Friday, January 23, 2009

Golden Globalization

As someone who lived in the USA for dog years, I still have a voyeuristic interest in the goings on out there. I am a confirmed CNN junkie and come evening, me and my mom will have these major TV remote wars over which channel to watch. But with events like the Golden Globe presentation or the Inauguration, she is now a convert. Occasionally when she gets fidgety watching yet another hour of CNN, all I have to say is “Mom, they are going to show India” and she will be alright. Like several other desis, she too feels that there is an India Wave sweeping the world and she too likes this inside-out view of the new globalized Indian.

It certainly warmed a lot of desi cockles – mine especially – to see A. R. Rahman receive his Golden Globe award with quiet dignity and humility. But I was focused more on Anil Kapoor and gang clowning around boisterously without a hint of embarrassment. But then, I always look at the negatives. When people were busy trying to analyze the sub-text of Obama’s Inaugural speech, I was looking for gaffes and glitches. While the diaspora felt a collective lump in their throats after Obama’s “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus…” bit, I was wondering what if somebody quietly slipped a huge pot of Green Dal Slime Slime from my old hostel mess, into the Inaugural luncheon spread.

By the way, have you everr noticed – that whenever you see a picture of Queen Elizabeth taking part in yet another meanigless ceremony, there is always a guy standing next to her who is three feet taller than her?

------ X ------- X ------

The PAN IIT meeting took place here in Chennai recently. Reluctantly I parted with two thousand odd rupees and registered for it. I saw a lot of my old friends. The grass outside the Students Activity Center, IIT Madras, was dotted with Srinis and Balas. And more Balas and Srinis and Palvayanteeswarans. Some of the NRI crowd, of course, behaved like they had never been in India before - incongruously wearing tie and jacket for ‘casual lunches’ and asking all sorts of penetrating chemical engineering questions about the local mineral water. One of them refused to walk a half a kilometer up to where I parked my car, because he did not have his walking shoes on. But the award goes to a critter that asked loudly if he should put a tea bag inside a steaming cup of coffee to convert it to tea!! Serious, folks!!

As usual, I did not attend any of those serious ‘Plenary’ sessions. The first day, I really made an honest attempt – pushing and shoving my way through the crowded auditorium when somebody said :Hema Malini aa rahi hai.” At which point, there was a stampede for the exit and we all rushed to the hall where she was going to be featured. She gushed that she was thrilled to mingle with ‘intellectuals’ – her euphemism for IIT nerds.

“Look, Hema Malini naach rahi hai” somebody else shouted, raising the temperature of the hall.

“No no. She is just walking. At her age it might look like she is dancing.” Someone else explained.

I guess the true purpose of meetings like the PAN IIT is to re-live the teenage fantasies – like finally being able to see their ‘dream girl’ in person, now that they have the money and other wherewithals to pull it off.

The next day, I actually managed to find a seat in the Plenary session. A phoren CEO of a consumer products company – which is more than six degrees separated from anything IIT-ish – showed an ear-splitting, graphics-heavy video clipping before he started to pitch for his corporation. When he said something like how his household products make bathroom-cleaning ‘fun’, I walked out.

The last day’s keynote speaker was Prof. Amartya Sen. Of coursse, I bunked that too and headed straight to the dining hall, where I had the entire buffet line to myself and proceeded to eat my tenth ‘fish fried’.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fools and Bigger Fools - A Modern Day Fairy Tale

This is the story of Jaggu the Fool, as he was known around the rundown slum he lived in. Some people said that it was his ferocious wife who drove him to this sorry state. Nonetheless he remained a fool and it was a miracle that he had not yet choked on a balloon while he blew on it. It’d happen sooner or later, some others would wager.

Jaggu was the balloonwalla of the area. He toiled all evening at a busy intersection, decking up his little push cart with a lot of colorful balloons, inflating them with helium gas (and sometimes with his lung power). He would twist and knot them into all kinds of funny shapes. This would fascinate and amuse little children (and even some grown ups) and they would crowd around him in a circle to watch him work. A little puppy was everyone’s favorite, with little ears and a short tail. He would sell it for almost four rupees a pop. He would scratch and rub his balloons, making that cantankerous screeching sound and the crowd around him would go wild. The noise beckoned even more customers from across the street and some days, he sold out his balloons and went home even before the street lights came on. Occasionally, when business got dull, he would linger on and on and would even come up with some silly jingles to pump up business – and he would look ridiculous when he sang.

You might think that Jaggu was some kind of a fun balloonwalla. But no sir, he was not. In fact, he was grouchy to the core, and this coming on top of his already bad reputation as everyone’s fool. He always shouted at his customers. He was particularly irritated by little kids who simply stood around him and never bought a damned thing. He would also get into arguments if they didn’t have the right change.

“You wanted the red balloon and I gave it to you. And now you want the yellow one, instead?” he would say yet other times, to admonish a fickle-minded kid. “If you can’t make up your mind, then don’t buy my balloons.”

Most of the days Jaggu made enough money to put food on the table for himself and his wife – they don’t have any children, mind you. He would even diligently put away some money each day towards his next bottle of helium and other supplies. Even after all this, some days there would be an extra few rupees left - to buy himself a shot of the stiff local brew. On those days, when he staggered into his little thatched hut, his wife would be hopping mad.

“You are no good. A complete waste.” she would scream “And now you are drunk too. You are a twice over fool.”

Jaggu has heard this before. Yes, I don’t bring as much money as our neighbor. I am not as strong and handsome like some of your relatives that you could have married instead of me. I haven’t even produced you a child. Yes, I fight with everyone and lose all those fights. Yes, I am a burden to you. Yes, I am…..But I haven’t kissed your beautiful lips in two years. I am really in a good mood now…… . So, why don’t we…But you never let me come near you….

At which point, his wife would toss something heavy at him and yell even louder. “How dare you!! First make a hundred rupees and then talk to me. You don’t know how much suffering you bring to a wonderful woman like me. Go away.”

Utterly defeated, Jaggu would curl up in a corner, sleep away his night; but deep down inside him, he was always hopeful that one day his wife would change her attitude and become that husband-worshipping, sweet talking, shy-as-all-hell woman, who put up with all kinds of tribulations. Maybe I should go away abroad and earn tons of money and woo her back….His mind would swell up with erotic fantasies…

------------------------------ X ------- X ---------
And one day.

Jaggu was standing at his usual street corner, inflating his baloons. His little push cart looked overcrowded with a lot of balloons tied all around it. Little kids have already gathered around him and Jaggu was at their epicenter.

“This is the festival season. I am expecting a lot of business.” He snapped at the children and chased them away “And you little devils, don’t block my customers.”

As he was yelling, a strange thing happened. Jaggu thought the earth was collapsing from under his feet. Tsunami or an earthquake or something. But, no, it wasn’t the earth. It was his cart! The darned thing was slowly taking off and beginning to fly – with Jaggu clinging to it!! He knew helium balloons can lift off. But he had not imagined anything like this. The gas has so much power it is actually lifting his entire cart, the balloons and himself!!!!

Half fascinated and half scared, he yelled at the crowd below, which had by now swollen up to almost fifty strong. Some of them even thought it was yet another one of Jaggu’s sales gimmick and began clapping and cheering..

“Make it stop and bring me back to ground.” Jaggu pleaded from above

But he was rising higher and higher. Very soon the applauding children on the ground became littler children and then little dots and finally disappeared all together. Jaggu realized that he was floating way up in the air. The tallest buildings in his city could be seen below his cart. He clutched his cart with both hands, hoping for a smooth landing somewhere soon. It may take him till late in the night to go home. And his wife would be even more mad and call him all sorts of names. The city soon disappeared and he found himself gliding over small villages. Many, many years ago he too had migrated to the city from one such village. Whenever he passed a village, people on the ground would disbelievingly look up the sky and wave to him. It was such an unusual spectacle to see a man fly in the air with a cart.

“You must be the eagle-man. Come on down and meet us.” Someone on the ground shouted. Jaggu was barely able to hear him.

“No, I am Jaggu. Where am I? And which town is this?”

“You are over Lalpur.”

“Where is Lalpur?”

“You don’t know even this? It is next to Rampur.”

“And where in the world is Rampur?”

“You must be a total fool. Everyone knows that Rampur is next to Sitapur” the man on the ground explained, shouting himself hoarse. “And by the way, use a better underwear next time you want to fly over our town. You look positively obscene.”

Jaggu was beside himself. He was tired, scared and hungry. Maybe he will go to the nowhere land. Maybe he will crash into a huge mountain. Maybe he will collapse to ground and die - and that ought to make his wife happy.

------- X ------- X ------ X ------
When Jaggu woke up, he found himself in a totally strange land. It was almost like a jungle, but there were neat huts – some of them very large and ornamental. His little pushcart – and his helium cylinder, all the balloons, his cash box with some change, were all there, in tact. Suddenly, a group of tribal people appeared in front of him and for a brief moment, Jaggu feared for his life. The Chief among the tribals said something to Jaggu in a strange language. Jaggu had no idea what he was saying, but knew that the Chief wasn’t particularly hostile or threatening - if anything, he was more polite than his own wife - bless her, wherever she was.

The Chief picked up a balloon and was fascinated by it. He had not seen anything like that in his life before. How can nothingness become energy that can be stuffed into colorful, little devices? These angelic icons are such magical, mystical things that they defy gravity and float up!! When the Chief accidentally let go one of a balloon, it flew all the way to the top of a tall tree and got stuck in the branches. And he had one of his bravest subjects retrieve it. Otherwise it would have flown up, up and away – and would have reached the gods. This man who descended from heaven must also be god’s agent, who has personally come down to bless him and his tribe..

That moment forth, Jaggu became an honored citizen of the tribal land. The Chief made him stay in the finest hut in the kingdom. Jaggu slept on a silk bed. Young pigs slowly roasted over fire would be served to him, with jugs of delicately brewed liquor. Five men and women were assigned to look after his every need. Although Jaggu did not understand a word of what they said, sign language was enough for him to take care of every one of his material comforts.

The Chief had his entire palace decorated with Jaggu’s balloons, with a red heart-shaped balloon tied to his throne, to give it a royal touch. Exemplary citizens of the land were awarded balloons, as also the Chief’s favorite wives who were dutiful to him. If occasionally someone caused a balloon to burst, the Chief would have them flogged with a sharp whip. For all his benevolence and good nature, the Chief also had a terrible temper – even more horrible than Jaggu’s wife. And when that happened, the tribals knew better than to hang around in front of him and be his punching bag. All in all, the balloons changed the face of the tribal country completely. Thanks, Almighty!!!! The Master of Inflation and Floatation!!!!

And one day, the Chief told Jaggu (in sign language, of course) that as a special envoy from heaven, he should marry the most beautiful woman of the tribe - a coy, long legged beauty who doted on her man. A ceremonious wedding took place and the tribals all wore special wedding barks and ornamental beads. Several balloons were given away as the bride’s price – and Jaggu was in a dream world.

According to tribal tradition, the groom had to close his eyes while the bride garlanded him. When Jaggu opened his eyes, to his horror he found a snake around his neck. He was petrified. But everyone around laughed. The bride showed her own garland and it too looked like a snake. He then realized that they were not real snakes, but some tribal ornaments in the shape of a snake. In fact, she was even wearing ‘snake’ bracelets and amulets. The exchange of garlands was soon followed by an elaborate feast, where pigs, deer, lambs, wild fowls – just about anything that lived and breathed - were cooked and served. Exotic liquor flowed like a river and the event was capped by a sensuous ritual dance that lasted through the night.

Under the gaze of the stars, Jaggu embraced his new bride. And scooped her off the graound and carried her into his beautifully appointed hut. This is what he deserved!!! For a fleeting moment he thought about his old short, fat, nagging wife he had left behind at his far away homeland. Nobody deserved someone like her. Really. Nobody. His new wife was ten times more beautiful; she smiled at him all the time; adored him and played little games with him..She even taught him how to weave leaves and blades of grass into those snake-shaped jewels. Jaggu was in seventh heaven.

And then it happened. Jaggu simply ran out of gas – helium gas, that is. He had carefully stretched his cylinder of gas all those months, filling just one or two balloons a day. And now this had to happen, just when some of the palace balloons were shriveling up and needed to be replaced. The Chief could not believe it. Maybe Jaggu was playing a dirty trick – perhaps trying to initiate a rebellion and eventually take over his kingdom. Or maybe the gods are angry at him for some sin he had inadvertently committed. Oh, God, why have you turned nothingness back into nothingness? He was angry, frightened and restless. Jaggu was no longer God’s man, but an evil person with a sinister plot. The Chief began to physically torture Jaggu since that day forward. “Re-start your magic, and bring joy to my land” he would order him, while his men gave Jaggu ten lashes. – and his new wife would watch helplessly from afar with tearful eyes. This must be my end, Jaggu thought.

And one day, the tribals gagged him, tied him with a rope and rolled him down a hill – out of the tribal territory. For good measure, they even pushed his cart down over him. His wife, unable to bear the sight, came screaming after him. But a couple of tribal men strong-armed her into submission and dragged her back into their land.
-------- X -------- X -------- X -------
A few suspenseful hours later, an army jeep patrolling that area spotted a human bundle of Jaggu, found him to be still alive and nursed him back to life in a military hospital. A few days later he was taken back to his city. A policeman escorted Jaggu to his old home and knocked on the door. When his old wife opened the door, her jaw dropped and she freaked out.

“Tell me I am dreaming!!” she shrieked “Where in the world had you been, you lousy, no-good piece of human trash?”

(An aside: At this point, the escorting policeman scratched his head and produced that sheepish grin. Jaggu’s wife at once understood what was happening and took out a hundred rupee currency from her bosom and handed it over to him as ‘mamool’. And the policeman quickly disappeared)

”And whatever happened to your cart and all your money?” she screamed “Did you drink way the money? Why have you come back to haunt me? You don’t know how much I have suffered all these days, by myself. . Wish you were dead and gone. At least then, I would have married again.”

For a second, Jaggu wanted to tell her about his adventure, the tribal land and his new, wonderful wife. But decided to keep quiet. His old, shrew of a wife wouldn’t believe him anyway. What a wonderful life he had in the tribe when his helium tank had gas. How they worshipped him. The roast of a young pig…..

“Don’t just stand around, you idiot. Get another cart and start making some money. I have already piled up a huge debt.” His wife was relentlessly yelling at him. “Bring me money.”

What a turn of events, Jaggu sulked, He dragged his feet outside. His slum looked the same. Maybe a few new faces here and there, A few kids had grown older. Somebody even asked him where he had been all these days. But Jaggu never gave him a straight answer. He walked up to his usual corner from where he sold balloons. ..And a brand new cart was standing there, with a brand new baloonwalla!!! He was surrounded by the usual joyous children. Unlike him, this new guy was a cheerful man who played with the children and kept talking to the parents. He even made silly jokes to amuse everyone. And he was busy collecting money and filling up his kitty. From the sound of it, Jaggu figured that the guy was making much more than he ever did. It could have been him, Jaggu bemoaned. And now he has even lost his place in the bazaar. Jaggu looked across the road. There was another baloonwalla there with another cart and another bunch of kids around him. I am doomed, thought Jaggu. The only profession I knew, I cannot carry out any more!! He pondered for hours and hours and finally came up with a solution.

-------- X ------- X ------- X -----

Jaggu has now set up his new shop in the same corner, right next to the new balloonwalla. This one, not a balloon stand, but hawked snake-shaped trinkets – garlands, necklaces, amulets, bracelets, anklets – just about anything. There is always a crowd of teenagers around Jaggu. They love what Jaggu has to offer and would lap up everything on his cart.

A girl in jeans and T shirts was trying on some new snake bangles.

“These are so cool yaar.” She was telling her friend over the cell phone “They are also supposed to be good luck charms and guess what, they are Vaastu compliant too. You ought to get some yourself.”

A college guy in a motorbike swooped by and paid good money to Jaggu for two garlands, one for him and another one for his girlfriend. His neck was already loaded with a couple of these leis. Exchanging snake shaped garlands has now beome a craze in the city, because it is supposed to get the blessings of snake god.

Jaggu could not control his glee, as he counted his cash – there was enough dough – enough to cover for food, his next week’s supplies, some new clothes, a bottle of foreign booze - and even some spare change for his witch of a wife.