Wednesday, March 19, 2003

A Mercurial Affair

Chapter 1

I mean, it could be some new-fangled, all-inclusive, post-modern, politically-correct bullshit, but come on, man, don't do this to me in the morning. I thought that's why they collected demographic data, so they could target information at you. So get my horoscope right, dammit. The man of my dreams will cross my path today - my left toe. I was full of no coffee, the commute had been terrible, the president had had nothing new to say (again), one of the stones from my Navratna ring was missing, and now this. They had to go get my gender and my sexual preferences all mixed up.

I filed an online complaint, expressing my utter disdain for their incompetence, vowing never to use any of their services again, so don't bother with any of the cross-sell/up-sell bullshit either, promising to report them to ISAR - Société Internationale de Recherche Astrologique, and just to throw them off, requesting to be removed from the “Anti-Aging Products” SPAM list, which I knew wasn't theirs because my friend James Chen ran that little (but lucrative) scam out of his fortune-cookie business-front in Beijing.

Before I could get my coffee, a repeat bout of great mental anguish hit me, caused by the unexpected, saccharine-sweet email from the very same charlatans, sent with as much alacrity as their auto-responder could muster, telling me that they were so glad to have me as their customer they would dance naked on the streets, and that they were sure my problem was nothing really, and that they were positive it would resolve itself in about 24 business hours, and that meanwhile, wouldn't I like to visit their online dating service, where two hundred million women, all of them blonde, were waiting patiently for someone exactly like me. I could barely type, my hands were shaking with so much consternation, I had to get my 5-caster Aeron PostureFit Advanced Back Support chair out of the way, sit down in Vajrasana in the remaining 2 square feet of my cubicle, and take 8 Ujjayi breaths, followed by 14 Bhastrikas, before I felt calm return. Three Product Management-types were looking at me in amazement when I opened my eyes, but they went away, shaking their heads in wonder, when I gave them a cheerful thumbs-up.

“Hello Good Morning Naresh How Are You Doing Today Good To See You Have A Good Day Take Care See You Bye.” That was Kashyap, the new QA guy, walking out of the break-room with all the doughnuts. He always spoke in Capitalese, and in abundance. I liked him. Always cheered you up. It was the consistency thing, I realized. It didn't matter if it was Winter or Prince's Birthday or Election Day, he always pretty much said the same things. He was the one constant in my life. He had also taken the last of the coffee, so I started a new brew.

Clint walked in, and pretended not to see me, heading straight for the coffee while it was still brewing, would you believe his insolence, but I preempted him, with one loud and extremely caustic clearing of the throat.

“Hey, what's going on? Fresh pot, eh?”, he asked, with his feigned exuberance, and slightly off-center goatee, looking neither very excited about the coffee nor too expectant about what I could tell him about the goings-on.

I gave him the cheerful thumbs-up with my coffee-mug hand and continued to scratch my balls through my left pocket, stopping only when I remembered my disfigured ring. That brought me right back to reality. Gone was the good cheer. I needed my ninth stone, like Frodo needed to get to Mordor. [And what's up with that anyway? I mean, I'd read all the books, and the movies were spectacular, but why were there like 20 rings? 4, or even some other power of 2 would've been cool, but 20? That was a bit much, and awfully lame of Tolkien, I thought.

So anyway, I needed to get my ring fixed, because, well, because I was afraid bad luck would befall me if I didn't, and because Guruji would be like totally pissed-off if he found out, and even though Guruji lived in Calcutta, he had his weirding ways, and the latest in wireless technology. Besides, I needed something to do, anyway.] So, back in my cube, sipping my French Roast, I looked for an Indian astrologer with a web-presence in the greater San Francisco metropolitan area. First order of things, I needed to figure out which stone was missing.

Chapter 2

Mr. Bob Pandit is sitting at his desk, smoking Marlboro Ultra Lights, in a chair that is so un-ergonomic looking, I almost feel sorry for it. Mr. Pandit is delighted to see me and waves me a chair that is now making me feel sorry for me.

He drops the cigarette on the floor, and without looking down, swivels his foot around cursorily, extinguishing it, or so we both would like to think.
“Mr. Naresh. Good to shee you. Tea.”

I can see that Mr. Pandit is very learned. Because he can see the future and the past and all the tenses in-between, he has no need for questions.

“No, thank you. I just had coffee. But you should really try the 5-caster Aeron PostureFits - they're great.”


“Chairs. They're chairs, and really good for your back too. But then, you smoke. Ha, ha.”

“Yesh, yesh. But I am now shmoking Ultra Lights only.”

“That is very good. Very good.”

“Sho. What can I do for you.”

“I have this Navratna ring”, extending my right hand for him to kiss. “Except it's not a Navratna anymore. One of the stones fell out. Ha, ha.”

“Which one.”

“I don't know. That's why I'm here.”

“Ha, ha.”

Mr. Pandit produces a magnifying lens from a drawer in the desk. I take my ring off, and give it to him. Through the lens, he examines the ring, and his face goes through the full spectrum of emotions, including concentration, interest, disgust, contempt and lust before finally settling on contentment.

“Mercury”, he says, after the requisite delay that must precede any weighty decision, and he replaces the lens in its rightful drawer, and closes the drawer with a finality that signifies that his decision is not to be questioned.

“Ah. I thought it was Jupiter.”

“Come back on Thurshday.” He smiles.

“Mercury? Really?”

His smile does not falter.

“Right. Thanks. Um. How much will it be?”

“Depends on the shtone. Mercury can be expenshive. Come back on Thurshday.” He is practically beaming now. I don't know if he's pleased with his bit of analysis or if he's in anticipation of extraordinarily large sums of money, but in any case, my chair is getting really uncomfortable, and so, bereft of my ring temporarily, I take my leave.

Chapter 3

The next two days were reasonably boring. An email from the online dating service brought with it a brief period of excitement, but the respondent turned out to be a non-practicing Buddhist transvestite who'd been banned from Burning Man. The possibilities were interesting, but I couldn't figure out what we'd say if someone asked us where we had met, and so I graciously declined the overture.

Thursday, I went to get my ring back. Mr. Pandit, it turns out, had to make a personal trip to Guerneville and back, in order to procure the stone, and seeing as how expensive Mercury had become these days, not to mention gas-prices, we settled at $85, after I negotiated a 15% discount in addition to sharing a little Shiva that Mr. Pandit had also managed to procure in Guerneville.

Exactly half-way through, we dropped the ring into the hookah, and had a fine time fishing it out. It came out glistening, Mercury winking, and Jupiter flirting. As I was wiping the thing dry with my T-shirt, Mr. Pandit noting that my belly hair was like Austin Powers’, the most incredibly gorgeous woman the two of us had ever seen, popped-out of the ring. She was stark naked.

Mr. Pandit said it all, very simply. “Yesh”, he said. I concurred whole-heartedly. “Yes”, I said.

“I am the Genie of this ring, and you may ask of me one wish, and I will grant it”, Jenny said.

Mr. Pandit was still going “Yesh”, so I asked: “Who gets to make the wish, O Beautiful Jenny?”

“That is not my concern, little boy. I am the keeper of a wish, and anyone may ask it of me, and I will grant that wish. And, by the way, my name is Genie, not Jenny.”

“May I call you Jenny? It's just that I've had this rather distasteful email correspondence with this transvestite who just wouldn't understand that I was not into Buddhists, and well, you look a heck of a lot more like a Jenny than a Genie.”

“Very well, little boy. Is that your wish?”

“Hell no, that's not his wish, bitch! I mean, O Genie.” Mr. Pandit, thank his soul, was quicker on his feet, when under the influence of gorgeous women who grant wishes. “No, no, no, darling. Wait. I will give you a wish.”

“You will give me a wish? Why don't you give me one of your Ultra Lights instead?”

“What I mean is, I will ashk for the wish. I didn’t know you shmoked. Have shome Shiva.”

“I don't smoke that from whence I came. I’ll take the cigarette. Thanks.” As she lit up, Jenny became even more gorgeous. A divine glow surrounded her, as if emanating from within her, and converging into the red tip of her cigarette. “You have about a minute left to decide.”

“Shays who? Why only 1 minute? What if we can't decide?” Mr. Pandit had clearly not foreseen this, for he was breaking voice and talking in questions. I gazed at him in awe for this rare display of the opposite of clairvoyance, but just for a few seconds. Mr. Pandit's roots were deeply shaken. Jenny, meanwhile, was inhaling deeply. I was deep in thought myself.

“I've got it”, I said!

“30 seconds. Then I go poof.”

“I wish for another ring with a wish-granting Genie with no time-limit. Also, the Genie should be as beautiful as you, O Jenny. And the Genie should grant 20 wishes, instead of 1. Yes, that is my wish.” Mr. Pandit was in visible approval.

“Very well. Here you go. And here I go. Good-bye, little boy. Thanks for the cigarette, Mr. Pandit!” And she was gone. And poof, there was another ring.

To this day, I wear that ring. (Mr. Pandit has the original.) To this day, I haven't been able to pop-out the Genie, or whatever the technical term for that is. The bitch lied. That's Mr. Pandit's explanation anyway. He thinks a cigarette-smoking Genie is a wayward, wanton Genie, and that she had had no wish-granting power anyway. She just wanted to bum a cigarette. Me, I think there's a Genie in the ring somewhere. I just don't know how to get her out.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Who is Ajay Naidu?
Ajay Naidu is a US-based actor and motion poet. Notable recent movie roles include parts in K-PAX and The Guru. He has developed a style of movement that draws on South Indian martial arts, ‘pataphysics and break dancing. Ajay co-founded Bhomshankar and Futureproof, seminal collectives in the early US drum ‘n’ bass scene and his vocal talents grace Talvin Singh’s albums OK and Ha.

From FuturePhysical

More Mukul. Biography. : Mukul Patel
Robin William's Inspirations

T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and E.E. Cummings.

(In an interview on NPR.)

On the topic of poets: is a great site that has nice little biographies of American poets and poetry excerpts and samples.

Cricket What-Ifs

Samir's blog is for you if you thought Srinath was a vegetarian.


Jon - George Saunders

With a style that is instantly reminiscent of Anthony Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange", in "Jon", Saunders introduces us to an indeterminate future that is at once repugnant and fascinating. Like laboratory mice, some of the more "fortunate" humans have chips ("gargadisks") embedded in their live flesh and live in sterilie (in more than one sense), protected and benevolent communities, completely shielded from what they perceive is the wretchedness of the "Out", where the less fortunate masses continue to live in whatever is their miserable present. These young adults are "employed" by a gigantic corporation, and their entire sustenance is by way of advertisements, in some form or another. The clothes they wear, the food they eat -- is all "donated" by corporations, so that these young people have become nothing more than walking, talking - and thinking - adverts. They are even divided into the demographic and geographic groups that they are meant to target.

The curious part is that these characters, the characters of their own living, growing, virtual reality, are aware of their unnatural, abnormal existence, but for the most part, are accepting of and even appreciative of it, because it brings them security and stability and even a sense of achievement. We gradually find out that some of their memories have been slightly modified, to perpetuate these tendencies, but for the most part, "big-brother" is benevolent, and the reader doesn't feel too sorry for them. Inevitably, of course, one or two of these young lab-mice, including the protagonist Jon, get a taste of what the "Out" is about -- that every blade of grass is actually different and not just an "exact copy" of every other blade, that a flower is a beautiful, complicated thing -- that freedom is something else. Freedom can be asked for, but doesn't come for free. The chip has to be removed, and that leaves a large gaping hole in the neck, and there is even a "risk of significantly reduced postoperative brain function".

Though written in the first person, the piece is more intimate, because of the use of language. The author has invented a modified grammar that is also terribly slangy, and to me, this gives the perception of a second-person narrative, because the reader is forced to participate, by understanding the new grammar, and thus becoming more involved in the story. Though in the reading of the piece, it is the language that first strikes the reader as new and different, the world that the characters inhabit -- or the one that their minds inhabit -- is also startlingly new. The characters can only think in terms of advertisements, their every metaphor borrows from an advertisement, and their reality has been reduced to a world of advertisements alone.

Coming to America

Eduardo was 17, but people told him he looked 13 or 14. It was true, when he first landed in Miami, the immigration official asked him who he was travelling with -- in Espanol. He had responded in his perfect English that he was travelling on his own, that he was on his way to Austin, to start college. Everyone said school for school and school for college, and that was a little confusing initially. But anyway, the visa guy thought he was being insolent, and told him that he better get with it, if he didn't want to get kicked right back to his precious Venezuela.

The visa guy was tall, big, white and looked exactly like the first American Eduardo had met in Canaima, his home town of a thousand people, the gateway to Angel Falls, which meant that every week a lot of tall, big, white, rich Americans would fly in and exclaim what a backward but charming little place they'd arrived at, and whether there was an ATM nearby (which there wasn't.) Eduardo had never quite understood the fascination for ATMs and burgers. He had never seen an ATM, but he had had a burger, and had thought it was a perfectly good waste of perfectly good meat.

But he had found these big Americans intimidating, and they had always been disappointed when he told them that he would be their guide for the next two days. "But we paid $120 per person", as if they were paying for body-size. So he was 5 foot tall, and weighed about 100 pounds, but he was strong as hell, and when he had became head-guide, he had only been 16, and he was the best damn'd guide in all of Canaima, as the Americans would say after their 2-day boot-camp with him. They were okay, on the whole, Eduardo thought, these Americans. They were brash, loud, and relied a lot on luck, which they also seemed to have a lot of. They were also intrusive and annoying, but they paid well, even though Eduardo never saw close to the $120 per person they paid for their over-night river-adventure.

Austin was amazing, awesome, clean, cold, expensive, unsafe, boring, unapproachable and so on, depending on the month or the week. The students had been really friendly. The dorms were very comfortable, warm and noisy. Everyone "hung out" a lot, when they were not getting drunk. Eduardo missed Canaima, the rain, the river, his hammock and the Tepuis in the distance.

Classes were fun. The professors were not intimidating, and Eduardo was surprised that he did quite well in his first semester. He had always been a good student, and the scholarship that he had received from the government of Venezuela was well-deserved, everyone had said, but he had had his doubts about coping with the rest of the big, bad Americans. Which was the interesting thing. There were students from all over the world at Austin, from countries he had never heard of. He felt safe in the "diversity", as they called it. It was okay to be different. And that was the other interesting thing. Being different was actually expected. Everyone wanted to be different.

He wanted to be an Engineer, because his father wanted him to be an Engineer, and he didn't think it was a bad choice. But a lot of other students were English majors or Sociology majors, and he wondered what they would do when they left college. He knew he couldn't afford the luxury of majors that didn't have job-prospects, because inspite of the scholarship, his family was still paying through their teeth -- for his airplane ticket, for the clothes he had had to buy from the supermarkets in Caracas and so on. He often worried about this, and wished he could work some odd jobs, like some of the other students, at the library or the cafeteria, so he could send some money back home, but the visa guys wouldn't let him.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Make Up

Saturdays I visit my Dad. He picks me up in the morning, and brings me back home in time for dinner. I like Saturdays, because Dad is fun. Julia says her Dad is no fun. Julia's Mom and Dad live with her, and they fight all the time. When they fight Julia comes over to my house and we talk about boys. My Mom and Dad never fight. I think they used to fight when I was little, but not anymore.

Last Saturday was different. It started off rainy, and we had an okay day. My Dad wanted to go to the aquarium. I'd already seen the aquarium in Monterrey last year, but my Dad really wanted to go to the one in the Golden Gate park. The aquarium was part of this big museum, with other boring stuff like skulls and bones. But the aquarium was kind of cool. Then we went to the planetarium, and that was cool too. The lights went out, and the stars came out, and the guy showed us all these constellations and the big bear and Jupiter. Then we had a little picnic in the park. That was the best part. There were all these other kids and we played tag.

Then we had to go home. It was starting to rain again, and Dad said it was already getting late, and he was wondering if it was raining in San Jose too. When we were almost home, there was a big traffic jam on the freeway. Dad turned on the radio, and they said that there was a HazMat spill, and Dad said it was going to be long wait, and that it was such a shame because we were only a couple of exits away. I didn't know what HazMat meant, so I asked Dad. He said it was short for Hazardous Materials. He said it was like these really strong chemicals and acids that if you breathe them you'd die. So I checked all the windows to make sure they were closed. Dad was trying to call Mom, but his cellphone wasn't working. I asked him why it wasn't working, and he said that everyone else was also trying to use their cellphones, and I thought that was weird.

After an hour, I was really bored. Dad told me a great story about the time him and his friends had gone to Venezuela and they had been stuck in a river, and they had to get out and push the boat, and the next day when they were coming back, they saw like this really big water snake that could swallow people. Dad thought it was a funny story. I thought of getting out of the car to push it, and wondered if there were any snakes on the freeway. So then I started exploring the car. I found this CosBag, like Mom says, in the back seat. I asked Dad why he needed lipstick and what his favorite color was. For a minute he was like shocked, but then he said it wasn't his, and turned away.

I must've fallen asleep, because when I woke up, Dad was shaking me. They'd cleared the spill, and we were like moving really slowly, like a boat in the river. After a while, he said, We're home.

Mom was outside, and you could see she was really angry. She didn't have any shoes on, and the door was open, and the TV was on, and the sprinklers were on, and she was talking really loudly. Do you know what time it is? And how worried I have been? Couldn't you have called? She was asking my Dad, only she was talking so quickly, Dad couldn't answer all her questions. Also, he was trying to lock the car, but he'd pressed the red button by mistake, so the car alarm was going off, and the neighbor's dog started barking. So I started telling Mom that all the cell-phones on the freeway were not working, because everyone was trying to call her. When I told her that, she turned to me, and then stopped turning. What have you done to your face? She was screaming now. I had to go pee really badly. I ran inside, and went up to my bathroom, and washed and washed and washed my face, and then I started crying, because I didn't know why it was so bad to put lipstick on. When I went down, Dad had already left, and Mom wasn't angry anymore, and she hugged me and said she was sorry for screaming, and she told me that I was too young to put lipstick on, and because it was so late, we ordered pizza.


Phrase Book - Rick Moody

What a wonderfully confusing, trippy, helpless, depressing story. It's Lucy's story. Or is it? It's many of Lucy's stories. It's what the narrator thinks are Lucy's stories. It's what we think the narrator thinks are Lucy's stories. It's what we think the narrator thinks are stories that Lucy thinks are her's. You see, Lucy took 70 hits of acid in one day and "lived to tell". I think the story that we read is about possibilities, it is about the unrealiability of the narrator. But in the end, it is about the degenerate state that the human mind and its modifications (which is life) is capable of reaching. It is about a sense of utter hopelessness and helplessness of losing one's mind - in the true sense of the phrase.

Parts of the piece are written in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner. Clearly, the point of view here, is the mind itself. Maybe the mind of the narrator or that of Lucy -- it almost doesn't matter. The effect it creates is that of loosely connected stories and confusions (of memory, of imagination?) and of an existential look at life.


Axolotl - Julio Cortazar

This is a descriptive piece, where the author brings our attention to the voice of the narrator, and then swaps the characters and the voice simultaneously. Curiously, I didn't know the gender of the narrator, until after the shift, when the fish starts refering to the original narrator with a masculine pronoun. I believe there was nothing in the story that divulges the gender of the original narrator. I am sure this was not by design, and doesn't play to the main point of the story, but in the reading of it, I was startled by the shift of voices and my discovery of the narrator's gender. Do the axolotl have a gender? What gender is the author now?

Saturday, March 15, 2003


The Halfway Diner

This is a story about a group of women who make a weekly 12-hour journey by bus to visit their partners in prison. This is a story about their lives, intertwined, through the forced togetherness of space and purpose. This is a story about unlikely, tenuous friendships that cross social and racial boundries, and that would otherwise be entirely implausible outside of the "virtual reality" of the bus they are on. This is a story about a colorful and varied set of characters who brave their circumstances in their own ways, who make the journey out of love or duty or even out of resignation, and find it in themselves and in their company, to look ahead, into the future, with hope.


The Blues Ain't No Mockingbird - Toni Bambara

This is a very intimate piece written from the point of view of a small child. It is intimate, because it is told in the colloquial. The setting is the south. The county is making a documentary (a survey?) for the food-stamps program, and two men, dubbed "Camera" and "Smilin" by the children, are intruding at Granddaddy Cain's place, where the children are playing outside. The piece is about dignity and respect. The entire piece is a "scene". There is conflict from the get go, and there is a threat of great violence.


A Conversation With My Father - Grace Paley and Happy Endings - Margret Atwood

Both pieces are an introspective, solipsistic look at writing, and to a certain extent, the process of writing.

In the Paley piece, the author is asked by her old ailing father to write a "simple story", about "recognizable people". In the first draft, she produces a mere paragraph about a mother who becomes a junkie to befriend her own son, who later leaves, leaving his mother lonely and depressed. The author's father (the reader) correctly criticizes her for not creating a character, and for just a scant mention of a setting. "But it's not a five minute job", she admonishes (and warning readers who would have thought otherwise) and produces a second draft, in which she adds a lot of details, and turns it into a viable short story. But it is the same story, and to her father (and to the reader) it could hardly be characterized as a "simple story" about "recognizable people". The next question that arises is about knowing who the writer's audience is, and the sense of responsibility that the writer feels for the characters that she creates.

The Atwood piece is even more direct, without a "plot" a la Paley's conversation with her father. Six slightly varying stories are presented to the reader. In the simplest one, John and Mary fall in love, get married, have kids, have a happy life, and then they die. The story has a happy ending in that nothing bad happens. But it is not a story, or at least, not a very interesting one, precisely because nothing happens, there is no conflict, there are no characters, there is no setting, there is no dialogue, there is nothing.

In another story, John is an asshole and Mary commits suicide. John marries Madge and they live happily ever after. This does not constitute a happy ending. Because the story was about Mary (or the story became about Mary) and she does not meet with a happy fate.

Every story has an end, but it may not be the end of the story that the reader reads. The reader may read on, beyond the last page of the book, and live the lives of the characters she liked. If the book is about mortal humans, inevitably, the story's logical conclusion has to be that all the characters in the books will one day die. But that is not why readers read, nor why writers write. It is the life of the characters that makes the reading interesting, and the how and the why of their stories, and the beginning of the story that is all important. The ending hardly matters.

It's easy to draw a parallel between these pieces and "If on a winter's night a traveller..." by Italo Calvino.


The Druvy Girl - Sam Lipsyte

Very slick, very economical prose, with a lot of dialogue that sets a fast pace. It's written from the point of view of a pre-pubescent boy whose father is suffering from cancer. A lot of the humor in the piece is injected by the father's voice -- dry, cynical and fatalistic -- and by the boy's quietly observant, recalcitrant tone of one who's growing up quicker than he should be.

The Druvy Girl, Nathalie, is the neighbor's daughter, probably in her early teens, who babysits the boy. She is the more "normal" child, at ease with her own difficult coming-of-age. She curses, talks of fucking, and in every way seems like a perfectly normal all-American middle-school teenager, who'll never make valedictorian, and no one expects her to.

Juxtaposed against this gauge of normalcy, the reader develops a quick respect for the protagonist, for being mature and understanding beyond his age. However, he is obviously taken up by Nathalie. It probably has something to do with his hormones ("somewhere between the mattress and me was Natahlie...") but also with his curiosity and this opportune glimpse into the "normal" world outside of his own.

The conflict happens when Nathalie has him strip, and brands him with her father's "Notary Public" rubber-stamp, and then has him dance, willingly and with aplomb, in front of his parents. (It's a well written scene, with a lot of details.) It's very out of character for him ("We know that wasn't you...") and yet, perhaps ironically, the reader's sympathies are with him, for this brief interlude of "normalcy", between the routines of "playing beach" with his father's puke-bucket.

On Trip-hop

Morcheeba, Massive Attack, Portishead. Have a strange effect on me. And I like it... :)

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Goran Bregovic

Is the bomb! Wow! Just got introduced to the soundtrack of Emir Kusturica's "Underground" (1995). Blew me away. This is the stuff. It's a curious mixture of Jazz, Ska, Gypsy, Russian Cosack (if there's such a thing) and drum-n-bass?!! It's very danceable. For the first time, I feel like going to Europe! To the underground clubs of Serbia...