Monday, January 30, 2006

Dancing - Utilitarian and Then There's Art for Art's Sake

The first step to dealing with a problem is to admit that you have one. And for months I was in merry denial, settling into languid rest, piling on the pork chops, virtually parking myself in In-n-Out Burger, and not setting foot within 10 metres of the gym. My clothes instead of warmly embracing me, started gnawing into my flesh. And yet I remained unconcerned, after all I was far from plus-size territory, and I still shopped for clothes in stores aimed at skinny 20-somethings. And yet, as the last year drew to a close, I had the epiphany, foresight if you will, that if the current state continued unchanged, it could very well lead to a cumulative damage that would have me bloated beyond recognition. That was a scary thought, because plus size clothing is nearly all hideous.

So off I went and signed myself up for a semester of workout classes at the gym. The portfolio of classes on offer is quite interesting, and for a one time fee, you can attend as many different classes as you want. What got me very excited was the fact that many of the classes on offer were dance based, there was Cardio Dance, Jazz Dance and Aerobics and Hip Hop Dancing. I had so wished that there would be some Belly Dancing too, but probably they don't have an instructor for it. I decided to attend a class a day and enthusiastically checked out as many classes as I could the very first week.

Of course, as soon as the first class began, I knew it would be a hellish initiation back to fitness for me. My well-rested body was loathe to let go of its repose, and croaked and groaned at every jump, kick and stretch. Several times, I paused in agony as one muscle after another developed cramps, unwilling to stir. The temptation to give up is always lurking at the back of the mind, and it is always hard to justify such arduous activity when the gains would be painfully slow in making their appearance. Exercising is hard, and I know people who've resorted to the most outlandish dieting for dramatic weight loss rather than become regulars at the gym.

And yet, when puffing and panting, I caught my breath and looked around, I became even more determined to continue. For all around me, were young undergrads, many of them sorority girls, pretty and skinny, and each one of them several times more fit than me. The ab crunches that left me nearly breathless, seemed like almost like bar hopping for them. These fragile-looking little girls were nothing less than pocket dynamoes, and the best motivational and inspirational figures in the world. It was strange that they were at once motivating as well as intimidating, because I also felt terribly embarassed for my lack of drive and energy, as well as the flab that clung to me. And yet somehow this dichotomy was held in perfect balance in my mind as the ideal carrot-and-stick to keep me going.

So far I've been good. I tend to flag at times, the body has pleaded mercy in the past, wriggling out of a disciplined gym regimen. But I'm hoping that my past follies have been ample warnings to not tread down that path again. And this is hard work, but super fun too. There's some funky music involved, lots of butt-shaking, and I'm learning new dance moves. I'm discovering muscles that I didn't know existed. And to my dismay, realizing just how uncoordinated my limbs are. There's a Yoga class as well, offered by a genial, sweet white dude who ends his class with an almost religious pranam, with his entire upper torso leaning forward as he said "Namaste!" Who knew the greeting was such a spritual experience for some. He's good, but I need more movement at this point.

In some other news, which is only slighted related to the above account, they've found the worthy successor to Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan, and it is none other than yours truly. In a bizarre turn of events, I, whose limbs never move in synchronization, who is the laughing stock of friends on the dance floor, have been asked to join a dance performance group. I'm still utterly bemused and shocked. It turns out that our dear friend E-M (the actress, now back in town) recommended my name to a friend of hers, a dance instructor who wants to build a Greek folk dancing group from scratch. Now on what basis would E-M make such a recommendation, I have no idea, suffice to say that at times E-M does stuff that is incomprehensible to mere mortals.

I'm clueless about Greek folk dances, I've watched them plenty, and at times even been dragged to join a simple group dance at Greek festivals. And this is a notch above, for after we've been trained and primped, we would be expected to give performances in Greek community festivals. Of course all this may never materialize, it all depends on how much progress is made in forming the group, and in about a month or so the picture would be clear.

The strangest part is that I stunned myself by agreeing to it. Let me explain. I have terrible stage fright. I'm the kid who avoided school annual days so I didn't have to collect any prizes awarded to me by going on stage. I get extremely nervous while making presentations, and even the thought of asking a question in a crowded seminar sends my pulse racing. For me to participate in a public dance performance is an extremely daunting prospect. And yet, in the general feeling of bravado that I've been floating on top of these days, with regard to my dissertation timeline, my research, my gym regimen, I unhesitatingly said yes. For one, there are the free lessons. And then, as I said in the beginning, it is important to tackle a problem head-on by admitting to it and boldly go where I've never ventured before - to my dazzling future stage career, providing a slice of old country nostalgia to Greek papous (grandpas) and ya-yas (grandmas).

Well, I'm exaggerating a bit, I did once contribute my lovely squeak to a school choir rendition of "We Are the World", but I was in the back row, most dimly lit corner. And then there were some dance performances many eons ago (when my age was still in single digits), but again, I was all the way in the back, virtually invisible, dancing with my socks and buckle shoes still on (I was supposed to be a sakhi of Shakuntala!). That experience wouldn't stand me in any good stead now, and perhaps I should invest in a really wide-brimmed hat and a face mask. It could all be incorporated into the show, and in a twist of sweet irony, my quirk would potentially blow away my obscurity and make me famous. Aah, such speculation, before even a single practice session has started. Actually, the boyfriend and I are really looking forward to this; he wants to join in too, because he's wanted to learn folk dances forever.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Short Takes

Persian Pop Plugged On: Em and I have been amusing ourselves by listening over and over to the brightest star to hit the Persian pop music firmament last year, Arash. The man's phenomenally successful not only amongst the Iranian diaspora, the largest concentration of which is to be found in LA, but also in many, many other nations across the world. His song Boro Boro was the top song in Sweden, and now he's found a Bollywood niche with a Bluffmaster version of his song, with Arash singing a line or two in Hindi.

The amusing part is, having been raised in Sweden, Arash's Persian is a bit wobbly, and to a Persian speaker, his pronunciation of the Persian lyrics of his songs at times funny. Some parts are gramatically challenged as well. However, kudos to him for getting the first real crossover hit in Persian pop, and experimenting with sounds and influences that have till now been relatively rare in the Persian music scene. Since the song has only two stanzas, here's a very rough translation (for those who've seen Bluffmaster and are wondering):

Boro Boro (Arash)

Roozi boodi ashegh-e-to boodam
(There was a day when I was in love with you)
Az dastet to kheili raazi boodam
(With you I was very happy)
Amma to bad sheituni kardi
(But you were very naughty)
nazdik-e-man na aa to
(Don't come near me)

Boro boro delam toro toro nemikhahad
(Go away, I don't want your heart)
Dige dige nemikhaham bebinamet
(I don't want to see you anymore)
Boro boro delam jaie dige dige hast
(Go away, my heart is elsewhere)
Dige dige nemikhaham bebinamet
(I don't want to see you anymore)

The Human Interest in Political Economy: Here is an excellent blog that covers the Indonesian economy using a keen socio-political lens, and is very enlightening about the archipelago. Perhaps I haven't been looking, but I've hardly come across a blog like Yosef's about the Indian business scene. It is very well informed, backed by solid data, and yet at times chatty and slightly gossipy, never forgetting the real actors behind all those financial figures.

Here's a great profile on Yosef while he was a visiting scholar at Berkeley, and I believe he's still based in the Bay Area. Of course as a working journalist with over a decade of experience Yosef raises the bar pretty high compared to the average blog post. This is of course not true of some extremely eminent Indian journalists that maintain blogs as repositories of tedious opinion pieces that were either earlier published in newspapers or intended for them. Those are rarely insightful and often pompous, even if I overlook the fact that they rarely engage with their blog readers. In Ardi's case, professional journalistic experience is a definite plus. This for instance, is his take on the presumed wishlist of US multinationals part of a delegation meeting the Indonesian president. Most interestingly though, Yosef primarily wrote in Indonesian for Bisnis Indonesia, and I presume English is a second language that he adopted fairly recently for his writings.

Monday, January 23, 2006

And They Say Women Can Never Make Up Their Mind

For those who've been wondering (a few, and thank you so much for being concerned) the blog hiatus was not due to some sudden calamity, but merely a bout of deep internet inertia, lack of a bloggable life, and guilt over emails not answered and papers not written. So now that I have answered all my pending emails (yay), had an interesting weekend, and woken up early enough to have the entire day to do research work, I can proceed to blog, guilt-free.

I had been thinking of writing about my gym adventures, but that should wait a few days, because I've decided to follow Pidus' excellent advice of pacing out my blog posts. So first off the weekend.

Totally unanticipated fun. Which means resolution to finish long due work goes out of the window, but some much needed social contact established. I was planning to spend my Friday evening working or at the most with a quiet dinner with S and Em, but an email from S and some frantic calling put paid to those thoughts. It seems that we were invited to a party, and S decided that we should make an appearance. Now the party wasn't as straightforward as it seems, neither our history with the person inviting us.

The girl, let's call her Jgirl, happens to be the ex-girlfriend of Soto, an interesting, perplexing, at times annoying girl who's my age, someone who's alternated between desperation for marriage and merrily living life with her dog, taking off to far-flung places, and generally surrounding herself with patchouli, meditation, nature-love. She's also Jewish, and on Friday night, she was helping a Jewish student organization host a potluck dinner in her building and decided to invite us. Now, given that she is Soto's ex, someone he's on very civil terms with, but not terribly keen to spend time with, I was surprised that both S and Soto wanted to go there. But apparently the attraction for Soto were the Jewish girls in attendance, and S wanted food.

So off we went, and besides a common Mexican friend of ours who also came, S, Soto, and I were the only non-Jewish persons in the room. For me, this was great, because I've never been to a Jewish gathering before, and was very curious as to how people with extremely diverse backgrounds relate to each other on the basis of shared Jewish cultural and religious mores. The food at the potluck was very eclectic, and all vegetarian, which I guess was because it would be impossible to be absolutely sure of kosher guidelines being followed for each dish brought in. There was some traditional challah bread, which was very yummy. There was no music in keeping with Shabbat observances, which starts with sunset on Friday.

And the students had very eclectic backgrounds, a hot, fabulously well-dressed girl from Russia, a very affluent Iranian Jewish girl, a sleazy player type from Israel, a very sweet and chic girl from Canada, and a tall Greek Jewish girl from New York, though most of them had lived in America all their lives. Of course, besides celebrating the Shabbat, a gathering of young, eligible, single men and women can be very interesting to the participants for its own sake. Especially if you are from a traditional Jewish family where you are expected to marry only Jewish men/women. So of course, there was much mingling and aiming to impress. More than one person mentioned JDate, and I wouldn't be surprised if nearly all of them had profiles up there (I knew Jgirl did). and in this eager atmosphere, Soto found himself surrounded by a host of very attractive choices. But then, he started crossing out the options one by one. Sweet Canadian girl was a bit too posh for him, Greek girl too tall, the Russian girl was cornered by the sleazy Israeli boy.

I guess Soto has become hopelessly confused with women and unable to decide about what he really wants. Em says Soto is a big danger to men around him because he cannot make up his mind, and then he is a rival to everyone else in their pursuit of women. Agreed, and over the last few months his attention and memory span with regard to women has dropped drastically. If I was a woman interested in getting to know Soto romantically, I'd be seriously pissed, because even as he talks to one woman, he's looking over her shoulder to check out another. And if within the first few minutes he decides she wouldn't be willing to sleep with him immediately (and I mean pronto), he moves on double speed. I think it's totally fine that he wants to merely find a woman to hook up with, but the restlessness in doing so is not attractive to anyone.

This was amply in display later, as all of us (including Jgirl and a bunch of folks we met there) moved from the party to a club in Santa Monica. And there, instead of concentrating on Canadian girl (attractive and interested) or Greek girl (very friendly), Soto continued to wonder why the sexily dressed Russian girl hadn't joined us (duh, she was with sleazy guy). Aaaaargh! And if this wasn't enough Jgirl decided that she still had feelings for her ex-boyfriend and kept hovering around him, butting into his conversations, flirting with him.

Sure enough on Sunday, his eagerness to get laid backfires on him. So with Em's help we had managed to convey Soto's phone number to the girl he met in Em's cousin's party. She calls up on Friday, they decide to go out on Friday. Sunday morning at 6:30 am (an ungodly hour if there ever was one) she calls him up and begs him to come and pick her up from a hotel where she had gone to attend a party, and where her acccompanying friend and a bunch of others were too stoned to leave. He picks her up from the hotel and drops her home, where she asks him to stay and starts a verbal sexual banter, which makes him think that she wants it to lead to something more. However, she continues talking and starts telling him how she has a multitude of admirers, how she made past boyfriends wait months for sex, and how she didn't think he was macho enough.

Fed up, Soto left her house, resolving never to call again. But given his talent for overlooking the right girls and landing up with the wrong girls (we shook our heads over his relationship with Jgirl) I wouldn't be surprised if he starts a disastrous relationship with this girl. I'm being too harsh on him. He's very sweet, and an incredibly kind, generous boy, but hasn't a clue when it comes to women. He thinks he's playing them, whereas all the time they end up playing him.

On Saturday we went to a club for a party organized by a student organization at the university. The party was fun, pretty uneventful, we met tons of old friends as well as some fairly new ones. I convinced Bulgarian economist guy to come, and he said he had lots of fun and was glad I pestered him. We wandered off into a conversation about happiness and what makes us happy, and he said that to be 18 and in love is true happiness. Well for me, to be 80 and in love is also happiness I guess. I don't know if the innocence and naivete of adolescence is all that can provide us happiness. The joy of discovery and new experiences, growing wisdom and seeing things from a new light at every age milestone these are all constituents of happiness for me.

So I ran into Steph, the guy we ran into here as well, and true to form, he hugged me warmly and continued to talk to me as he forgot to greet S. I saw S's face contort into a scowl, and he later complained about how rude Steph is. I don't think he was deliberately rude because he did wish a very warm goodbye to S. Just that sometimes, people tend to greet those they know better and become oblivious to those they know less.

I also had a watermelon martini at the party, which was red, with a cherry dropped into the glass, and looked very cool and posh. I'm usually not much of a martini girl, unless I'm able to specify exactly what brand of vodka, gin or other liqueur I want in it, but they do look tres sophisticated in clubs and bars. A Swiss girl had a fabulous looking drink in her hand which was ocean blue in colour and was served in a tall glass. I asked her what it was called and she said "Adios Motherfucker!" Whoa! helluva drink to order. Picture this, pesky sleazy boy, sidles up to you and says "Cool drink, what is it?", and you smile a haughty smile, dig in your Sergio Rossi boots and say "Adios, @$#%@!%%#*@%!" Too bad it tastes like a Long Island Ice Tea. A drink that's just a sorry excuse for a bar to get rid of its shittiest alcohol that no one ever orders. Don't believe me? Ask them to put Stoli, Bombay Sapphire, Sauza, and Bacardi Gold and see how the bartender's face changes.

And then on Sunday, in a very relaxed finale to the entire weekend, we went sailing with a friend of S on her boyfriend's boat. Calm sea with some wind, ample sunshine and good company. Such are the pleasures of harnessing the wind and setting ourselves afloat on little specks of white in a vast ocean.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A Very Happy New Year!

I'm usually terribly tardy with New Year wishes. In fact, I discovered yesterday that apparently I was very tardy with birthday wishes as well, forgetting to wish Suze on her birthday! I make all the right resolves about dilligently writing those emails and making the phone calls, but then the sheer number of persons to be wished, the pile-up of other chores, and my general tendency to procrastinate takes over. Even now, as I'm writing, I'm checking out Ebay auctions. Yes, I have no idea how I ever accomplish anything. Mostly I don't.

Just like this New Year's eve, when I wasn't exactly happy with our choice of party to attend, which was the same house party that we had attended last year. At least last year, I had S, Em, Suze and Soto for company.This year there was only Em, and we were to be accompanied by G&C and the Pumpkins. G&C and the Pumpkins are old friends, but I don't think we make terribly interesting conversation when we get together. So I had hoped for a more exciting venue, a club, or a bar, or the beach, something to hold my interest. But I'm never very determined at enforcing my viewpoint in such matters, and too lazy to pursue these questions with any tenacity.

Except when we decide to eat out together and G&C and the Pumpkins suggest some bland chain restaurant like the Olive Garden or Cheesecake Factory. I've suffered enough mediocre meals at these places to have made the grim resolve never to give them my business, so all my passion is channeled into vetoing a meal at these places, unless I absolutely have no choice. That happens quite often as well, because at least one of these four would decide to celebrate their birthday at a chain restaurant, and I have to grin and bear through the evening.

Anyway, so another New Year's Eve spent in a suburban house, with very friendly but slightly boring other guests, and vodka and bacon-wrapped scallops for company. And having to spend the entire evening trying to pacify Em who was infuriated at the rather cold and bitchy behaviour he was subjected to by G&C and to a certain extent Beck (the she Pumpkin). It seems that even though they had been invited to this party through Em, they had wasted no time in ditching his company at the party, and had cold-shouldered him, when he wanted to join their conversation. Well given that all that G&C and Beck ever talk about is their families and assorted pets, I don't know why Em would even bother to join in.

Besides, this unpleasantness, there was an altogether different drama that was being played out. The Pumpkins had gone off separately to chat with guests at the party, which I thought was a very healthy thing to do, unlike clingy couples who cannot let go of each other for even a second at parties. He Pumpkin started talking to a moderately attractive woman who is perhaps in her late 30s, so nearly a decade older than him. Apparently, he has a bit of a thing for older women, and shortly we saw the two on the dance floor together. I looked around, and saw She Pumpkin merrily chatting with some fellow in another corner, so I assumed she was cool with it. After a while, Em and I were joined by Em's cousin who asked him if the Pumpkins have broken up. No, he said. She looked shocked at the news, and then told him that she saw He Pumpkin kissing the older woman on the dance floor. We looked in the direction of the dance floor, and saw the two of them dancing close to each other, arms around each other's hips. I went looking for She Pumpkin and found her quite drunk, chatting with a bunch of guys. Apparently, there had been an excess of tequila shots.

But in any case She Pumpkin knew what He had been upto, and it was a bit surprising that she didn't make a fuss about it, considering the fact that she always publicly proclaims that any cheating from him would lead to the relationship being over. Em and I discussed it and came to the conclusion that she's smart enough to give him enough rope, so he doesn't feel stifled in the relationship. After all, even if he tries to flirt a bit with various women, she knew he would come back to her at the end of the night. This had been the case at the party at my house as well, where they had both gone off to flirt with others, leaving at least one neighbour of mine very confused.

The next day, I had hoped for a gastronomically great start to the New Year by going off to one of my favourite Japanese restaurants in town, A Thousand Cranes. I wanted lunch there, because dinner's almost double the price of lunch. But Pumpkins and G&C intervened and said they wanted to go to the Farmer's Market. Em, who had been cribbing all night about them, meekly decided to tag along, because he felt appearances have to be kept up. And so I had to go to Farmer's Market as well. Which isn't such a bad choice, given there are a lot of great food places there (just stay clear of the pizza and BBQ). I decided to let out a proactive squeak at last and steer everyone towards Monsieur Marcel (lest the Pumpkins and G&C wanted to get the mediocre crepes and sandwiches instead).

So yes, finally I had a high point to my start of the New Year, an excellent meal of boeuf bourguignonne (beef in a red Burgundy sauce) and potatoes. Actually my restaurant fairy was being especially benevolent that day because at night Em and I went out with an old friend of his and ended up in a really cool cafe in downtown LA for another fine meal. And I was happy.

Manipur and Orissa, Whither Democratic Rights?

I had some pretty dismal thoughts last night when I was thinking of how little accountability the ruling elite of India feels towards the less privileged, marginalized, non-mainstream sections of society. My thoughts were in the context of what I read about the agitation against forced eminent domain and appropriation of tribal land in Orissa to build a steel mill by the Tatas. Yes, the very bizarre matter of a government acquiring land on behalf of a private company is commonplace in India.

And now, I read the shocking piece on Anthony's blog of Manipuri fishermen being used as human shields by the Indian Army in its operations in the state. About Manipuris growing up thinking of human rights violations by the police and the Army as a normal part of existence in the Indian democracy. I shudder to think that such repression could be considered normal. That we allow the institutions of the state, for such are the police and the Army, to operate with such lack of accountability. As long as the Indian mainstream, the elite, the privileged is not staring down the barrel of a gun, all's fine on the North-eastern frontier I guess.

But, despite all the dismal thoughts, there's a very faint glimmer of optimism that I always try to carry within. To convince myself that we've come at lease some way in our fledgling democracy (for such is what we are still). That the impunity with which eminent domain was used to take away land for the other major dam projects, the mines and steel mills of Jharkhand will not be repeated in quite the same way. At least, not without a fight, as the tribal agitation in Orissa shows.

And so it will be for human rights violations in the North-east. These stories are making their way into mainstream Indian media, slowly but surely. Information travels faster these days, and the Manipuri police and the Indian Army in Manipur should be very, very afraid. Nothing is unwitnessed, nothing unreported. And we've already started asking the uncomfortable questions. About why a woman picked up for questioning was raped and murdered. Why, in the name of securing their lives, the Manipuri people are being asked to give up basic liberties and even their dignity at times. Why the Army thinks nothing of using defenseless civilians as human shields.

Such is the trouble with democracy for the rulers, the ruled ask questions.