Too Far to Call

Long-distance relationships are difficult. Not the ones where love — or at least the ceremony of it — is involved. Those can be sorted out in one of two ways: make the periodic pilgrimage and the accompanying protestation of love, or break up.

The complicated relationships are the ones where there’s little to break. The one you share(d) with your friend from school, college or university. With the first landlady you had. With the housekeeper who bossed over her. With the former colleague who taught you to fight the software. With the elderly office assistant who fought it better than you. With the grandmalike professor who became a friend after you helped her dig up some material from a library. With the cousin who forgot all about libraries once he learnt of the bar.

The reason such long-distance relationships are difficult is that you don’t know exactly what to do with them. There are too many questions to be answered about them and plans of action to be drawn up, accordingly. You could fix a day to call them every two months, perhaps? Draw up a list of people to meet each time you visit another city. If you know when someone’s birthday is, you could send across a handwritten, if not a handmade, card. But are there enough words between you to be condensed into a card? It’s better to wish them on Facebook then. And also, occasionally visit their profile and do nothing because it’s too public a space.

Then there is the million-dollar question: are they even interested? Or are you holding up one end of a bargain that was never struck? There is every reason to believe so. Your “only friend” from business school has returned from London and you know that only because she has uploaded selfies taken in Hauz Khas with friends. Your landlady has seen so many of your kind that for all you know, she could be talking to someone six years your senior when you think she is talking to you. As for former colleagues, you don’t even know if your camaraderie was rooted in genuine fellow-feeling or a shared antipathy to the boss.

So, in these times of instant gratification, you choose to wait for the other to make a beginning. After all, what’s a long-distance relationship for, if not to pass the buck?


The Leader and What Follows

It may not be wrong to say that the leadership crisis which the world believed itself to be suffering from in the early years of this century is not a problem anymore. A country that was seen as being headed by a greedy, stupid Anglo-Saxon warmonger has elected to its highest office a person ‘of colour’ twice in the past seven years. Socialism has discovered a handful of influential if tentative champions in its European homeland. And India has finally shed its bashfulness to bring to power (and a lot of it) a man who resembles it more than any past premier did.

The question now is of how leaders are made. Rather, do we make our leaders or do they make us? In the case of some examples in history, it has been a two-way street. One that springs to mind immediately is, of course, Gandhi. He rose to prominence because he was like much of India at that time — restless yet restrained, conflicted yet resolute. But he commanded love, respect and devotion because he was able to go beyond himself to acquire the qualities of articulateness, organisation and extreme patience. In doing so, he showed people like himself how much more they could be. He remade them.

Obama, too, has been able to set an example by admitting to certain flaws of the American nation and leaving his mark on policymaking without sacrificing the principle of consensus-building. Merkel has risen to occasions in the most unexpected ways, adding a touch of humanity to her image of absolute practicality (I think being a woman, she can see that very often they are the same thing).

Not surprisingly, Hitler and Narendra Modi have much in common with Gandhi in the nature of their rise to power. All three represented, and capitalised on, popular disaffection with institutions enervated by a lack of momentum. But there can be no greater divergence between the trajectories of two careers than that between Gandhi’s and Hitler’s. While one worked towards an ideal of (relative) inclusion, the other used his position to codify his own prejudices into a programme of monstrosity, subjecting generations of a nation to a legacy of shame.

If you extrapolate to  our times the Hitlerian inability to rise above oneself, you will find that we still have a crisis of leadership. Modi has shown sparks of statesmanship distinct from his pracharak moorimgs only in sporadic bursts. Alexis Tsipras of Greece has cheated on the spirit of his promise to his country by sticking to its letter. In other words, these people have striven to fulfil certain expectations without responding to, or even raising, fresh ones. In doing so, they haven’t completed the cycle of being a leader.

But then, all human creations are imperfect, with God being a possible entry in that list. As in the case of leaders, here, too, we don’t know who made whom. And he/she/it/they also sometimes fail(s) us. So it’s okay.



The Hapless Nap

The afternoon nap is that most maligned of human activities. Like so many other perfectly acceptable (even respectable) chores, it simply doesn’t fit into the scheme of things in today’s world. To put that into context, eating samosas every week and disliking cats also fall into that same category. Never mind that sleeping for some time in the afternoon was always part of our tropical country’s culture.

As it was in those of many others. The Mediterranean region, for instance, took the tradition so seriously that the Spaniards and the Portuguese took it around the world and introduced it to regions such as the Philippines and Goa, respectively. In his essay on the siesta, Filipino Leonardo R Serrano mentions a proverb stating that it’s safer to joke with a drunk man than with one disturbed during his siesta. Similar was the setup at one of my schoolmates’ house; I had deduced as much from the way she repeatedly and apologetically told me that I should never call her in the afternoon.

I remember distinctly that at least in the first ten years of our lives, my sister and I were both expected to sleep out the time between lunch and playtime. That was perhaps the case so that we were not too tired to study in the evening.

At this stage in life, I can see that there might have been another reason behind enforcing the siesta rule. When you slept right in the middle of the day, your mind got the time and space to take the happenings of the first half in its stride. Consequently, you could approach the second half with a stronger sense of control. It also made all persons what we call ‘morning persons’ now. The practice made you a less anxious soul. Indeed, Wikipedia tells us about a 2007 Washington Post article on research that found siestas to reduce the risk of heart attack. Unsurprisingly, the findings had come out of Greece.

But the Greek model for anything cannot be the right one for the rest of the world today (democracy, yes, but we like it because the US adopted it, not because the Greeks created it). The American model for everything must be near perfect, says conventional wisdom. That includes sleep patterns. It doesn’t matter that American culture has been shaped chiefly by immigrants, who had to work relentlessly through the day for survival. If they do things a certain way, we should too.

That’s just how it is. As more and more of us become part of an organised workforce, we will have to adopt a life of forgoing the delicious, life-sustaining siesta. As I did to write this piece.

The Otherworldly State of Mind

There are very many migrants in the world today, and that is the case because the world is a far more mature place than it was even a few decades ago. The migrants I speak of are not refugees who are forced to migrate en masse, but individuals who live and work away from their roots in pursuit of what goes by the name of “a better life”. And, the kind of maturity I mention is not a quality of the quintessential migrant.

By and large, migrants are people who deal with layers and layers of emotional insecurity. They have sacrificed the comfort of a familiar ecosystem for a different set of priorities. Naturally, they are inclined to harbour uncharitable emotions for their non-migrant peers. This latter bunch is having it easy, they sometimes feel. They do not have house rent or EMI payments to make. Migrants who live alone feel bad about not having someone who always keeps the food ready or, at least, asks if you have eaten. Not to mention, this process of being uncharitable to others is uncharitable to them as well.

The same tendency to pit others against themselves helps them justify many of their actions (and inactions) to themselves. I can take a cab today instead of the crowded bus; unlike his, my dinner is not waiting for me, some think. Or, of course she’s working out; she doesn’t have to chase the milk guy every morning.

And then there’s the uncertainty of whether at all Mumbai is the right place to continue your career in. Perhaps Bengaluru will offer better growth. All this because both cities mean little to you beyond work.

Yet, the most damaging bit about being a migrant is that the distance makes your heart grow fonder. It diffuses memories of all the things that pushed you to leave home. Everything left behind then begins to seem part of a perfect, ideal state of being and the realities of the present appear bland, even bleak. The exotic desserts that none in your hometown peddled are no longer a match for your aunt’s myriad ladoos. The professionalism of your present city will soon drive your hometown too, as new industries come up, you’re told (and you sometimes believe). The drums played during the local festival seem to convey a show of strength and not a call to join in the celebrations, as those at home did. All of this intensifies the sense of being away and the recurring desire to go back, if only for a while.

As Gogol, the protagonist of that classic tale of the immigrant experience, The Namesake, comes to terms with his father’s death, he has an epiphanic understanding of his parents’ relationship with their native land. He is able to appreciate that “All those trips to Calcutta he’d once resented — how could they have been enough? They were not enough.”

For all migrants then, as for Ashima and Ashoke, it’s never really enough. They live out lifetimes with a strange sense of emptiness, an absence that is ever-present, if silently so, to inform all that they do. They are, unfortunately yet understandably, smaller, pettier, less magnanimous people than their at-home peers. After all, a part of them is always invested in filling up a certain vacuum.

The Common Cold’s Uncommon Hold

Ever got that feeling of being punished for something you haven’t done? I experience it each time I catch a cold. I try to remember exactly what I have done wrong to merit it. A drop of rain on me? No, all of that was taken by the umbrella. Ice cream, maybe? Yes, but that was three days ago in perfectly sultry weather. Frequent movement in and out of air-conditioned rooms? But don’t I do that every day? What kind of karmic fallout is this then? No clue.

So for absolutely no reason, you have to suffer from an uncommonly disruptive phenomenon called common cold. What makes it painful is that there’s a veritable strike, or worse, a riot going on inside of you, with fluids bursting forth like tear gas from the four orifices on your face. As in the case of riots, each attack of cold is more potent than the previous one. The devices which had worked during an earlier attack fail now.

And this is yet another part of the problem. There is no definite cure for the cold. With no disrespect to the world’s best medical minds who are looking for cures for AIDS and cancer, I can say that even they seem to have accepted the common cold as destiny’s inexorable design.

If it were only a matter of discomfort, the cold would still be easy to live with. But it is also a humiliating malady. People around you understand when you have broken a limb or when you are afflicted with an equally serious illness. Not so when you have a cold. You earn looks of reproach each time a stray drop of extrusion from a sneeze lands on anything that’s not your napkin. People turn around and ask you to cover your mouth while coughing, even though you’ve already done so. They audibly ‘tch’ if you’ve coughed more than twice in a single minute. What’s worse, it’s serious enough to slow you down at work, but not enough for you to go on leave.

All this simply because your system has been clogged by sticky lumps ranging from cloud-grey to pale lime in colour. And you don’t even know how they got there. Is it fair for humanity to suffer something like this? Well, perhaps yes. Perhaps this is yet another way nature and the universe remind us that some things will always be beyond us. That in some situations, neither prevention nor cure will work. And, that the irrational will always persist in our lives.


Picture Inept

Don’t you think there are too many photographs around us these days? I do. And while photographs were all around people even in the second half of the twentieth century, nobody felt like they were being swept off their feet by a culture that was increasingly visual. That was perhaps because technology imposed on the photographer the discipline of taking only the best, most meaningful of shots. In that sense, the digital camera and the phone camera have democratised photography.

Well, not exactly. Rather, they have done what capitalism allegedly does. It has made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The people who always managed to wear sunny smiles even in their passport-sized photographs are champions in the selfie game as well. They simply tilt their head to one side, open their eyes wide and pout a little. There. A hundred likes and still counting. For others, a profile picture is a sacred relic of a past when some kind soul had taken a presentable picture of them. It changes only when such an auspicious moment arrives again, months, even years, later.

I, for one, shudder each time someone asks me for anything other than a passport- or stamp-sized photo. A representative from a reputed foreign institution once categorically asked me for an “interesting” picture to go with my piece that was to appear on their blog. The tough part in manufacturing an interesting picture is to keep the subject interested in it. It would have been so much better to be living in those days when you had to stare blankly at the camera because nobody expected you to smile or pose long enough for the machine to make up its mind.

But then, there’s no point crying over that now. If there is a new kind of inequality, there must also be a new kind of aspiration. The laggards will have to buck up over time. After all, photography may never go back to being about Raghu Rai and Indira Gandhi now that it has become about you and you.

The WhatsApp Redemption

Whether we like it or not, most of us are today part of some sort of WhatsApp group or the other. Many do credit to Amartya Sen, straddling multiple identities across groups like ‘XYZ Corp Sales Team Mumbai’, ‘St. Paul’s batch 2005’ and ‘Saluja Family Group’. Occasionally, they serve time on more shortlived structures, such as ‘Ladakh trip’.

Given the nature and functioning of such groups, we are all bound to have our own terms of engagement with them.

Some use groups — including professional groups — to share with whoever is at hand the most fascinating tidbit they have chanced upon. This could range from the picture of a menu card with ingeniously crafted spellings to a completely unsubstantiated item about a former Australian prime minister’s tirade against the practice of calling out the azaan over microphones. Or something about the utopian scenario of a bank taking away your wife for non-repayment of what was advanced as a wedding loan.

Then there are those kind enough to recognise these posts as a result of the very human tendency to elicit reactions from one’s fellow beings. They are also good enough to come up with their own picture of a car with the owner’s surname emblazoned on the cover of the boot, Julia Gillard’s rebuttal of the azaan charge and the apparently obvious question, “Why can’t the bank take away the husband himself?”

For others, the policy is to keep these groups and themselves on mute mode. They would rather not have anything to do with any of this tomfoolery.

Doesn’t all of this sound like your typical apartment building? To me at least, it does. You say something and your neighbour will have to hear you because, well, they are your neighbour. You will also have to hear them out because who started it all? And then you always have to live with those who keep quiet because they have to live with you.

The WhatsApp group has thus become social media’s only shot at redemption. Through WhatsApp, it has restored to you the neighbour it had stolen through everything else that went before.