Friday, September 30, 2005

Unrest in Jakarta, and why India needs to pay attention

I've been following with interest and concern the Indonesian fiscal crisis triggered by the spiralling world oil prices. Now by all accounts, the situation in countries like Eritrea, North Korea and the Philippines is much worse, but Indonesia is a very fascinating and peculiar case study, why, I'll explain in a moment.

First, the big news. A few hours ago, the Indonesian government announced a cumulative fuel price hike of nearly 126 per cent! That is extremely radical by any standards, but considering the fact that the toppling of the Suharto government over fuel price hikes a few years ago must be fresh in the minds of Indonesian politicians, the measure is very brave. The fact that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was able to sign off on this shows that a) the situation with the fuel subsidy is really grave, and b) the man has strong convictions and is not afraid to take big risks, something that Indian politicians can well learn from. What is going to happen in the next few days will be followed keenly around the world, the demonstrations have already begun, and the big jump in kerosene prices (from 700 rupiah to 2000 rupiah a litre) will hit the Indonesian poor especially hard.

But let's track back to what got Indonesia in this mess in the first place. And that would take us back to beginnings of the glory days of the Indonesian economy in the late 1960s, when oil exploration boomed under production-sharing contracts initiated by the newly formed state oil and gas company Pertamina (from the merger of three existing state companies) and many Western oil companies. Oil exploration had been going on in Indonesia since the late 19th century, but with the new contracts and state control over the oil fields and infrastructure, the state started enriching itself with oil money. And what better way to stabilize a dictatorship and calm discontent than to supply cheap fuel to the populace subsidized by the riches garnered through oil exploration. The 1973 OPEC move to increase oil prices dramatically also helped Indonesia immensely and the economy flourished in the 1980s boom decade.

Throughout this dramatic rise in oil prices and revenue though, the oil fields and infrastructure remained under the control of the state oil firm Pertamina. Now Pertamina is notoriously incompetent in upstream exploration and exploitation (drilling) operations. Pertamina's also notorious for being at the centre of the massive corruption of the Suharto regime, and after the regime's fall, 152 contracts were cancelled by Pertamina to stop the family from milking the company dry. Additionally, the government has trouble raising adequate capital to finance the massive costs of exploration and extraction. So there is considerable dependency on Western oil companies to provide the much needed capital and operational efficiency in exploration. However, after the 1998 monetary crisis there has been reluctance on the part of these Western giants to come forward with investments, primarily due to the following reasons:

Uncertain monetary situation and volatility of the rupiah
Legal uncertainties and adverse decisions against extension of existing contracts of Western companies
Wrangling with Pertamina over terms of production-sharing.

Nothing illustrates this more than the case of the Cepu oil field in Java, that was explored by Pertamina for nearly 30 years and given up as barren and lacking any potential reserves. The exploration rights were sold to Exxon, and in 2001, the company discovered massive oil reserves in the field. Exxon's contract expires in 2010 and starting in 2001 it was stuck in a 4-year battle with Pertamina over the terms of the production-sharing contract, where Pertamina demanded a greater share of the pie, even though it did practically nothing to discover the reserves in the first place. With the fuel subsidy crisis, now the Indonesian government has intervened to give Exxon the exploration rights on favourable terms.

So the point being, as fuel demand soared in Indonesia and the world, exploration started declining and many existing wells started drying up. The subsidies stayed put, and became even more onerous on the government, given runaway inflation. Before today's price hike, Indonesia sold petrol/gas to consumers at 2400 rupiah (23 cents or approx. Rs. 11)a litre, that's nearly 83-84 cents a gallon. Compare that to current petrol/gas prices of approx $ 2.85 a gallon in Los Angeles for the cheapest guzzle (includes a state and federal transportation tax totaling approx 40 cents). Indian petrol/gas prices are higher (Rs. 44 a litre in Delhi after price hike of Rs.3, that's nearly $3.50 a litre), but that's because of a convoluted system of high taxes overriding fuel subsidies. The reason the tax is so high is because income tax realization rates in India are so pathetic, but that's another story.

So demand kept rising, production falling (Indonesia hasn't been able to meet OPEC quotas in the last 2 years at least), and then the final straw that broke the camel's back was the unprecedented oil price rise this year. Suddenly, the currency fell precipitously against the dollar (hurting investment even more), nearly 20 per cent of the budget was spent for fuel subsidies and Indonesia became a net oil importer. The Yudhoyono government's fuel price increases may seem drastic, but it seems that they have little choice if they want to avert another economic crisis.

Now somewhere in this mess is a very grave lesson for the Indian government and its economic planners. Often subsidies are a way of deferring economic shocks that are near inevitable. If you keep supporting subsidies ignoring all economic logic and global conditions, when they invariably do catch up the blow can be very severe. On the other hand a gradual rise in prices can lead to a smoother transition to a world of necessarily higher energy costs. Also crucial is the realization that timely investments in industrial development and infrastructure is essential not simply for economic growth, but to avert future economic crises that may well arise under volatile economic conditions. And of course, the fact that public sector companies can not only hurt the economy with inefficiency and sloth, but actively prevent development in certain sectors with malevolent intervention.

My intention is not to sound alarmist, and certainly the outlook for Indonesia is not bad at all. The country still has considerable oil reserves and some of the biggest natural gas and coal reserves in the world. Once all the necessary reforms are put in place the potential for growth is enormous. But in the short term Indonesia is certainly an exemplary case study of how not to get carried away by short-term windfalls and fail to plan for the future.

In which I turn a tag into an opportunity to bitch about Ma's buddies

Yay! I love fun tags, and this is a very cool one, thanks to K. I have re-read only a few of my previous posts, and it was kind of fun to go back to last year and see what preoccupied my mind then (which is kind of the point of the blog anyway). And here's what I found:

"The pressure to perform is far more on the boys, they are going to bring home the dough after all."

Contrary to hope, I wasn't speculating on sexual oneupmanship, just reflecting on the sort of expectations that govern the lives of middle-class boys and girls in India. Specifically, I was talking about the kids being expected to marry at a certain age, and how crossing that eligibility threshold triggers a crisis of existence for some. Since I wrote that post, I witnessed the hastily cobbled together marriage of a very dear cousin crumble within a matter of months. It was a rushed affair, partly because of the anxiety that she and her family felt about her being unmarried into her late 20s.

And of course, I look forward to a verbal onslaught of questions regarding my single status every time I visit India. Surprisingly very little of this originates from my extended family, many of whom live in ostensibly conservative environments in villages and small towns. Or even my friends, mostly married, who sigh and envy my single status and make me promise them that I won't ruin my equanimity by filling it with worries of kindergarten admissions for my tots. My parents are the most wonderful of all, badgering me over my dissertation and employment prospects, but hardly a murmur about marriage. No, mostly the nosey Auntie routine is performed by my mother's buddies, women who were speculating about spouses for their daughters and sons before the kids even hit puberty.

I remember a particularly hilarious conversation when the majlis of Ma's buddies was congregated in our home and one of them said (and they were all Bong), "I really don't know what I'm going to do if my son turns up one day with a Punjabi wife. Oh my God! She wouldn't know how to eat ilish maachh, or understand Rabindrasangeet" (ilish maachh or hilsa is to Bongs what matzo ball soup is to Jews). Such cultural crisis, except her son was all of 12 years old at that time. Did the poor fellow know that his Ma had already started speculating about his future mis-adventures? I think he was more worried about not getting bullied in school for his dorky glasses (which I'm sure his Ma picked, in a fit of parental insanity). The same lady would bless me every year with hopes that I would get married in the next one.

Another one, who shows considerable concern over my spinsterhood has started hyperventillating over her own son's inability to get himself married. The poor boy, who's a friend of mine, is 29, an only child, not bad to look at, and earning bucketfuls of money. The parents are very keen to go bride hunting on his behalf, and nonsense, of course he shouldn't date someone, why should he when his Ma can pick a wife for him. The boy wants none of this, especially the scary "good Bong girls" that his parents keep producing (yes, pasty white-skinned, oily braided hair, ooo-I've-found-my-meal-ticket kinds) and is also rather bitter that his parents shot down his efforts to hitch up with a girl a few years ago because she wasn't Bong. Of course this doesn't stop her from dropping very broad hints to my parents about the importance of being married, and how stubborn women who don't get married in time are ignored by their extended families and lead lonely miserable lives.

All this used to annoy me no end when I was in my early 20s, but now I find it enormously entertaining and sincerely do look forward to the concerned looks and talk of doomsday scenarios. And honestly a lot of them are genuinely confused about the very rapidly changing dynamics of relationships between men and women in urban India. The daughter of one of my Ma's buddies saw her engagement broken off (it was an arranged affair) when the boy complained that she wasn't "modern" enough for him. The little prude had refused to share a drink and dance with him on his birthday, which apparently embarassed him immensely in front of his friends. Of course the parents don't understand how an arranged marriage could possibly hinge on the likes and dislikes of the boy and girl involved, especially their lifestyle preferences. Frankly I think the boy was a prick, and what irked him was not her discomfort with his drinking and dancing, but her refusal to obey his wishes in front of his friends. But there's a lot that is in flux, which my Ma's friends either do not understand or are very unnerved by. And that's why it is almost amusing to see them inhabit this charmed universe where good girls get married, and crusty old spinsters end up very very sorry.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Making sense of craving solitude and company at the same time

You know how great a speaker is when you stop scanning the room to find the hot dude you espied for 10 seconds before the lights were dimmed and the presentation started. Yes, yes, I do have a boyfriend, and yes, horror of horrors I do appreciate eye candy when I see it. If my boyfriend didn't look twice to admire a beautiful woman walking by, I would lament his lack of aesthetic appreciation. The guy was very handsome, in that Mediterranean way that I know by now I gravitate towards, but the presentation was first rate, by a famous expert in the discipline who deserves every bit of his fame. Most academic presentations are yawn-inducing, but some are so engaging and interesting because the speaker is well-prepared, believes in his ideas and articulates them lucidly and powerfully. And best of all, the man made such excellence seem so accessible, as if all that was needed was a bit of polish and hard work for mediocre me to catch up.

However, in other news, I'm seriously pissed off. My current roommate has the annoying and obnoxious habit of leaving hear trash bag for days before throwing it away, including meat wrappings and all, that become stinky and maggot infested within hours of being thrown in the trash. Today, when I came back from the presentation, the house was stinking to high hell, and I had to throw her trash away, as I had to on two previous occasions. Now, I'm generally very laid back, and try and avoid telling my roommates how to run their lives, but this really calls for an intervention.

How I miss my last roommate Nell, quite, clean, friendly and fun. But she has a studio all to herself now and I don't grudge her that at all. Heck, if I could afford it, I'd have a studio too. As Em and I discuss all the time, after a certain age, it becomes really difficult to live with roommates who are neither family, close friends or significant others. In fact, after a certain age, living with anyone can be a challenge. S and I were holed up all summer in a tiny studio apartment, but it worked because S would leave for work in the morning and would be busy with his martial arts or sailing in the evenings. We never really spent extended periods of time in the same space. Besides S is extremely relaxed and non-fussy about things, and just let me run things my way most of the time (except with his papers that he would strew all over the floor and insist there was a method to the madness).

But good ol' Virginia was on to something with her insistence on her own room. I think that the physical space mirrors mental and emotional space (though Woolf may have been more concerned with the intellectual space bit), and the comfort of being able to rest in solitude with your thoughts is very soothing. Of course I'm aware of the fact that this is a luxury that many do not have access to, and overcrowding is the norm in many poorer Indian households. Most homes I visited in slum clusters (when I was a social worker) had families crowded into mostly a one room tenement. A second room was rare. And yet, the women were happy about the fact that the home was not being shared with the rest of the extended family, the way it was back in the village (none of the women were nostalgic of the life they left behind and didn't have illusions about joint family drudgery). It is one of those luxuries that I'm quite thankful to have access to.

Now all this does not add up to the fact that I'm an incurable recluse. I love the company of friends and family, in fact as I've grown older I've realized that my quiet teenage years were more due to my social awkwardness rather than any essentially introverted nature. I think I've established that I am a social animal, and love partying as much if not more than many of my buddies. But then, there are times when I do not want to explain to anyone why I've been curled up all day on the couch in a faded t-shirt, reading cookbooks and eating pistachios. Or make an impossible concoction involving all the condiments on the kitchen shelf and leftovers from the fridge and eat it with plenty of hot sauce. Or read the Gitabitan aloud to myself because I don't hear myself speaking Bengali that often anymore. I need to be around friends and family, but a few moments in a room of my own isn't too much to ask.

Monday, September 26, 2005

A spring in my step, and hospital cheesecake is yummy (or so I'm told)

I have the worst writer's block ever. Hard to believe, given my fingers are moving smoothly enough typing this up, but when I switch over to the important stuff, to the two grant proposal abstracts that must be written or else......my fingers freeze. I need to scare them into thinking the worst, conjure up nightmarish scenarios of research funding drying out and yet - they don't move an inch. My fingers have resorted to wily ways, and I need them to good to me, at least for a few months as I cope up with a dissertation.

On to more pleasant stuff. Ergo, ego boost that had me smiling and humming to myself, till thoughts of the unwritten abstracts intruded. So I had gone to pick up a package that was delivered at the office of the management service that takes care of our apartment buildings. In front of me was a boy who was obviously an undergrad, and he strikes up a conversation:

Boy: So, how do you like it so far?
Me: Hmm....I like the neighbourhood a lot.
Boy: So, you in freshman year, or sophomore (Gosh! that's as far as he would let his imagination wander? Ach, habibi, these undergrads I tell ya, so cute)
Me: Ummm....no, actually I've been here for over 5 years.
Boy: Really, so you're a senior then. (How deluded, and yet how sweet)
Me: No actually I'm doing a PhD.
Boy: Oh. Oh really?

I mean it used to be great to be mistaken for a freshman 5 years ago, but now it is positively fabulous! Especially since I've gained like what, 20 pounds at least, and just a few days ago Em pulled a strand of white hair from my head (the boyfriend wanted it to stay!). However, I have noticed that when the undergrad boys discover that I'm older and they're still romantically interested, they tend to become very, very persistent. I remember asking a freshman a few years ago why he insisted on a date with me when I was almost 6 years his senior and he'd met me a few hours ago. The fellow promptly draws up a 10 bullet-point list!

In other news yesterday S and I went to the hospital to visit a dear friend recuperating from an operation performed earlier in the day. It was very strange at first walking through the corridors of the sanitized space, so far removed from the frenetic chaos of an Indian hospital. It was evening and most relatives had perhaps left and what was left was silence and measured tones of the nurses and attendants. On the way up, we saw kitschy spiritual parapharnelia that adorned the hospital chapel and the teddy bears on sale in the hospital gift shop. As we walked towards the room of our friend, I could sense that most of the rooms had their doors open. I say sense, because I was afraid to look around, for fear of meeting some unbearable agony, some sign of suffering.

We found her room, and her boyfriend was there as well. She looked relieved but tired and exhausted, but her face beautiful and serene. The room was bare and dismal as hospital rooms can be, and looked even more dismal in the fluoroscent glare. We started talking, and gossiped and laughed till it was time to watch the new Simpsons episode. After the Simpsons we talked and laughed some more, gossiping some more about mutual friends. Suddenly I realized that I had stopped being so acutely aware of the hospital room, it had become less forbidding, more comfortable.

It had taken me a few weeks to be comfortable in my surroundings as a social work trainee in a hospital for mental diseases. However, when my patients started telling me the stories of their failed marriages, their garment shops, their hopes and aspirations, their children, when we played table tennis together, it was possible to look beyond the suffering that had so unnerved me in the beginning. I don't think I was desensitized or hardened, but perhaps my empathy had allowed me to overcome my dread of witnessing suffering and pain. I realized suddenly that I hadn't been in a hospital in a while, I had lost my comfort levels around men and women in overalls and labcoats. When we walked out, I wasn't averting eyes any more, I was taking in the surroundings as I would anywhere else. Our friend was discharged from the hospital this morning and is already planning a weekend trip. Sure sounds like fun!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

They need to invent the zero-carb, zero-cal birthday cake

Random quasi-celebrity sighting: Pooja Batra and Kashmira Shah giggling over random stuff in CostPlus as I tore down the aisles looking for birthday gifts for two uber-cool chicks. For those not in the know (and I think a lot of Indians don't know as well), they are Bollywood actresses, and the fact that I know of them proves beyond doubt my utter shallowness. Anyway, managed to snag a soup bowl set and pedicure set for the chicks who were celebrating their birthdays later that night.

Geek paradise, truly: The girls celebrating their birthdays were my ex-roommate Nell and the equally fun Naz. They decided to hold the celebrations in a party room in Caltech, because the room came free, and they had Caltech connections who could book it for them. Now if you've ever been around physicists and engineers (and I've been around countless), you'd know the sheer reverence and awe that is reserved for Caltech in those circles. Every Caltech student and alumnus is an object of wonder, however there is also plenty of speculation about their sex lives (actually the apparent lack of gettin' some for the Caltech-ies). A bit of the mystique wears off when you've been around too many of them (sometimes the academically brilliant but socially challenged stereotype is painfully true), or fairly mediocre students from your university easily snag post-docs there.

But oh, the campus! Quite possibily one of the most beautiful academic campuses I've ever seen. Languid tree-lined avenues, very handsome buildings, and situated right in the midst of one of the most picturesque parts of Pasadena. The place is just a 5 minute drive away from the Huntington Library and Gardens, home of the lovely cactus and Zen gardens and the Thursday high tea service. Would you like some rahs-berries dahling? Splendid, splendid!

So off we go to Caltech, where Soto reached before we did and wandered off to a frat boy party where everyone was dressed in togas. He obviously wasn't following the strains of Persian pop at full blast. We arrived to find the dance floor packed, and most of the liquor already consumed. Most of the guests were Iranian as the two birthday girls are Iranian. What I love about Iranian women is the fact that their faces are so radiant, they are intelligent, confident and self-assured, that they love having a good time, and seem to have fewer hang-ups than Indian women of the same age and education. Given the substantial number of Iranian women pursuing graduate studies at my university, the male-female ratio was not lopsided as at Indian student gatherings. As for the men, here's a glimpse of two fairly popular Iranian movie actors, here, and here, and suffice to say that there were a few men at the party who could match them fairly well in the looks department.

Just looking at these happy faces, dancing, chatting, flirting, it was hard to believe that such simple pleasures require extremes of subterfuge and public denial back in the homeland. That all revelry must be carried out behind the comfort of black paper glued to windows, to keep the prying eyes of the moral police out. Certainly not such extreme interventionism, but Indians battle their own public-private morality schizophrenia. And we don't really have a conservative, patriarchal government to blame either.

Soto tried very unsuccessfully to hook up, primarily because he was trying to throw his net very wide and didn't spend the evening cultivating the acquaintance of one or two women. With the result that he made half-hearted acquaintance with several and didn't get to know any of them well. Commitment phobia in the long run may be just distasteful to your partner, but in the short run it can jeopardise your chance of any sexual or romantic company.

We went on till 3:00 a.m., and were some of the last to leave.

Highlights: Watching a very drunk and slightly sleazy dude try to pull the classic trick of pretending to be interested in a girl's conversation while sliding his hand around her waist. She was smart enough to dodge the move.

Watching at least half-a-dozen girls in succession refuse a teeny-weeny piece of the birthday cake 'cause "Azizam, I just ate a big piece of the cake (yeah right!)", "XYZ joon, I feel so full (after skipping dinner too!)".
My dear ____, you are so brave, and strong and radiant. I know it's inconvenient to be deprived of the company of friends, the laughter and joy of the weekend's unwinding. The hospital's a grim space, alienating. I will be thinking of you, as many others, and look forward to your stories. Next weekend, then?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Roznama a la Moi

So in pursuance to what I said in the last post (I was serious about the post-it bit), here's a list of what went on last week:

Vic, S' friend flew in from Greece and left last Sunday. He brought me two packs of La Roche Posay Anthelios Cream that I had asked for (and an extra one as a gift from S' mom, she's such a darling!). This cream is fabulous, the best sunscreen that I could ask for. And since I have been converted to the cult of the sunscreen I cannot help repeating the gospel: Ladies and gentlemen, it doesn't matter if you are light-skinned or dark-skinned, melanin-blessed or melanin-deprived, reside in the Tropics or Siberia, you need a sunscreen. Best defense against sunburn and even more seriously, melanoma. So slather up, and stop feeling UV-invincible. You're more vulnerable than you think.

We went to the Greek festival at St. Sophia in Los Angeles, and ended up meeting practically all the Greek students at our university. And because my dear boyfriend operates on Greek time (conveniently forgetting that Greek-Americans don't), we reached the festival to find that they were all out of fried calamari (waaaaah!). But there were some yummy fries sprinkled liberally with feta (a Greek-American concoction if there ever was one), and great ouzo. I also realized that a great number of persons recognize me from past parties that we had attended together, and I had no idea what their names were. But the best part is that I met most of them at parties in the house of one person, so all I had to do was say, "Oh of course I remember, we met at Aki's party, right?" and I hit jackpot every time.

And finally, E-M's back in town, after spending a whole month in Cretan village where apparently the connection at the internet cafe was pretty slow. I'm amazed that the internet cafe existed at all. Though in defense of Greece I must say that unlike Germany, Italy, France and Belgium (see how I'm generalizing), internet cafes are cheap and plentiful and the only country I've been to that has a better coverage is believe it or not, Romania, at least in Bucharest. In Greece, tourism has ensured that even the tiniest island has an internet cafe at every corner, and Crete is a fairly big island. But digression aside, I'm glad E-M's back, happy and rested. Just remembered that I need to call her up.

Life as I know it

I think I've always been fairly clear that this blog is sort of a diary-substitute, and I'm really glad that it has managed so far to avoid the fate of diaries I have attempted to keep in the past. As an aside, salacious gossip mongering was the reason for the demise of one, because I was moron enough to faithfully record the dilly-dallies of friends and then bring the diary over to class and carelessly leave it on the desk. My dear friend Surbhi happened to pick it up, and there, in neat cursive writing with blue ink, were recorded all her trysts, all the times she had asked me to write up her love letters, cover for her as she met boyfriends, juggling two at a time (personal best was three at a time I believe). Now I wasn't morally ambivalent about writing this up, because Surbhi had managed to make her relationships into group projects, involving all of us in letter writing, appointment-setting, gift-selecting and wrapping, etc. Her love affairs were my life too, although I wish I had a bit more control over this aspect of my life, since the men she chose were all uniformly boring and charmless.

But she happened to read what I wrote, and was very unhappy about it. She thought it was mean of me to write that she was dating two at a time, and I had a hard time convincing her that I wasn't making any moral judgments about her choice. I don't know how things have changed in India (Delhi to be precise) but more than a decade ago, even if the girls in my class had no qualms about dating more than one at a time and keeping options open, they sure as hell didn't want to talk about it. In fact information about boyfriends was only shared with closest friends, and for public consumption, everyone was unattached, sexually naive and disinterested in men. So of course the diary had to be ditched.

I did try relaunching the diary a few years later when I went out on my first few dates, because I thought there was something significant enough going on to merit a record. Thankfully I didn't take it too far, because I was going through a particularly creativity-challenged phase, both in choice of men and in choice of words and hence it managed to become a syrupy, sappy little repository of what in retrospect were rambling odes to infatuation. After a few months of writing the diary, I read the past entries and was appalled at the whiny attention-whore that I sounded like. I got rid of the diary (ripped pages apart), but refrained from ripping the relationship up for a while (bad choice baby). After finally disentangling myself from a relationship that had been a result of teenage angst rather than genuine affection, I moved on to better men but not necessarily meticulous record keeping.

And yet, I missed the initial joy I had felt with my first diary, going back to read entries about days long sublimated into the haze that school year was, and yet, there was the day when Shelly and Pankaj hooked up, or the day when Ashish and I stood ankle deep in mud on our school picnic, admiring the migratory birds as they nested in the swamps. Or the day our Principal got accidentally locked in the boys' bathroom because she was trying to be extra vigilante. Play rehearsals, quiz clubs, hook-up rumours, a friend's sister's wedding, every little trivia was recorded, at times reluctantly as the task seemed onerous and tedious at times. Actually, this is what made me think of the post, because I knew I wanted to write down what happened last week, just in case I might want to know several years from now what I did this week, and yet it almost seemed a chore to remember the details. Yet I do it, for the sake of personal history, to have a roadmap of my existence at this moment, because I know I do not remember well all of the past that gave me joy. That is the approach of my boyfriend, who is a conscientious diary-writer and keeps note of his days, even if a few lines for each (that's how he figured out what day we first met, I had no recollection).

So bear with me if I write posts at times that look like hurried post-it scribbles, with a bare sketch of the day or the week gone by. That's just my way of giving future cues to my brain to remember what may have been lost in its caverns as too trivial, too mundane.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Class and Luxury through the Multicolore Prism

After no posts for more than a week, I thought I'd do three in a row, and this one is sort of a reflection on certain discussions that I was privy to as I was browsing through some message boards. Now I have more than a interest in fashion, as an art form, as a reflection of zeitgeist and certainly because I want to look oh so stylish and put together (not that I ever succeed). But a fairly straightforward discussion of fashion, which is more often than not all about melikey or "ewww, how could they design that" and this sort of banality is very boring for me. I like discussions about history and progression of fashion, the avant-garde and of course, fashion as cultural phenomenon. And the one cultural phenomenon where fashion is deeply entwined, and something that anyone living in the US or Europe or East and South-east Asia could not have possibly missed has been the phenomenon of the Louis Vuitton Murakami bag.

That bag is everywhere. If there is a single piece of merchandise that has become iconic of late 1990s and early 2000s fashion's obsession with logos and conspicuous vanity, it is the Multicolore commissioned by Louis Vuitton from Murakami. The collaboration is an unlikely match, given Louis Vuitton's history, and Murakami's artistic fascinations. Vuitton started in 1854 as a luggage manufacture (quite similar to Gucci's beginnings actually) and moved on to other luxury goods, primarily bags pretty soon. They were shrewd enough to hit on the readily-identifiable beige-on-chestnut monogram with the "LV" in 1896, probably the first luxury goods company in the world to do so. Even in those times, Vuitton was dogged by plagiarism of its distinct designs. Vuitton remained a fairly well-established luxury goods house, with name recognition, but certainly not on a global scale and certainly not on the scale of the frenzy that followed later.

The frenzy was brought on by a collaboration with Takashi Murakami, an artist with a fair bit of following in Japan as well as globally, primarily known for his embracing facets of Japanese pop culture and fusing it with a minimalistic aesthetic. Nothing is left out, animation, toys, action figures, manga, all are embraced to produce results that are a reflection of a composite "cool" in Japanese youth culture. The contrast between Murakami's art and the house of Vuitton is fairly evident, and I guess the collaboration would have never come through if not for the intervention of Marc Jacobs, who was appointed artistic director at Vuitton in 1998. Jacobs is an American designer who revels in vintage looks and grunge, and would presumably have been more interested in incorporating elements of Japanese popular culture-based avante garde into the Vuitton line.

Hence was born the Murakami bag, which is a curious specimen of a luxury bag, to say the least. Strictly speaking the Murakami bag violates all characteristics of what a luxury bag should look like. It is a jumble of colours, the materials used may be top quality but there is no way to tell, and certainly to the lay eye, without the distinct LV label, the bag would be no different from any low-end bag in the market. Actually, it is fairly evident that it is intentionally so (and I'm not making this up, I do remember reading something to this effect somewhere). The campiness and the kitschiness of the bag is very deliberate, as if to transgress the notion of what counts as luxury. And it seems to me, though I'm just conjecturing, that Murakami is actually laughing at and not with the buyers of this bag, at their willingness to suspend notions of conventional taste to be led to believe that what essentially looks like the product of a kid's doodling is indeed an ultra-chic accessory.

I think Louis Vuitton was lucky that the product coincided with a moment in fashion and the luxury trade where even those (middle class women) who could not afford to drape themselves head to toe in designerwear aspired to have at least one designer accessory. For most of these, that accessory had to be highly visible and an emblem of conscpicuous consumption, hence a designer bag. It helped that fashion and celebrity magazines, with the help of celebrities helped to promote the idea of the "It bag", hence identifying a celebrity's bag from paparazzi pictures became an obsession for teenage mall rats and twenty and thirty-something working women as well as housewives. And of course Vuitton was only too willing to recruit celebrities to its cause. Hence after the bag had been seen on Eve, JLo and Madonna, the desirability went up dramatically. But as the limited income woman soon discovered the bag was priced out of middle class reach. The two options were save up or buy a fake. And most women chose the sensible option of going for the latter.

For such a product, that is intentionally kitschy, and a luxury product deliberately dressed down to look less than covetable, it is highly amusing that there is a huge debate regarding the morality of carrying a fake Murakami bag. I was reading through a number of threads at TheFashionSpot, a fairly large online forum on fashion, and the vehemence directed towards those who purchase and carry a fake Murakami is unbelievable. This is common to most online fora that are dedicated to fashion and style, and all sorts of arguments are advanced to condemn those who buy fake LV Murakamis, from the patently absurd ones of money from sale of fakes supporting terrorism, to the more reasonable ones of copyright and intellectual property. But of course, the bulk of the arguments point to a certain status anxiety or the role of luxury goods in determining class and social standing. And hence invectives like "they think they are all that because they carry a fake LV", "they think they look cool, but they look cheap and trashy", "only the ghetto fabulous carry fake LVs", etc., etc.

Honestly, I'm no LV expert (and people with years of experience are paid huge sums of money by vintage goods companies to be so), so not particularly qualified, but I've never been able to identify any LV Murakami carried by someone as a fake. I'm sure there's a way to tell, but as I said, since the LV Murakami is intentionally kitschy and campy, there is really little to tell a fake and a real one apart. I mean sure there are all sorts brand identifiers that LV puts into its merchandise, but those can only be identified on close inspection. So then, I guess there is only way these people frothing at their mouths on seeing others carrying fakes identify the bags as fakes: the rest of the bag carrier's outfit, their location, and the other merchandise they carry, all an indication of social and economic class. So if you look like you can afford the high price tag for a Murakami, chances are that your Murakami bag is real. But lord forbid if you come from my 'hood, generally look down and out and dress ghetto fabulous. Which is amusing on another level because one of the first celebrities to carry it was Eve, the epitome of ghetto fabulous and a woman, who if she walks down the street with her LV Murakami bag, would definitely be called a "fake-carrier" by all the armchair Louis Vuitton experts out there.

Strange how Murakami's design, which seemed (to me at least) to be making a statement about the absurdity of luxury goods as status symbol, became the ultimate class marker for many. I mean the hoopla may be trivial and trite, but I think it raises interesting questions about class and social mobility. And the alarming frequency with which the names of European luxury brands keep cropping up in Indian lifestyle journalism these days, it seems the same class anxiety is being played out there as well. But given the very limited brand recognition among the masses (thanks to years of socialist censoring), I don't think we would see any repeat of Murakami mania played out there anytime soon. In the meantime let me adjust the strap on my Prada shoes and clean the glass of my Cartier watch. Just kidding!!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Down the Blue Bayou

Was watching a television special on E! to raise funds for the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina, and heard some pretty incredible jazz and blues. Everyone complains about the lack of good jazz and blues in the city, and of course like all the other hopeless romantics, I had imagined that someday I would listen to some really cool jazz and blues in its authentic set up, complete with musicians who would regale with stories of encounters with Coltrane and Armstrong. Speaking of which, I looked up and whaddaya know, Coltrane was born in North Carolina, but Armstrong, he was from Noo Awleens alright. All these images, jumbled up in my head, jazz bars, strip clubs, vice dens, speakeasies, begnets and coffee (really bad chicory laced), Creolespeak, pecan-crusted catfish, Girls Gone Wild on Mardi Gras. How very strange, all images, not one tinged with actual experience.

Was speaking to a professor of mine yesterday, an expert on coastal zone management who was very very angry at what has happened in New Orleans to date, the botched relief effort, the mismanagement, the sheer idiocy of moving National Guards from the state to fight foreign wars. There's been an idea going around about how the city should never be rebuilt. What utter bollocks, said my professor, how are the Republican midwestern farmers going to transport their grain if they don't have the port that welcomes the barges ambling down the Mississipi. Yes if only for sheer self-preservation and not nostalgia, let it be rebuilt. Let there be voodoo parlours and mask shops, dressmakers and pimps, investment bankers and football players. I promise I'll visit.

My labours last weekend - erotic cakes and beach bums

So what's been going on lately? Nothing very exciting, oh well, we did have that birthday party for Triangle a few days back (Triangle who? dahling, please read some old posts). So the story of Ana's undying devotion to Triangle has been explained before. Here's more on the story. As always, on a whim Triangle stopped talking to Ana and wouldn't answer her calls. So last Saturday we are lazing at the beach with a bunch of South Bay kids.......

Ohhh......backtrack. I must go chronologically. Before the birthday came the beach afternoon. So as I had mentioned earlier, S and I had gone to this Greek festival where we met this really sweet Greek girl (let's call her CT) who had volunteered for six months in an orphanage in West Bengal. She spoke a few Bengali words and was keen to learn more and we promised to keep in touch. I called her up last week wondering if she wanted to go to the beach over the long weekend (Labor Day on Monday, three straight holidays, yipeee). Instead, she invited us over to join her friends at the beach on Saturday. When we arrived there, we found about 7 other girls and 3 boys, a cooler stuffed with soft drinks, and enough food to stuff everyone. Damn, some people seriously plan their beach trips. And there we were, S and I without even bathing suits, straight from running a zillion errands. Anyway, the bunch of CT's friends were very pleasant. They had mostly grown up in the same neighbourhood, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes (the area including Manhattan and Hermosa Beaches, is commonly known as South Bay) and had met at the local Greek Orthodox Church. The beach was like second home to them.

And it was a spectacularly beautiful beach, I did take some pictures with my camera phone but they really don't do the place any justice at all. I mean, this is the closest California comes to the coastline of Southern Greece (Peloponnese) and the Amalfi and Sorrento coast of Italy. Verdant cliffs almost tumbling into the rich lustrous blue ocean. One of the boys had a Bocce Ball set, a funny game where you have two teams hurling heavy balls trying to get the closest to a little white ball that had been flung at some distance. We played a bit of Bocce ball and at the end of the game, one of the boys managed to fling his ball inside the compound of one of the beach houses. The beach houses here are peculiar, the main house is on top of a cliff, and then there are steps leading down from the main house to a patio or observation deck close to the beach.

So the boy and S jumped in to look for the ball, and one of the other boys commented that S was like a little Greek goat, clambering everywhere. That's a childhood spent scampering and clambering over trees, fences, what not. So as I was waiting outside I saw three adorable little boys with a small stick in the hand of each, poking the ground next to the fence. They kept poking and prodding the fence all the way, and my curiosity was piqued. I asked them what they were doing, and they said they were looking for lizards! So, do you put the lizards in jars? No, we just find them, and then let them go. Strange preoccupation, but then little boys can amuse themselves with the strangest things. I mean, all that poor grasshoppers molested continuously in my grandpa's village by little boys who's only joy was to catch them and then let go.

After the beach, S and I went off on a slow drive up the cliff to be able to see the view of the sea from the top of the cliff. The sun reflected in the water, and blinded the eye of my camera, so of course every picture came out as a blur of incadescent light. But honestly just the amalgam of the sun, the weather, the breeze and the view from the cliff of the calm yet playful ocean is something that is almost impossible to capture on camera. But I digress....

So, Ana then. She called us up when we were at the beach, and told us that Triangle's birthday was the next day and she wanted to celebrate it and had already booked a special order cake. She decided to celebrate it at a venue where they were having a Greek club night special, of course all the Greek regulars were expected to turn up anyway. On Sunday, S and I went over to this place, that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere at night and the way to the place involved passing by the Long Beach power plant, that looked eerie and strangely attractive. The restaurant has an Arab name, Khoury's but doesn't serve Middle Eastern food. The setting is beautiful and it overlooks the Long Beach marina and I'm sure is beautiful during the day as well. We didn't eat dinner, but went over to the lounge section where the Greek night special was being held. And then, the cake was produced. And everyone's jaw dropped when the cover of the cake box was opened. On top of the cake, instead of the traditional squigglies of whipped cream (those are hard to do, I've tried), there was the picture of a naked woman created entirely with decorative icing. Not only was she naked, she was ahem....very vividly displaying both her lower orifice. I actually took a picture, that I shall not reproduce, not because pornography disgusts me (it doesn't), but because I don't have my USB cable to download the pic on the computer.

So then after the naked woman was stabbed all over by the birthday candles, the candles were lit up, Triangle blew them, with a sheepish look on his face, for once completely upstaged by Ana. Once the cake was consumed, everyone started exploring the club, and the one spot where everyone congregated was next to the dance stage to take a good look at the very scantily clad go-go dancers. I had actually encountered the bubbly-twosome in the restroom earlier, both Asian girls with massive fake boobs emphasized by push up bras, wearing cut off boyshorts that left half their derriere hanging out. The girls were fairly mediocre as dancers, but managed to shake their jigglies well enough to keep the folks rivetted. Apparently, later, some drunk boys got into a fight over garnering their attention, and were promptly chucked out of the place. Later as we were leaving, we heard the strains of Greek traditional music, and girls and boys forming small circles as one of them performed the Zembetiko as the others clapped. Some things never change with the Greeks, and every night must end with the melancholy, yet carefree dance of the drunk.

My hands were tied, figuratively speaking

Prolonged (well, semi....no quasi-prolonged) absences must be explained, and here's the reason for my disappearance. My beloved keyboard had suffered years of abuse (I usually have computer dinners, which doesn't mean that I devour computers, just that I like to surf the net while I eat). The amount of grease I deposited on the poor thing while reaching out to type yet another Google search query (quick, what's the deal with the nosediving rupiah, and umm...so how many closetted actors are there in Bollywood anyway), would have been enough to keep my car engine running for months. So finally, last week, it started showing signs of civil disobedience. First the "a" won't work. And then, the "p". And then, slowly most of the letters of the alphabet gave way, and it looked like I was almost near proficient in Welsh. Ddefnyddiol, anyone? The hard truth was plain. The keyboard had to go. But given the pace at which I accomplish most things, it took a while for me to get a new one. In the meantime, I lurked around blogs, read all about everyone's adventures and opinions, but couldn't comment anywhere, given the state of the resources at my disposal. Em thinks that for folks like us, a keyboard is as essential as food and water. Hmm...hyperbole, but generally speaking, I do agree.