Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sweaty, smelly new theory. (It won't win me a Nobel.)

I said it once. I will say it again. "I have a nose for body odours Рother people's, that is. A mere whiff can set me off. They're the bane of my existence, the chief reason why I shudder to board local trains, admittedly a faster mode of getting from point A to point B in Mumbai." And, the more I try to dodge the onslaught of other people's b.o., the closer I'm getting to formulating a new theory that's sure not to win me a Nobel. Based on my keen observation at close quarters of at least two young and desirable women in two totally far-apart georgraphical locations and social milieu, I am tempted to jump to a rather hasty though astonishing conclusion. It would appear that an unpleasant b.o. from a talented male may actually act as a magnet for an adoring female. The Smell Report (page 12) tells us: "On standard tests of smelling ability - including odour detection, discrimination and identification - women consistently score significantly higher than men. One researcher has claimed that the superior olfactory ability of females is evident even in newborn babies." On page 14, there is a distiction made between the male pheromone androstenone and the male pheromone androstenol. The former is stale male-sweat smell (exposed to oxygen for 20 minutes) while the latter is fresh male-sweat smell. The former, avers the study, "is perceived as highly unpleasant by females (except during ovulation, when their responses change from 'negative' to 'neutral')." It seems that women on the pill do not have the same kind of reaction as ovulating women. Smell preferences are also linked with past associations. Be that as it may, I am beginning to wonder if there is another kind of "smell" factor at work here. This smell is "beyond" the band width of the b.o. Could it be the "sweet (sweat) smell of success/achievement"? Could it be a sort of personal "karmic" and/or rites-of-passge-related odour that has the power to nullify the offputting whiff of an offensive body odour or even a physical deficiency? (Remember the grotesquely deformed Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame from Victor Hugo's eponymous novel as well as Esm̩ralda, the kind gypsy girl who befriended him?) I know. I know. It could be one of my totally hair-brained theories worthy only of brickbats and scorn. Who knows?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Prarthana Samaj.

233 Khetwadi Main Road was within 5 minutes' walk from Prarthana Samaj. I had been told in my childhood that the "prarthana" (prayer) meetings of the Samaj (society/institution) used to be held in the Rammohan High School. It was situated at the eponymous landmark at the corner of Raja Rammohan Marg (then New Charni Road) and VP Road. However, I did not then know who Raja Rammohan Roy, the "father" of Brahmo Samaj (Society of the Worshipers of the Absolute), was. History has portrayed him as the initiator of Hinduism's renaissance in Bengal. This is bolstered by the Daniele Hervieu-Leger's view of religion as "a social and ideological mechanism for creating and sustaining both an individual and a communal sense of belonging ... [in brief] the mobilization of collective memory.". The weekly discourse-and-prayer meeting of the Brahmos was modelled on the Unitarian Church's sermon-and-prayer meeting. Roy and his close associates, Tarachand Chakravarti and Chandrasekhar Deb, were familiar with the Unitarian practices. Roy's monotheism had a rational as well a moral foundation from his retrieval of the Upnishadas, Brahma Sutras and other ancient Hindu texts (what he referred to as "Vedanta" = end or culmination of all knowledge as a body of work collectively). Roy's Brahmo Samaj was a living monument to his “religious innovativeness”. This spirit spurred him "to reinvent the chain" to fill up the new spaces of belief left bereft by "the decomposition of tradition". ("Traditions are forgotten, but they are also reenvisioned," explains Brian A. Hatcher in Remembering Rammohan: An Essay on the [Re-]emergence of Hinduism.) In our own times, television, the Internet, the cellphone and other modern tools are being used to help this process.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Talk to me in Web 2.0.

I am, you could almost say, a man of (few?) words. On my word of honour, boys and girls. Words are my preoccupation. Or, shall we say my occupational accomplices? Playing with words comes to me fairly easily. I revel in it. I am word-friendly. I wish I were Lord of the Words. But I find myself at a loss for words far too often to harbour any such delusions of grandeur. My love affair with words is probably why I so highly value Aldous Huxley, Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Leonard Cohen and even Seinfeld & My antennae, though, are always out for the meaning of words, even subtle nuanaces. The context and the subtext of word usage intrigue and often amuse me. For me, "There's a blaze of light/In every word," as Leonard Cohen puts it so eloquently in his Hallelujah. Take, for instance, the way Gmail insists on calling every exchange of email between two people, maybe a bit coyly and self-consciously, "conversation". That's Web 2.0 talk, dude. Keeping in touch. That's what Web 2.0 and social networking are all about, after all. At least, that's the mantra of the Web 2.0 gurus. Having been in advrtising long enough, though, I am painfully aware that many of the so-called breakthroughs in theoretical thinking are only a new use of old words. Or, the same old words in a new context.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

MK Gandhi aka 'Mahatma'.

Robert Payne's anecdotal The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi is quite an insightful biography. According to his reckoning (ibid, page 290), while Rabindranth Tagore, the Nobel laureate, was already 'Gurudev' (Celestial Teacher) and Gandhi's South African associate, Charlie Freer Andrews, 'Deenabandhu' (Brother to the Poor) in 1915, Tagore was still to bestow the 'Mahatma' title on Gandhi.

Another source, however, attributes the authorship of the Mahatma epithet to Nautamlal Bhagavanji Mehta, an Indian freedom fighter and Gandhi's supporter, and the date and the place of the conferring it as 21 January 1915 and Kamribai School in Jetpur, Saurashtra (Gujarat) respectively.

In the 20 January 1927 issue of Young India, though, Gandhi wrote: "I myself do not feel like a saint in any shape or form." Was that a rejection of the Mahatma title earlier conferred on him? Or, self-doubt?

Payne offers this anecdote about an incident that must have occured during Gandhi's last sojourn in Delhi (ibid, page 550):

Once he was asked: "If you are a Mahatma (Great Soul), perform a miracle and save India." He answered sadly: "I am not a Mahatma. I am an ordinary person like everyone else, except that I am much frailer."

By the way, General Jan Smuts who had had first-hand experience of Gandhi in South Africa reportedly told his contemporary and friend, Winston Churchill, that Gandhi "... is a man of God. You and I are mundane people."

Payne cites Gandhi telling Manubehn on 22 January 1948, i.e., eight days before he was assasinated (ibid, page 573) inter alia: "I am a true mahatma."

He again quotes him telling her on the night before the assasination (ibid, page 579): "If I were to die of a lingering disease, or even from a pimple, then you must shout from the housetops to the whole world that I was a false mahatma. ... And if an explosion takes place, as it did last week, or of someone shot at me and I received his bullet in my bare chest without a sigh and with Rama's name on my lips, only then should you say that I was a true mahatma."

This pronouncement was at 10:00 pm on 29 January 1948. At about 5:10 pm the next day, he got his wish.

Parting shot: "My respect for the Mahatma was deep and deathless. ... and therefore on January 30, I bowed to him first, then at point blank range fired three successive shots and killed him. " (Nathuram Godse's statement in the court of Mr Justice Atma Charan, Red Fort, ibid, page 639)

Related posts: The Mind of MK Gandhi The more, the less sexier. Celebrity revisited.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Operation Clean-up.

At 233 Khetwadi Main Road when I was a child, the bathroom to the back of the house on the west side used to be reserved only for washing the cooking utensils. That time, coal was used for cooking and heating the bath water. The coal ash was collected and stored. It was then used for scrubbing the cooking utensils. As my mother used to use grated coconut as well as coconut milk in the many delectable dishes she cooked, at least one coconut was cracked open every day. The fibre off the shell was used as the scrubbing pad or sponge. On the window ledge of the wash room, there used to stand a brass pot filled with ash and topped with a bit of the scrubbing fibre. I keep remembering me watching our family retainer scrubbing the pots and pans over his shoulder and sometimes offering to join him. I was never granted my wish. Little did I realise then that, some day in the far future, I would finally be granted my wish minus the coal ash cleaning powder and the coconut fibre scrubber. Instead, we would graduate up to Vim or Pril and plastic fibre scrub pads. In contrast, I have tumbled downhill from silver tongue cleaners to plastic or stainless steel ones over the same time span.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The end of the civilisation as we know it draws nigh.

A reporter once asked Gandhi what he thought of the Western civilisation. It would be a good idea, he quipped. In December 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disintegrated. The West exulted over the triumph of Capitalism. Marx had said that the capitalist state would "wither away" eventually, "due to its own internal contradictions". What had come to pass instead was the exact opposite. The world also watched China turning to "brutal" state or authoritarian Capitalism around the turn of the century. This faithfully replicated the early development of Capitalism in Europe. There, except in the 17th-century Netherlands where democracy was confined to propertied liberals and did not include workers, all other nations were ruled by near-absolute monarchies with sufficient muscle to create ideal conditions for the emergence of Capitalism by forcible expropriation of the common people, turning them into the proletariat and then teaching them to accept their new lot. & Come mid-September 2008, Marx's prophecy about the internal contradictions of Capitalism (remember last year's sub-prime debacle in the US, too?) seemed to have been fulfilled the world over. Ironically, the bailout of the American financial entities, caught in the derivatives' trap, by the US government resembled what a socialist state might have done. For a while now, alarm bells have been sounding about Barack Obama's Marxisant tendencies and radical past. Does it mean that, should he get elected come 4 November, he may proceed to deconstruct the Homeland of Capitalism and turn it into a post-modernist albeit Marxist dystopia? Will Marx and Engel have the last laugh? Do not watch this space for the answer.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Celebrity revisited.

Celebrity is sexy. Fame is sexy. Brawn is sexy. Brainy is sexier, though. When did you find out this secret, Mr Gandhi? Was it on 13 January 1897 as you stepped down at 5 p.m. on to the quay at Durban from the quarantined SS Courtland? To face, as it turned out, the mob waiting to nab the defender of the immigrants on board? "Let us teach the bloody coolie a lesson he won't forget in a hurry," they were shouting. Your arrival in their midst was greeted by a volley of abuse, bricks, stones, rotten tomatoes and eggs, yes? Your back to the railing literally, you escaped by the skin of your teeth, thanks to the brainy Mrs Alexander, the Police Superintendent's spouse, who showed great presence of mind and exceptional skill at wielding an open parasol while her honourable husband distracted the rioters by his passionate rendition of the then top o' the pops: "Hang ol' Ghandy on the sour apple tree". Mrs Alexander's resourceful husband once again saved the day and your life, didn't he, God bless his ever lovin' soul!, when you were besieged in the house of the excellent Mr Rustomjee later on in the evening? On 22 January, you sent a personal note of thanks and a gift in appreciation of the kindness shown by the couple, didn't you? Barely two days later, you magnanimously declined to prosecute your persecutors saying you wanted the matter to be dropped. Good ol' Ghandy ain't so bad, after all. Mahatmahood is sexy, eh, Mr Gandhi? (32, pages 50 - 51, The Last Gandhi Movie)

"I read a newspaper cutting sent by a correspondence to the effect that a temple has been erected where my image is being worshipped," wrote Gandhi. "This I consider to be a gross form of idolatry." Funny remark to come from a man who opened on 8 May 1913 a Hindu temple in Verulam, South Africa, and defended idols in an argument with Tagore much later in the presence of Andrews, an old associate from the South African days. Gandhi's argument was that the masses were not capable of absorbing abstractions. Tagore was opposed to the condescending attitude that grown-ups should be treated as children in the matter of mental age. Gandhi illustrated his point by citing the flag as an example, saying that it gave a concrete shape to a concept like nation and that great things had been achieved in Europe by so doing. Gandhi did prove his point by becoming a much worshipped idol in India. Why the protest then, Mr Gandhi, when it was too late to undo the harm? (42, page 68, The Last Gandhi Movie)

When did Gandhi become 'Mahatma'? Maybe, the first time he was so described was at a reception accorded to him in his native Kathiawar in January 1915. A month later, Tagore so addressed him in a letter. By the time Nehru met him for the first time in 1916, the halo was firmly in place. It took another five years, though, for him to exchange his Kathiawari cloak and turban for his trademark loincloth which he did in holy Varanasi. He had vowed in the last lap of his South African sojourn, to remain celibate for life in 1906 when he was thirty seven. At about the same time, his ideas about satyagraha (firmness for a good cause) were firming up while he was grappling with the South African crisis. It was also around this time that Gandhi decided that he must embrace voluntary poverty apart from celibacy. He wrote to his elder brother, Laxmidas, saying he was no more interested in worldly possessions. Mahatmahood was already creeping up on him stealthily. Later on, when he visited Europe and called on King George V, George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin and Romain Rolland, Gandhi impishly remarked: "You people wear plus-fours, mine are minus-fours." He was in his loincloth, it goes without saying. And, there was a twinkle in his eye and not an iota of malice in his heart. (38, pages 61 - 62, The Last Gandhi Movie)

Related posts: The Mind of MK Gandhi
The more, the less sexier.

The more, the less sexier?

I recently read somewhere a Brad Pitt interview where he had said that Jesse James was one of the earlier celebrities in America in the times of Mark Twain. Then celebrities used to be few and far between. He was talking in the context of his latest film, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". He added that, even in those days (at the cusp of the 19th and the 20th centuries), there were tabloids and a lot of sensationalizing and hype. Remember this is "the apex of celebrity" talking (Brangelina, no less). He ought to know. What he was saying in fact is that now that there has been a celebrity population explosion, being a celebrity does not have the same value it used to have in the times of Twain and the James Brothers. It has been considerably devalued like the rupee or the dollar. Remember, though, that in those days, the population of the US of A was a mere 76,094,000, according to the US Census. It quadrupled to 305,397,000 by 2008. Common sense suggests that the demand for celebrities must have gone up too, what with the population of tabloids and fanzines and fan websites having soared up as well. In other words, there being more worshippers, there is a demand for more icons in every conceivable field: movies, theatre, ballet, television, music, sport, fashion, literature, art, science, you name it. This may sound like specious reasoning, come to think of it. Speaking for myself, celebrity antics leave me cold. But then I am in the minority. When I look at the way celebrity gossip is manufactured and lapped up and celebrity is used to sell products, though, even I have to agree that celebrity is here to stay for a long, long time to come.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Whatever happened (in alphabetical order) to Alton, Babs, Estelle, Frank, Helen, Morty and Uncle Leo?

They all appeared briefly on Seinfeld, "the show about nothing", sometimes as briefly as in one or two episodes and got their share of 15 minutes of fame. Alton Benes, war veteran and celebrated author in the Hemingway mold was the father of Elaine Benes Elaine appropriately enough worked as a manuscript reader and editor with various New York publishers. Alton terrorised Jerry, "the funny guy", and "gay" George, in the lobby of a venerable downtown hotel "for people who like leather couches and leather patches on their elbows". He also contributed to the utter ruin of Jerry's new and horrendously expensive soft suede jacket by refusing to take a cab to reach the Pakistani restaurant five blocks away from his hotel although it had started to snow by the time Elaine joined them. Babs, Kramer's mom, finally revealed to us his first name, Cosmo, which he had been refusing to divulge all along. She, an ex-alcoholic, was also caught in a heavy petting session with Jerry's nemesis, Newman. Estelle and Frank made the life of their son, George, a living hell. Estelle read his mail routinely because "I'm curious" and castigated him for "treating his body like an amusement park". Frank could never get over the perversity of a rooster having sex with all the chickens in the roost. Helen, Jerry's adoring mom, was always wondering how anybody could not like her son. She was also a severe critic of the dress sense of her husband, Morty. He was something of a wimp and a damp squib although he was into the Florida condo politics in a big way. He was the only parent who called Kramer "Mr Kramer" while Kramer slapped him on the back and called him Morty. Finally, an honourable mention for Uncle Leo who held Jerry's elbow every time he could corner him and waxed eloquent about the newest achievements of his son Jeffrey who worked for the Parks Department "like he split the atom" in Jerry's own words.
Take a bow, Larry Richards and Jerry Seinfeld.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The mandolino guy.

With his little mandolino
And a twinkle in his eye
Senorinas he can win
Always for another guy.

I don't quite remember when I heard this Dean Martin number for the first time. Apparently though, the way he crooned it, the listener was supposed to feel a twinge of pity and remorse for the poor mandolino fellow. He always won the fair senorina for another guy, capiche? It was very unfair, though, that the fair senorina did not feel a twinge of attraction for the guy serenading her with the mandolino. Instead, she directly transferred her affection to the suitor who was hiring the mandolino guy for the price of a cigarette and a glass of vino. I guess the world is an unfair place, always has been, always will be. If you scroll down the lyrics, you will find that, in spite of all the unfairness, the aforesaid mandolino guy was quite a happy soul. He had no woman of his own (I guess he was practical: he realized that he didn't have the wherewithal to support her expensive tastes). He continued to sing a song of sweet romance for all the lovers on the dance floor. If you continue to suspend your disbelief willingly long enough and go along with the songwriter's scheme of things, you'll discover that the mandolino guy did not lose hope for the future. While he sincerely did the job he was hired for, his eyes were always seeking his one true love whom he toasted every time he raised his glass of vino. Heaven help them, though, if they found each other unless, in the meanwhile, the mandolino guy had stumbled upon a way to earn a handsome living.


She was my sister's college friend. A fair-skinned Goan Hindu with delicately etched features, she wore her nearly auburn hair trimmed short in a bob and lived with her mother in a huge elegantly furnished apartment on Laburnum Road, off Hughes Road. Even in my child's eyes, she seemed to have a mysteriously wicked air about her. Her disappearance was equally mysterious, sudden and without a trace. But while she was still around, she was probably the best coiffed, the best groomed, the best dressed creature I had ever seen. She had a weakness, I guess, for bouncy georgette and chiffon 6-yard saris in pastel hues. Even in those days, she used to drape the sari quite low off her waist as is all the rage now. Whenever she visited 233 Khetwadi Main Road, I used to virtually devour her with my eyes. It didn't seem to bother her much. She chided me about it gently once or twice, though, almost as if it was all a big joke. She was my first childhood crush, I guess. The next one was a dumpy and dark English teacher in the first grade. I adored her for the way she taught me English. She was, I think, largely responsible for instilling the love of the language in me. The third one was another teacher, a fair and short damsel with sparkling eyes, who taught me in middle school. Almost every day, I used to watch her avidly from our terrace when she walked to and back from school.

The bedroom shrine.

In a certain bedroom I recently happened to be in while on a sick visit, there is a compact wooden shrine just behind where I was sitting. In it, there were the pictures inter alia of (1) Rama, Sita and Hanuman; (2) Krishna playing his flute; (3) Ganesh; and (4) Lord Vishnu in his virat swaroop of which he spoke to Arjuna in Bhagvadgita. There was also a pindi with a abhisekh patra (water sprinkler) hanging over it. In addition, there were idols of a flute-playing Krishna, Ganesh and several other deities. The shrine took me back to the sitting room of a guru my mother used to visit for a while.
He used to stay right on the sea face in the basement of a house up the Walkeshwar Road. His shrine in dark mahogony (if memory serves) too was cluttered with lots of pictures and idols. He sat in front of it chanting mantras and answering the queries of his devotees like my mother. From his balcony, you could see the whole of Marine Drive on your left and the Governor's House on your right. What I found most enchanting about the place was the fact that the Arabian Sea used to reach very close to the balcony at high tide. The sound of the waves ebbing and flowing had a soothing rhythm to it. The guru and most of his visitors seem completely oblivious to the beauty of the here and now, though. They were concerned more with what was going to happen in the future and what the portents predicted.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


One of the most ingenious though infantile (ingenuous?) American invention is the caped and/or masked super hero. I think they haven't received enough kudos for it. Equally ingenious is the way they've abbreviated "building superintendent" to "super". This factotum is in charge of the smooth running of the facilities (water, power, electricity, waste disposal, elevators, washing machines) in a building and, in turn, for the comfort and well being of the residents. He often resides in the basement to be within easy call 24/7 and has with him all the tools and implements he may need to accomplish his various tasks. Many of the more popular super heroes too, coincidentally, reside underground and emerge to the surface to answer the call of duty. (Remember Batman answering the Bat-signal's summons and speeding to the rescue from the Bat Cave in his Batmobile?) To equate "super" with "saviour" reminds me of Vishnu, the Preserver/Saviour, in his functionally appropriate avatara coming to the rescue of his devotees (acolytes, fans?) and delivering them from the clutches of the evildoers. In the US of A, the house where Superman was "created" was recently saved for restoration thanks to the fans' generosity. They do believe in and love "Super", don't they?