Thursday, June 29, 2006

Those Cancer Sticks Never Look Good on Anyone

You'll have to pardon my incoherence. This is not easy. I found out last week that my dearest, beloved uncle A, my mother's sister's husband is terminally ill. I do not even think that writing this is cathartic for me, because at this moment, I would like nothing better than to forget that. I am in denial. I'll perhaps be in denial for a long time. Which is why I'm trying to weave together clever words, a turn of phrase, amuse myself with my own deceptions.

I need to stop being pointless, because there was a reason I started writing this post. A few months ago, I lost an ex-colleague of mine to cancer. And now I have a very dear family member afflicted with the disease. Both were smokers, my uncle especially so, and despite my best efforts throughout my life, I could never persuade him to kick the habit. Thankfully no one in my generation in my family smokes, but I do know that a significant number of persons around the world do.

I'm rarely didactic or preachy in this blog, but at this point, my impulse is to plead for people to reconsider their lifestyle decisions. If this post could impel even one of the readers to consider quitting smoking, I would consider the pain I felt in writing this down more than worth it.

This is what the American Cancer Society has to say about cigarette smoking and cancer:

Cigarette smoking accounts for at least 30% of all cancer deaths. It is a major cause of cancers of the lung, larynx (voice box), oral cavity, pharynx (throat), and esophagus, and is a contributing cause in the development of cancers of the bladder, pancreas, cervix, kidney, stomach, and some leukemias.

About 87% of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women, and is one of the most difficult cancers to treat. Fortunately, lung cancer is largely a preventable disease.

Details can be found on the American Cancer Society information pages.

Compare this with only about 3 per cent of cancers attributed to environmental toxins.

With the spate of lawsuits against tobacco companies in the US, and major public awareness campaigns against smoking, it is feared that these companies would try to expand their businesses in developing countries. This article is four years old, but it details the expansion of tobacco multinationals into countries like India. I'm sure the onslaught of tobacco advertising has already begun at full swing, and brands like Wills are ponying up big money for events such as the India Fashion Week in Delhi.

Let's get this straight: THERE IS NOTHING COOL STYLISH OR TRENDY ABOUT SMOKING.Those who in a fit of mistaken bravado continue to smoke in the face of overwhelming evidence about the harm it causes have absolutely no idea of the misery of being afflicted with a deadly disease. Both for themselves, and for their family members. They have no idea of the excruciating physical pain of cancer and its treatments, and the emotional pain of dealing with terminal illness in the prime of life.

And for the examples of those who've been heavy smokers all their life and never suffered, that's like playing Russian roulette with your life with nearly half of the bullet compartments loaded. Don't believe me? Here's the American Cancer Society again:

About half of all Americans who continue to smoke will die because of the habit. Each year, about 438,000 people die in the US from tobacco use. Nearly 1 of every 5 deaths is related to smoking. Cigarettes kill more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined.

To be more explicit, if you continue smoking, there's a 50 per cent chance that you will die of a smoking related illness. None of us would ever drive a car which has a 50 per cent chance of spontaneously catching fire. None of us would ever consume food with a 50 per cent chance of poisoning you. And yet, many of us would continue smoking, oblivious to the grave risk it poses to ourselves and those around us.

However, I am well aware of how hard it is to quit. I had a neighbour who couldn't stay without a cigarette for long. The strict non-smoking rules in our apartment complex meant that he had to rush to the parking lot every 30 minutes, and even this inconvenience was not incentive enough to quit. But then, there are those who do manage to quit, through sheer force of willpower and peer support, and I've seen enough success stories to know that it's possible. My own father quit before my sister was born, and so did my boyfriend's father shortly after my boyfriend's birth. I regret every moment that my uncle wasn't one of them.

Perhaps I come across as brusque and offensive in my personal anti-tobacco crusade, but for the life of me, my mind cannot wrap itself around the fact that it would snatch away someone who grew me up, loved me like his own daughter and was kindness and care personified. What if someone had written this for him, maybe, just maybe he would have focused a bit more on quitting. Who knows.

Friday, June 09, 2006

BlondBoys and Indians

Reproducing conversations is fun. Here's one of the stranger ones that I've been part of:

Time: last Tuesday (oh wait, that was the much hyped 666 right?)

Venue: A little place on Sunset with cheap-ass margaritas and tacos

Occasion: An industry networking mixer organized by a casting agency in LA to bring together actors/actresses, casting directors and producers

Oh wait, what the hell are you doing there then, TM? Well, I was the fly on the wall, just tagging along with E-M who was there to do some actual networking. Though I was under strict instructions to pretend that I'm an actress if approached by any casting director type (Which is kinda oxymoronic if you think about it).

So anyway on to conversation. I'm in the line for the bathroom, and the line happens to be unisex and is snaking around the bar (all those cheap-ass margaritas). In front of me is a blond dude with a helmet of hair who's had one drink too many. Acting in the hallowed tradition of bathroom line small talk he turns to me and goes:

Blond Dude (BD): You must be Indian right?

TM: Wow, you're very perceptive. Usually I get called Mexican.

BD: Naaaa, you're not Mexican. Mexican girls are more like....(and here he wiggles his body as if to enact a sleazy dance move). You've got Indian written all over your face.

TM: (I ignore the sleazy allusion and nod my head)

BD: You've got a great smile, you'd have to be Indian.

TM: (I nod again, getting fidgety with increasing desperation to pee)

(Hot girl passes by)

BD (bringing his face close to my ear): She's hot, but her tits are small.

TM (weirdo alert up to level yellow): Yeah, she's very pretty.

BD (changing tack): Hey listen, I think I'm in love with this one Indian girl I met last weekend.

TM: Oh, good for you.

BD: Yeah, I figured, even if I have to smack her ass or something, I'd go ahead and do it, 'cause I really dig her.

TM (eyebrows arched up, weirdo alert up to level orange): Sure.

BD: Hey, so let me ask you, so when you are with someone, and you're having sex, do you like to be smacked in the ass?

TM (red alert going off like crazy in my mind): Dude, I really need to pee.

Just then, one of the bathroom doors opened, and BD, being first in line went in, leaving me to figure out what the hell I just heard. Actually, what I really wanted to do was take my mind off the mental imagery this had produced.

As I turned to my right, I noticed the boy right behind me in the line. Drop. Dead. Gorgeous.

TM: You're beautiful.

Gorgeous Boy: Excuse me?

TM: You're so beautiful. I just had to say it.

GB (blushing furiously): Oh thank you.

Other bathroom door opens, and I walk in, pleased to have replaced ass-smacking thoughts with pretty boy thoughts.

The rest of the evening was nice enough. The place was swarming with actors and actresses with nary a producer or casting director in sight. If only trapping the fat cats were so easy. But the actors were having a merry time all by themselves, trading stories about nasty managers and cocaine habits of Hollywood megastars.

I met an actor who was a trained classical cellist who had gone backpacking aroud South-east Asia after struggling in Hollywood for many years. After a year and a half of backpacking, he had returned, to give Hollywood fame and fortune another shot. The acting bug is a hard one to shake off. He joked about how you can tell that there was no producer or casting director in the room because everyone was so good-looking!

After the networking party, E-M and I decided to visit our friend Em, and turned up unannouced at his apartment. Turns out he was in the shower. Without the patience to wait, or the inclination to turn back, E-M and I broke into his house by removing a window panel (yeah, hide those valuables of yours the next time I come visiting).

We merrily jumped in, helped ourselves to cake and soda from the fridge, and slumped on the sofa to watch TV. Em, having figured out that two intruders were watching "Dr. 90210" in his house, sensibly retrieved his clothes from the other room. He then joined us, as we watched in amazement as perfectly attractive looking women were willing to undergo painful and potentially dangerous surgeries just to look closer to an imaginary ideal. The delusional and their money are easily parted.

P.S.: I apparently look so unlike Indians (as if there is an archetypal Indian), that many Indians cannot tell if I'm Indian or not. I've been mistaken by Indians for Mexican or Malaysian, leading to the hilarious situation where a couple of boys kept saying nasty stuff about people (including me and my friend) right next to me assuming I couldn't understand them :)!

In my Mexican immigrant dominated neighbourhood I fit right in, and every day I have to reply to "Ola, como estas" with a silly smile. The Mexican assistant at my grocery store insisted that I cannot be Indian - "Oh no, no, you not Indian, you look Mexican". To make matters even more confusing, I run after every peripatetic Mexican street vendor for tacos, tamale or fresh fruit, as I did this morning and managed to score some good tamales and champurrado.

So it is always a pleasant surprise when someone does manage to get it right, however, quite frequently these are the Curry Kings a la the gay Curry Queens. Which means they have an inordinate interest bordering on fetish for Indian women to begin with. Which I find amusing, and a little annoying. I've often told friends that during my singledom, the phrase "I love Indian food" and "Indian is a fascinating country" from a man trying to interest me romantically used to send alarm bells ringing in my mind. Little did I know I would find such a specimen lurking where I least expected, as a fellow sufferer in the bathroom line!!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Thalassamikrus Indicus

Let's start by recounting the anecdote that set off my rumination.

Place: Beautiful beach in Santa Barbara

Time: Sunset

Protagonists: Me, E-M (our Greek actress friend), Em (my dearest friend), and BO (Em's childhood friend, a student of music).

Conversation: About places and their beauty. BO was telling us how visitors to his university were brought to this beach and the restaurant there, because it was a beautiful place worth showcasing.

E-M: Huh - you think this is beautiful? You should travel to Greece to know what a really beautiful place looks like!

Me: (exasperated by this display of uber-nationalism): What makes you think the country he comes from is not beautiful? (for the record the country is Iran).

Em: (addressing E-M): Your friend MH is from the most beautiful part of Iran. You should ask him to show you some pictures sometime to see how beautiful it is.

E-M: Well, if it is so beautiful, how come MH never praises his country like I praise Greece?

At this point Em, BO and I look at each other, roll our eyes and leave it at that.

I should provide some background to this exchange. E-M came to Los Angeles with the sole ambition of becoming a Hollywood star. However, not only was this the first time she was living apart from her family, but she had lived a very privileged and pampered existence in Greece. She hates being a struggling actress, and her disappointments and rejections in Hollywood have turned into intense loathing for America.

On top of this, she's also internalized the extreme nationalistic rhetoric that is quite prevelant in Greek popular culture, and hence simply cannot recognize the merits of any country other than her own. At some level, this parochialness is a product of her naivete, hence we do not argue her assertions.

However, this conversation had me contemplating how the way I conceive of my love for my country is so different from the terms in which E-M formulates hers.

Yes, I'm guilty as charged. I rarely if ever tell anyone how beautiful India is. When I see a beautiful place in another country, I do not throw back my head arrogantly to say how much more beautiful my country is compared to this. I can appreciate how gorgeous parts of the California coastline are without needing to recount their similarities with places in India. I do not need places to give me a sense of deja vu and familiarity to feel comfortable and at home in them.

Then is it that I don't appreciate India enough, that I feel ashamed of being Indian? No, it is because my love for India is so deeply etched in some corner of my mind, that I don't feel the need to keep chipping away at it (see, even as I wrote love, I thought how much more appropriate anurag, or maya in the Bengali sense of the word would be).

Which is why I can read the poetry of Yeats and Elytis and in the complex layers of meaning that they imbue their land with, I can recognize the layers of endearment that bind me to my own land. Flag waving leaves me cold, and the only reason why I care about the national anthem is because it is a marvellous poem (especially the last 4 stanzas that are not sung).

But I often think about being able to walk down the sloping avenues of Shimla, where many, many years ago an Indian Army jawan had clambered a wall and showered me and my cousin with tea roses, because we were too tiny to fetch them ourselves. I contemplate myself within the iconic Bengali image of a traveller on his/her way on a red-earth road (Ranga maatir rasta beye), which indeed I have been on many times on my way to my ancestral village.

There is longing, and often I'm at a loss to explain what this longing is all about. It is not the longing of unhappiness, for I'm very happy and indeed endlessly fascinated with Los Angeles and California. Perhaps it is for a certain colour of the earth, a certain way the sun rises, a certain way the clouds amass, a certain way evening descends. Perhaps it is everything that California possesses and yet, I long for that which it does not possess. Who knows why the heart desires what it desires!

There is much that infuriates me about India as well. The cynical disregard of civic duty, the contempt for the poor, lack of public accountability, petty moral policing, etc. And yet my anger and frustration at India reassures me at some level. Because I can be angry, hate certain aspects of the place and yet feel accountable and responsible for it and be optimistic about its existence and future. There is no need for denial under a veil of jingoistic rhetoric, no need to see ugliness in the rest of the world to see beauty within.

Such love for the country is very liberating. For it is not contingent on place or passport. One can be a global gypsy a la Amartya Sen with a very Indian intellectual core. Although I know that there is a corner of my heart that is inordinately fond of that little blue booklet, with the four lions from the Ashokan pillar stamped on it. Through all the tedious bureaucratic hassles that I have endured in my travels to different nations, not once have I wished to swear allegiance to another country. Maybe secretly I am as nationalistic as E-M is, though not the flag waving kind, but the passport hoarding kind!