A Lakhnavi walks into a bar…

Bartender: What would you like to drink?
Lakhnavi: Thank you for asking, sir. I’ll drink whatever you have yourself.
Bartender: Thanks, but I’m serving at the bar. I can’t drink while I’m working.
Lakhnavi: Then I’ll wait until you get done to have my first sip.
Bartender: My shift doesn’t end until after midnight!

So, the Lakhnavi waits patiently until after midnight for the bartender to get off duty to buy him his first drink. He finishes his drink, they have a few more together, and then he heads home. He has a hard time waking up the next morning and is late for work.

He enters the building where his office is located, nods with a flourish at the security guard and heads for the elevator (or what is known in the homeland as a lift). Since no one else is around when he arrives he pushes the “up” bottom and enters the elevator. Unfortunately, other employees start to enter the building at random intervals just after he enters it. The Lakhnavi patiently holds the door of the elevator open as one by one, other tardy employees enter. He asks the employees what floors they need and pushes the buttons graciously. Since no one asks for the floor he wants, the poor fellow goes to the top of the building where employees are waiting to go to the lower floors. He smiles again and pushes all the buttons for everyone.

On the bottom floor of the building another Lakhnavi enters and they both greet each other ostentatiously.

Lakhnavi 1: How do you do?
Lakhnavi 2: No, how do you do?
Lakhnavi 1: No, no… how do you do?
Lakhnavi 2: Your servant begs you respond: how do you do?

By this time, the elevator door has shut and neither has pushed any buttons so it goes back up to the top floor where another group of passengers embark. One of the passengers enters and pushes a button. Realizing that they are now horribly late for work, both Lakhnavis begin to panic. The elevator arrives at the fourth floor and everyone else disembarks.

Lakhnavi 1: After you sir…
Lakhnavi 2: No sir, I cannot exit before you.
Lakhnavi 1: You first, sir, your servant insists. Besides we are both late for work.
Lakhnavi 2: Sir, I cannot. But I do not wish this dark mark upon your flawless character. I will commit the grave offense of getting out of the elevator first, but only under the condition that you will grace your humble servant’s abode for a poor cup of brew which he has the impudence to call tea.
Lakhnavi 1: I acquiesce under the condition that you accept an audacious whim of your servant that you graciously leave the fragrance of your spirit in his dwelling too.

Both finally get out of the elevator and walk in opposite directions bowing to each other though neither actually works on the fourth floor.

That evening, the two Lakhnavis end up meeting again. After extended courtesies, the two men begin to discuss poetry, literature, and music. The topic of music strikes a proverbial chord among them and they soon find that both are accomplished musicians. Because neither will sing first, both start singing a jugalbandi.

Lakhnavi 1: Jhoom Barabar!
Lakhnavi 2: Jhoom..
Lakhnavi 1: Barabar
Lakhnavi 2: Jhoom

Both expert musicians continue their vocal calisthenics but neither is willing to break off the loop out of fear of insulting the other by ending the tarana abruptly. Dusk gives way to dawn. The two Lakhnavis can hardly speak but they continue to sing. Early in the morning the first Lakhnavi collapses out of sheer exhaustion and is whisked away to the hospital. Later the other Lakhnavi comes to meet his friend there.

Lakhnavi 2: I regret from the core of my being that this misfortune occurred in my lowly presence. Sir, how you do you feel now?
Lakhnavi 1: Barabar.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

Why does Paul Theroux hate India?

Probably because he wants to sell a lot of books.

I just finished reading The Elephanta Suite, a book comprised of three long stories – “Monkey Hill”, “The Elephant God”, and “The Gateway of India”. On the surface, the stories deal with Americans transported to India who find themselves in complex situations. Unfortunately, these are not stories which shed light on the transplanted characters or the situations into which they are thrust as much as these are vehicles from which the author repeatedly launches a hate-filled polemic. A passage from “Monkey Hill” demonstrates the ferocious tone which Theroux employs ad nauseum:

The miracle…was that India was not a country but a creature, like a monstrous body crawling  with smaller creatures pestilential with people – a big, horrific being, sometimes angry and loud, sometimes passive and stinking, always hostile, even dangerous.

And in a passage in “The Elephant God” almost two hundred pages later.

The smells of India still terrified her. From a distance, India was splendor, up close, misery.

It is a view that permeates Theroux’s other works as well. In A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, a novel displaying a woeful ignorance of crime, characterization, and not in the least, Calcutta:

“…Anyone who has not learned to hate India has not spent enough time here.”

As one would expect, Theroux is not widely read in India. He seems to be held in higher esteem among literary critics elsewhere. Pico Iyer, an author who I admire reviewed The Elephanta Suite for Time magazine:

Theroux’s strength as a writer and a traveler has always come from his readiness to say and do what few of us would admit to, and it’s a safe bet that these gleefully impenitent stories will not be promoted by the American Chamber of Commerce or the Indian Ministry of Tourism. Monkeys are likened to humans in the first sentence of the book, and in one story the only sympathetic creature is a murderous elephant. Pieties old and new are shot down with every politically incorrect maneuver.
The ability to be a jerk and say something shocking might make one an expert judge on a reality television show: it doesn’t necessarily make one a compelling writer. Perhaps, Iyer and I have not read the same books or seen the same films. I’ve read quite a few of “gleefully impenitent stories” depicting natives as Oriental savages with no redeeming qualities and colonials as civilizing influences. At least E.M. Forster was charming in his inaccurate portrayals of Indians and colonialists. Having read Theroux, I find him to be nothing more than the literary successor to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

A bargain

On my way back from work, I grabbed the pile of uncollected envelopes and catalogs from the mailbox and headed inside. I quickly sorted through the mail, but one particular package buried inside the others stuck out. It was a small package approximately six inches by four inches with a colorful wrapper. I looked for a sender’s address but could find none on the envelope. The address matched mine, but had been sent to “Ms. Lonnie Paris or Current Resident”.

Lonnie Paris? Wasn’t that the name of former tenant? “Probably junk mail,” I thought to myself. But I also thought I had every right to take a look at this packet before discarding it. I was, after all, the current resident.

Printed on the bottom left corner of the envelope was the photograph of a couple. The dark-haired woman on the right must have been in her forties. She was wearing scarlet lipstick and her lips were parted slightly to reveal a row of pearly-white teeth. I could not make out what she was reading, but she was looking at the piece of paper in front of her with purpose. The man, who looked at least twenty years older, was peering through eyeglasses which were slightly tilted to the left, at the same piece of paper. His hair was completely grey and he had a much more grave expression on his face. He had sad, cloudy eyes and I noticed the furrows which the worn nose pads made on his sagging skin.

I looked at the text neatly printed above the couple. “Convenient Pre-Purchase. Be sure to see your Special Invitation enclosed.”

I casually tore the envelope open. A small brochure with a photograph depicting a forest in fall colors  dropped out and fell on the floor. I picked it up and started reading.

“Imagine the peace-of-mind from knowing that it’s all been taken care of! This is the wisdom of making arrangements before-need or as needs arise. Interest-free financing means you can make this meaningful purchase now. Pay in easy monthly installments and own the property that you’ve always wanted”

Property I always wanted? I turned the page and kept reading.

“We’re proud to present our introductory cemetery space pre-purchase program to those who deserve special treatment. Space is reserved only for customers like you who have prequalified.  And rest assured – our offer is backed by a 100% lifetime guarantee.”

Just above these words was a photograph of the same lady who was on the envelope. She was dressed in black.

“We don’t want you to miss out on limited-time offer and very soon one of our experienced representatives will visit you to help you make the right decision.”

I closed the brochure. As I was about to trash it, I noticed an additional offer on the back cover.

“Mention our brochure and receive a 15% discount on your purchase at Bed Bath and Beyond.”

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Wrathroom: the perils of the modern bathroom

A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine who had arrived in the American Midwest for the first time decided to freshen up by taking a shower in my bathroom. Minutes later, after he came out, I noticed that he was shivering like a skinny, wet cat. Puzzled, I asked him what was wrong. He responded that he had showered in cold water because he couldn’t figure out how to get the hot water turned on. At the moment, I was certainly taken aback because I thought getting water of the right temperature on in my bathroom was pretty straightforward. I was also mildly amused because this acquaintance was highly-educated and came from a well-to-do-family in India.

On further reflection, I’ll be the first to admit that figuring out how to use a bathroom with which you’re unfamiliar can be quite challenging.

It wasn’t always that way. The Romans with their spas at Bath and the Harappans with their intricate drainage systems were notable exceptions, but for the majority of human existence, bathrooms were essentially roofless and without walls. When nature called, it also invited. Even today, for many, lack of adequate sanitation is a medieval scourge afflicting a modern world.

For the longest time, however, no one had access to proper sanitation or any systematic knowledge of microbiology. That all changed in the 1800s, and the water closet owes a great deal to developments by Victorians such as Thomas Crapper. Quite soon, a bathroom which was part of the main section of the home became a norm all around the world.

That was fine. But since there were relatively few innovations which added to the functionality of washbasins, toilets, and bathing facilities, over time bathroom fittings started to evolve towards different perceived standards of aesthetics.

The results are a bewildering number of different devices doing only a handful of pretty basic jobs.

Because I travel quite a bit, I constantly find myself having to deal with many different kinds of contraptions. In hermetic hotel bathrooms, I’ve often had to push a knob, pull a lever, rotate a wheel (clockwise or counterclockwise), turn a dial, push a button, flip a switch, kick a latch, or tug a handle to get the water turned on in a shower. Passing through airports and rest-stops, I’ve come in contact with devices as diverse as water sprouts, gooseneck faucets, pipes sticking out of walls, and fountain nozzles pouring water at awkward angles into washbasins often shaped like bowls, fish, boats, crates or barrels.

Well, I don’t know what the experts think, but here is how I feel: I’m sure these bathrooms are gorgeous, but I can always go to a museum after using a functioning one. When I enter a bathroom, ten times out of ten I do so with the intention of using it. High art does not come to me.

I get the feeling that I may be in the minority these days.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Psyclone

After spending close to a week on St Thomas in the Caribbean, I came very close to the possibility of being stranded there for an indefinite period. At the small airport in Charlotte Amalie, a few hours before scheduled takeoff, tourists were camping out for the long-haul as airline staff announced over the public address system that one flight after another was being diverted to San Juan in Puerto Rico instead of attempting to land on the single runway. The culprit was Hurricane Otto which had formed over the Virgin Islands as my departure date approached, and it was pounding down with the vengeance of a chancellor of a German Empire.

The idea of being trapped in paradise suddenly seemed unpalatable.

Fortunately, the whiteout let up for a few minutes, which was sufficient time for the small propeller-driven plane to land. All the passengers were rapidly marshaled on to the tarmac and after boarding the aircraft in drill-worthy time, the plane whirred off towards the calmer skies prevailing over Puerto Rico.

Tragedy had been averted, but the entire episode had me thinking about hurricanes and cyclones. How the blazes do they ever get named?

Well, in the Atlantic Ocean, tropical storm and hurricane names are selected alphabetically in advance each year, alternating between female and male names. So, just before Otto, there was Nicole. Also because there are only six lists, the names rotate every six years. The only names that get retired are the ones which cause some really hardcore devastation. It kind reminded me of how in some sports, teams retire the roster numbers of really successful players.

There is a completely different naming scheme for cyclones originating in the North Indian Ocean with Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand contributing names to the all-star lineup. My guess is that India contributed Akash, Bijli, Jal, Lehar, Megh, Sagar, and Vayu. I’ve got no problems with these, although they’re kind of unoriginal. I mean doesn’t India use some of these names for the space program too?

The other countries don’t do much better either, I’m afraid (with notable exceptions like Chapala). Remember Sidr and Nargis from previous years? Well, coming up in a few years are Bulbul and Priya which sound like affectionate names for charming little girls.

Why can’t we name cyclones so that people take them seriously for the death and destruction they cause?

I mean why would I take any weather formation called Titli seriously? I’d think to myself, “It is probably only going to be a mild breeze with a few fluffy clouds and rainbows. I’ll just rent a DVD and order a pizza for delivery.”

It would be a completely different story if I heard about a cyclone named Kaali Maut (Black Death); by now, I’d be wrapping my lungi around my torso already halfway up a palm tree.

Photo credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project (public domain).

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

A non-review of NBC’s new sitcom “Outsourced”

The American television network channel NBC just started airing a television sitcom called Outsourced about a couple of Americans who move to India to run a call-center full of Indians selling novelty items to clients back home in America. I’ve watched the pilot episode and a few others since then.

As you know, I’m a desi. And from my perspective I’ve thought for while about writing a review about the sitcom. But I’d like to perform a simple experiment instead. Read the following sentences on racial and cultural stereotypes and think about them.

Indians don’t have any food. They are dirty. They defecate on the street.

Americans are unemployable. They are materialistic. They deal drugs on the street.

Some Indians and Americans certainly do fit these stereotypes. But definitely not all of them.

So do any of these stereotypes offend you? Are you indifferent to them? Do you just laugh off as ignorant nonsense?

Now look at the cartoon below which I created. You might find it funny as an Indian or as an American. Or as an Indian or as an American you might find it deeply offensive.

I do not know where you’re coming from. Perhaps, your job got shipped to India. Perhaps, you felt insulted when someone treated you differently because of the color of your skin. I am not saying it doesn’t happen. And I can definitely try to empathize with you either way regardless of your nationality or ethnicity.

I also understand your viewpoint if you laugh at others. I admire you if you can laugh at yourself.

But keep repeating the stereotypes you find funny now over and over again. Don’t you find them kind of annoying now? Like uninspired stupor masquerading as humorous banter?

That is my problem with Outsourced.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Paper still beats the Kindle in my book.

I stopped when I saw the title of the book – Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles. On the cover was the picture of a cow with long eyelashes and silver udders. But what finally sold me on it was the turban the cow was wearing. I quickly paid the two dollars penciled on the first page at the counter. I haven’t read the entire book yet, but the first page is pretty spicy.

Some of the other books I just picked up include George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops, David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable, a paperback edition of the classic “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman”, and Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions. I would have found them in digital format too. But some of the other out-of-print books that I had never even heard of I would not have picked up had I not gone to the used-book sale.

And that is why I still love print. I’m constantly reminded that general interest in printed books, journal, and magazines is eroding. I’ve seen the signs and I know it is true. Research libraries don’t buy scholarly journals in print anymore. Established newspapers and magazines struggle to stay afloat and those that do have to burn through cash to do so. This year Amazon sold more books on the Kindle than “real books” that it shipped out. Books cost money to produce, space to stock, and are heavy to carry around. But next time you have to power down your e-book reader on your flight, I’ll cozily turn the page on a cliffhanger in the seat across the aisle.

Used books have history. They have character. Even as a non-smoker I can appreciate the smokiness of the exquisitely-bound first edition of The Gentle Art of Smoking by Alfred H. Dunhill published in 1954 which I have on my shelf. I can flip the cover and read the short note penned with a flourish in cursive by Julie to “My Dearest John”.

These books have been places. Some of them give me as remarkable insight into the people who owned them before I did. Take for example this note which I found scribbled inside a used fifty-cent paperback of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Michelle,

I am really sorry for my evil ways. When I knew you I was an ass. When I didn’t know you, I was even more of an ass. You were always remarkable. Perhaps I could write that I am sorry that we met when we met. I just did. Okay.

Nevertheless, this book is great fun. Enjoy it !!

Inexplicably,

James.

James was such a cad! I hope he got what he deserved. And Michelle, I hope that you learned from your mistake.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban