurance. And his key sponsor, Cofidis, was sidling towards the exit.

Even if he did survive chemotheraphy, there was every chance that he would never cycle again. And if Lance Armstrong wasn’t a world class cyclist, who was he? He writes, ‘I was brought low; this disease would force me to ask more of myself as a person than I ever had before.’

4 cycles of chemotherapy decimated the cancer, poisoned his blood and changed him irrevocably. “Getting cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he writes. It not only made him more appreciative of life, but also motivated him to start the Lance Armstrong Foundation for cancer research and awareness.

Now, many people survive cancer, god be praised. But not one among them goes on to participate and win the world’s most gruelling test of human endurance - the Tour de France.

Initiated in 1903, the Tour de France covers 2,110 miles. That’s 21 days of cycling covering the circumference of France, mountains included, in the heat of summer. ‘It’s a contest in purposeless suffering’, he writes, ‘But it may be the most gallant athletic endeavor in the world.’

And here is what his statistics read like:

'93 - Did not finish
'94 - Did not finish
'95 - 36th
'96 - Did not finish
'97 - Did not enter
'98 - Did not enter
'99 - 1st
'00 - 1st
'01 - 1st
'02 - 1st
'03 - 1st

As today’s Times reports, ‘… only a disaster in the last stage could stop the American… from sealing his record sixth Tour de France victory.’ He’s won three consecutive stages this year, excluding the penultimate stage win. And he has an impressive 4 minute, 9 second lead over his nearest rival. In short, he’s coasting to victory.

But here’s the part of his story that I found most interesting. When he was declared clean of cancer, he didn’t just throw off his catheter, jump onto his bike and ride into Tour legend. For one long, painful year, he battled something more confounding than cancer and chemotherapy – survivorship. ‘In an odd way, having cancer was easier than recovery – atleast in chemo I was doing something, instead of just waiting for it to come back,’ he writes.

After surviving cancer, riding a bike seemed so trivial. He’d have nightmares about cancer returning, he’d get overtaken by old ladies riding on a bicycle. When he finally pulled himself together and announced his return, sponsors didn’t fall over themselves to sign him. And after a punishing training schedule, when he started winning races, critics accused him of taking drugs. But despite being the most tested athlete in the world, he’s never failed a dope test.

It’s true, however, that Lance has an unfair advantage over his rivals. His heart is almost a third larger than that of an average man. His muscles produce less lactic acid. His VO2 Max levels (the maximum amount of oxygen the lungs consume during exercise) are twice as much as a healthy man. But what gives him the edge is his extreme commitment to the sport. When his rivals take a break in winter, he rides alone in the sleet and gale-force winds. His trainers have to beg him to take a day off. In an interview he talks about his schedule, ‘People ask me what are you doing on Christmas Day? What are you doing on January 1st? Riding your bike? Absolutely.’ When asked whether it was necessary to adhere so rigidly to his training schedules he counters, “Depends whether you want to win. I do.’

I hope you do too, Lance.

Update: Vive la Lance! Six time winner of the Tour de France!

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Water way to spend a Sunday!

Imagine walking backwards on a slippery, slimy, moss covered rock. Even as you take a few steps, a thick jet of water hits you square in the face. Now, imagine the rocky patch you’re ‘walking’ on is at an angle of 90 degrees…

This could give you some idea about ‘waterfall rappelling’!

It was Adventure Sunday. And 14 of us were seated at the base of a 55-foot waterfall at Karjat. The fall split into two torrents, thrashed down the mountain and then relaxed in a little pool, before streaming down between the trees. The resulting din drowned out every other sound.

We gazed at the waterfall, spellbound, and peered a little nervously at the thin, white rope which hung over one of the falls. “That rope can take up to 1400 kgs,” said J, astutely reading our skepticism.

Now, I’ve rappelled before. It’s exhilarating but not especially difficult or even as strenuous as say, rock climbing. Essentially you’re fitted with two ropes – a rappelling rope, by which you lower yourself down, and a belay rope which is controlled by a ‘belayer’ at the top. The latter ensures that even if you lose your footing, you don’t hurtle down the mountain.

The waterfall, however, added a thrilling element to conventional rappelling. The all-familiar anticipation built up as I strapped on my helmet and harness.

I started tentatively, trying to remember all of J’s instructions. The slimy moss tickled my bare feet and I clenched my toes to get a grip. I descended, one tiny step at a time, gripping the rope so tight, my fingers cramped. Suddenly, a powerful spray caught me smack in the face. The freezing, pelting water erased all instructions. I gasped, my foot slipped, I let go of the rope and crashed into the rock.

Thud! Glub glub glub…

The belay rope held while the water hammered hard on my helmet. I regained my footing and continued, wetter and wiser.

Rappelling works best when you work against your instinct. The normal tendency is to crouch, and stay close to the rock. But it was only when I straightened my knees, and leaned back until I was almost perpendicular to the rock, that I could balance myself. The rope swung to the left because of the force of the water, but I stayed on course, maneuvering myself to the bottom. The group cheered enthusiastically.

‘Good?” asked J smiling.

"Just warmed up…" I replied, shivering.

The weather which had been sunny and cloudy this far, suddenly changed. The heavens opened up and a misty breeze set our teeth chattering. One of the girls, a chronic asthmatic, began feeling a little breathless. 6 people whipped out their inhalers! I was surprised. An ex-asthmatic myself, I had a morbid fear of getting drenched. But these intrepid, foolhardy souls convinced me that I was at the Convention of Suicidal Asthmatics.

After lunch, we tried the second, more powerful waterfall. This time I felt more confident.

“Don’t look below or at the rope. Focus on your feet,” directed J.

I dutifully looked at my feet and almost leaped off the cliff! My feet had dislodged a colony of tiny black worms, and they were now clinging to my feet.

“Eeeeooowwwaaaaaargh!” I screamed and shook one foot violently, and then the other.

J got a little worried seeing my frenzied dance on the cliff edge. “They won’t do anything to you,” he insisted. Heck, they were doing plenty just by being on my feet!

I was stuck between a rock and a squishy place.

I still don’t know how I overcame my squeamishness, but with gritted teeth and bitter curses, I started rappelling. The surging torrent washed away the critters (and probably carried some into my mouth! Ack!) The spray stung at first and then felt like a ton of bricks. I had to turn my face away in order to breathe. But this time, I got the rhythm. My toes found footholds, I leaned back into the harness and fed just the right amount of rope to maintain balance. It was exhilarating and disappointing to reach the bottom.

A third ride down the fall and I just about had my fill. I leaned back against a rock in my soggy clothes and actually fell asleep. Mountains and dense greenery obscured the view on all four sides.

It was my friend B’s first tryst with the outdoors. She sported bruised knuckles, grazed knees and sunburned cheeks as she came up to where I was dozing.

“Leela, I feel like quitting my job and doing this for the rest of my life,” she whispered, her eyes shining.

Ah, I thought, another one bites the dust.

Friday, July 16, 2004

You've got spam

I will be forever grateful to the malfunctioning junk mail filter on my account.

Had it been operational, I would have lost out on some invaluable insights, perhaps even a lucrative career opportunity. (Thankfully, serendipity whacks me on the noggin from time to time.)

It used to be an unerring ritual. Log onto, gasp at the counter which said 42 new messages, gleefully welcome the sudden surge in popularity… only to discover one bounced mail, one forwarded mail which I’d first read in 1998 and 40 junk mails!

Naturally, I said some uncharitable things about spammers and their offspring, which I now regret. I also wish I hadn’t been so hasty in filing them in the Trash folder.

Spammers, my ‘research’ has shown, have an astute awareness of human psychology. Far from the faceless, joyless intruders they’re made out to be, spammers are in fact a professional, helpful lot with a lively sense of humour. My research also negates the notion that spamming is a random, ridiculous activity. There is clearly a method, which few people have cared to observe.

I’m now thinking of publishing my penetrating insights in a slim volume titled, ‘Everything I know about advertising, I could have learned through Spam Mail.’

Here is a sampling of it...

Rules for Effective Spamming:

1. Always follow the golden rule of marketing: Offer a product or service that a consumer REALLY wants…

Insanely cheap, Original Software!
(‘800 WORLD BESTu softwarec with 90%t discountm’) (sic)

Instant University Degrees!
(‘All certs are genuine & real which it can be found in University record.’)

Drugs which promise an impossibly upbeat sex life
(‘Do you want to pleasure your partner every time?’)

2. An unusual name is more likely to grab attention…

Try names like…

Unseeing V. Nosebleed.

Endeavors J. Humiliate

Numbers Meeks

2.1 Sometimes, the name can also give a clue about the contents…

Rod Small

Johny Ronni

Lisa Gay

3. Once you've got a winning name, you need a winning subject title.

The golden rule here is – Personalise…

"Leela, do you need medication?'


“What r u up to these days?”

It helps sometimes to express urgency…

“Please come…”

Or willingness…

“I can watch”

A simple message can be livened up with the use of emoticons

Best offer of this year ;-)

Remember, humour lowers the barrier between you and your audience, and makes them more receptive to your message…

Are you satisfied with the smallness of your johnson?

Grow a thicker pecker

Small Small Little Dikky?? lol Granola

4. When it comes to content, make your message pithy and compelling, with a call to action

no degree = no job = no money
get an instant university degree = higher salary
no required tests, classes, books, or interviews!

5. Give your prospective customer more than he/she expects.

One way to do this is pepper your incredible offer with platitudes and thought-provoking quotes…

800 WORLD BESTu softwarec with 90%t discountm

Light, God's eldest daughter, is a principal beauty in a building.

Babies haven't any hair, Old men's heads are just as bare, between the cradle and the grave lie a haircut and a shave

6. Turn spell check and grammar check OFF. When in doubt between using a comma and a colon, use both…

Please spend few momentsa of yours preciousl time to check our offerq- it is more than worthu it!

Pleaise followl here nowe!

Get a bu"lky p:0l'e ; vdeenujwfhplb

Help relieve your inexpen;sive '; creavwo

7. Sign off warmly…

Hope my little tips help you out.

I hope we can get in touch. I am usually online.
-kisses, Rachael

Perhaps there’s a future in spam mail consultancy for me. I could tour with the book, do book readings… Maybe even convince those two blokes to do a ‘Chicken Soup for the Spammer’s Soul’. Spammers have for long battled feelings of rejection and low self esteem. This could be an opportunity for me to give back to the spamming community who’ve so generously given me more than I could ever have asked for.

Spammers of my account, ho’pe my l1ttle t.ips he>lp u o,ut ;-)

Friday, July 09, 2004

Zen and the ken of dental maintenance

What’s the best part about dental surgery?

As of now, I can’t think of a reason. But this much I can say, a bi-cortical surgical implant isn’t as bad as it sounds. After 5 injections, you don’t feel a thing. The malevolent, gleaming steel implements hold no terror. The snarling drill doesn’t give you the heebie-jeebies.

I’m inexplicably detached as the dentist asks her assistant for a blade. And I can tell my gums are being sliced open only by the movement of her hand and the slight tugs I feel. John Denver is crooning, ‘Sweet Surrender’ in the background. The lime green and white interiors of the clinic are remarkably calming.

We both gaze at my Orthopantomogram (the full mouth X-ray). It grins back eerily.

“We’ll drill all the way up into the bone and then we’ll place the screw there,” she says. I nod matter-of-factly.

For someone who’s fastidious about brushing and flossing and bi-annual clean ups for years but is still regularly trounced by those vile bacteria, an unemotional standpoint is the best. Besides, the bi-cortical implant was a final attempt to correct the vestiges of an accident-prone childhood. A face-first encounter with a stone bench way back in school had left me minus a pearly white.

“Your bones are very good,”
she says.

So the mouth did turn out something good after all. But it seems a bit funny… A dentist complimenting you on your bones is much like a neurologist admiring your kidneys or a proctologist raving about your complexion. I try to smile but the probe sticking out of my jaw gets in the way.

A titanium screw is reverently brought forth by the assistant. It’s fitted in the newly excavated good bone. Silver, acrylic and now titanium… Must admit, I feel a little cyborg-ish. Part human, part metal.

I forbade my tongue to find out what the mangled upper jaw feels like. But when the dentist offers me the mirror, I take it. It not as bad as I visualized. The titanium screw glints and the black sutures have successfully stemmed the bleeding. I wonder what it will feel like when the anesthetic wears off…

“Avoid solid food or anything that will cause pressure on your teeth today,” she says.

“Does that mean I can’t crack open beer bottles,” I joke. Only it doesn’t sound funny. With a numb jaw and a lip hanging lower on one side, all that emerges is a slurry sough, ‘wuff wuff wiffle wiffle weff weff’.

She prescribes painkillers and other antibiotics. And then tries to ease things by cheerily announcing, ‘You can have as much ice-cream and milk shakes as you want.’ She waits for my eyes to light up. When they don’t, she looks bemused.

‘Wiff wiff..,’
I try to explain, ‘I don’t like ice-creams or milkshakes.’

‘But you must have it,’ she persists. ‘You need to eat cold foods.’

When icecream and milkshakes get listed below Combiflam and Novoclox on the prescription, then you know that a little cheer has just left the world.

But the good patient (with good bones) that I am, I stop off at McDonald’s on the way home and place my order. I slurp the softie and toss away the cone before beginning on the milkshake. Doctor’s orders…

Update: Guess who's sporting the sultry, sought-after, bee-stung pout this morning? Move over Naomi Campbell and Angelina Jo-lee!

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Just for the record

A degree in Psychology, a few years in a career which attempts to understand and influence consumer behaviour… and yet the question bamboozles me, ‘Why do people behave the way they do?’

There I was, setting my parents teeth on edge by zapping channels furiously when I came across the odd sight.

A woman was standing on a dais, a look of intense concentration on her face, even as her jaw moved up and down like a piston. Then, she opened her mouth and pulled out a glistening, pink gobbet of bubble gum. Crickey, I shuddered, hope it’s not a bubblegum chewing relay. It wasn’t.

She flattened the squelchy blob and covered her nose with it, patting it down securely. Then, she started blowing a bubble through her nose. The compere, who I previously hadn’t noticed, was giddy with excitement, ‘… will Elaine set the record today?! Will she enter the book of records?!...’

I watched gobsmacked as the bubble grew… and grew… and grew. ‘It’s bigger than her head!!!,’ screeched the compere. If it bursts now, she’ll surely need plastic surgery, I thought. And a wig as well. The twin heads – one auburn, one pink – bobbed uncertainly until the attendant recorded the dimensions of the latter. ‘She’s done it! A new record!!’ babbled the now-delirious compere. Elaine beamed and bowed like she’d just been handed the Olympic gold.

Bubblegum Nose Blow?!
I understand the deep driving impulse to be different, to make a name, to grab whatever chance at fame. (Refer my transformation into an Enrique groupie!) But had we run out of record-defying categories already? Had we stretched all the bounds of cycling backwards, eating glass, pulling cars with teeth and baking largest cakes? And how does one come up with an idea like Bubblegum Nose Blow? Does one maintain a training schedule? What happens when a neighbour walks in on your practice session? And seriously, what NEXT?

The answer was revealed after the commercial break.

A couple stood on the dais this time. Uh-oh, I thought. The woman placed a deflated balloon between her lips. When the manic compere gave the signal, the guy clamped his mouth on the woman's nose and blew hard. The limp balloon swelled up. What looked like a revolting mating ritual was in effect the ‘Tandem Balloon Nose Blow’. When the balloon had been stretched to the limit, the attendant with calipers took the measurements. <“46 inches”, hollered the compere. The couple hugged breathlessly, assured of their place in history.

A few years from now, I foresee their son getting into a game of one-upmanship with the neighbour’s kid.

Neighbour’s kid: ‘My dad can hold his breath underwater for 10 minutes.’

Couple’s son (sneering): ‘Is that all? My dad can blow a balloon through my mother’s nose!’