Gender (e)quality

For a man of my age & origins it takes a lot of courage – and a blog – to comment on the gender issue. All I can say in my defence is that I left one of the best jobs going in India for the sake of the woman I love/d and we’ve been bickering for well-nigh three-and-a-half decades by now as to which one of us was the bigger fool. We are still married btw, officially and otherwise, though we live in a country, mind, where every third marriage ends in a divorce and marriages last for 14 years and 8 months on an average.

I come from an environment about as innocent as the Garden of Eden: I still remember my first visit to the house of a childless couple, colleague of my mother’s and her, the colleague’s, spouse – this was near Lansdowne Road, in Calcutta. I thought they were living in sin! Later I had joined the Foreign Service and we were in training in Delhi when this absolutely ravishing girl walked into one of the rooms at the External Affairs Hostel and I was told to stop gaping: she was divorced, my first divorcee. Were they allowed to run around free endangering public morals?

Talk of retribution, I ended up marrying a divorcee with a child five years later. Back in Germany, our daughter was born and we still did not know any divorced couples – though some remarried ones. Our daughter – not the blonde and blue-eyed one I’d always wanted to have and had conned my way into getting one for free by marrying a white Circassian divorcee complete with daughter, as if on a special offer! But that’s not the daughter we’re talking about right now, we’re talking about our biological (egad!) daughter, who’d soon be going to the kindergarten and to the primary school and so on. Where was I?

Oh yes, I was in Germany – still am! – and the parents of our daughter’s KG and primary school friends were just beginning to get the seven-year itch and getting divorced. The mothers, being young and comely and intelligent, were finding other partners, not to speak of the fathers, most of whom were getting divorced because they’d found new partners, as is the male custom. To cut a long story short, most of our daughter’s friends were having two sets of parents, two fathers and two mothers, and were getting four presents for Christmas and being taken to the seaside for their summer holidays twice in the season and so on. Didn’t she feel ashamed because she had the same ole’ set of parents every year and got just that one present (she got many more!)? I used to tease our poor fille, making her thoughtful. I fear that I almost led her to believe that no other woman wanted her father and no other man wanted her mum and that’s why they were together, as leftovers, so to speak.

We’ve all grown up since then and now I know that it’s no shame to have remained married to the same woman for as long as I have. Again I’ll say in my defence that I have eyed my share of passing beauties with thoughts too deep for tears – but not too deep for Kasia, it seems, who is very much aware of this universal male frailty. I’ve been noticing other things too, such as how norms change and how it’s the man, these days, who says ‘yes’ to a relationship after the couple have been through all the stages and phrases from ‘Shall we go grab some coffee?’ to ‘What are you doing for the weekend?’ to ‘Your place or mine?’

In other words, I find women saying ‘no’ to any number of ineligible partners while waiting for the right one. And then when the right one has put in an appearance and the woman has been giving every signal that she’s ready for consumer durables – the man seems to have a problem saying ‘yes’. The woman feels like hitting the man on the head with the umbrella every time he says ‘I don’t know…’, or ‘I’m so busy right now, there’s so much work…’, or ‘Let’s go somewhere! What about Morocco?’ or ‘I’ll come and fix that geyser of yours and then we’ll go for a bite, okay?’ No, it is not okay, since not saying yes is the man’s way of saying no.

All I know about the modern woman is that she still seems to be nurturing the same age-old dream of ‘someone just for myself’, and the friend who also happens to be one’s lover, and someone to share one’s migraine with, and someone who can do all the oily and smelly things about the car and be rewarded with something as simple as – unless the children are around. He earns good money and brushes his teeth before and after – in short, the epitome of bliss and domesticity whom one can leave for more than five minutes with one’s BFF without him behaving like Donald Trump – or like Bill Clinton, for that matter. You’ve looked for him on Amazon, until they told you to try e-bay, sigh. He is nowhere to be found. Men are like snowflakes, they melt in your hand and on your tongue. Whereas you didn’t even know that you were so old-fashioned and would be yearning for a breast as shaggy as Dad’s or the Retriever’s in your single mother, single-wanting-to-be-a-mother existence.

Did Mother and Granny and Auntie really have it better? Didn’t have to worry about the bread-earner who came to bed late and started snoring early, whereas romance was the bird in the tamarind tree which called and called and called, to no purpose. Nobody went hungry with those women around: they treated all males as animals to be fed, first and foremost. Feeding the male took the edge off his libido. Feeding the dog made it less ferocious. These were women from well-to-do, middle class families. They had hordes of servants and maidservants to order around, any number of younger brothers of the lord and master to send on errands outside the house.

They had no choice, of course. They couldn’t have an affair with Abinash-kaku or run away with Jyotirmoy-meso if they liked. They had been buried alive in a marriage and were then busy keeping their mausoleum of a household nice and clean and tidy. Children were born and grew up playing in and around that mausoleum getting hardly any more attention than the goats father had insisted on keeping because goat’s milk was good for the children and made them more intelligent – intelligent?

I have not understood to this day whether the women have been punked over this New Deal or not. It’s like heads I win, tails you lose. ‘Danger! Men at Work’ has been replaced by ‘Gender! Women at Play’, while men are declaring themselves to be an ‘engendered species’. Meanwhile, the Working Woman is coming back from work and checking the mails and the msgs, all from stray males she’s attracted over the past fortnight. One look at the typos and she decides to watch a film all alone by herself in her boyfriend jeans.

She doesn’t want to have any one of them around right now, after a hard day at work. Isn’t that freedom too?

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Demonocracy

Having sleepless nights over Trump’s victory? Sleeping badly ever since the Brexit fiasco? Your faith in democracy shaken, you are beginning to see demonocracy everywhere? Relax, stop worrying, you’re just suffering from a mild form of (political) anxiety neurosis. In your imagination, the Greek demos – for ‘common people’ – has coupled itself with the Latin Hydra – that’s the hydra-headed monster – to lay an egg on which is written either ‘Donald’ or ‘Hillary’, depending on your confession. ‘Hillary’ failed to hatch, but ‘Donald’ has squirmed his way into the White House while America’s first black President is still in it. For shame.

America is divided, the United States are no longer united – they’re shooting anyone who dares to make that stupidest of all puns from California to New York and from Maine to Mexico, I hear. Otherwise I’d say that for the first time, America is as united as the United Nations, which it hosts. Which brings me to an idea! What Britain’s and America’s democracy needs is a kind of veto – naturally for the educated, liberal, progressive classes. In which case, anytime the folk is stupid enough to vote for Trump, say, we just trump it with our veto, looking as inscrutable or as bland as the Russian or the Chinese representative on the Security Council.

But there’s a problem. All the other groups such as the non-college whites, the blacks from Bernie Sanders enthusiasts to gangsta rappers, Latinos legal or illegal, won’t they be calling for their own veto powers as well? In which case, won’t they be shooting down all our president-elects? Will it not end the way they choose the Secretary-General of the United Nations or the heads of the IMF and the World Bank and so on? Everybody a compromise candidate and no winners or losers and no competition, in effect? But isn’t that exactly what we’re doing, what we’ve always done? Isn’t that the quintessence of democracy, choosing the lesser evil – at times even the least evil! – and hoping for the best?

Funny that everybody’s looking at the White House and sparing hardly a glance for the House of Representatives or the Senate – because that’s where they all sit, the power dealers and the power brokers, though Trump spat in their soup too, as the Germans would have put it. It stinks, as the Germans would say, the whole political structure, and not just in America. I remember asking my father as an adolescent – I was the adolescent, not my father! – why it was so difficult to find five hundred honest and upright men – feminism was still a far cry in India – I was asking my father, why can’t we find five hundred honest men to sit in the parliament and choose the government and pass the legislation and so on. Aren’t there five hundred honest men in India? I asked like a teenage Seneca. ‘Yes,’ father said, ‘but how are you going to get them into the parliament?’ Ah, democracy and elections and what-have-you would get in the way, would they? I saw my father’s logic. Not that it helped.

With almost medieval simplicity, German anchors have been asking their American talk show guests: ‘Trump or Clinton, isn’t that like choosing between the plague and the cholera?’ Perhaps that is what is wrong with democracy, that one has a choice at all. Look at the Germans: they have no other choice than Merkel at the next elections and everyone is happy. Now Merkel will be getting her sixteen years in office like her mentor Helmut Kohl – that’s long enough for two American presidents with extension. But the Americans like having their political Super Bowl every four years, I suspect, whereas the Germans do not. With typical European pragmatism and equanimity, they hold on to a good thing when they’ve found one, never change a winning team and all that. That’s why the Germans have already cast their vote – mentally – more-or-less, and gone about their business, the Kanzlerfrage, the chancellor question, having been solved, so far as they are concerned. The political parties – and they have more than two in Germany, friends in America please note – well, the political parties always have their own ball – to the exclusion of the general public, except by way of popularity polls – when it comes to choosing the Federal President, they’ve just chosen a new one btw, again by common consent, while America was having its presidential High Noon. Which brings me to my second idea! German media and polling institutes have been regularly asking the Germans whom they’d choose as the next US president: 94% of the Germans were for Clinton and 4% for Trump, I think. All of which goes to show that the Americans should leave the choosing of their President in German hands – whereas the Americans could choose the German President, say, in return. What I’m suggesting is a kind of outsourcing of elections and suchlike democratic processes to countries which are less involved and therefore less hysterical. In exchange, the outsourcing country gets to choose the incumbents for less crucial posts in the country of the second instance. This way, both countries – and both folks – can have just as much fun & games with none of the hangover if things go wrong.

Just as Robbie Williams is more popular in Germany than in the UK, Barack Obama is naturally more popular in Germany than in the US, I suspect. And Obama is now passing into History real Hollywood style, strolling around the Parthenon and lecturing the Greeks about democracy at President Pavlopoulos’ dinner – the Greeks, of all people, who invented demokratia by putting together demos (common people) and kratos (rule, strength), as the Wikipedia would have told Obama. He should have remembered that an American president cannot ride into history as into the sunset here in good old Europe, which always devises a system and a way of cheating it, both at the same time. In Europe and its eastern extension, every revolution eats its own children, in the end. Obama should have looked around him from the Ritz-Carlton in Berlin and realised that the European masters of manipulation have been chipping away at democracy too: Hungary has Orban, Poland has Kaczynski, Spain has Rajoy all over again and Britain even has a Trump look-alike as the Foreign Secretary.

The original Greek word daimon did not have any negative connotations; it meant a spirit or a divine power similar to the Latin genius. In Christian demonology, the demon became a fallen angel and an unclean spirit. They used to exorcise the demon and burn the witch, in medieval times. Somewhat like the latest American elections or at least the reaction to them, don’t you think?

The realism of Hindi films

I’m thinking of my missionary activities in this regard here in the West since the late ’70s/early ’80s – before the great proselytiser Shah Rukh Khan took over and converted all Teutons to Bollywood. Now the ‘natives’ lap it up, and have their Holi raves with environment- and skin-friendly coloured flour, and take lessons in Bollywood dancing, and are generally more hep to any and every Khan on screen and off it than I could ever hope to be – at my age and after my prolonged, self-imposed exile.

And then there’s Zee.One, a Hindi film channel specially created for the Germans which I am yet to watch. And I’ll tell you why. I hardly watch Hindi films these days, ever since they changed the tag to ‘Bollywood movies’, which camouflages a subtle but not inconsequential difference. These new Bollywood movies are far too realistic for me and far too much like Hollywood, especially in the action scenes. The heroes have real six-packs and the heroines wear saris which I don’t see at first glance if I’m not wearing my specs. On top of that, all the girls seem a bit too thin in my eyes, even when I’m wearing my specs. We used to have heroines who used to fill the screen and fill the hoardings, hide ugly buildings and busy intersections and bring a smile to the betel-stained lips of bidi-smoking bus drivers and chatty minibus cleaners. Now the heroines look like badminton players off court and off carbs.

And the joke is that the Germans tell me to shut up when I try to talk to them about the lack of realism in Hindi films. They tell me what I can do with my realism – and they can be rude. They tell me to leave them in peace and let them have fun. Watching the antics of Indian expats in New York or wherever is fun? I say. They do it because it’s easier to shoot on outdoor locations in NY than in Mumbai, didn’t I know that? these ur-Germans enlighten me.

They represent the emerging German deprived classes getting their first taste of reality: they are young, to begin with; have no jobs or contract jobs or badly paid jobs; husband and wife are both working and trying to raise a kid or two on their sparse income in their spare time; no savings and hardly any hope of a decent pension… Yes, they are about ready for Hindi films, I tell them. Soon they’ll be making Hindi films specifically for the Western market, I prophesy – wishing Sachin Bhowmick was around, who used to write the scripts in English which were then translated back into Hindi for the shooting. They’ll be making Hindi films in the crossover category, East meeting West till the bedsprings creak and Kipling turns in his grave – I predict. Shah Rukh Khan’s love will save blonde-haired single mothers on rehab in Potsdam, whereas Kangana Raut and Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt will be rendering their Western male leads speechless – all to the good, considering the kind of trouble they’ll be having trying to get Channing Tatum and Matt Bomer and James Franco to speak the statutory number of words in Hindi for the coveted ‘B’ certificate – for Bollywood.

The realism of Hindi films has always been in acknowledging that the lives of most people in India, or in the world, or in the universe, being nothing to write home about, it is always a pleasure to get away from such shit for a couple of hours for the price of a cinema ticket. You leave the heat and the dust and Ruth Prawer Jahbvala outside and come into the dark, air-conditioned recesses of the cinema hall. You take only Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” with you, which you’ll need in the reels to come, believe me, as Shammi Kapoor gives Pran (or Pran gives Shammi, I’ve forgotten) a right upper cut in Bombay and Pran (or Shammi) lands in the Kashmir valley (aerial distance 1,673 km), where the fight continues. You’ll need that suspension of disbelief when Manoj Kumar aka Bharat Kumar, the greatest film patriot of all times, is tortured by Chinese soldiers in a prison cell at some remote Himalayan outpost and the walls (including the ceiling) run red with Bharat’s blood but Bharat survives. “They’ve poured it by the bucketful!” you’ll complain, only to be told by the Manoj Kumar fan in the next seat: “Paid ten annas for your ruddy entrance and now sitting two rows from the screen, you expect Manoj to show you real blood?” And you’d finally have met your realist.

The ten anna seats were a kind of ‘last minute’ chance of getting into a show, all other seats being open for advance booking. One stood in line in the passage next to the cinema hall – strongly smelling of micturation – and fought it out with all the other hoodlums for the privilege of a seat right up front, so close to the screen that one got exotropia, that’s wall eyes, trying to take in ‘the whole picture’. Otherwise it was as much fun as watching a football game from the ramparts – no point in trying to explain if you don’t know what that is, or was. And an anna used to be one-sixteenth of a rupee in the pre-metric system, four pice to the anna and so on. The anna went but the ‘ten anna seat’ survived in the cine-goer’s jargon. Where was I?

Yes, the realism of Hindi films was like the Kantian dialectic, or like Newton’s third law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Whenever and wherever life is as hard as it used to be (yes, Modi-ji) in India, you will have the Hindi film as the antidote. Hindi film audiences used to be like children listening to a fairy story: they are ready to believe anything, so long as they’re sitting in their hard-won ten anna seats watching a famous wrestler-turned-Bombay-film-actor race electricity to save the heroine from electrocution! In the end the hero has a brainwave (?), takes out a pair of scissors and cuts the tube, so that blue electricity drips, drop by drop, from the conduit… That’s a joke, btw, in case your suspension of disbelief has gone that far. But see how it works?

The aim of surrealism – which began in the early ’20s of the last century – was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality”, as Wikipedia will tell you. You can go from there to sous-réalisme and rêve-réalisme and what not – but don’t waste your time. Watch an old Hindi film from the ’60s, say, and ask yourself: This is Rajendra Kumar; he is a sub-inspector of the police; he is returning from work in a police jeep with a swagger stick in his hand – ever seen a sub-inspector sporting a swagger stick? Now you have. The jeep enters the sprawling grounds of a palatial mansion which would have put the Nehrus with their Anand Bhavan in Allahabad to shame. How can a police sub-inspector afford to live in such a p(a)lace – with only his widowed mother – unless he is the crookedest, corruptest police officer in existence? And why is he a lowly SI, when he could have been the police super or at least the assistant police super of the district? Ah, you’d like to know, wouldn’t you?

Firstly, please note that we Indians always refer to our actors by name – Shammi did this in ‘Teesri Manjil’ and when Raj Kapoor was singing that song in ‘Awara’ etc. Ask their best – or worst fans, and they won’t be able to tell you what name Shammi had in TM or Raj Kapoor in Awara etc. – because we Indians know, we know that it is all Maya and a Schauspiel and that Thomas Carlyle could have known nothing about heroes and hero worship since there were no Hindi films in his time.

And the sub-inspector? He has his office in the thana or the police station and emerges from it like a tiger from its cage to shout at the police constables and kick the asses of the general public – we Indians know him, he is a visible god, the SP, ASP &co. being the gods higher up in the echelon whom we do not get to see, hence there’s no point in worshipping them, is there? Power and wealth must be visible, as every Indian knows. See Sub-Inspector Rajendra Kumar drive his Dodge Kingsway into his ‘go’r’ment quarters’ which just happens to be a palace and you’ll know why life is a Hindi film with you in the ten anna seat. Jai Hind.

Autumn, a fairy tale

Prague, 1981, my third autumn in Europe.

I used to walk from the ulice Veverkova, where I lived, to Valdstejnska, where I worked, that’s near the Mala Strana metro station. The walk took me through Letna Park, which lay in-between. The park is on a ridge running parallel to the Vltava river – Moldau in English. One had a breathtaking view of the river and its bridges from the park. But in autumn and early in the morning, the mist would still be hanging like smoke on the water while the trees in Letna lit up like Tiffany lamps in the sunlight.

wp_20161029_13_56_54_proI remember I had returned to my flat on Veverkova after an unsucccessful hunt for Czech fairy tales in German, which I had wanted to present to my future stepdaughter – she had turned eight that year. I had tried the GDR shop and then even the Hungarian shop – all government outlets, in communist Czechoslovakia, by the way – but I had failed to unearth Cezch fairy tales, whether in German or in any other language. It was evening. I was wondering… a fairy tale? Why not write one? But how did one write a fairy tale?

Autumn in Prague. Light burning in the window of a first floor flat on Veverkova in which a solitary Indian male sat sucking his ball point pen – not the writing end, thank God! – trying to concoct a ‘real’ Czech fairy tale in German for his Polish stepdaughter-to-be. Head swimming a bit? Same as mine. That’s when I wrote ‘Das graue Kleid’, that’s ‘The Gray Dress’, feeling like the long-lost third cousin of Brothers Grimm.

I’d done the Pilsen-Stribro-Bor-Primda route from Prague to Germany so often that I had developed an affinity for the Czech countryside, beginning with the coal-dust smothered Pilsen. So I began my fairy tale many many moons ago in a small Czech town in the dark and lonely recesses of the Bohemian forest, where the winds howl when the wolves don’t. And then I brought in the old Slavic gods Veles and Perun – now also in Wikipedia – who are born enemies, in fact. Veles, in Czech, is of course Weles, in Polish, and Volos, in Russian. Veles is the god of earth and water, of forests as well as of the nether world, whereas Perun is the god of thunder.

The two were having a breather in the middle of their fight – naturally in and over the forests of Bohemia – when they saw a young girl in a gray dress standing among the fallen leaves of the chestnut tree in their garden. The fallen leaves gleamed like tarnished gold in the stray shafts of sunlight. The girl seemed happy in her gray dress, a bit too happy perhaps. So Veles – or was it Perun? – asked her who she might be and what she was feeling so happy about. It was her birthday and her stepmother had made her this wonderful dress, a frock – the girl said. Wasn’t it full of colours, brighter and prettier than the colours of autumn, as her stepmother had claimed? the girl piped. That’s when the gods noticed that the girl was blind.

The gods made themselves invisible and listened to the girl’s stepmother boasting to the girl’s father: ‘Why waste money buying good cloth with a nice pattern for someone who can’t even see? I’ve told the others not to tell her’ – the others being the girl’s stepbrothers and stepsisters – my stepdaughter-to-be used to love that. Those stepbrothers and stepsisters – the nastier and the more hateful the better – were naturally teasing the girl about her gray dress and reducing her to tears. They chased the poor girl out into the street, where everybody, from the street urchins to the big fat mayor of the town, joined in laughing at the girl and her gray dress.

That’s when Veles and Perun decided to teach the hard-hearted townspeople a lesson, together with the girl’s family. Suddenly the whole town turned colour blind, nobody could see colours any more, let alone the autumn colours. Everything was in black-and-white – or grey. But the girl could see again! And the girl could see colours! ‘Tell us, tell us,’ the townspeople crowded round her and clamoured, while the girl walked down the streets and past the gardens and along the high stone wall of the local squire’s residence which was covered with vines and lichen and moss – next to the river, exactly as in Bonn, I added, much to the delight of my stepdaughter. wp_20161029_13_54_43_pro

The townspeople could see no colours, so the girl told them the colour of the leaves and the colour of the sky; which tree was red and which tree was brown, which a flaming yellow and which still green…

To this day they have this strange custom in that small Czech town in the Bohemian forest – yes, near the German border, just after you’ve driven through Primda and think there’s nothing but the dark and dank forest till the border crossing at Rozvadov – well, on the first day of autumn – that’s the autumnal equinox, tell you about that later – well, the people of that town, including the mayor, whether fat or not, blindfold their eyes and let a young girl lead them through the streets and lanes and by-lanes of the town telling them all about the wonderful colours of autumn. And when they remove their blindfolds, the trees are bare and it is winter.

‘Is that the new Walt Disney film?’ my stepdaughter said. ‘He discovered Technicolor, you know that?’

I haven’t ‘written’ a fairy tale since.

In memoriam: the Bakelite telephone

You must have seen the squat little thing a hundred times in pre-Technicolor movies: the dumbbell receiver cradled on a truncated pyramid with a round dial for a face, the digits from 0 to 9 written in the holes. Zero used to be right at the bottom, with the dragon’s tooth next to it to stop your finger from dialling beyond that point.

I remember the cloth-covered curly cord connecting the receiver to the main body of the telephone which used to turn stringy and unelastic like a pyjama cord with use, or tie itself up in knots so that you had to bend down and hold an entire conversation in that semi-foetal position before hanging up and finally finding the time to unravel the ruddy thing.

The dialling was an exercise in patience, especially if you were in a hurry, because you could dial the zero fast enough – the zero being right next to the ‘finger stopper’. You could dial ‘1’ with almost equal ease, though this time the dialling finger had to go all the way from the top to the bottom – with the difference that it took several seconds for the dial to come back to the neutral position, making that catarrhal K-r-r-r-r-h sound. And the ‘engaged’ tone did not come right away either. You dialled the whole number and then got the engaged tone. Or you got the wrong number.

That’s what I tell the youngsters of today: the whole fun has gone out of wrong numbers. Today you get a wrong number because the number you have dialled or some other fool has dialled is wrong. In the olden days, you did everything right and still got a wrong number because the girl at the exchange – she used to get into the fray from time to time, asking you to vacate the line, there’s a trunk call coming and so on.

The telephone did not ring all that often in those days, hence the whole household was electrified when the phone rang, with that frantic K-r-r-r-n-g Kr-r-r-r-n-g, pause, K-r-r-r-n-g Kr-r-r-r-n-g noise like a fire alarm on fire! You ran into something and hurt your knee trying to reach the telephone before anyone else – might be your girlfriend ringing up whom your mother dislikes intensely and has been waiting for just an opportunity like this to be nasty to, if only on the telephone. And then it turns out to be a wrong number, someone asking whether this was the hosiery factory, yes, next to the hooch shop? Bless him.

There was only one thing better than wrong numbers and these were the cross connections. Now, don’t look up ‘cross connection’ on Google because they’ll tell you that it’s got something to do with plumbing and/or datacentres. The old-fashioned cross connection was some innocent mutt being plugged into the conversation that you’re having – and Gawd help you if that person is not a mutt but someone like my youngest maternal uncle – may his soul rest in peace – who simply used to wait for the wrong numbers and the cross connections with glee – he used to love creating confusion and Calcutta Telephones’ other name was confusion, so they suited each other to a T.

Telephone rings. Wrong number. Uncle grabs the receiver and says, ‘Speak. What can I do for You?’ (Which is not rude or impolite in Bengali, especially when combined with the respect form of address). ‘Is this the house of Mister So-and-so?’ Uncle puts on a grave voice and says: ‘Yes. Anything else?’ ‘I wanted to talk to him…’ ‘I’m sorry. You should have rung up yesterday, no, even this morning. You could still have seen him, even if you couldn’t speak to him.’ ‘Why? What has happened?’ asks the frightened voice. Uncle turns solemn, and then pious: ‘He had a heart attack last night and we took him to the cremating ground this morning. Just coming back from there.’ Stunned silence at the other end, funereal silence at Uncle’s. Then the timid query from the other side: ‘Are you still there?’ ‘Yes,’ Uncle says, ‘and this is still a wrong number, you twit.’ Cruel? Yes, but fun.

If Uncle ever got a cross connection, again, Gawd help the other two at their respective ends! Uncle could create more confusion with an occasional ‘yes’ or an intermittent ‘no’ than you’d imagine possible. ‘Did you mean it when you said that I’m too fat?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, if it’s that way…’ ‘Wait! Wait! That wasn’t me. There’s somebody on the line…’ They both listen. Uncle listens too. Then the doves start cooing again: ‘Do you really love me?’ the girl seems to be anxious. ‘No,’ Uncle says and so on.

Those Bakelite telephones have eavesdropped on more intimate conversations in their time than the NSA in ours. The Bakelite telephone would burn forever in hell if it was left to mothers like mine – the sweet lady is no more, but some of her choicest sarcasm was reserved for the occasions when I was hanging at that Bakelite telephone chatting to – you don’t really have to know. I used to bring Shall-Remain-Nameless back to her hostel, catch the bus back home and ring up the hostel at once – a girls’ hostel with God knows how many inmates but just that one telephone. ‘She’s in the shower. Shall we call her?’ giggle, giggle. And then an irate Shall-Remain-Nameless would materialise at the other end, though none too pleased, to judge by her voice: ‘Yes, what is it? What d’you want?’ ‘Why, are you in a hurry?’ ‘I’m in my towel.’ Silence. Suspicion at the other end: ‘Are you still there?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then why aren’t you saying anything?’ ‘D’you know they’ll be having telephones in the future where you’ll be able to see the person you’re talking to?’

Our telephone number used to be 4*2*6*. After the ground floor flat on Hazra Road had been ‘vacated’ by all of us as if the girl at the exchange – no, as if we were on the set of ‘Friends’ and the series was over, an unusual thing happened: nobody dismantled the set and nobody lived there either. So the place was locked up for years with the scrub growing in the kitchen courtyard. Me and my youngest brother, we used to ring up 4*2*6* from as far away as Bonn and Ottawa for years afterwards, just to hear that ghostly ring.

I quoted the first lines of Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners to my brother: “‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller” and so on.

My brother, who like yours truly had made the mistake of studying English Literature at a young and impressionable age, quoted Donne right back at me: “therefore never send to know for whom the phone rings; it rings for thee.”

Unloving you

I know there is no emoji for Unlove. Maybe one is supposed to click repeatedly on Love till it goes sour & blue like Roquefort cheese? In any case, Unlove would be an emoji that women would use more often than men, since women seem to fall out of love faster’n men fall in love.

I’m waiting for the trolling.

And still I shall dare to claim that men are sensitive creatures.

May I continue? Have you stopped laughing? As I know you will, because this is a serious matter. Back in 1968 Tom Jones sang a song by the title of Delilah and the world went gaga. The song was about a crime passionnel, a crime of passion. A man kills a woman in a fit of jealousy – how that is any less deplorable than honour killing, I shall never know. As regards the song, I find the text too chilling for me to quote from it at any length, just google it and you’ll get the case history. She is spending the night with a lover while he watches the ‘flickering shadow of love’ on her blind from the street outside. The lover leaves at dawn and our Samson agonistes – which has nothing to do with agony, by the way, but simply means “a contestant in the public games” – well, this particular contestant goes and puts an end to the whole shindig with his knife.

Well, that’s how ‘sensitive’ men can/could be, since the stone age, to be exact, or from the stone age till today, or till last Tuesday, to be even more exact, when a 27 year old man went into a haircutting saloon in Düren, Germany, and shot his wife in the head before putting the nozzle to his own temple and blowing his brains out. The wife survived, thank God.

Had the wife pressed the Unlove button? Had she simply told him, “I don’t love you any more”? No, apparently the Samson in the song didn’t have a clue until he was walking past Delilah’s window – just out for a stroll and not stalking, mind you – when he saw the infernal light. So Delilah was being unfaithful and had been caught in flagrante delicto, as they say. But I very much doubt this version of the events – as related by Samson – because Kasia, who is a psychotherapist, once told me that women usually start looking for a new partner after they’ve left the old one, whereas men leave their old partner because they’ve found a new one. And the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ take on a very different hue in the case of men when we consider the male predilection for women half their age.

Kasia doubts, in short, the whole ‘happening to walk past her window’ business and maintains that Delilah had already jilted Samson, which is why he was stalking Delilah, as simple as that. That is when I tried to tell Kasia about male sensitivity, making her laugh till the tears came, as the Germans say. The Germans – the men – also drink till the doctor comes, but that is neither here nor there. Whereas it is not often that I can make Kasia laugh, or cry, let alone both at the same time, so we’ll let it stand at that – but the point is that we men do not have an Unlove button, as I was trying to tell Kasia, God or Mark Zuckerberg having forgotten to give us one. We do not have too many emojis either. Like dogs, we have to express all our sentiments by growling, or barking, or whining, or snarling, or wagging our tail – have I left out anything? Oh, and we cannot sweat, that is why we pant, which women often mistake for passion.

Kasia, like all women, has around a thousand emojis to talk to her husband (that’s me!) without saying one word. The ultimate emoji is the woman’s face, I declare. It’s like a logogram, as with chinese or japanese characters – and about as readable to us men. It’s not just that women make faces about as numerous as Han characters, what they say – the audible emojis – may have a completely different meaning depending on the tone. It’s like Kasia saying, “Yes, yes, you are right”, which means that I am wrong.

Otherwise ask any zoo keeper. Are lions sensitive? Are tigers sensitive? All large and dangerous animals, animals who can hurt you if rubbed the wrong way – are they sensitive? They are short-tempered – apart from being short-sighted – and irascible and unpredictable. But are they sensitive? I claim that they are and the best proof of it is the missing Unlove button – or even the double click on the Love button? Must try that one out.

All in all, women remember their old loves, men never forget them. Men cannot unlove. They carry their old flames in the dark dungeons of their heart till their dying day: the girl who used to walk barefoot from room to room with the grace of a kathak dancer (which she was learning); the girl who used to walk up to the crowded bus stop like Cleopatra looking for Mark Antony among the camel drivers at the Cheops pyramid while Caesar lay cold and lifeless in his Temple at the Forum in Rome – otherwise there might have been another crime passionnel! And then the girl ogled steadfastly from afar for a whole undergraduate year who carries the blush, together with the ogler, to this day; lastly, the girl who used to wait for the worst kind of verbiage – I’m talking about the love letters of an ongoing novelist or what my mother used to call my ‘epistolary literature’ – in any case, ‘she’ used to wait for them as if for rain. It’s that waiting emoji that has survived. The letters have gone where they should.

And does Kasia mind? Not in the least. She is not jealous of all those ‘foreign’ princesses and queens who held sway before her reign. It’s hardly a kingdom, more of a duchy, I’d say – but nothing is grander for a woman than to hold sway over a man’s heart, which is like the Vatican filled with not just two popes but any number of popes and all of them women.

There is no Unsex button for the man either, it seems, otherwise why should W. Somerset Maugham write in his autobiography “The Summing Up” (1938) that sex was about the best thing he had experienced in his earthly existence (not his exact words)? He was 64. Gabriel García Márquez wrote his “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” (2004) when he was 77. The story? A 90 year old journalist seeks sex from a young prostitute who’s selling her virginity to help her family. In any case, the nonegenarian finds not sex but love. Sensitive, eh? Sensible, too. See, men don’t think of anything but –

Love, what else? Even when they are ninety.

The Beatification of Angelina Jolie

After Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize for Literature and entered the Nobel Hall of Fame, it was only a question of time before the Vatican followed suit. Within hours came the announcement, Angelina Jolie was to be beatified. Before her demise? disbelievers complained. Well, she’s not half as much box office as she used to be in her Lara Croft days, is she? the Vatican secretray said. And now she’s broken up with BRad Pitt and is just ANGELINA. You know what that means in Hollywood, or in the Vatican, don’t you?

Saint La La, as her devotees are already calling her, will be the first Christian saint to have had three husbands and six children. The UNHCR has devised a plan for her to ‘adopt’ three and a half million refugee children – a symbolic adoption, but no more symbolic than Turkey taking back refugees or Germany welcoming them. As regards the objection to her still being ‘alive’, Michael Jackson earned $825 million last year, seven years after his death, making some artists who are still alive wish they were dead. Why just beatification, ANJOLIE – Anjali? – might well become the first saint to achieve canonisation in the course of her mortal existence, the Vatican said. The Swedish Academy has set the pace and shown the way. Not just with Bob Dylan. What about Malala Yousafzai getting the Nobel Peace Prize with seventeen? The only thing left for her to become now is the first Muslim woman president of the United States, right after Donald Trump, say.

As we can see now, both the Nobel Committee and the Vatican are doing it right, in these days of the Internet and the Twitter and the Instagram – you got to beat the masses, you got to beat History, you got to beat Time. Can’t wait for a saint to die before you canonise her or him. She or he is old hat by then. You gotta catch ’em young. Malala got the Nobel with 17, that was in 2014, she being born in 1997. History was already in the making in the sense that a male child by the name of Justin Drew Bieber had been born three years earlier in London – Ontario, Canada – and would be just 16 by the time he released his debut single One Time in 2009.

What was the Nobel Committee doing, pray? Had they given the Nobel Prize for Literature in time to Justin Bieber, who knows what might have happened? He’s written or co-written 42 songs since then, I’m told (by Wikipedia). And I know that Benazir Bhutto got shot after becoming the first woman prime minister of Pakistan. Malala might do it the other way round, bless her, as a cynic friend of mine quipped the other day. Dylan wrote 271 songs in 55 years; ‘Just in’ would have done that ‘in just’ 45 years. So combining Dylan and Malala, a grave injustice has been done to Justin Bieber. The only way to salvage the situation is for the Nobel Committee to give him the Nobel Peace Prize as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature, at one go – that would be something new all over again and set the wires buzzing.

We’d forgotten all about Saint La La in all this hooey about Justin and Malala. Every saint has enemies. Angelina had the Fiery Jennifer, whom she vanquished. And now she’s got the Wily Amal – the Clooney woman, who is gunning for sainthood too. Both of them are active in the refugee sector. And then the Vatican exploded the bombshell: apparently it’s a new secretray and he mixed up Anjolie and Amal and – now hold on tight – Angie, our very own Angela Merkel! Merkel and not Angelina is to be beatified, no, canonised, because she has already performed her miracle. “One of my favorites is Angela Merkel because I think she’s been an extraordinary, strong leader during difficult times in Europe, which has obvious implications for the rest of the world and, most particularly, our country,” this is what Hillary Clinton has said about the German Chancellor – and Donald Trump has accused Hillary of wanting to be America’s Angela Merkel. So it’s not Saint La La but Saint Angela, the reporters got it all wrong, the Vatican secretary says.

But we still have to resolve the issue, was it right to give the Nobel Prize for Literatrure to Bob Dylan? All we’ve got to do is to remember that Winston Churchill, no less, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”. After that, I suggest the next Nobel Prize for Literature be awarded to the Nobel Committee for – you figure it out.

I asked my good fiend Bob what he thought about the whole shindig and this is what he said, or sang: “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press / Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess”. When Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, rang up to tell Bob, he apparently picked up his guitar and sang: “You’re an idiot, babe. / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” (Idiot Wind, 1974).

Wish you’re like you never won the Nobel prize the next time you write a song, Bob, and remember, we still love you.