This Shame Has A Name

I’ve read the newspapers, watched the television discussions, joined the protestors peacefully demonstrating outside the Indian High Commission in London and shouted for justice, “Now!’

There’s much that still needs to be said on the December gang-rape of the Indian girl on a Delhi bus.

And on the outrageous remarks by male Indian politicians who think it is women who are to blame and that it is women who must be curbed.

And on a society that needs to change.

In the meanwhile, there is the fact that human life begins inside and from a woman.


Flying Insects and New Year’s Day

London 2013

New Year’s Day

I entered 2013 in reflection on the Delhi gang-rape story and what was wrong with Indian society. Even on New Year’s Day I merely settled down for a quiet evening and television. I am now convinced that for an insight into a culture and society,  all you have to do is look at its television programmes on the first day of the year. BBC2 was using its prime time slot at 9 p.m. to broadcast Queen Victoria’s Children. BBC 4 ran Fifties British War Film: Days of Glory at the same time, while Sky Atlantic decided to go for a documentary on The British, exploring how the Norman conquest in 1066 changed Britain. ITV1 had Royal Babies (footage of a young Princess Elizabeth). Add to the highly entertaining mix of the above and stir in the following: Hairy Dieters, The Treasures of Ancient Rome, River Monsters (deadly fish in South Africa), World’s Strongest Man 2012. Oh, and how could I forget Channel 4′s Rude Tube — a countdown of 50 internet clips featuring the world’s worst and sexiest Santas? Er … sexy Santa?  Do children love Santa because he is “sexy”?   Surely only a handful could have watched Nature’s Weirdest Events on BBC2? Or do the British like to mark the new year by watching a town terrorised by a swarm of flying insects? Perhaps they do.

Hello “Want”, Goodbye “Like”: The Book’s Changing Face

I have mixed feelings about the “Like” button on Facebook. Before anyone in my Address Book swoops on me in indignation, yes, yes, I do appreciate its genuine uses. I must confess though, I sometimes hurriedly scroll down the newsfeed and swiftly insert those little skyward thumbs as my only virtual/social interaction of the day.

In my defense: I have conducted a mini survey and found other FB users who see it as a tool of  superficiality. So now it’s your turn. Be honest. Do you really “like” the image of a now dimly recognisable primary school friend with her shark-jawed grinning partner, cheese-tasting on a Swiss mountain top? Or the airbrushed gym-slim, age-defying college friend on a Rio beach, red-eye blurry party pics, the new mother’s daily updates on her baby’s (unchanging) facial expressions?

One has to play the game, I suppose. The Like button doesn’t require a lie detector test. True or false, we can pretend and “Like” away and no one will be any the wiser. That’s because, just as in real life, our FB friends may be insecure and vulnerable, needing to collect their “likes”, scented flower buds forming a giant bouquet, the affection as warm as a hot water bottle.

It is for this purpose that some women past forty dress up and regularly post pictures of themselves on FB for their friends. If thirty-five friends click on the Like button, that’s success. Oh, but what if it’s only two, and one of them is your sister?  Not so good. Some friends even post a massaging comment along with the “Like”: ‘Aw, you look gorgeous/you look just like your teenage daughter/Any recruiting agencies out there looking for a model? Guys, hurry, pick this one!’ )

As for me, I’m too terrified to try those Miss Middle-Aged India poses. Mostly because at my age no lighting is dim enough, but mainly because I wonder what would happen if I posted my trussed-like-a-turkey picture and no one responded. How would that affect my self-esteem?  I might want to howl and rail and rant like Lear in a storm. Is there anyone at all out there who likes me?

People can also be a bit unthinking and trigger-finger-happy with their Likes. The other day a friend wrote she was suffering from a terrible back, and forty-two thumbs flew up. How can anyone Like that? That’s the equivalent of my ringing someone to say, “I’m so happy you are in pain.”

 Fortunately there’s a cure for the insecure just around the corner. Why should we soul-search over too few Likes? Soon the “Want” button will take over social networks for companies to advertise their products. We shall click to “collect”  our purchases through FB. Why depend on “likes” when we know what we “want”? FB is currently running trials with Victoria’s Secret and other retailers. Who needs birthday calendar reminders when we can create a wishlist of products to buy? Facebook said in a statement: ‘People will be able to engage with these collections and share things they are interested in with their friends.’Really? Yay! I feel like singing like a Spice Girl: Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want/So tell me what you want, what you really, really want … I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah

By the way, what exactly is a ‘zigazig ah’, and will it be available to buy on Facebook?

Siri, or Sorry?

I waited three years to upgrade to the iPhone 5. One of the features causing me grief is Siri – what Apple calls “the intelligent personal assistant that helps you get things done just by asking. It allows you to use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more. But Siri isn’t like traditional voice recognition software that requires you to remember keywords and speak specific commands. Siri understands your natural speech, and it asks you questions if it needs more information to complete a task.”

I do like the thought of my very own assistant to fetch and carry at my command. In practice, however, Siri is more flawed than a hero in a Greek tragedy. This is what happens:

  1. It misunderstands simple commands and I suddenly find myself hollering at my brand new phone. Clearly I cannot ask Siri for anything while I am in a library or in a similarly hushed environment. I repeat my question. Several times. Then I have to delete Siri’s random and ridiculous responses. I once exasperatedly told Siri it was an idiot. The voice replied, ‘But … but.’ I was impressed. How could the voice have been perfectly programmed for such a life-like splutter? The second time I called Siri an idiot, the reply was as soothing as a Vicks chest rub: ‘I try my best, Mia.’ I felt bad after that – I had offended its feelings. I never called Siri an idiot again.
  2. Siri can fool me into thinking it is Aladdin’s genie. But sometimes, it simply tells me it doesn’t understand. The illusion of a Jeeves glued to my hip is thus cruelly shattered.
  3. As I pick up the shards of broken illusion, I realise that Siri only works when it understands Anglo-Saxon names and very simple “foreign” ones.  I told it to call “Lin Cheng” for me and the voice dutifully repeated, “Call Beijing, China.’ Then it added, “Sorry, Sau-maya, I can’t call restaurants in China.”
  4. Annoyed, I said my name was “Saumya”, but Siri simply couldn’t reproduce my name. I finally told it to call me “Mia”. The British male voice solemnly reassured me it would.
  5. I decided to change my settings and opted for the American female but she couldn’t understand my accent at all. I switched to Australian English but without significant improvement in success rates and the Canadian English voice was simply like a stern teacher. Would it have been any better with an Indian or a Jamaican Siri instead? Incidentally, I tried out the French and Italian Siri, and what a difference a language makes … it’s not fair – why do the British male and female voices sound so middle-aged and the “Continentals” so beguiling?
  6. I asked Siri about the weather in London and it said the day would be dry. I didn’t take my umbrella outdoors. It rained.

At the Apple store the young English assistant sheepishly confided that Siri didn’t understand his accent, either and that it was still quite hit-or-miss with the voice recognition function.

So, until they fix the bugs, perhaps Siri should be “Sorry” instead?

The Snappy Ending

Chick-lit and rom coms would be a different genre and kettle of fish without the happy ending. Turn to Wikipedia (where else?) for a definition, and you find that “a happy ending is an ending of the plot of a work of fiction in which almost everything turns out for the best for the protagonists, their sidekicks and almost everyone except the villains.” There is even an extract from a 1968 Times review reproduced by Wikipedia: “The hero must triumph over his enemies as surely as Jack must kill the giant in the nursery tale. If the giant kills Jack, we have missed the whole point of the story.” Yes. The giant must never trample Jack. Villains must not be allowed to age gracefully into retirement homes and the gangster must never ever get the girl. We need the happy ending. One shudders to think of the Evil Queen hanging around after her successful poisoning of Snow White. Do we really want her to be Botox-free-fairest of them all? Why, the world would be a dark, windowless place indeed. Life wouldn’t be worth living, not because there wouldn’t be any happy endings – but because of our need to believe that happy endings do exist.

Drafting a pitch for my manuscript for a young adult novel, I said to a seasoned fellow writer the other day that teenagers still need happy endings. She looked at me quizzically and said, ‘Are you actually going to write that?’ She then asked me to go away and Google the words “happy ending”. So now I know that it’s a pseudonym used without irony in Thai erotic massage. I am now ashamed to admit how naive and ignorant I have been not knowing what everyone else seems to know. But I’m still not happy about it, though – why did “happy endings” have to be hijacked by the masseurs when they could have called whatever they do “snappy endings” instead? Literature should be allowed its happy endings. Like happy hour, a happy ending in life is only too brief, but wonderful as long as it lasts.

Hair, There and Everywhere

J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy could be banned in India if Sikhs are truly affronted by her words. It is all about the teasing of Sukhvinder, a surgeon’s daughter in the novel and the reference to her as a “hairy man-woman” and “mustachioed yet large-mammaried”.

Avtar Singh Makkar, head of India’s Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, told the Daily Telegraph that Rowling’s negative descriptions were “a slur on the Sikh community”. He is additionally quoted as saying, “Even if the author had chosen to describe the female Sikh character’s physical traits, there was no need for her to use provocative language, questioning her gender. This is condemnable.” A representative for J.K. Rowling’s publishers Hachette, however, has been quick to point out that the offending remarks in the book were made by Sukhvinder’s bully. So will the explanation be enough to calm the waters?

I’m not wading into the fray. I do want to talk about female facial hair in Indian women, though. (My protagonist in my newly completed young adult novel suffers terribly for being a hairy Indian girl among hairless British friends.) See, the thing is, Indian women can turn quite prickly and defensive on the subject, particularly when broached by someone without facial (or body) hair. In fact, to put it simply:

  1. We Asian (Indian, that is) women know all about body hair
  2.  In fact, we’ve probably known all about it from about the age of seven.
    1. Knowing about it doesn’t mean that we are happy about it. Our smiles for the world mean something entirely different.
    2. In fact, it would be rare to find an Indian girl smiling over her discovery of chin hair (or worse).
  3. Mothers and grandmothers tend to ignore the problem. Their remedy of a paste of chickpea flour mixed with milk and a pinch of turmeric and sandalwood or rosewater as a traditional rub on the skin, will only go so far. If you never believed in fairies, you won’t believe in this, either.
  4. It sucks that mothers and grandmothers were never as hairy. They smugly claim they grew up in more enlightened times when women used herbal products, not chemicals in soaps and shampoos.
  5. The only sympathy you can therefore expect from mothers and grandmothers is, “Yes, you are (incredibly) hairy, but look what lovely thick, long, sleek and silky head hair God gave you.”

Laser treatment is a risky option for many Indian women. Something to do with our high levels of pigmentation. Basically the original no win situation. So in the meanwhile, we bravely trudge to Sweetie’s Hair and Beauty Parlour, Threading, Expert, Appointments Not Always Necessary, once a fortnight – oh, okay, every single week.

London Olympics

The day after the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, I find myself head-scratchingly bewildered. I have failed, like an athlete a doping test. I’m not going to pretend, so I’m going to say it loud: I’m British, and I didn’t “get” the opening ceremony. I had to read the newspapers the next day to get all the references and deconstruct what it was all about and then reconstruct to understand what I’d seen.

It should be a consolation that the rest of the world didn’t get Danny Boyle’s extravaganza, either. Only the dog minding the sheep really knew what was happening.  That’s because it was a British sheepdog. The sub-titles to the ceremony’s text were tangled in the Maypole around which those tireless children pranced in the opening sequences. (The same children were then so exhausted they had to be wheeled in on NHS beds by bouncy nurses who gave balloon manufacturers an inferiority complex.) I think it needed more than a spoonful of sugar from Mary Poppins to make the general order-in-chaos feeling of confusion go down.

Yes, there were visually jaw-dropping bits and some hilarious and some entertaining and some plain inexplicable (creepy monsters and Lord Voldemort scaring children and a gargantuan baby head) moments, but it all felt very Jubilee concert in Hyde Park coupled with Britain’s Got Talent. It was a quintessentially disjointed, ironic, witty, self-deprecating British spectacle by the British and for the British. The lighting of the Olympic flame was breathtaking. So why did Paul McCartney (are there no other singers in Britain?) have to come on to sing a sad song to make it better? Was “Hey Jude” the only choice for a finale on a global sports stage? But maybe the British don’t do moving/touching/inspiring for long. (And as The New York Times said, lavatory humour made a customary appearance.) To be earnest and profound would be mawkish, it wouldn’t be British. In a Times competition to find a motto, the winning entry was, “No Motto Please, We’re British.” That says it all.

Move over Tebbit. There’s a new test of Britishness. If you “got” the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, you pass. Then you’ll begin to make it better, oh. Na na na na na, na na na …

In Search of the Spice Rack

On very rainy days (of which there appear to be a fair number in these Isles) I’m often in specialist kitchen shops like Divertimenti and Elisabeth David or Harrods kitchen section. The Italian pastamaker and Nigella Lawson’s latest book leave me cold.

I’m nosing around for the perfect spice rack. Easy, you might say; take your pick: hardwood tray, ten little glass bottles, secure metal lids, go straight to secure checkout. Well, yes, I can well imagine the neat little jars of oregano, marjoram, basil and herbes de provence, but what about Indian spice? No self-respecting Indian worth her/his er…salt (alternative: garam masala) would use those tiny bottles.

Indian spice is about largesse and generosity, abundance, too gloriously voluminous to be confined in small plastic or glass cases and spaces. The energetic explosion of turmeric, the raw richness of chili red, the sumptuous earthiness of cumin, pungent heeng (asofoetida)… those aromas need copious release to perform their magic, and not by the tiny teaspoon. Cornucopias of plenty.

The bad news: there are no elegant and large spice jars for Indian spices. If they are elegant, they are small; if large, they are like jam jars and as ugly as Cinderella’s stepsisters. That’s why many Indian designer kitchens have at least one cabinet/drawer strictly not on display to visitors: it’s almost always the one with the Indian spices. The cupboard with the neat rows of dill, parsley and chives, on the other hand,  is on show.

Open a typical Indian spice cupbaord, and motley smells pervade: too many spices to be contained in little jars, too many in the original packing — think of the worn flaps of the Everest Garam Masala carton…difficult to store, these cartons perch crookedly on top of the other like Brazilian favelas up a hill.

If you find the right size of Indian non-tacky spice jar, let me know. Until then, the search for spice (containers) is put on ice.

The Business of Flying First

Last Saturday I arrived at Mumbai airport to find I had been upgraded from Business to First. You may scoff at my excitement but I had often wondered what it would be like to turn left of those waiting stewardesses at boarding point. Breathless as a bride, I allowed myself to be escorted down the aisle. I discovered only two of the nine seats were occupied. The silent space in the mood-lit cabin was surreal.

I was not going to pretend I was a regular; I humbly asked the stewardess to show me the gizmos and gadgetry of First Class. Good move. How else would I have known about the massage at the flick of a button? My new toy. I was already enjoying neck and back vibrations during take-off. A whole new feel to the term “air-borne”. Once the seatbelt sign was switched off, the crew stayed at a discreet distance, quickly pulling the cubicle doors shut. Plane paradise. To test the privacy and legroom, I grabbed the headphones, tuned into the jukebox library and tested upper body salsa moves and bhangra shoulder lifts to circular (there were also a horizontal and vertical option) back massage. Now I know why amorous dalliances among passengers in First Class go undetected. Total seclusion, flat bed.

Then something strange happened. My gratitude and awe changed to sober assessment. What do paying passengers get in First that they don’t get in Business — apart from the enviable legroom and privacy? The seat itself was no superior in comfort or fabric texture. In fact, the accompanying pillow was as limp as my bank manager’s handshake. The headphones were lightweight, the audio and video entertainment merely standard. Granted, the white dining cloth was laid out on the table with flourish, but the cutlery and gold-rimmed plates were a bit tarnished. The meal menu was the same as the one offered to Business Class passengers although I suspect the wine  – had I drunk it — would have been of superior vintage.

A problem had unexpectedly occurred. Each time I wanted to slip into massage nirvana, the adjacent “Call” button seemed to activate by default. After I had apologised half a dozen times to the swiftly appearing steward, it did somewhat dampen my enthusiasm for clicking on the massage button. I switched to in-flight magazines thereafter.

On the ground, clambering onto a waiting golf-style buggy for the inmates of First Class was, however, a pampered experience. As we overtook other wearily trundling passengers, I wondered for a moment if we were going to speed past the barriers of the Immigration Hall and hurtle directly into Baggage Claim to smartly retrieve luggage and breeze out. Not quite, but close. As an equal opportunities supporter, I did feel a bit foolish and a bit of a fraud. My seat in the buggy would have been better used by an elderly or pregnant passenger.

I ran into Michael at Baggage Claim. Now Mike had told me years ago  he was an ambitious executive. His idea of achievement was to have the six-figure salary, fancy car, penthouse, luxury holidays and First Class travel. Then he would have “made” it. Mike was now Senior Vice-President of a global company. I rushed up to him as he proceeded to collect his luggage off a carousel for a flight from New York. Naturally I told him I had travelled First Class.

‘No big deal,’ he said. What? I probed, he explained. After a few years of flying First, he said he was no happier. He had thought he would be, but he wasn’t.

‘Why not?’ I persisted.

‘Because there’s nowhere to go after First — apart from the private jet, that is — and the thought makes me depressed. I’ve got everything I wanted, and there’s no ambition to achieve any more, and I’m only forty,’ he said wryly.

‘Oh,’I said. The pursuit of happiness is a tricky thing indeed.

It did occur me once I had reached home, that the proximity of the Massage and Call buttons might not have been a mistake. Too late.

The Topography of The Typo

I keep telling myself that  – like ET —  I am not alone. There must be someone else out there on earth or in space who makes typos while fingers fly oh-so-smartly over the keyboard. Is there anyone out there like me?

I’m always shooting off an error-ridden mail only to regret at leisure as it stares at me in the Sent box — or worse, when it returns as a thread in my Inbox.  I spend those tossing, pillow-scrunching nights wondering if anyone notices — or thinks I can’t spell.

Did I really sign off as Brst Wishes, Saumya to a literary acquaintance I wanted to impress?  Well, seven times out of ten, I misspell ‘best’ in the hurry to hit the Send key, so yes. I fondly send Brst Fishes, too.

Plenty more of that ilk: I may be offending my North American friends by my constant references to the Untied States, and I once miswrote the name of a salesperson for an online hair and beauty website as Licy Organ. (Lucy Morgan.) What happens when I wish someone the best of luck? Well, you already know about the brst.  As for the luck, of course the letter “f” is placed a whole four letters away (albeit on the same line) as the letter “l”, but somehow fingers slip … and behold, an innocent email becomes instant porn.  I really shouldn’t be mentioning the time when the “k” in the word “book” was replaced by the letter “b”  in a phrase I sent for a magazine interview: “My favourite books through history are …” (Yes, Freudian analysis of my typos may be necessary.)

Trouble is, while authors have editors to erase howlers and bloomers before readers get hold of their books, once the “literary” email winds its way through cyberspace, there is no turning back.

Still, surely my transposing of Dear Anne for Fear Anne, is understandable when the letters “d” and “f “are kissing cousins on the keyboard. Even when I write Deaf Anne instead of Dear Anne, there is no crime I have committed although the typos are unlikely to endear me to Anne. Or, for that matter, to Jill — whom I have once addressed as Dear Kill and asked her to say “Hell” from me to James.

As for iPhone text messaging, it’s a minefield for typos  – and Anglocentric despite the hordes of bright-eyed Indian software engineers swarming Cyber California and beyond. Ever tried typing “Bollywood”?  iPhone insistently changes it to “Hollywood”. (Three times.) Try typing “arre” or “yaar” and a red rebuke line appears underneath to query your questionable decision to switch to a non-English word.  I know, I know, there is a language keyboard function, still…

There are more typos I could mention. I shall not, however, reveal more until I know I am not akone. Sorry, alone.