Monday, January 21, 2008

Less Culture, More Vulture and a Whole Lot of Bong

When I was a little girl, my Ma sat me down and said:

"TM, we Bengalis are very cultured people. Everyone looks up to us because of our culture"

TM nodded her head, and then thought:

Ma, if we are so cultured, how do you explain the metaphysical paradox that is Bappi Lahiri?

How do you explain the cultured boys in your village who aspire to the hairstyle of a Disco Dancer Mithun and the moves of a Street Dancer Govinda?

And so began a lifetime of contrarianism, starting with the resolve to take the piss out of Bong pomposity.

Of course Mithun-da is culture and so is Bappi-da (Kreeeeeshna euuu aaaaar thaaaa gretesst musiciaaaaaaan obh theeeeees bhaarld). But that's not what the average Bong middle class person thinks when they think culture. They think Tagore, Shantiniketan, and perhaps Uday and Ravi Shankar.

My Ma, when faced with Bappi-da's crooning away with unmitigated joy on TV with all his jiggly bits and a king's ransom worth of bling on his body would make a face and say - "Bangalir Bodnaam" (a disgrace to Bengalis). Since I take especial perverse pleasure in the discomfiture of prudish, self-righteous middle class Bengalis over anything that they perceive as an embarrassment to Bengali culture, I decided to assemble an entire rogues gallery of such characters.

So let's go forth and revel in the glory of these assorted Bangalir Bodnaam -

Exhibit A: Bappi-da




Image Courtesy: TheHindiMusic.com

Bappi-da is cool (shut up - any resemblance between "Karma Chameleon" and "Tera Mera Pehla Yaraana" is purely coincidental). The man's probably single-handedly responsible for the recent upswing in gold prices - Bappi-da is updating his wardrobe.

His chashma may be Versace, his gold may be haggled from the souks of Dubai, but you know Bappi-da is a true-blue Bong because his "roshogolla" accent has never changed one bit since the day he landed in "Bombaaai nogoria" (his lateshht song).

Exhibit B: Sahara-Shri



Image Courtesy: BombayBitch.com

Ah, how the mighty have fallen. Yukta Mookhey? O Tempora, O Mores. Sahara Shri, we did not expect this from you. Where are those days of glory when you were danced with our Ms. Plastic Fantastic at your son's wedding? When all of Bollywood was at your beck and call?

When you wouldn't have had to suffer the ignominy of being fed burfi by the most has been of all has beens. You sir, were a role model for countless Bong men - now do you think any of them would consider a career in wheeling-dealing knowing that there's a Yukta Mookhey waiting at the end of it all?

Exhibit C: Ponytail



Image Courtesy: arindamchaudhuri.com

What can I possibly say about Ponytail that has not been said already in hundreds of blog posts over the last couple of years?

Well, his suits are hideous (Arindam baby, you spend so much money on PR, perhaps a splurge on a couple of Savile Row suits may not be a bad idea).

He probably wasn't a very imaginative kid, otherwise he wouldn't have named his film "Rok Sako to Rok Lo" - Stop Me if You Dare (renamed instantly by the punters as "Thok Sako to Thok Lo" - Fuck if You Can)

Exhibit D: Koena Mitra



Image Courtesy: TheBollywoodZone.com

O my fucking goodness! She still denies she's had plastic surgery! (even after featuring on the Awful Plastic Surgery blog) When will she admit to it - when she morphs into Jocelyn Wildenstein? Look honey, my Ma probably still has a few old issues of Sananda lying about. Now do you really want me to pull out one of those magazines, do a side by side comparison and have you looking like a complete idiot denying the extensive modifications you've done to your nose? And no, this is not pre-plastic surgery Koena, not even close, because this is after she had the first of her many surgeries.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sex and the City - How did I Dodge That Bullet?

I lost my virginity yesterday - my Sex and the City virginity (I've even started talking like them, eww!). Yes, I who was in my early 20s in the late 1990s - prime age for indoctrination into the ideology of Cosmo-swilling, overpriced shoe and handbag shopping and talking way more about sex than actually doing it - I had never seen an entire episode of Sex and the City till yesterday.

Most of my Sex and the City knowledge had been entirely derivative until now. I had read page after page about how SATC was the definitive show on how the young urban live their lives - women who fuck like men (whatever that means), women bonding over being single, handbags and shoes as validation of self-worth, ladies who lunch ad infinitum in the middle of a working day etc., etc.

So after the umpteenth commentary on the SATC-fication of the lives of urban young women, I couldn't hold out any more and saw a few back-to-back episodes on Youtube.

To begin, let me go ahead and say what criticism of the show I find absurd:

1. It show women as uni-dimensional creatures who are obsessed with sex and little else: Umm...hello, the show is called Sex and the City. Obviously the idea is that it is the sex lives of the women that are the highlight, while everything else sort of recedes in the background. Now it's valid to say that it's impossible to isolate a woman's sex life in this way from her professional and social life, but surely this sort of creative license is par for course.

2. These are privileged, wealthy women whose lives are in no way representative of the lives of women everywhere, or even New York women: I think the show does tend to claim that it's presenting some sort of archetypal New York women, which is sheer nonsense. But the characters are clearly a slice of very affluent New York society and surely you're not deluded enough to think that a newspaper columnist can afford to frequently buy $400 shoes (1996 prices) without some kind of family money to shore her up? These are not typical New York woman, and that is transparent enough.

So there, I have no problems with the focus of the show (sex, men, sex, sex, men) or the protagonists (independently wealthy 30-something NY women). In fact, there are a few things I liked about the show:

1. The female bonding: This, I suspect was really the main attraction of the show for a lot of women. It is also the aspect of SATC that women "get" and men don't. In the same way that most women "get" Jane Austen and most men don't. The fact that more than what is being shared, it is the act of sharing - of lazy brunches with friends and chatting about our lives (one of my favourite things to do in the whole world).

2. The urban life: I love shows where cities are as important a character as the people in the show. Also, shows where a lot of the action takes place in urban spaces during day time, with people bustling about, or just sitting down for a bit for a cappuccino, or stopping for a bit on their way to work to admire a quirky window display. These are all things I love to do and love watching people do (another beloved pastime of mine being people watching on busy sidewalks).

Oh crap, enough with the love-fest, start with the bitching already!


1. On its own, sex, men, sex, men, men, sex, gets boring after a while: It does - and I'm not just saying this because I'll be a prime contender for the Bad Sex Writing award if I ever choose to write about a sexual episode. If I recall the times when I was single and dating, the only memorable bits are the very unexpected, epiphanic, strange or absurd moments and the "so bad they're fantastic stories to tell friends" dates. The sex per se wasn't the most memorable, even when it was very good, or was only memorable when it was atrociously bad.

Like the Indian neurosurgeon who after an all day museum date said: "Wow that was a productive museum visit! Let's see, we saw two Kandinskys, three Dalis, and three....no, maybe four Picassos. And oh that room with the Georgia O'Keefes, there must have been about 10 of those, no?" (Splendid - perhaps we should spreadsheet this and calculate a Museum Visit Productivity Index?)

Or when the Spanish director and I went to get some coffee at Starbucks and an 80-something looking American man, a total stranger, turns to us and says, loud enough for everyone to hear: "So, are you two fucking"? (Yes we are, and none of your business you asshole - I never said that to him, I just shook my head and smiled).

Or the economist (who read for his PPE at Balliol dah-ling) who thought he was being oh so seductive when he said "how about a Sex on the Beach", when we were walking on the beach at night and I just burst out laughing because it sounded so incredibly cheesy and silly.

Or when I was taken to a sushi restaurant on a date by an American actor, who when asked what we would like by waitress said with a grand flourish - "Surprise us"!
Waitress: "Sorry sir, we don't serve surprise"!

And that's just me with my relatively uneventful dating history. Most actual women have far more interesting stories of quirky, eccentric men, funny or disastrous dates. Yet, most dates and relationships on SATC are cringe-worthy and cheesy, with men who are caricatures of real men and drawn from a severely limited pool of about half a dozen professions, all incredibly successful at what they do. Episode after episode of nausea-inducingly one-dimensional men with little to recommend them, which brings me to my second point.

2. The level of misanthropy that permeates the show is shocking: Yes, the men are not the focus of this show, but why oh why should they fare so badly. If they are successful they are cold, calculating, emotionally unavailable, if they are of modest means, they are wimps, the opposite of alpha-males, and unable to take charge of their lives. If it is true that the show was scripted by a team of all gay men, then perhaps they went with what they think women perceive men to be.

Are women really so disappointed in men? I mean, sure I've said the usual "all men are bastards" after a bad date, and every time I read another story about violence against women I despair of the state of our civilization. Maybe I've been incredibly lucky in life, but a majority of the men I know are sensitive, have strongly internalized values of gender equality, are not threatened by strong women, and are not callous assholes in general. Which leads me to my third point:

3. What exactly does "fucking like a man" mean?: Is it having sex for the sake of having sex? And we had to wait for 1996 New York to invent this? Are you trying to tell me no women were having guilt-less emotionally unattached sex before? And what exactly is so masculine about it? What really annoyed me was the fact that the men on the show were being portrayed as cads for doing the exact same things that the women on the show aspired to.

So if you do it, you're a nasty toxic bachelor.

If I do it, then I'm living feminist ideals

Vive la difference indeed!

There's nothing exclusively male about having sex just because you want to and not because it's a means to some other emotional or social end like a relationship or marriage. Sometimes women want a relationship and sometimes a one-night stand and shock! horror! many don't feel any guilt over this. Unlike the SATC women, who obsessively analyze every move they make in their sex lives, seeking validation in the opinions of their friends, because they are too scared to trust their own.

4. Finally, no, designer shoes and handbags are not equal to self-affirmation: Let's cut women some slack because men are hardly targeted with the kind of consumerist onslaught that women are. A tiny fraction of the advertising budget of the apparel industry is spent on men, with the lion's share spent on attracting female consumers. Ditto for cosmetics, accessories, furnishings, and so on. The men have their razor and deodorant ads and that's about it.

And quite frankly, shopping is fun, buying shoes and handbags is great instant gratification and does give you a lot of pleasure (says the woman with the shoe and dress habit). I'm not particularly opposed to consumerism - I'd much rather the rampant consumerism of the West compared with the killjoy socialism and oppressive pessimism of pre-liberalization India (a lot of those who oppose the harmful effects of Western culture are either prudes or plain jealous).

However, I'd much rather this shopping and consuming be seen as fulfilling for its own sake rather than some broad statement about how a woman is magically transformed into an urban sophisticate with savoir-vivre wearing the right kind of shoe and drinking the right cocktail.

No and no.

For one, the Cosmo sucks. Take my word for it, and I'm an immensely trustworthy source because I basically hate all cocktails. Well, in any case I haven't seen a single woman in any LA bar order a Cosmo in the last 5 years, so perhaps it's fallen out of favour anyway and women dread ordering it for fear of being labeled SATC wannabes.

As for the shoes, of course you should buy as many designer shoes as you want if that's what you want. But the whole thing is quite a scam. These shoes are way, way overpriced. I have Louboutins and Pradas that were purchases marked down 90 per cent and I still felt I paid a little bit too much for them (one of the perks of being in LA is the Barney's Warehouse and other designer sales).

My absolute favourite higher end shoes are the ones made by the French ballet shoe company Repetto that also makes primarily ballet flats and other shoes. They cost a fraction of designer brands and are much prettier and more comfortable (and even then I buy them only when they are heavily discounted. I'm cheap that way). For everyday shoes I adore a lot of the stuff at Payless Shoes. $9.99 silver ballet flats baby!

But fuck, that's not even the point, no? The point is that a sophisticated mind cannot be purchased off the racks of Barneys and Bergdorfs. You can wear all the Chanel and all the Balenciaga you want, that still won't make you cool by association (and anyway, Chanel is for society matrons). This sounds positively old-fashioned but what happened to reading a book or learning an art goddamit? Who are we more likely to be impressed by: a woman who burns through her savings with a designer shopping spree or someone whose effortless charm and grace is the result of a lifelong devotion to intellect and aesthetics?

Quite frankly, in real life, I wouldn't want to be an acquaintance, much less friends with any of the four main SATC characters. They are all equally vacuous and boring (besides, Sarah Jessica Parker's little girl voice would grate on my nerves in 5 minutes flat).

And yet, somehow it is these SATC women who have become the definite urban women of our age. The quintessential modern single girl whose life revolves around fashion, parties, shopping, men, sex and work (not necessarily in that order, but work comes last any which way you line these up).

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Man Who Caused an International Incident

Here's some news that had me and the boyfriend in splits just a few minutes ago:

From Yahoo News:

Gulf Prankster Possible Message Source

Relevant excerpts

A threatening radio message at the end of a video showing Iranian patrol boats swarming near U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf may have come from a prankster rather than from the Iranian vessels, the Navy Times newspaper has reported.
And the most interesting bit of all:

Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, said the Navy was still trying to determine the source of the transmission but believed it was related to the Iranian actions.

"The Iranian boats were coming close to the ships, making aggressive maneuvers and objects were being dropped into the water," she told The Associated Press.

However, the Navy Times, a weekly newspaper published by the Gannett company, quoted several veteran sailors as speculating the transmission could have come from a radio heckler, widely known among mariners by the ethnically insulting term "the Filipino Monkey."(emphasis mine)


Now why exactly is this hilarious to us? Well, therein lies a story. My boyfriend goes on weeklong (or even longer) sailing trips in Greece whenever he's on vacation there. I had the opportunity to be on three such trips, two short ones in 2002 and a longer one in 2003. Our longer trip involved a fantastic nine-day cruise through the Aegean sea from Athens to Santorini and back, stopping at a few islands on the way but mostly spending time at sea.

It's a fabulous experience, but very, very intense. It helps if you don't get seasick under some pretty trying conditions (a very choppy sea with no wind can knock all but the most hardy out), are not picky about having to pee in bathrooms built to Popeye and Olive Oyl specifications (think half the size of airplane bathrooms) and do not want to cry for your Mama when the wind blows so ferociously that you think there's no way your creaky wooden sailboat can survive the onslaught.

On the plus side - sleeping on the sailboat decks under the stars as the boat is lapped gently by waves on the harbour, access to gorgeous secluded beaches with no road or trail access, taking showers on the boat deck, the excitement and frenzy of scampering across the boat to pull ropes when tacking or jibing, and those incredible moments of solitude and silence when the wind stops blowing in the middle of an ink-black sea with no human presence in sight within miles.

So there's the poetic, and then there's the prosaic, and then there are the bizarre and bizarrely funny moments within the prosaic.

On our Santorini trip, we traversed the Aegean Sea, that seas a fair amount of cargo ship and tanker traffic, given that this the access route to Greece's biggest port Piraeus. My boyfriend S is as true blue a sailor as you can get, and there's no greater joy for him than to pour over nautical maps and write captain's logs. He would insist on keeping the radio on, tuned to the unencrypted frequency used by sailors to casually communicate with each other.

It was the first day of our voyage and on our radio channel we had picked up the conversation between two Pakistani sailors on different cargo ships who randomly contacted each other and then proceeding to chat. This was particularly interesting to me as I was the only one on our boat who understood Urdu so I listened intently as they spoke of their ships, where they were going, what food they got on the ships, what cargo they carried and so on.

And then suddenly, unexpectedly, it happened.

There was no mistaking what was being yelled -

"Filipino monkey! Filipino monkey!"

And so it went on five or six times more, before the sailors could recover from their conversation being so rudely interrupted.

And then one of the Pakistanis retorted

"You bastard, I'm not Filipino, I'm Pakistani"


But there was no stopping this fellow. On and on he went.

"Filipino monkey! Filipino monkey!"

The Pakistanis then resorted to the most gentlemanly course open to them and proceed to cuss the hell out of this fellow in the choicest Punjabi expletives. S had noticed the drone of this anonymous radio user (and how the conversation had switched from Urdu to English) and came down.

S: "What's going on? Who's screaming?

TM: "I have no idea. He just randomly barged into their conversation and started abusing"

S: "That's weird. I'm sure I've heard this same guy on this radio frequency say this before as well."

That incident kept repeating for the next two days that we were close enough to Piraeus. Invariably, at some point during the day, the two Pakistanis would use the radio to chat and the anonymous guy would barge in and constantly chant "Filipino monkey". The guy was not only batshit crazy, but he seemed to get no sleep at all. For no matter what time of the day the Pakistanis chose to chat, sure enough, within minutes our abuser would appear and start insulting them.

This would then blow out into a full scale insult war with the Pakistanis responding with choice words in Punjabi. As we sailed closer to Santorini, the exchanges became less frequent and then stopped altogether. However, as we approached Piraeus on our way back, sure enough, our sailor tormentor was back in action, this time harassing two Indian sailors. The modus operandi was the same - the sailors would start using the open channel to chat and then within minutes the man would begin his incessant drone of "Filipino monkey" in an extremely annoying sing-song voice. The sailors responded with swears, the man did the same, and then it just was a trade off of a volley of abuses.

I haven't been back in Greece after this trip, but every time S goes home and sails, he brings back stories of the "Filipino Monkey" man, still his up to his insane ways, polluting the pristine airwaves of the Aegean with his racist nonsense. However, S and I always thought the man was a local phenomenon, probably some Greek man with intense resentment for the fact that modern cargo ships predominantly draw their crew from the Philippines.

Turns out that this is hardly the case.

The Navy Times quoted Rick Hoffman, a retired captain, as saying a renegade talker repeatedly harassed ships in the Gulf in the late 1980s.

"For 25 years there's been this mythical guy out there who, hour after hour, shouts obscenities and threats," he said. "He could be tied up pierside somewhere or he could be on the bridge of a merchant ship," Hoffman said.



Wow, international man of mystery for 25 years? Who would have thunk. And apparently the man has targeted not only cargo ships, but US Navy ships as well. There is though, speculation that this may not be just one man but several of them involved in a copycat prank. But I could have sworn that the man we heard repeatedly on our Aegean sailing was just one man, popping up every other hour.

So there you go. If you ever find yourself traversing through the Strait of Hormuz, or the Aegean Sea and hear this absurd message repeated over and over, you'll know that you've been blessed with the rantings of the elusive, almost mythical "Filipino Monkey" man.


Update: Oh my goodness! Nearly 800 news items on the Google news search on "Filipino Monkey" already. And just check out some of the headlines -

Did ‘Filipino monkey’ nearly spark Gulf clash?

Filipino Monkey Started Naval Confrontation with Iran

'FILIP
INO MONKEY' MAY BE BEHIND IRAN, US BOAT ENCOUNTER

And this satirical headline from Wonkette:

'Filipino Monkey' Nearly Tricks America Into World War III


Oh, "Filipino Monkey" man, you cheeky monkey you. Look what you've done now - you've made the real monkeys almost have a catfight.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

My Very Own Brand of Yellow Journalism

Darn, I wrote an entire post on gossip and speculation and didn't actually offer any juicy stories? Quelle horreur! Ok, here's something I picked up in the most unexpected manner and setting - and odd that I should be the recipient given that I'm usually rather disinterested in the subject.

A couple of months ago, I attended the birthday party of a friend of mine, where I met a former classmate of his and we hit it off instantly. She was an incredibly smart African girl K who had grown up in the US and then worked in England for a very large global conglomerate.

When I told her that I was from India, she told me all about her company's business interests in India that required her to live in Bombay for two months at the city's poshest hotel. There she lived in style, dining at the hotel's very fine restaurants and hanging out at the bar with fellow expats.

At some point, the discussion moved to the question of Indian attitudes to skin colour and she told me of how in a beauty parlour in Bombay, the beautician had promised to make her "whiter" with all their super elaborate and expensive facial treatments.

K: "But I'm black"

Beautician: "But dear, you don't have to be" (!!!!)

And so it went everywhere, where people explicitly tried to convince her how much better life would be if only she was "whiter". We spent the next ten minutes commiserating over how ridiculous and stupid Indian beauty ideals were (the kind of noses that would make an Iranian girl save up for plastic surgery are celebrated in India).

It was made worse, she said, when a blonde blue-eyed friend of hers landed in India to spend a week and then wherever they went, her friend was the centre of attention and she was completely ignored (despite the fact that she's a very attractive girl).

K: "Oh, and, and I have to tell you this!"

TM: "What?"

K: "My friend got propositioned by an Indian celebrity"

TM: "Who?"

K: "Some cricket player, some really big star"

TM: "Umm..what did he look like?"

K: "You know, can't remember - apparently he had received some award like Cricketer of the Millenium or something"

TM: "So how did this happen?"

Apparently, K and her friend had returned to the hotel from a night out when they saw some commotion in the lobby and some photographers chasing a guy. When they asked someone, he informed them that the centre of attraction was a famous cricketer. They being completely oblivious of cricket or the Indian celebrity scene headed straight for the elevator. After they had stepped in, suddenly the cricketer and his two bodyguards stepped into the same elevator.

And then, the cricketer turns to the blonde girl and tells her how attractive she is and how happy he would be if she visits him in his room. The girl refuses, saying she's leaving India early next morning but the man is persistent. After finding out that she's from England, he begs her for her number, saying he travels to England often and would look her up there. The girl ignores him some more. However, when the elevator stopped at her floor, the two bodyguards stood in their way to prevent K and the girl from getting off the elevator.

The girl gives the cricketer her number to get rid of him and he promises he'll meet up with her in England (well, the smart cookie gave him her ex-boyfriend's number!). And then they just laughed all the way to their room and never saw or heard from the man again.

TM: "So do you absolutely not remember how he looks like?"

K: "Honestly, it was a while ago, so not really"

TM: "Well, was he tall, or rather short" (TM has zeroed in on one suspect and waits for confirmation)

K: "Not very tall, but don't think he was very short either"

TM: "Well, did he have a rather feminine voice"

K: (her eyes light up) "Yes, yes! That's correct!"

TM: "Good lord, the man's married with kids!"

K: "Apparently that didn't stop him from hitting up my friend"

Edit to add: I just realized that I forgot to add that this actually took place in Delhi, where K had travelled to for a week with her friend. The hotel in Delhi where they stayed is part of the same group that ran their Bombay hotel.