Festival time

One of the big debates I have been having in my mind of late is how do I celebrate festivals and what traditions do I follow.

I am agnostic, wearing towards atheist. I totally admire the concept of a god at a personal level since it clearly helps you grapple with issues too large for you to understand (eg. The death of a close friend’s child. The only way they got over those days was to assure themselves that maybe god meant for things to be this way). Or how much faith can help a person (like a friend’s uncle who found battling cancer just a bit easier thanks to his belief in religion).

I also admire the concept of god for society as a whole since it really is a sort of carrot and stick that tells you to behave decently and be nice to others (or else here is your passport to hell, mister)

However, when you have intellectually decided that the concept of a god is really a bit of a crutch and a bit of direction-setting for the society, then it is difficult to cross the threshold back to being a believer. A threshold which I desperately tried to cross back to when a close friend was hit by a serious illness a few months ago. A threshold which I always thought I could easily cross when it came to it. Yet, I could not do more than utter empty and meaningless prayers from childhood, perhaps just to calm myself down.

Now that it is becoming increasingly clear that the bridge to my belief in god has more or less been burnt (who knows, it may be resurrected someday), more practical questions arise.

The most important being, how does one celebrate festivals when one is in a no-man’s land? These things never concerned me much when I was single since really it is no fun celebrating a festival all by yourself and I never even attempted to do that. With D in the picture, there is a quorum to have some celebrations at home now.

I love festivals. I love shopping for new clothes and then wearing them. I love getting together with the family. I love the smell of the feast being prepared in the kitchen, the desperate urgency to string together mango leaves and tie them to the door before the brief pooja starts, the removal of lamps from storage so they can be cleaned and lit. In short, I love all the cultural trappings associated with festivals and I have some very happy childhood memories of them.

And festivals are about both – religion and culture. Unfortunately the two are so intricately mixed up that it is difficult to separate one strand from the other. Is it possible to decorate a statue of an elephant-god, complete with a colourful umbrella and yet not feel slightly hollow about the act?

This is not a big concern when we are with the larger family. The rest of them, while not devout, are atleast still believers and can actually pray during the pooja. So it is almost like somebody else is renewing their faith and I am just celebrating with them.

The real issue is when it is just D and me.

D happens to be agnostic as well. Like me, D also loves the festival food and the celebrations. Yet, can the two of us, by ourselves, sustain the motions of a celebration without touching the religious core of the day? How do we separate the cultural from the religious? Some actions – good food, decorations, new clothes – can be easily put down to culture.

There are other actions that are not as clear. Is it religion or culture that dictates you light lamps at god’s altar? (We still have a mini-alter tucked behind the water cooler, having inherited a god’s picture each from our parents) Can you lamp lights at an altar knowing it is a mere picture and not the supreme being that the day revolves around? If you don’t light the lamps at the altar, is your celebration even complete?

These are clearly difficult questions and the answers are going to take their time coming. Or perhaps they are not difficult questions at all since millions of Indians go through the cultural motions of festivals without consciously thinking about the gods they may be invoking.

For now though, it is Diwali next week and time to shop, eat and have a blast with the family.

p.s. This is not a theological debate on the existence of god. That is a separate issue that may appear some day in this blog.


Smelling good

When Axe first came up with its deodorant ads showing wimpy, loser types suddenly becoming the centre of attraction to hot, sexy women, I was appalled at the blatant objectification of women.

I also laughed out loud, because the ads were indeed quite funny.

Presumably a lot of others did as well, because suddenly it seems like we are on a deluge. One day there is Neil Nitin Mukesh walking down the street, with pretty young things flinging themselves at him. The next day there are billboards of a siren clad in what can only be called a minimalistic saree advertising a men’s deo.

Looking at all these ads, one may easily reach the conclusion that deodorants are magic potions, the application of which will lead to the Ladeez being attracted to the user like steel filings to a magnet.

The truth, as we of course know, is that deodorants are merely personal hygiene products that men use (or atleast need to use) to stop smelling like a bunch of old socks. The Ladeez may not appear, but atleast the rest of the world will not disappear.

So Axe got it first and got it right. But really, can the rest of you read the above explanation on what deos are meant for and come up with some sensible ads?

Sure, some products need the hot models.

SUVs for example. You can't very well say 'buy this, you enivronmentally-unfriendly jerk with loads of money'. Instead perhaps 'buy this, you environmentally-unfriendly jerk with loads of money and the possibility that someone may look at your car and hopefully you'.

Deodarants need them as much as anti fungal creams (oh look, no itchy red scratch marks on any of the three chins beneath my bald head. Bring on the PYTs)

Can all the creative people who design the Amul ads lend a hand here?


Being sharp

As a child, I carried a pencil box to school that contained the following :

1. two pencils, one of which was usually only long enough for my child hands
2. one eraser
3. one ruler (when I grew slightly older)

As one can note, the sharpener is missing in this cozy family snap.

The sharpener used to be kept in a shelf along with other items in the wonder world of stationery that we could occasionally peak into but never enter. The world contained strange and fascinating objects like staplers, scissors, and glue in a bottle and later in a tube (not the glue sticks that come now).

When it was time for my pencils to be sharpened, out came the sharpener and lo behold! I was prepared again to fill pages with my crawly handwriting.

I suppose my parents thought it would be too dangerous to give a small child a sharpener. Though I am quite sure that the one or two times I tried putting my little finger into it to see if my skin would peel off, nothing really happened.

More practically, they must have figured out that keeping the sharpener at home and out of reach ensured that it would be available when needed. In the midst of getting your child ready for school on a Monday morning, discovering that the pencil needs to be sharpened and there is no sharpener in sight, probably tops the list of moments that can turn one from a loving parent to a raving lunatic.

I have to admit that as a kid, I had a tendency to lose anything. Especially when given the warning that I better be careful with it.

With most parents perhaps using a similar line of reasoning, only a few lucky classmates brought their sharpeners along. In case of an emergency (both pencil points breaking), you would request a favour of the lucky ones. They would make a big show of sharing the sharpener. When one classmate got a really fancy sharpener from Dubai, that was the size of her fist, all our pencil points must have broken several times in a day.

I am not sure exactly when the sharpener finally found its way into my pencil box. By the time it did, I was anyway too ‘old’ to use pencils. I used fountain pens and sometimes (wow) even ballpoint pens.

It was a long time before I started using a sharpener again. I realized the need for a pencil at work and began to use one frequently.

Generally, the secretary keeps all the important stationary like the staplers, stapler pins, paper clips, scissors etc. I wander over to her desk when I need something.

The sharpener – that is mine, mine, mine.

I keep it in my drawer at my desk. Everytime I need to sharpen my pencil, out it comes with a flourish and then I watch the light brown peels start curling up within the plastic lid on top.

Then I go back to work, with a little smile, ready to spread my crawly handwriting on another new page.


Games People Play

I finally found it!

After years of searching, I located Boggle. This was a word game the Sis and I used to play every time we went to visit some cousins. For various reasons, that only a ten year old could have come up with, I always used to feel quite superior to the said Cousins. Until their collection of board games would appear. Then I would turn green with envy.

We played quite a few board games at their place and I particularly remember Scotland Yard
and Boggle.

Over the years, I have been trying to locate Boggle but for some strange reason, stores never used to have them. This was till I went to the toy store next door last month.

As usual, I asked (optimistically with no view to actually hearing a ‘Yes’) – “Do you have Boggle?”

“Yes” the spirited salesman muttered.

Buying the game and paying for it was the work of a moment. All the way home, I clutched it close to my heart. Something like what people do when they are carrying state secrets about their person. Though unlike them, I was also skipping a bit.

D and I have spent several evenings now playing Boggle. Despite my super levels of confidence in my ability to win at word games and the prior experience at having played the game, D has been beating me solidly. Think in a short while I will have to stop pretending that it is beginner’s luck for D.

Luckily, we are better matched at Chinese checkers
. I picked up the game in a last minute discovery in the supermarket and it turns out that just like me, D used to play this when he visited his cousins. We had a few tender moments bonding about how much we had in common. Then we got down to the serious business of fighting about the actual rules of the game vs rules we were each used to. (Talk about baggage from your past... )

So I have been on a regular trip to childhood quite a few evenings the last month. I must say that after a tired day at work, it definitely beats flopping down in front of the TV to watch the 25th rerun of Friends.


Gone shopping

When I got my first ever salary, I bought gifts for my family, started investing in my retirement plan and saved the rest in the bank for a rainy day.

Or so I would have liked things to be.

As it turned out, I was one of those monstrous people who you see in the movies – the sight of money turns them into Mammon worshippers who spout dialogues like ‘I have money, I have a bungalow, I have a car etc etc etc. What do you have?’

The other party replies sanctimoniously ‘I have a mother’. This was a good thing, considering mothers back then were like Nirupa Roy who would have such a blind spot for their ill-behaved children that they spent long hours greiving in private rather than giving the offspring a tight slap and asking them to shape up.

My mom turned out to be not so much Nirupa Roy when I confessed that I had blown up most of my salary on shopping. She was more the tight slap variety. Metaphorically speaking.

Anyway, we digress. As the equation stood

Credit into salary account in month end = Shopping till earlier of (next month, money ran out)

My shopping expeditions included things I had always longed to buy, usually books and CDs. However, what I did not see coming was clothes and make-up forming a large part of the spending black hole.

After several years as a student on a budget, my formal wardrobe comprised the two sarees I had worn for my interviews (and never to be worn again till I turned fifty or such appropriate age for saree wearing) and four salwar kameezes stitched for summer training. Naturally, I had to buy clothes since it turned out I had to appear presentable in office every single day of the week

Not to mention, the only personal grooming that one did in school involved a trip to the parlour every time people on campus started mistaking me for a passing orangutan. The intricacies of painting one’s face were still unfathomable.

So it began.

I could have gone through the whole boring ‘try your clothes before you buy them’ routine. Or I could have eagerly run past the aisles grabbing clothes with one hand and waving a credit card with another. I chose the latter. I think what I was largely thinking was that I could buy any outfit since
- I would lose enough inches around the waist
- I would go to the gym, start doing weights and have toned arms
- I could sit at a certain angle and let only the nice part of the dress show

Clearly not the criteria one should use to build a dashing wardrobe.

Before I figured out that human weight usually follows a one-way street, my upper arms will never look slim and there are no angles to make bad clothes look good, I had spent enough money to fund a small house to keep all those clothes.

Eventually, I was wiser, but poorer.

Of course, with clothes one could easily argue that buying is not necessary to learning these crucial facts of life. Mere trials would do.

With make-up however, there is no other way but to drop the big bucks. You need to kiss a thousand lipsticks before you find the one that makes you princess charming.

So I tried.

The band of ‘dusky-skinned’ heroines was on the rise and all I had to do was to take cues from them on what shade might suit me. This was till I caught Bipasha Basu sporting a burnt-orange lipstick that would have definitely made me look like one of those glow-in-the-dark toys of yesteryears.

With that guiding factor lost, I plunged into buying shades of lipsticks titled cigarette smoker, where is the lipstick?, there is something on your mouth, South Indian slut etc. Finally, from the sheer laws of probability one of the colours worked. A couple of months later the company stopped making that shade.

With the last bits of the discontinued line that still survived on my dresser I managed to match it with other brands. Till date, I continue the practice of shopping for the next tube before the previous one is completely exhausted. In a fire, I would probably grab the lipstick and run out of the house.

Similar experiments were repeated with foundation leading to snaps where I look mummified, pasty-faced or like a sad survivor of an oil spill. Eye shadows meant to bring out the smoky, smoldering look have ended up with the ‘raccoon lost in the woods’ look. The lesson learnt from this rampant experimenting is that basic make up works at most times. The rest is just too much money for too little returns.

After all these years and this much spending, am I the nattiest dresser around?

Not really. Most of the effort has always gone into ensuring that I am not bottom of the barrel, with the occasional wow look thrown in. But not a week passes by when I don’t notice a woman wearing smart clothes, with the right accessories and make up that makes her face glow. And when I do spot such people, I can feel the slight stirring at the pit of my stomach, urging me to go out, buy better clothes, better make-up, better accessories and aspire to a smarter me. But then, I just tell myself what I learnt in shopaholics anonymous.

Anyone who dresses worse than me is a slob. Anyone who dresses better than me is just too vain.


Endhiran review (or why you should not watch it)

Warning: Lots of spoilers.

Average Hair Count on each theatergoer’s head at the beginning of Enthiran – 1000,000

Dr Vasigaran or Vasi (Rajini in another age-reversal get up) is a robot scientist who has spent ten years of his life building an android-humanoid (i.e. life like) robot. He is assisted by two imbecile lab assistants who are completely unmindful of the fact that they are privileged to be part of a team developing cutting edge stuff in robotics. Instead they act like two disgruntled code-writers in software companies doing time-pass at work and looking out for jobs.

Vasi’s lab is located in what looks suspiciously like California but emerges into Mount Road in Chennai. When the movie opens, the robot is kicking the two lab assistants (hmmm, hence the job dissatisfaction?). Apparently this is the humour element in the movie, since the two lab guys get beaten up in the movie quite frequently by the robot.

Hair count as one begins tearing hair in frustration – 999,000

Vasi’s robot ‘Chiti’ is created in the image of Vasi and is ready to be tested in a real life environment. Enter Sana (Aishwarya Rai looking quite shapely after ages), Vasi’s super pretty and super dumb doctor girlfriend. Sana takes Chiti home and in two minutes manages to get into trouble with the neighbourhood goons. Sana the HUMAN BEING stands helplessly while Chiti the ROBOT uses his initiative to create havoc. Encouraged, Sana gets into a standoff with some more goons and pleads to Chiti ‘Do something’. Er..don’t robots normally need precise instructions like ‘Take the bad guy’s weapon and kick his ass’? Besides, however did she get through her days before Chiti appeared, considering her penchant for getting into trouble?

From the strong Ramya Krishnan character in Padiappa and the Jothika character in Chandramukhi, women in Rajni movies have morphed into these wimpy eyelash-flashers who whimper helplessly most of the time. If Shriya in Sivaji was bad, watching Ash Rai being saved by a Robot in a proooollongged rape scene makes you want to cry.

Hair count – 700,000

Anyway, after Chiti is exposed to the world of women who exist only in the movies, Vasi reveals Chiti’s purpose. Chiti is to be given to the Indian army so that robots can fight in the place of real soldiers. So basically we find out that a robot, designed to kill human beings has been roaming the streets at will.

Hair count – 600,000

Enter Evil Scientist Bohra (Danny Denzagpo looking suave). Bohra's robots all look menacing just in case we have not already figured out he is the bad guy. Bohra has taken a hefty cash advance from an international Terrorist Placement Agency which has asked for several human looking robots. Bohra's robots are unfortunately not ready for this lucrative market. So he conspires to get hold of Chiti and sabotages Chiti’s attempts to be recruited by the army.

A frustrated Vasi, instead of going back to altering Chiti’s software, decides to teach Chiti ‘feelings’ in less than a month in order to be eligible for the army. The expected happens and Chiti falls in love with Sana (Aha, I always knew Ash Rai's plastic smile could only be a turn-on for robots *smug smile*). Vasi destroys Chiti out of rage and jealousy.

Hair Count – 400,000

Bohra recovers Chiti from the garbage dump – oh yeah, Vasi’s method of destroying Chiti is not deactivating him but hacking him into pieces – and loads Chiti with the ‘Bad taste’ red chip. This makes Chiti go after Sana despite her really bad wig. Chiti converts all the robots in Bohra’s lab into his lookalike, kills Bohra, kidnaps Sana and sets up a house with the intention of living happily ever after.

Hair Count – 200,000

After a couple of stupid attempts by Vasi to disarm Chiti and a stupider robot dream sequence where Sana tries to seduce Chiti (what can one say…), the climax begins.

Hair Count – 100,000. Gosh looks like we can all use Sana’s bad wig.

The climax turns out to be the paisa vasool part of the entire movie. It is a stunning spectacle of mankind’s mastery of graphics (we may suck at robotics but we surely rock when it comes to graphics!). The army of Chiti robots form various shapes and ward off attempts by the Indian army to capture them. At the end of twenty minutes, when Chiti is finally subdued one sits totally stunned by the spectacle.

The red chip is removed from Chiti and Ash’s wig has also become better and is no longer attractive to Chiti. Peace reigns. Chiti dismantles himself while giving a long sermon

Thud thud. Gosh the head hurts without hair to cushion its banging against the wall.

The movie could have been a lot less insulting to the viewer's intelligence if Shankar had handled the whole man vs machine conflict better. Rajni the scientist seems to conveniently keep forgetting that his robot is a machine and needs to be treated accordingly - not slapped around or scolded like some recalcitrant kid. Seriously, a Phd from Carnegie Mellon, a post doc from Stanford and you expect us to swallow this?

Rajini's superstar image is partly to be blamed. After all Chiti may be a robot, but he is still Rajini. And hence he becomes a superman instead of a supermachine. Perhaps if writer Sujata had been alive, the movie may have been dumbed down to suit the average viewer without losing its credibility entirely.

I would sincerely suggest the following to Shankar to ensure that the movie has a longer run at the box office.

Try some serious editing – say about two hours of the movie. Now stitch together the following scenes

- Vasi and Chiti in the car and Chiti with the policeman (that bit was funny)
- Couple of song sequences, especially the one in Peru
- The entire twenty minutes of the climax

I guarantee I would watch the movie again if these were the only things in it.

What say?