Friday, January 22, 2010


A post written some time back that I didn't get around to publishing...

I've been engrossed in the news about Haiti. It is so terribly disturbing, devastating and catastrophic. The reports are so morbid it is hard to imagine that it is a reality for millions. The mass graves into which the bodies (disfigured and therefore unidentifiable) are dumped. The putrid smell in the air because of the rotting corpses that have not been retrievable. All the people who live in hope and fear of the news of their loved ones who are missing.

The so-called interpretations of this event by journalists has been shocking. So many have been blaming the Haitians for their problems - as though they chose to bring a natural disaster upon themselves. Yes, Haiti is the 43rd most poor country in the world. Yes, Haiti's government has been corrupt and inefficient. These factors do not make Haiti a likely culprit for natural disaster - they just make it a victim of unwarranted criticism, many times from a cultural viewpoint that is biased and self serving.

David Brooks' column
in the Times a few weeks back was appalling. It was shocking that such a piece was published in such a reputable paper. He tries to tackle the question of why aid doesn't help all countries - is it ineffective, and why? This is a highly discussed topic that deserves a great deal of scrutiny, because it is full of complications.

However, his answer to this question in the case of Haiti is that the country cannot utilize aid because its culture is inherently "progress resistant." The article is full of comparisons that are not analogous (an earthquake in a relatively unpopulated area of California vs an earthquake in the capital city of Haiti). It makes general statements about Haitians and their culture that are absurd and offensive - " [Haiti] suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized.Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10."

What? Firstly, how can an entire country's child rearing practices be summarized like that? Such blanket statements about individual responsibility again fall into horrendous stereotyping. This sounds like a typical White-man's assessment of a country where he created the mess. Many countries had a hand in Haiti's historical misfortune - Spain, France, Britain, Holland, and later on Germany and of course the United States. Importing hundreds of thousands of slaves from Africa and enslaving them under extremely brutal conditions. Where are these countries now when Haiti is in shambles?

Of course Haiti's history proceeds with much complication, many revolts, assassinations of leaders, and more. This post isn't even pretending to understand or examine all of that. It is just an expression of deep sympathy for a country that will need a tremendous effort to return to some semblance of equilibrium.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

"You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

This is something I fear sub-consciously. That split second moment that comes at the most unexpected time, turning everything upside down. And worse, what happens after that moment has passed.

Joan Didion's memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," is a deeply intimate account of her life after the sudden loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, while her daughter Quintana was already in the hospital for a bad case of pneumonia that turned into septic shock.

After visiting their daughter in the ICU, Didion and her husband come home, making plans and contemplating their daughter's health condition. Mid-sentence in conversation, Dunne has a fatal heart attack. Her life is changed forever.

This memoir is not about death, but what happens after to those who are still alive. Such a universal experience is still so mystifying in so many ways. She describes with great honesty her grieving process, the thoughts that occupy her head, the ways in which she tries to come to terms with death and remain sane.

Her language is so lucid and her sentences so chiseled that the impact of what she says comes across strongly. She goes through the events over and over, in her writing, as she would have in her mind. This repetition gives the reader a real feeling of her actual experience, her inner voice, and the way the mind works when it is dealing with tragedy.

Despite how it may seem, this book is not depressing. It is real, un-ornamented, straight, at times even witty. As a writer, Didion has chosen her strongest skill to help her mourn, and it is a powerful way of communicating and relating to all the others who feel alone when enduring personal loss.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Armrest Battles

Armrests, in public spaces, are a real test of aggression. Sometimes it's on buses, in movie theaters, or on airplanes - all these places require an unspoken battle and concession between the two potential occupants of the armrest.

I had two flights in the last two weeks, both of which pushed me to claim my armrest. It's pretty annoying when your neighbor "seems" to be sleeping and "accidentally" pushes your arm off. It's also frustrating to have to keep paying attention to the use of the space - if your neighbor takes his arm off for a brief second, you have to be quick to slide your arm right in there. Or, if you need to go to the bathroom - you are pretty much conceding that armrest till the next potential break.

So, why don't companies just make double armrests the norm and save us all this passive aggressive posturing? I've noticed it in Business or First Class, but the rest of us have to go elbow to elbow to claim our territory.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

This Is It

I saw this film today, with minimal expectations. I just needed some fresh air (well, not so much fresh as different from the air at my house), and impulsively decided to go to the matinee show. There were two of us in the entire theater.

I did a little bit of reading up on the movie before going, but not in-depth. I thought it was a documentary on MJ's life. It turned out to be a documentation of his final show, "This Is It," which would have been touring the world. Efforts were taken to document the making and preparation for the show - very behind the scenes.

I love behind the scenes type of footage (of people with talent, not brainless celebs), because I'm always curious to know what kind of work aesthetic these musicians have, what their approach to rehearsing is, how they interact with the other musicians or dancers. It reveals so much about a person.

I had goosebumps from the first scene, the moment the music started. Even though it was just a rehearsal, the energy was so electric and everybody was so involved with what they were doing. A choreographer in the movie said to the dancers, "The dancers are an extension of Michael." They were - it was like they were all limbs in this huge machine that was MJ.

The production itself was larger than life. Each song was a separate mini-film unto itself. It was so reflective of the consummate performer that MJ was, because he took on the persona required for each of his songs, leaving his super star identity to come only second to that. And he shifted with such ease between such different universes - the eerie grotesqueness of "Thriller" to the innocent, playfulness of "ABC, Easy as 123." As a vocalist, dancer, actor - he gave himself completely to derive the maximum emotion and effect out of each moment he was performing. He was such a master of theatrics and timing - his choice for dramatic pauses, musically and in the narrative, always added a punch that would make the audience go even more crazy. I did not realize this about him until I saw this film, and I was so touched.

He was shown as a perfectionist - demanding and relentless, without being clouded by ego. He encouraged and enjoyed the work of his fellow musicians - who were all in total awe of him.

I'm glad the film didn't go into any biographical background, because all MJ should be remembered for is his massive contribution to pop music. Unfortunately, controversy over his image and his personal life overshadowed all of his other accomplishments in the latter part of his life. It's a loss if that's all you can see in a person of such tremendous talent. This isn't it for MJ, because his legacy will continue to live forever.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Where have you gone my New York?

I am trying to soak New York in like a tourist. As though I have never been here before. With fresh eyes and alert ears and a perky nose that is allured by the smell of freshly baked peanut butter cookies and almond hamentasch. I had a lovely weekend last week that started on Friday night with a drinks-and-dinner reunion with my friends. I was so blissful and satisfied by the experience it freaked me out. To allow myself to feel happy. To be so happy that I could burst. It started with some wine and a snackies at a highly corporate bar attached to Grand Central, but we were too in our own world to be bothered by all the suits. Condensed re-caps of an entire year were exchanged, engagement rings oggled over, and at the end of it all it was like we picked up just where we left off.

We followed it up with a Mexican meal in our old college neighborhood, which was surreal. It was like the backdrop for a flashback in a movie featuring the same characters in the same kind of moments, except now they were a little older, and hopefully a little wiser. Just like college, we turned the occasion into a faux-birthday - thereby allowing us to indulge in free strawberry mousse cake and the delightful feeling of a Mexican waiter pouring pineapple flavored tequilla down our throats. Good times.

After a bit of this debauchery, I went to spend the night at my little brother's apartment. Even though I'm five years older than him, I'm starting to feel like the little sister. He lives in a posh sky scraping Manhattan building on the 19th floor, with a beautiful view that includes the Statue of Liberty. Although his style of living still has wonderful collegiate traces - his fridge only had a huge box of leftover pizza and his microwave housed a plate of food that was unregonizably solidified - I knew he had grown up a lot in the last year. He has a tough job, for which he leaves when it is dark in the morning and returns when it is dark at night. We lazed around his apartment, enjoyed his flat screen TV and all its on-demand features and whatnot before crashing out.

The next morning we were characteristically indecisive about where to go for brunch, and finally decided to go to Union Square and just walk around until we found something. I already knew a few restaurants that I liked in the area, but as we were walking around, we kept finding that so many had shut down and were plastered with "For Rent: Prime Retail" signs. And those restaurants that were still running were not even open (on a Saturday afternoon!) - the chairs were stacked on the tables and a feeling of gloom and reality was setting in. The recession has clearly taken its toll - and it's just the beginning. I know New York city and the country as a whole are resilient, but I have never seen it like this before. Not even after 9/11. I can't wait to see it back to its bubbling, pulsating, self.

Monday, February 9, 2009

and here we go again...

I love technology, most of the time. I love it right now, for instance, as I sit in the Bangalore (sorry, Bengalooru) Airport using their free Wifi to check my mail on my laptop (which hasn't happened in a few weeks). Sometimes it's overwhelming, that constant connectedness. I like quiet time - time when I can't be reached, time when I don't feel obligated to contact someone else, time to be with my thoughts. But right now, I like that I can be in this airport and almost forget that I am here.

Time and space completely perplex me. This morning, I was in Jayanagar 4th Block. Tomorrow afternoon, I will be with my Dad (yeah!) driving home on the Taconic Parkway to my home in our longtime baby blue Toyota Camry. It's not deep or unusual - people travel all the time. But when I sit back and think about it, I go through this whole "What the fuck?" moment. What does it all mean?? Nothing of course. It just means that we have airplanes.

It's ridiculous how humans are. The moment we have something, we want something else. The moment I left New York, I dreamed of exotic cheeses that I would miss and sinful pastries. And Mexican food. The moment I got to the airport today, I had this "anxiety craving" for things I wouldn't get for a couple of months. Alu buns. Samosas. Kachoris. So I promptly ordered a pav bhaji and salt lassi as though it were my last supper.

The more I get used to a bi-continental lifestyle, the more I feel grateful that I have several places to call my home. And by home, I mean places where I feel so incredibly welcome and at ease. Cities where I feel total control in getting around, knowing where to get what. The other day somebody in Bangalore asked me for directions and I gave them with confidence, like a local. Another day, I walked through a dense crowd of people just to buy a few samosas - normally I would have been deterred by the sight of the people. But I totally busted through (while talking on my cell phone, like a true Indian!) and ordered in Kannada and even had a small conversation. These little encounters are like mini triumphs for me and make me feel like this really is another home of mine too.

And now, off to my other home, wtih its bountiful clean air and snowstorms and my wonderful new President.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Moments of Inspiration

A lovely musical and dance improvsation by Pt Ajoy Chakraborty and Pt Birju Maharaj.