The Resolve of the Bombay Catholics and Miss Danie’s Easter Eggs

I joined work in the middle of Lent, and discovered that observant Catholics from Bombay and abouts go vegetarian for Lent. For all of it. I have known people to give up a particular favourite for Lent – a couple I once met told me they’d tried giving up sex, but gave in and conceived their first child instead – but I’ve never known a community to give up a defining chunk of their cuisine altogether.

I’m a little bit gobsmacked, actually. Being vegetarian is not really that big of a deal in India, because millions of Indians are born into faith-based vegetarian cultures and never taste animal protein. But to give up the good stuff when you know how delicious it is – now that takes some steel in the spine!

Still, Easter is almost here, that happy Sunday when all creatures big and small return to the Catholic kitchens, and in celebration, here are three pictures of the fabulous Easter eggs my lovely colleague Daniela Cardoz made for her family last year. See and envy her lucky family, people!

DaniEaster1

DaniEaster2

DaniEaster3

Indian Elections 2014: Close-up 2

Yesterday on the train, I heard a rehash of a recent Facebook conversation I’ve had. A group of people (mostly supporting Modi) bemoaned the decline of the nation since independence, the growth in corruption, the general rotting of the social and moral structures – the usual cheesy whine (if you forgive the lame pun). To the last person, they blamed politicians and the government for this, and agreed with each other that nothing good could ever come of India.

The people on my Facebook, bless them, have the long view of greater good, and hence they oppose the dictatorial politics of Narendra Modi. My co-passengers on the train were blinded by the irrational hope for a majoritarian government, that will put troublesome minorities in their place and enforce righteous discipline. But both groups missed the mark, in my opinion, because they both disowning the responsibility they had, as members of the voting public, in nurturing our poisonous, sectarian political climate. It is our susceptibility towards divisiveness, after all, that has trained our politicians to believe that on-record religion and ethnic talk and off-record violence is all they need to sail into office. And if we want a stronger India, we have to shake off our personal discomforts with difference, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us initially.

And honestly, despite a political system so rotten it stinks, I don’t personally think India is beyond hope. Quite the contrary, in fact (although I do have my moments of hopeless cynicism). But if we are to actually go beyond moaning on social media and thriving on the “likes” and “shares” our oh-so-politically-aware commentaries earn, we need to first drop the automatic, frothing-at-the-mouth defensiveness and admit straight up that our own prejudices and apathy got us into the mess we’re in. It got us the politicians we have, the scams we pay for, and the social policing we suffer. A thriving citizen’s media is a great thing, but active involvement in communities and local politics is the only way this country will actually develop (and by that I don’t mean sprout more shopping malls).

If we want a better future, we absolutely HAVE to take ownership of our past. So stop getting mad when someone says you’re part of the problem. Everyone in a failing society is part of the problem in some way or another. Own up to it, and then try to grow beyond it. A seed doesn’t burst into a tree in thin air. It needs the dark and dirty depths for a strong beginning. This election season, that’s probably a good analogy to bear in mind.

Going to Corporate School, I

I’m not exactly sure what it is that HR folks do, but the two pen-pushers at my new place of work have been after my fabulously productive and stunningly brilliant self for coming in ten minutes late on most days (and seventy minutes late one particular day).

This is a bit odd, since most everybody else – including one of these mindless watch-watchers – comes in about forty minutes late every day.

Missing the forest for the minutes hand.

So anyway, things came to a head day before, when they pulled me away from a deadline to tell me how awful it is that I come in a few minutes late, how utterly demoralising it is for the rest of the folks (I’d say, since they come in even later), and how this radiates “special privileges” for me, which they cannot in fair conscience grant. The HR head-honcho is an atrocious articulator, which means she took a good twelve minutes of my very precious time to make the points above, till I cut in gently and told her that her point was excellently made, and she needn’t belabour it further. But she decided to push her point one final time… and that is what kicked the matter up from “Mindless Irritant With Class-Monitor Hang-ups” to “Revolting Regressive Adult Needing Remedial Socialisation”.

Honcho-chick evidently believes that a little drama goes a long way in the disciplinary arts. So, she decided to depict visually and aurally how I sound when I ask for permission to come in late, and how this will start an office revolution like RIGHT NOW. (Just so you know, I have never actually asked her permission for anything, since I deal only with my supe and her boss the Creative Head. This meeting was the first time HR-honcho and I were first laying eyes on each other). She threw up her hands, twirled them about, and started blabbing excuses in a high-pitched, whiny voice. Hard to credit, but yes; a lady of respectable years, with the dried-up, pinched  look of a seasoned senior admin., decided that bottom-barrel panto was the best way to get her serious disciplinary point across.

While she dabbled in her performance, I tried very hard to rein in my shock and appallment. I am perfectly at home to caustic telling-offs, stern admonishments and friendly words of caution. What I find hard to accommodate are idiocy and crassness, and this person embodied the extremes of both, plus large dollops of irrationality. I mean, if you’re the damned human resources, it might just be part of your job to consider what effect you might have on company productivity by pulling out a productive new employee first thing in the morning, and treating her to a sordid theatre of your one-eyed clock-watching.

I cut her performance short by telling her firmly I was quite certain I did not sound like she wished I did, and that her acting was especially futile since it was, yet again, a grotesque repetition of points I had warned her was already well-made, and a waste of my limited work-time. Then I genially offered her the choice to propose my termination on grounds of ten minutes of lateness a month from now, and in the meanwhile, let me get on with my work. And then, thanking her warmly for her time, I left, glowing with revulsion and the satisfaction of toning down a bully.

But the encounter messed with my entire working day, unsettling my concentration and making me evaluate the fun work against the sly and idiotic monitoring paradigms. Never mind fairness or using appreciation instead of “we’re onto you!” telling-offs to boost productivity, if the HR department makes a valued employee want to leave within ten days of joining and enjoying the work, then they’re doing everything wrong, and need to be given the boot immediately.

In an attempt to be fair, someone suggested that HR might have been worried because I also took a day of medical leave – scheduled three days in advance and approved by my supe – to accommodate my bi-annual check-up. Right. So then the HR department, which is charged with handling a few hundred creative people (and not corporate flunkies), goes into crazy-eyed panic if a new and very productive employee comes in a little late every day (although earlier than many, and stays several hours after ending-time), and takes one day of medical leave. Well, I don’t see how it alters my suggestion, which is immediate dismissal, and a sympathetic suggestion for psychiatric aide.

Or, of course, they could carry on, enforcing a vampiric workplace which tries to cut its employees down to size by focusing exclusively on transgressions, and turning Heller Keller on everything else. Now, this will sadly lead to a dissatisfied workplace full of people who think of HR as cretins, and who shall, to cope with them, cut down extra hours and stick strictly to their “9-hour in office” policy, no matter how much work piles up. It’ll be very demoralising and depressing, but hell, even if our work suffers, we’ll be ticking the right boxes. Who knows, we might even win an award for punctuality. (And I’d personally recommend the HR person for a Certificate of Appreciation in amateur dramatics.) After all, isn’t that exactly what every person who sets up a company wants from his or her employees?

Sigh. Talk about breaking your own face to spite the tiny zit on your nose.

PS: Incidentally, while HR is very very concerned by my clock-in time, they still haven’t got around to giving me the papers they need to set up my salary account. It is the 23rd of the month. Just sayin’.

Friendship: The Joy of Stiffing the Bride Together

After all the weddings I couldn’t attend this January (and yes, dahlink newly-weds, I will collect my heap of fish-fries from you), it looked like February was going to step up and deliver the broke-via-gifting punch. Or so I thought, before I read my emails last night.

It so happens that a person I know socially has been invited to one of the same weddings as I have. We’ve not been invited as a group, but for reasons unknown, her mind sees us as one. I say “reasons unknown” because my invite is clearly made out to Mr. & Ms. N, and hers is made out to her family. This person wrote me an email last night, in which she said the following:

“Hi! So we’re going together? Pls let me know when you want to reach venue. OK, I had a request. Moving back to India has been very expensive and we’re still settling in. As you know, my father also fell ill and treatment was expensive. So I am going to request you to stay inside a gift-budget of Rs. X, because we cannot afford more“.

I stared at the email for a few seconds, then did a slow clockwise stock-taking of our little room (wall, canvas, rocking chair, books, backpack, partner, wall) and then looked back at the email, just to make sure we were all in the same reality. Did a person just email me and effectively ask me to stiff a newly-married couple – who are her friends! – just so her lack of an expensive gift wouldn’t stand out?

And here, a quick word about presents: I had a wedding not too long ago, and many people gave me many lovely things for it, so I think I’m qualified to speak on the subject. Many of my presents were quite expensive; but my favourite pieces were not necessarily the ones that cost the most. The little gold pendant and a pair of cubic zirconia ear-studs are both old pieces, from the trinket-boxes of my dear friend and my great-aunt respectively. And that’s a big part of their draw. They’re both small, everyday pieces, worn often and imbued with the essence of two wonderful people who love me. A spanking new neckpiece with matching earrings has nothing on that.

So despite the environment of pissing-contest consumerism we live in, and notwithstanding the fact that gift-givers are often judged on the basis of their gifts, I’d say that if you know a person, then the value of your present cannot be solely predicated on its price-tag. Good money buys a lot of lousy presents, and a hand-made card lasts on someone’s bedroom wall for years. To illustrate: I was give a chunky gold-plated jewellery set with pink and green stones; I was also given a beautiful hand-painted canvas by my very talented friend L, which adorns our otherwise bare walls.

But if the gift-givers’ sole concern is establishing or maintaining their social status via an expensive gift, or failing that, escaping notice and shame by increasing the number of cheap gift-givers at the event, then I must say, they have missed a crucial component of the ritual of gifting, and I hope the loss is entirely theirs.

I mean, here I am without a job and financially convalescing, and if I felt that that old Bengali trick – “My gift to you two are my heartfelt love and MOST sincere good wishes” – would have worked, I would’ve used it in a jiffy. But I wouldn’t DREAM of insisting other people change their decisions, toe MY budget-line, and shortchange newly-weds or birthday-kids or rice-ceremony babies to make my poverty look good. ’cause what am I, delusional power-tripper? (Don’t answer that.)

In short, my “friend” has terrible priorities and some damned nerve, I shall most certainly not make a joint entrance with her, and I have told her, very politely and very firmly, that my present has already been bought (a lie, of course).

Now all that remains is to write the newly-weds a cheque for Rs. X+1, and I should be all set for fish-fries :-)

Musings on Misquotes

Chatting with a friend about Oscar Wilde after positively ages, I decided to check what bits of his delightfully acerbic and waspish wit has adorned the first page of a Google-search lately.

One of the very first hits was a Goodreads quote-compilation, which I thought was handy and very delightful, till I realised that some of the quotes attributed to the poor sharp brilliant persecuted man couldn’t possibly have crossed his lips (or the nibs of his pen).

Now, I’m neither a linguist nor a literary historian, so you might question my conviction; but I do have a very discerning sense of the vapid, and a reasonably good sense of patterns peculiar both to a person and his time. Even if we accept for the moment that Wilde indulged in shallow pertness or mawkish optimism on occasion, I find it very hard to accept that a man of his time and sensibilities would birth such gems to the world as “Crying is for plain women. Pretty women go shopping”.

To focus merely on the technical, I doubt the phrase “going shopping” was used in quite this context in his time and his social class. Perhaps it has been extracted from this source-quote: “Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones [Lady Windermere's Fan]“. The two are not remotely similar in sentiment, but they do share the key words “plain” and “pretty”, and I suppose that is enough to warrant a molestation of meaning in these shallow times. These instances below probably suffered similar fates, (although I couldn’t be bothered to hunt the probable originals down):

  1. Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.
  2. Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.
  3. If you are not long, I will wait for you all my life.
  4. You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear. [I know, I know.]

Looking at the obvious contemporary flavour of 1 and 2 – crisis of confidence coupled with the need to be validated as unique and “special” – I’m surprised people haven’t immediately spotted them as fakes. Neither does the language belong in the time; indeed, the concerns of Wilde’s age would probably be about fitting in, since “outliers” resulted more often from social ostracisations than voluntary standing apart in confidence and joy. For reference, read a biography of Wilde.

About numbers 3 and 4, I would prefer not to comment. Jesus. Never mind that this is Oscar Wilde we’re talking about, how can “cars” not be a flapping red flag? But then it seems to me that a lot of people have lost the skill to distinguish between styles specific to people, place and times. I saw the GoodReads page for Lewis Carroll, and was surprised to see similarly anachronistic language and sentiments attributed to him. For example, “You used to be much more…”muchier.” You’ve lost your muchness“, and “I’m not strange, weird, off, nor crazy, my reality is just different from yours”.

It’s quite shocking, really. What’s going wrong with people and their damned education?

Or perhaps, I should ask, what is going right with people’s education? Perhaps that fact of flawed understanding being posted online indicates

(a) far greater access to these books than earlier – an encouraging de-elitisation of literary classics
(b) and their ability to nurture the habit of reading by participating in reader-communities online.
(c) the superfluity of such skills as the ability to contextualise historical periods through form or content of literature, to enjoying a good book
.

I personally think that the joy of reading is linked inextricably to the knowledge about its historical context, and that in political reading at least, historicity if of vital importance, but if that is something that has – with the expansion of education and habit of reading beyond the affluent classes – been classified as an expertise and not a necessity, well, as a lover of the written word I can only say I’m happy to adapt. Context is of great important, but perhaps we should rejoice in the expansion of non-discriminatory reading practices, and build on from there?

Power Failure

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk amongst my buddies about what drives the expensive social conservatism we see during our various social and religious ceremonies. There is, of course, the cash-flashing wealth-waving syndrome that leads to obscene shows of buying power, and the media-spurred my-faiwytale-wedding delusion, but what spurs people with sensible plans and ideological commitments to chuck it all and take a nose-dive into these proforma spectacles of self-destructive wastage?

In a country like India, where power comes in many forms and from many different sources  – age, caste, gender, class, senior social roles, perceived religious devotion, nobleness of profession (teaching, for example) — I’d say that apart from the usual suspects, embittered failures in roles of familial power — parents, the elder brother/sister, the oldest son of a family and so on  – play an enormous role in enforcing this socio-religious conservatism. This is not to say that successful people with genuine affection for their families cannot be socially conservative, but in the specific case of bitter underachievers, reverting to traditions crafted for the patriarchal family head in a very different economic era allows them, temporarily, to become directors instead of dependants. The more rules and strictures they reinforce, the more power and control they have.

Rituals and ceremonies are their particular triumphs, since during them, they can reduce their more successful kin to temporary penury (or close), their level of lack by insisting things be ‘properly’ done at enormous expense, almost none of which they bear themselves. The worst aspect of this entire situation, perhaps, is that we have an automatic pity-flavoured weakness for the weak and dependent amongst us, and for these brief periods, give them free(ish) rein over our lives out of affection or sympathy (or adherence to social hierarchy), not realising the undercurrent of malice that such indulgence feeds. Indeed, I would say most people practising such malice don’t realise they are being malicious either. They take their socially-assigned roles seriously, and quite successfully hide their subconscious jealousy and vengefulness even from themselves by dressing them in the righteous garbs of culture, tradition and propriety.

This is aided, in Hindu society, by a complete ignorance of what Hinduism accommodates and entails.  A very practical set of scriptural directives have been drowned under a collage of folk practices over the centuries, and since first-hand knowledge of Hinduism requires actual scholarship (and a broad, receptive mind), most self-identified Hindus go with the flow of simplistic homogenised inventions and outright aberrations, firmly convinced they’re treading the path of their ancestors a million times removed. If today I get married, and decide to serve roast beef and fried pork at the wedding feast, it will be an absolute phenomenon. I would find no caterers, people would nervously offer lame excuses for not attending, and those attending might think they’re being revolutionaries breaking stupid ‘Hindu’ rigour. But even for a few centuries after Budhha’s death, roast calves and fried pork were centrepieces of Hindu daily and ceremonial eating, in combination with deer, rabbits, boar, various birds, ghee, rice, barley, and honey/sugar/thickened milk based sweets. But I digress.

The point is, in a social system where there are competing structures of power, every time you mark a social milestone in your life, unless you have genuinely loving and/or sympathetic kinsfolk in positions of familial power, or people secure enough in themselves to either aid you or allow you the freedom of choice, be prepared to either incur considerable financial damage in the name of maintaining the social fabric, or causing breaches in the family, for which you shall bear all the blame. After you have spend a smaller but still considerable amount in marking the milestone anyway. 

It’s called social living. Or the tyranny of the weak.

Indian Weddings #1: An Enemy Like a Mother

If you were thinking of letting your daughters marry into an Indian family, beware. (Of course, if your daughters want to marry Indian women, or your sons Indian men, then it’s a different kettle of fish altogether. Extra beware!)

Bengali-bridal-look-with-Kundan-jewelry

This is the conversation I overheard this morning between a two huffing and puffing women at the morning walkers’.

Woman in faded red and yellow cotton print saree: Ei! Did the boy’s family come yesterday?

Woman in white-on-blue flower motif saree, catching her breath: Did they come! Do not get me started! Sitting in MY house, lapping up everything we put before them like eager dogs ["kuttar moto"], and then daring to dictate the terms of the wedding to me!

Red&Yellow, shaking head: What can you expect, they’re the groom’s family, that is how they always behave.

WhiteonBlue, venomously: Such bastards! Telling me, ‘The plates and bowls you’ll give should be silver, not steel, otherwise our reputation with our extended family will  be tarnished’. Silver! As if! If I can buy silver I will instead buy GOLD for my daughter, and keep it in OUR locker, you greedy pigs. If I give it to your family my daughter will never see hide or hair of it again, that sly grasping sister- and uncle-in-law of hers will whisk it out of sight so quickly!

R&Y: <makes sympathetic noises>

Large woman in faded mauve salwaar-kameez, hurrying up: Ish, so the groom’s family-visit was a fiasco yesterday? I told you before also, there’s still time. It is the question of your daughter’s whole life… if you don’t like the family break off negotiations!

WoB: “Didi, if I only could! You know it was decided between him [meaning her husband] and the boy’s father when they were posted together in Purulia. The father toh is no more. Now if he [=husband] breaks a pact made with a dead friend, can you imagine the talk it will cause against him? I cannot push him into that.

R&Y, hesitantly: But this marriage will push your daughter into misery…

WoB, philosophically: Well, you know, daughters are born with their own luck. No matter how carefully you select a boy, no one can guarantee she will be happy with him. Since we have to get her married anyway, and since my husband had already committed to this family… I said let us carry on. At least people won’t get a chance to talk behind our backs. We did the right thing! We fulfilled our promise! As for our daughter… her destiny will fulfill itself no matter how hard we try. Still, if something goes wrong, she has us, and her gold jewellery…

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the lesson of the day. If you must deliberately sabotage your children’s lives, make sure she has some gold to make up for it.

Wedding by Matrimony

My friend M is getting married (woohoo!) to the rather wonderful Dr. S. I’m not sure if they did in fact meet online, but they decided to pull a fast one on the wedding/matrimonial websites that flourish in South Asia by sending them one of those “We met because of you! Thank YOUUU matrimonial website!!! I’m SOOO happy!” messages they so smugly publish as testaments to their awesome efficacy.

And guess what? They published it. The idiots.

Here’s the message M and S sent :-) Have yourself a good laugh.

MA

“Shaadi photo match” kept urging me to click on a face with an endearing smile and skin red as a lobster, with “gora” written all over it. Having received the mail three times, I gave in and wrote to him. As I am into lobsters and he into coconuts, we immediately clicked. Then we endured a series of tests and interviews: my parents and my son interviewed him, and his mother cross-examined me. The questions were tough, but luckily we scraped through. Then came the terms and conditions. Although my parents had been saving up for a BMW, a villa and 3kg of gold, he being a gora settled for a motorcycle, twenty cows and a PIO card. And then for the “horoscope matching”- it only took a few thousand rupees to make the stars align in perfect harmony! The rest is history. Moral of the story: Goras are the most cost-effective option, although you might end up spending substantial amounts on sun protection!

The Dubious Pleasures of Eating Out

Yesterday at Peter Cat, we were sitting right opposite the ‘We’re Awesome!’ Martyrs’ Lunch Club.

Throughout our first course, they regaled us with shouts of laughter, and loud tales about inconsiderate people’s lack of basic civic sense.

In the mid-course lull — and apropos of nothing — the group’s fat man recounted a story of an unbelievable bitch, who, after coming home from work and making dinner, actually asked her husband to check on their child while she checked her email. Oh. My. GODDD! The whole group was utterly appalled at this crass display of unfeminine cold-heartedness.

“Not just this”, continued the fat man, lazily swilling his drink and relishing the effect of his story, “She has actually told her husband he cannot come home drunk anymore because they now have a child. To his own home! Just imagine.” The group was astounded anew by this woman’s fascist sense of entitlement. “It is just a regressive mentality”, opined one of the group’s two women. “A modern liberal woman would have no problems with her husband drinking. In fact, I would encourage both my son AND daughter to drink and smoke. After all, we cannot live in the dark ages any more!” With that, they lapsed into a discourse of their own progressive rebellions.

***

With the second course, we were treated to a deep, thoughtful discourse on the Lost Bengali Identity. Bengali men who marry ‘non-Bengali’ women and bring up ‘practically non-Bengali’ children away from the motherland bore a small section of the blame, but most of it was assigned to that evil language, English. The young woman in mini-shorts and an oversized American-flagesque tee held forth on how Bengali families were themselves destroying their mother tongue by speaking only in ‘stupid Hollywood English’ amongst themselves. The thin-but-potbellied man insisted this was the work of the mall-trotting teens. Malls, he declared, pollute the cosy olde culture of the bazaar, and help the children pick up abysmal amounts of Hindi from ‘those money-scattering Marwari children’.

***

Finally, as we were waiting for dessert — and had given up all hopes of a conversation of our own — the group’s bill arrived. This is the following conversation that ensued, transcripted verbatim.
Girl: (in Bengali) So I was thinking… I have some shopping to do, you people go ahead, I’ll come home in a couple of hours?
Fat man: (in Bengali) Where will you go? New Market? We can drop you…
Girl: (in horrified English) Oh my GAWD, New Market? It is like, SUCH an aunty-type place. I cannot think of any place other than South City mall only.
Probable mother: (in Bengali) but that is so far…
Girl: (flaring up) I am just going to take the metro — I’m not like my friends, you don’t have to give me cab-fare!
Fat man [probable father]: Oh yes! Fare reminds me! If you have shopping to do you will need cash… (digs into pocket) here, keep this for now. If you need more, you have my card…
Girl: (immediately melting) Oh, you’re just so perfect! Thank you! No wait… five kay? I don’t need so much! Do you think I’m like crazy or something? Like, this is like so weird! I just say I’m going to shop and he just gives me five kay! No no, I can’t take this.
Prob. mother: (schoolmistress tones) You just handed over five thousand rupees? Are you out of your mind? Had it not been for me she would have been spoilt years back! Take it back right now. (Turning to girl) Here, take my card instead. It’s almost at the credit limit, so be careful what you buy. No more than three, remember! And be home by eight.
Girl: Oh, I love you guys! You guys are like so AWESOME!!! (dances away)

***

We really should eat at home more often, but I tell myself this is a serious ethnographic enterprise.

Your Family (and Other Animals)

One of the earliest lessons my family taught me was not to exclude people on the basis of *their* families. We were never stopped from befriending the helps’ children (although we were made to give away some of our new toys to them), our poorer neighbours, the much-maligned divorcee’s two daughters, the young Muslim didi who brought scandal and violence upon herself in the form of a Sikh boyfriend, or the white-headed grass-cutter who got mildly drunk every evening and told us tall tales of Jharkhand.

Lately, however, I find myself failing this sterling lesson. It is easy for me not to hold people’s families or friends against them — poor souls, they can’t help being born where they were — but I’m beginning to find it quite hard to be convivial with people who admit their exploitative social entourage’s many flaws, but say they’re helplessly bound to them by ties of affection.

Of course, I don’t delude myself that love is inspired by the loved-person’s merits; I am myself quite attached to several of my defaulting friends and family. But I do not let this affection or a sense of duty towards them morph into my financial or emotional exploitation at their hands. And with age and an inherited sternness, I find I have very little respect for, or patience with, people who do. Of course, people have said to me that standing up for one’s rights or beliefs is not worth it if they cost one the support of one’s loved ones.

I’m too polite to say this to their faces, but if your darling dear ones are holding your relationship ransom to continually undermine your own wishes and make you fulfil theirs, then the time to evaluate your loyalty to them is well ripe.

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