Saturday, November 26, 2005

Days Unanticipated

Los Angeles, which is so predictably gloriously sunny most days, had such fickle weather today. It started with warm and clear sunshine, brightening the palm trees and the mountains into the sort of postcard imagery that tourists send home, certain that they would be met with huddled whispers and envious sighs. S and I were on the 101, picaresque at most times, but dazzling today with clear vistas, and reflections off gleaming convertibles. The object was the purchase of a motorbike for S, and he was so excited I swear I almost heard him humming (and S never hums).

This started out as a quiet day, after a fairly socially hectic week. My mind is always berating me for spending too much time in a social whirl and neglecting work. But short of locking myself away and disabling my phone and net connection, there's little I can do to wriggle out of the countless occasions that require presence. Not that they are not very enjoyable, they are, and that is indeed why temptation is so hard to evade. Last Saturday we attended 3 birthdays during the course of one evening, travelling from Arcadia in north LA county to Anaheim in the south, and ended up in Beverly Hills in the West, tracing a neat triangle with a perimeter of approximately 100 miles. Our reward? Bits of excellent brownie and icecream in the first celebration, yummy freshly barbecued Korean style ribs (galbi) in the second, and great ash-e-rishtey (Iranian bean and lentil soup) in the third.

We had a near repeat performance on Thanksgiving day, when we decided to accept three separate Thanksgiving meal invitations. Thankfully they were paced out, but again it involved driving first to the Northwestern end of LA county, then to the extreme south and then a two-hour drive to San Diego. And at all three places we had an identical meal, turkey with cranberry sauce, stuffing, green beans, yams, and mashed potatoes. But the meal was besides the point, at least for me, because I detest turkey, and am happy that I have to eat it only once a year.

We had excellent hosts and company at each of the three meals. The first was a family friend of S, YG, a Greek man married to an American woman, who had given up a career as a professional musician to work with computers. I loved their house, which glowed with such intense light, a blooming rose patch on the premises, matched with rapidly growing fruit trees on the other side. They had guavas, figs and even an apple tree that produced off-season miniature apples, tricked by the Southern California sun to sprout fertile blossoms. Their neighbours are two horses, prancing about in a small ranch, and apparently, at times these neighbours would lean over the fences to partake of small hospitalities. At some point after lunch, the niece of YG's wife, an intelligent, attractive girl when reminded that she was turning 22 next month said: "That is so depressing! What is there to look forward to after 22?"

And YG said: "You know, I turn 50 next year, and I can assure you that for me and my wife, this is truly the best time of our life. We've raised our family, are financially secure and in good health. What could be better?" I fervently wish I get to say similar things when I'm his age. And look as happy and contented as YG and his wife.

The conversation at our second dinner mostly revolved around schools, expectations from students, growing up bilingual and the problems of parents regarding the correct approach to a child's upbringing. It was interesting to see three sets of parents with teenage children reflect on these issues. Growing up in a culture where children can never study enough (and many end up spending every waking hour studying) it was fascinating to see one of the mothers talk about the dilemma of encouraging her child to get good grades and yet develop other aspects of her personality and not end up unidimensional.

And at the third meal, the hosts were our old friends the Pumpkins, G&C were also there, as well as another friend Neil. We played dumb charades all night and then the guests pitched their inflatable beds and sleeping bags in the living room. The joys of sleepovers with buddies!

The next day, after an unsuccessful bid to join the material mainstream by buying something at Fry's (we'd rather haul our material asses to Amazon.com), we returned to LA. And hoped for a relaxed Saturday. But while S was filling in the paperwork to take possession of his bike, I got a call from an old friend visiting from Arizona, wondering if we could join him and his friends for lunch. So off we go, dashing across town to make it to lunch with the "Lebanese mafia", as we love to call them, all smart, funny, some reflective, some plain crazy. The afternoon was spent catching up on old gossip and spawning some new bits, who had pierced nipples, whose girlfriend's orgasmic screams kept up the entire building, who is supremely disinterested in men but equally uninterested in women.

Hmmmm...so where did I begin? Oh yes, unpredictability. After the blazing sunshine, when friend from Arizona was leaving my house in the evening, cold winds swept off dry foliage and deposited debris in our swimming pool. Our tattered window blinds flew in all directions and fell, and after basking in the warmth of the afternoon, I am feeling very cold. Make no mistake, winter's here.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Body Beautiful

Em told me something really interesting last night. He went out for dinner with one of our neighbours (let's call him UK boy) and another friend, and there was a most interesting disclosure. Apparently one of our neighbours, who lives on the first floor (ground floor in India and UK) likes to walk around her apartment stark naked at times. Now how would UK boy be privy to such intimate information? Because apparently she isn't very careful about drawing her blinds when she walks around thus, giving UK boy a direct glimpse into her apartment (he's on the second floor and has a window that looks diagonally into hers). We don't know if the the exposure is intentional or careless oversight, and we wait for further updates on the saga.

Which got me thinking about exposure in general, and exposing the body in a situation where you live in very close proximity with a mixed group of people who may or may not be sexually interested in you. The department where I studied for my Masters in Delhi had a co-ed hostel/dorm and though I didn't live in the hostel, I was a frequent visitor and often ate in the mess (dining room). It wasn't uncommon for girls to walk into the hall and then freeze in the realization that they had forgotten the lower half of their outfit, rushing back to their wing as the boys craned their necks to catch a fleeting glimpse.

However, within the girls' wing of the hostel, the girls would happily walk around in towels and little else, or their underwear. I guess the girls thought of it as an exclusive space that a man's lustful eyes had been banished from (boys were not allowed into the girls' wing). Which just goes to show that women do not have absolute notions of public modesty, only relative ones depending on their audience. Gail Minault in her book Secluded Scholars writes of the dress reform that had to take place before Muslim women in British India could step out of their homes to study in schools. What they wore inside the homes was often so transparent and revealing that it was inappropriate to be worn in public space. In my grandfather's village, women bathe publicly in one of the village ponds, often topless because there exists a tacit understanding that men in the village will not go near the pond.

The boundaries between public and private space, and male and female spheres is completely blurred in the apartment complex that I live in. For one, in this old California style building, all the apartments have at least one window looking into the courtyard in the middle with a swimming pool. It makes for a much friendlier living space, more convivial and neighbourly. It also allows for a much more relaxed attitude to dressing, because the common space is seen as an extension of your apartment, and more than one neighbour has stepped out in a towel in the past without being overly concerned. And then there was the funny incident of a new resident opening the door to her apartment, to be greeted by a boy who had just stepped out of his shower, with a towel barely wrapped around him. Turns out she was given the wrong keys, and the boy later told us that he hadn't been planning on using the towel (he was alone in his apartment, he didn't care to walk into the living room naked).

When I visited Greece for the first time, S and I went to a few islands, including Mykonos. I had in my possession but one swimsuit, a one-piece that looked positive grandma style in bikini-friendly Greece. I was mortified in the beaches, and insisted to S that I should march into a shop right then and get myself a bikini. He assured me that it was not necessary, but I still felt extremely overdressed. And then one day, S and I wandered into a nudist beach. The first sign that something was different was that as opposed to the few odd middle-aged topless women on regular beaches, everywhere I looked, I seemed to encounter fully naked people. And yes, mostly middle aged men and women, who were charmingly comfortable with their bodies and the flab and wrinkles they possessed, quite different from a lot of young girls in the US who become supremely self-conscious in swimsuits and slog out in the gym to become "bikini-worthy".

And then there were S and me, he with his modest swimming trunks, and me with my one piece swimsuit, the odd couple out, quite aware that we stuck out strangely in this stichless paradise (I did suggest at one point that we ditch our swimwear, but S would have none of it). And all the time, the one question that was a dilemma to me was what nudist beach etiquette says about where to look. You see, when there is an ahem, naked person walking towards me on the beach, do I avert my eyes in a nod to conventional modesty (and risk appearing a prude) or do I look straight at them, pretending that what I see is a most normal sight (and risk appearing a lech). In the end, I kind of half looked and half averted, neither here nor there.

Of course it is all very fine to say that how much the body is exposed is context-specific, but then the notion of modesty is ever changing, and the change stems from people pushing the envelope in whatever direction they choose to. In another era, a glimpse of my neighbour's naked body through the blinds would have been cause for great scandal, now all it excites is curiosity and desire. Also even in places where the ostensible consensus is excessive modesty, there is always ample scope for exposure, as in villages where close proximity of the homes means a fair amount of exposure of the body on a daily basis. What all of this adds to of course, is a wonderfully complex kaleidoscope of how we perceive the body.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Words of Love..........

I really shouldn't be writing this, since I should have already embarked on my massive survey deployment operation by now. But oh what the heck, since I want another cup of tea, I'll just squeeze in a post while I finish drinking it. This post was inspired by the discussion on the Compulsive Confessor's blog about qualities she looks for in a man she wishes to date, as well as this post by Buchu on the relationship of Indians to the English language. eM wrote that she "can't stand words being mispronounced", and clearly the reference is to mispronounciation of English words, something that I'm guilty of as well. I often get W and V mixed up, and end up sounding very German.

I was reminded by her post of my own mental checklists of the past, never very explicit, always subliminal, till the day I decided to examine my dating history and see if there was a pattern, a rationale to the men I was attracted to. And then I realised that there was this curious detail. That when it pertained to Indian men, it was very important that they spoke good, grammatically correct, refined Hindi. No, not the overly Sanskritized, stultified, arcane Hindi patented by Indian state television and radio newsreaders. This was nuanced, earthy and elegant at the same time, at times oblique and allusive, at other times, shockingly direct. More Hindustani, than either Hindi or Urdu.

Perhaps this was a bit strange. I did study in an English-medium school, and grew up in a home of Bengali-speaking parents, who forbade any conversation in Hindi with them the moment I stepped inside the house. My friends at school and in the neighbourhood did speak Hindi, but this was neither refined nor very sophisticated, peppered with English phrases and swear words. Fun yes, but not very romantically appealing. Ideally, I should have been looking forward to being impressed with a substantial English vocabulary and impeccable pronunciation, given that there was so much social consensus on its desirability. But I think I ended up becoming a reverse snob, singularly unimpressed with Oxons and Cambridgewallahs and utterly charmed by Purbaiyya twangs and Lucknowi cadences.

I wonder why this is the case. Perhaps, because from a very early age, I associated English with the rigors of learning, the disciplinary structure at school, with the wonder and excitement of knowledge, but not intimacies, tugs at my heartstrings, nor terms of endearment. To this day, I am not moved by a single love song in English, but can get affected so easily by cheesy Hindi love songs and Bengali songs and poetry.

So yes, why didn't I feel the same way for speakers of elegant and refined Bengali? Even though I am very deeply attached to the Bengali language and its cultural production - the literature, music, social milieu, when it came to romance, intimacy in Bengali always seemed so out of bounds for me. Well for one, it reminded me of my relatives and parents' friends, not the sort of association I'd be looking for in a romantic interest. And then, love and its expression in Bengali culture was so mercilessly ridiculed by my cousins, that I felt that if a Bengali man were to express his sentiments to me in Bengali, I'd probably burst out laughing at his face. Besides, to be honest, I never really met too many Bengali men (really, my parents had very little connection with the CR Park Bong cliques in Delhi).

I think I've been able to figure out that part of the attraction was perhaps the space that Hindi provides for an exaggerated expression of sentiment, which is very appealing in a heightened emotional state. "Teri aankhon ke siva duniya mein rakha kya hai" (nothing more dear in this world than your eyes) may seem absurd under normal circumstances, but makes perfect sense to a love (or lust)-struck soul. Also, I think I truly find English an inadequate vehicle for the expression of longing. I find the terms of endearment in Greek so very loving and expressive, and yet the same sentiment does not find concommitant expression in English. So of course the words of affection exchanged between boyfriend and me are invariably in Greek. Is this just personal preference, or have other bilingual (and further multilingual) persons felt the same way?

Whatever the reasons, sophisticated and refined Hindi was a primary source of attraction to Indian men, and lack of facility in English not a barrier in getting to know men who were not Indian. Perhaps I should send this to folks like Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak and Homi Bhabha, and they can analyse my post-colonial erasure of subalterneity and embrace of the subaltern's imperfect rendering of the colonizer's voice. Hmmmmm....actually I'd just go ahead and listen to the gorgeous Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan version of this Amir Khusro poem:

Ze haal-e-miskin, ma'akun taghaful, duraaye naina banaaye batiyan
Ke taab-e-hijran, na dauram, ae jaan, na leeho kaahe lagaaye chhatiyan
Shabaan-e-hijran, daraaz chun zulf, roz-e-waslat chun umr-e-kotah
Sakhi piya ko jo main na dekhoon, to kaise katoon andheri ratiyan

Scroll down this page for a full version and translation of this poem (must warn, the translation is not really very adequate).

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Why Some People Should Shut Up About Their Alma Mater

The things one stumbles on in random acts of web serendipity! K has written a post about a new newspaper in Bombay, The Mumbai Mirror, which is a bit celebrity and socialite heavy. Curious about this new entrant to the Indian media scene, I browse through the archives, till I stumble on something quite amusing. A Bombay based architect and interior designer, Nisha Jamwal had written to the editors of the paper, protesting at being called a "publicity hound" and potrayed as a vacuous socialite in an earlier report in the paper. What caught my attention however, what this paragraph:

"'Dizzy stilettos’ do not take away from the fact that I am an ward winning interior architect from the Brooks Institute of Design, California, with projects like the Jaipur airport under my belt with several covers to my credit, or a columnist of 15 years in art and design, a worker in the committee of friends of NGMA, a craft activist from Paramparik Karigaar who raised lakhs for India's master craftsmen by chairing the committee, and wrote a book on craft, married happily to a gold medalist from IIM, Ahmedabad, for several years."

(Letter to the Editor, The Mumbai Mirror, October 4, 2005)

I let the weird comment about being happily married to an IIM, Ahmedabad gold medalist pass but what caught my attention was the mention of her alu matter (alma mater for the IIPM-ignorant). I've lived and studied in California for more than 5 years now, and have at least a passing acquaintance with the state of the architecture and design field here, and I've never heard of this institute. Of course given that I'm neither an architect nor a design student, that doesn't mean anything, and so curious about this institute, I decided to search for more information. There was no "Brooks Institute of Design" to be found, but there was certainly a "Brooks Institute of Photography" based in Santa Barbara. And then, further Google search reveals this gem. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? For those too lazy to click on the link, here's the gist:

"California state regulators have placed the Brooks Institute of Photography under a preliminary order to pay "equitable restitution" to students for allegedly misleading them about their employment prospects and earnings potential after graduation."

("Brooks Institute Ordered to Pay Restitution to Students", David Walker, Photo District News, July 28, 2005)

Yes, bless California's overarching bureaucracy, we do possess something called the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, part of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, working to ensure that students in the state do not get duped by tall claims of educational institutions. So if indeed there are those who wonder what's the best way to regulate private educational institutions in India, there is one model in existence that can be used for the smaller players in the field.

As for Nisha's columns on "art" and "design", here's a sample.

Update: Pidus of Sanity Starved very correctly points towards Brooks College, Long Beach which offers an associate degree in Interior Design. I've been blissfully ignorant of this place the years I've been here, though I once did look up community colleges in the LA area because I wanted to take up some hobby classes. Perhaps this is the alma mater Ms. Jamwal was referring to? The Brooks College website though does not use the term "Institute of Design" anywhere, and it is almost unheard of to refer to a trade/community college in those terms.
And by the way, apparently even Brooks College was placed on probation by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges in 2004 and was featured in a "60 Minutes" expose on higher education. That probation was lifted this year after they satisfied the ACCJC that they had complied with their accreditation requirements. However, ACCJC would continue monitoring them and another visit is due in March 2006. Please do read the "60 minutes" piece, it makes for very sobering reading. Who says the US is all that different from India?

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Seven Tag

I need to respond to this tag by Anthony before I completely forget what I intended to write (though I am making these lists up as I write as well).

Seven things I plan to do

1. Get a job, preferably one that pays me tons of money to do what I love (dream on :))

2. Resume Greek lessons and take Persian lessons as well.

3. Take sewing classes and learn to sew a goddamn dress.

4. Start a business in rural Bengal

5. Travel to all the places I want to, which means - all the Greek islands (haven't been to the Ionian side), all the countries around the Caspian Sea, all of South-east Asia, along the Himalayan range....

6. Spend a couple of months in Napoli as an apprentice in Don Ciambrone's kitchen.

7. Grow my own vegetables and make my own wine.

All these, not to accomplished in the order listed.

Seven things I can't do

1. Learn a martial art (tried and failed)

2. Appreciate the nuances of rock (Queen and Freddie Mercury is as far as I go)

3. Stop eating potato chips

4. Boil an egg perfectly (yes, I can make the most complicated of dishes and yet can't boil an egg!)

5. Become a wine snob (or any kind of food and alcohol snob, talk of foie gras and single malts bore me to tears)

6. Live in the top floor of an apartment building (I have a slight vertigo, I get dizzy)

7. Live for extended periods in a cold climate (I'd be a sun-chaser forever)

Seven things I say most often

1. Fabulous

2. Fuck (as in, that's fucking hilarious)

3. Hilarious

4. Aur nahin to kya (Farid haul me up on that, I don't know where I picked up that expression)

5. Shotti (C'mon, show me a Bong woman who doesn't say this on a regular basis)

6. Chi sho pa' (been saying this lately, it's an inside joke for me and Em, means "what's up" in Farsi)

7. Agapi mou

Oh dear! Those I could tag, have already been tagged, and some seem to be evading the tag as best as they can. So let's see, Urmi, K, and Essar, PS and AB?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Dancing Queen, and Bonding over Frozen Gourmet Pizza

Some quasi-revelations that were revealed over the weekend:

There is such a thing as a too fat belly dancer. Sometimes the rolls of adipose completely obscure the delicate abs hiding beneath, waiting to dazzle with their flirty squiggles. And yes, I completely dig the voluptuous woman ideal (eat Hollywood starlets, eat!!), but a mammoth heaving bosom is not always erotic. I say with some relief that my chances of encountering her are very slim, since both S and I vowed never to go to this overpriced, average Moroccan restaurant again.

As an aside, discussing a dancer's girth seems to be a big no-no in Indian classical dance circles. I remember that there was once a furore in the very incestuous art circles in Delhi because a revered dance critic had called a dancer overweight. He alleged that her weight was seriously affecting her ability to dance with grace and agility. She was outraged that he would even think of writing about her weight! Sometimes when I show S pictures and videos of Indian classical dancers, he wonders why some of them look so out of shape. Well, many have become holy cows, institutions that we dare not challenge even though they are well past their prime as performers. So they continue their diva run, hogging concerts, junkets to different countries sponsored by taxpayer money, but lord forbid we question their abilities as dancers. Hey I shouldn't be discussing weight, I need to knock off quite a few pounds myself :(.

Single girls in LA, put together your shopping lists and rush to the Trader Joe's on Third and La Brea. Over the years, the place has acquired a bit of a reputation, that stems from one peculiar phenomenon. You see, Craigslist, the website for local cool has this section called Missed Connections, where a person who saw a stranger for a fleeting moment and was too shy to approach her, can try and reconnect with her. Now what's the connection between Missed Connections and Trader Joe's at Third and La Brea? Well, apparently the maximum Missed Connection posts are about sighting a stranger at this particular Trader Joe's!! This has not only served to increase the customer base at this Trader Joe's even further (hence parking's an even bigger bitch), but has led to much hilarity on Craigslist, which you can read here, and here.

So this evening when we had to decide which Trader Joe's to go to for our grocery shopping I voted for Third and La Brea, simply because I was curious about the "scene". The place was packed, and it was a pain to navigate a shopping cart, and guess what, it was smarming with single men! E-M and I debated if the number of single men were normal for any grocery store, or if this particular store attracts a larger share of single men. Whatever it was, single male shoppers outnumbered single female shoppers at least 3-1. And girls in LA still sip their designer vodkas and wonder where all the cute men have gone. Jeez dahlings, to Trader Joe's of course, to shop for their fat-free soy milk and organic basil! So I'm happy to direct all complaints of unfulfilled romantic and sexual longing in the direction of Trader Joe's. Get some eye candy while you cruise the aisles for some sugar free organic ginger candy.

Someone decided to take a trip to Vietnam and ended up growing coffee :)!! The hat is very fetching innit? And for those who are wondering, no I'm not in either pic.

(Both pictures courtesy the adorable Debbie Tran)

Ladies and Gentleman, the baby whom everyone cooed over and duly posed with. The costume that rocked the party!!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Let's Celebrate

A very, very happy Diwali to everyone! Diwali ki Shubhkamnayein aur Mubarakbad!

And of course a Happy Halloween (where's my treat!)

And lest I forget, a very Happy Eid ul Fitr in advance!