Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Damn those f*cking cliches...

Live your life. Live every hour, minute, second of it. Live it to the fullest, soak in every little experience that you can squeeze into this short, temporary, fading life of yours.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying light.*

It’s such a fucking cliché.

We hear these empty phrases, hollow platitudes all around us. Pop psychology on t-shirts, sappy crap on cheap ceramic mugs retailing in hippie markets. We hear these paeans from spiritual guides, holy leaders, wise old men sitting on park benches. Narratives excerpted and summarised from idiotic TV talk show celebrities, feel-good messages on the back covers of self-help books. Desensitised, we smirk and sneer, disparage and mock both the message and the messenger. We are so sophisticated, caught up in our modern, culturally evolved and intellectually superior pursuits. Our cynicism inures us from the inanity of triteness.

Except when something happens, something to shake us out of our sarcasm, our derision, our hyper-intellectual disdain.

Today I had one of those moments. A pleasant enough afternoon, spent with a former co-worker recounting travel anecdotes. It was a surprisingly warm autumn day in London, despite the clouds. Trendy coffee shop with a Kiwi theme (the country, not the fruit). Kitschy Maori art, Buddhist statues (how that’s Kiwi, I don’t know, but there you go). All in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

Then, returning home. A quick cursory glance at my email inbox, only to find a note from my parents. An aunt, a distant cousin of my mother, had died this afternoon in a hospital. Several days of high fever, jaundice, complications, finally leading to liver and kidney failure. She passed away this afternoon.

I can only hope it was painless.

I am not devastated. I am not heartbroken, I am not shattered. I hadn’t seen her for four years, and didn’t even know that she had been unwell, so it wasn’t as if we were close.

But the news did manage to shake me, in my little intellectual world, up a little. And part of the reason is because the news just reinforced just how insufficient, how fragile, and how terribly short this life of ours is. (There’re those damn platitudes again).

But it’s only at times like this that you realise just how true each and every one of these fucking clichés are.

So tonight I remember a woman, who was kind, gentle, slightly eccentric (but then, if you’re in my family, you’d have to be) and had a lot of love and affection for everyone. Someone who desperately loved her three children, who fought for them, who travelled further emotional and cultural distances for them than perhaps many of her own siblings would have, and who was ultimately a fighter when she had to become one for them.

And when the shock, and the sorrow, of her passing away has worn off, I will try and remember not to mock the many platitudes, the kitschy pop psychobabble that we find all around us, and try not to sink into my cynical derision of them quite so soon. Because no matter how stupid they all sound, in the end, you realise that they’re all absolutely fucking true.

RIP, dear aunt.

* Excerpt from Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night"

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Let the Right One in - the Live Blog!

Kicking off: Okay then. First time for a live-blog on The Buddha Smiled. I keep meaning to try this, and should have really done this before, but hey, better late than never. Starting out with Swedish vampire horror movie, “Låt den rätte komma in (or "Let the Right One In", which was the title under which it was released in English markets) may sound unorthodox, especially since I tend to focus on Bollywood on this site, but hey – why do things by the book? You can read a short bio on the movie here, but otherwise, let’s just say that its a 2008 Swedish film adaptation of a vampire horror novel of the same name, written by John Ajvide Lindqvist. So – here goes nothing!

Menu & Set up:
This has a pretty creepy sounding soundtrack. Loving the close up of falling snowflakes though....time to hit Play!

01:20 min: I want a name with strange Scandinavian characters in it too. Maybe I should rename this blog, ”The Büddhå Smiled".

06:53 min: Okay, so within five minutes we’ve established the Oskar, the lead character, is a bit of a school misfit, who reads creepy books that allow him to decipher forensic evidence and also gets bullied around a little in school. New neighbours in the apartment / housing complex, but is it just me who would find it odd that people moving into a new place would choose to board up windows? It’s like, HELLO! Your new neighbours aren’t the Joneses, they’re bloodsucking ghouls who are afraid of the sunlight. Also – they moved in after dark, and live in Sweden, a country clearly reknowned for long sunlit hours. Duh.

15:37 min: ”A person who kills children is certainly capable of taking the subway two stations. Or walking a mile.” This is clearly why child slayers are threatening - they’re able to use public transport.

16:39 min: Okay, this kid is officially weird. His parents are divorced, which may explain some of it, or it could be a lack of sunlight, but seriously, most pre-teens collect stamps or seashells, not newspaper clippings relating to murders, massacres, genocides, violent crime and gang wars. Also, why can he not get a normal haircut?

27:59 min: Obviously its a good idea to be murdering people in areas with heavy snowfall. A good flurry covers your tracks, and you can use your sled to move the body through the forests.

28:22 min: Gaah – I hate vampires! Not only are they blessed with eerie good looks, immortal life and an incredible sense of personal style (have you ever seen a badly dressed vampire?) but apparently they’re also blessed with great analytical thinking capability. Atleast, this vampire does – she solves Oskar’s Rubik’s cube and leaves it out in the courtyard for him.

28:45 min: On second thoughts, this vampire girl child is probably the first one I’ve met with absolutely no sense of personal style. And what is with those hideous jumpers? Maybe its because she’s pre-teen? Nah – if you’ve been alive for that long, you’ve had enough time to develop a fashion sense. Must introduce her to Kirsten Dunst from Interview with a Vampire to help this one realise that just because you're one of the living dead and a child, there's no reason you can't dress well.

36:24 min: Vampire girl tells bullied boy who’s been recently flagellated by schoolmates to hit back. Perfect. This is why we hate vampires – they screw up with the natural order of society. Imagine if everyone started hitting back. What would happen to the world? And more importantly, who would the poor schoolyard bullies pick on?!

41:43 min: Someone needs to tell Oskar’s dad that wear high-waisted faded denim jeans with a grey Christmas sweater TUCKED IN is never going to be a good look. No wonder Oskar’s mom divorced him, if that’s his idea of casual wear. Which is a shame, really, because he's pretty good-looking. But there's no accounting for taste, now, is there?

44:04 min: Ugly middle-aged man standing at gym window watching teenaged Swedish boys in gym kit playing basketball, and nobody’s calling child services and the police? What, so perving on teenage boys is legal and normal in Sweden?

46:50 min: Vampire child’s servant (?) defaces himself with acid to avoid detection and being traced back to Eli (said vampire child) And people complain that good help is hard to find even today. Bah, humbug.

53:20 min: So vampire child’s help is dead, she’s now climbing into bed with Oskar and its all getting a little weird. Are Swedes allowed to show pre-teen loving?!

56:41 min: And I thought I had relationship issues. Imagine dating a vampire.

1hr, 05:43 min: Note to self; the next time I’m dating a vampire, remind me not to suggest mixing blood as a sign of pre-teen fealty. The situation is unlikely to end well.

1hr, 20:45 min: Do all Swedish moms wear Ikea print gowns to bed?

1hr, 21:52 min: Vampires self-combust in sunlight. Important to remember the next time I’m dating one.

1hr, 24:21 min: True love is forcing yourself into houses you’re not invited into as a vampire, so that you can bleed from your eyes and ears. That pop! sound when your eardrums go is also really nice. Unrelatedly, why does the sight of a bleeding vampire give me cravings for aloo ka paraatha and bhare mirch ka achaar?

1 hr, 26:28 min: This movie’s obviously set in the late 70’s. Nobody would dare own a TV set quite that hideous today. And there I was thinking that the random decor was just how they rolled in Sweden (all that Ikea influence, you know). So I might as well also give up my fantasies of moving to Sweden, which this movie had led me to believe was the kind of place where I could wear brown mid-calf boots and not be beaten up in the streets for looking too “alternative” (read gay). Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on Oskar’s hairstyle as well, then. On second thoughts, scratch that. Even the 70's can't be an excuse for a bad hairstyle. That one will only go so far, you know.

1hr, 32:28 min: You’ve got to love a script in which the normal human, out to seek revenge on the vampire that’s killed his friend and girlfriend, is somehow the evil one, while the evil bloodsucking ghoul that self-combusts when exposed to sunlight (a bit like leech +salt = goo) is the good one. Must recommend movie to scriptwriters of Interview with a Vampire” for lessons on how to make the vampire the popular one.

1hr, 40:09 min: Oskar is being totally set up at the gym by the guys who used to bully him, and the one he whacked across the ear with a metal stick. DUDE! Suspense is not good. Will Eli, vampire girl child, be back to save him? Only if it’s a Bollywood movie; these damn Europeans don’t know how to do feel-good. (groan)

1hr, 43:37 min: I told you these damn Europeans couldn’t do feel-good. So Eli, i.e. vampire girl child, does show up and save the day, but it involves decapitation and dismemberment. Not cool, especially when random body parts end up in public swimming pools. Now you see why I have a phobia of public pools? Who knows what’s been in there?

1hr, 45:20 min: Awww. True love is carting your vampire girl child girlfriend around Swedish national railways in a cardboard box. Chho chhweet!

And that’s it? Hmmm.... not a bad movie – definitely kept me engaged, but I can’t say it was mind-blowing. I did enjoy the live blogging experience though, so I can’t really complain. The grim landscapes of Blackeberg, Sweden, with snow-covered walkways and icy pine and fir trees does seem appropriate for bloodsucking ghouls that abhor the sunlight, but I’m not a fan. Especially since everyone and every review has been going on and on about what a brilliant movie this was. That may be a slight exaggeration, methinks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why I hate Bollywood

So if you’re a regular reader of this blog (or even someone who’s stumbled across this site via my Twitter or my blog, or are just a friend who’s here out of curiosity) you will be very aware of the fact that I am what could be described as a die-hard Bollywood fanatic. Perhaps one of the best things about living in Central London is that it is very easy to access the latest cinematic offerings at mainstream cinemas at Piccadilly Circus, unlike some other geographies where Bollywood movies play in suburban desi ghettoes (this is also probably yet another reason I dislike Singapore...)

Having said this, there are several things that I either find singularly irritating about my relationship with Bollywood, and with Bollywood’s relationship with me. One of these many irritants is how Bollywood has made me into a strange combination of champion and pimp (a pimpion?) Insidious, devious, underhanded, it forces its way into all my relationships – friends, lovers, colleagues – and I end up pitching for it everywhere. There have been so many random conversations – acquaintances in pubs over beer, lovers in bed after sex, random strangers on transcontinental flights – where what starts out as chitchat ends up turning into an unsettling blend of passionate sales pitch, courtroom defence and self-righteous admonishment of ignorance.

Now while you might say that it serves those idiots who dare broach conversations with the strangers next to them on transcontinental flights right to have me bite their heads off, imagine what it does to your sex life. And I always feel that some of my friends have gotten too cautious about what they say in front of me, out of an overweening fear that it may unleash the Bollywood beast.

The thing is, in my own pimpion head, it’s a simple equation. If you plan on maintaining any modicum of a relationship with me, in whatever capacity, you will have love the Bolly; not necessarily as much or as passionately as I do – it’s not too cool to be too eager or desperate – but enough to get me. And if you can’t get to that special place in your heart where you love it as much as I do, where if you could you would marry it and have lots of little Bollywoods, then at least show me that you respect my love of it. It’s the same as how I choose not to make disparaging comments about croquet to friends who I know can think of no better way to spend a mild English summer’s day knocking clunky wooden balls through metal hoops with even clunkier mallets. I may not get it, but I will respect your right to risk sunburn and potentially broken toes.

So yeah, I kinda hate Bollywood for making me into such a raving fanatic. I hate how it turns me into a Bolly-vangelist who deep down feels that everyone who doesn’t believe will burn for all eternity in some antiseptic Iranian / French cinematic graveyard (all monochrome and bleak) without ever a rainbow coloured dance routine to brighten up the day. (Note to self: can you burn for all eternity in a graveyard? Oh what the hell; it’s an Indian thing to mix metaphors...)

The other reason I despise my addiction with Bollywood is because it’s just so damn relevant to what’s happening in my life, and in the lives of my friends and family. Just when I get lulled into this sense that my life can be considered to be unique, individual, or just distinctly my own, something comes along that just proves that despite India and Bollywood being such massively post-modernist narratives, we’re all really just part of a wider piece.

Bah, humbug. This, however, totally contravenes all attempts to reinforce my inherent coolness by doing things that are supposed to be unique, different and not so mainstream that the world’s largest commercial film industry can make blockbusters around the broader themes.

For example, when I was growing up, everyone who was Indian would rush to the USA for postgraduate study. How typical, I thought. I was going to go somewhere else. Somewhere hatke. The UK had been a big destination post-Independence, but had slowly lagged behind as the USA took over as the main destination of brown brainiacs in search of a Masters’ degree in something (if not a PhD). That’s it, I thought – I’ll look at programmes in England.

And then what happens? As soon as I start my research, Bollywood had to run across and start filming every second song over here. Starting out with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Main Prem ki Deewani Hoon, Mujhse Dosti Karoge... it was like, so you want to go here? Look, if you’re lucky you may run into Rani Mukherjee! And it’s not gotten any better these past few years that I’ve chosen to live here. Salaam-e-Ishq and Love Aajkal have significant portions filmed in London, a city I’ve lived and worked in for the past six years. It’s like, wtf? Go somewhere else!

Alright, I know you’ll argue that my being here in London and Bollywood’s presence here are not unrelated. (No, TBS, it’s not as if an entire film industry is stalking you). Both the UK, and London in particular, have strong links with India, not least because of a large diaspora community, and there are a large number of Indian expatriates who come here to study and work for a few years. Some stay on, some return home. So yeah, you’re just part of a wider trend. Chill.

Well, okay. I might buy your argument there. But it’s not as if this is the only instance. There are distinct moments while digesting the latest Bolly news that I get a sense that at some cosmic level, someone is having a massive cinematic laugh at my expense. So last year when I was gearing up to go to Delhi for the wedding of a good friend, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na came out, along with famous song Pappu Can’t Dance Saala. Listening to those lyrics, I realised that my friend, the would-be groom, was actually Pappu. (Hey, hey, Pappu ke paas hai MBA, karta hai France mein holiday... I even think he had a Rado watch before he hid it to avoid too many comparisons. And yes, my friend can’t dance either.)

Okay, I know you’ll argue that again my friend is merely typical of a broader genre of Indian men who are well educated, travel and have poor rhythm and fashion sense.

So how do you explain these last few “coincidences”?

Fine, I decide - the UK is a but-obvious choice for anyone who’s Indian and making movies. What with 200 years of colonial rule, maybe it was going to be difficult to pretend that there’s no real link between the two countries, especially since the damn Kohinoor diamond’s still over here. Meanwhile, I’ve spent the past few years exploring other parts of Europe, hoping to find the next city for me to move to (NB – given my itinerant childhood, I get this uncontrollable desire every few years to uproot myself and find a new home in a new country. I’ve realised that the smart thing is not to fight it; rather, I should facilitate the move by pre-selecting the next destination before the urge kicks in, just to speed up the transfer process.) I’ve now also decided that I don’t want to go to a place that is mainstream, popular with Indians or something that’s made it to a Bollywood movie.

So in 2007, for the first time, I get my ass out to Berlin. One weekend, and I’m in love. The place is unbelievable. In 2008, I’m back again with work for almost a full week, and it’s just reinforced the attraction. This is it, I decide. It’s funky, it’s cool, it’s unique, and nobody will film a dance sequence here. It’s a beautiful city, but it doesn’t have that Bollywood aesthetic. I’m safe.

And, then, back in London, after a couple of weeks, I read about how Shah Rukh Khan is planning to film the sequel to Don in Berlin.

Bah, humbug.

And finally – the icing on the cake - a recent one that’s just reconfirmed that I’m being stalked. By an entire frickin’ film industry:

My sister, a good Indian girl (she was born in a good family in the city of Varanasi – you can’t more desi than that) has been seeing a Brazilian guy for the past eighteen months. Both sets of parents – one Indian, one Brazilian – came to the UK to allow both families to meet, so it’s been all fun and games, really. The one thing that struck me when they started going out last year was how, despite a life spent in four different continents, in fairly international communities, where international relationships are usually a norm, not an exception, while I’ve come across Indians with Europeans (French, German, English), Indians with Australians, Canadians, even Japanese, I’ve never encountered an Indian-Brazilian couple. So in many ways, I liked to think that my sister’s breaking new ground. I mean, India – Brazil is just not spoken of unless you’re talking about BRIC economies.

And then I go to India in June and figure out that the latest new actress is this woman who plays good Punjabi Sikh girl Harleen Kaur in Love Aajkal. The catch? Her real identity was kept secret until after the movie was released. She’s BRAZILIAN!!!!!!

DAMN YOU BOLLYWOOD!!! STOP STALKING ME!!!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why I love Bollywood

Doesn't it suck that I missed this when I was in New York in August? I would have loved to have been there at Times Square when the Bollywood flash mob hit town:



Though I have to say I'm not quite with the very weird blue and silver shirts these dudes are wearing. I have my own personal tastes in Bolly bling, thank you very much!

Maybe I should organise secret Bollywood flash mobs in London... any takers?!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Travelling thru' the Big Apple

(The following posts are excerpted from my trusty Moleskine travel diary that I carried around in my backpack and wrote in occasionally while backpacking. The excerpts below were all written when I was in New York or Philadelphia in August 2009 for a week.)

Time flies when you're having fun.

Life in the crazy Big Apple is hectic, busy, stressful, not so cheap. Fancy bars, stylish restaurants; Brooklyn / Fort Greene is the new hip, Chelsea / West Village is getting jaded. Meatpacking is SOO pre-recession darling.

So we get to new places. Everything is transitory here. 230 5th, Plum, all of them are 2007. 2009 has a new list of places, new cool spots, new cool looks. Looking pretty ain't worth shit if you're not looking pretty in the right places.

Everything is transitory here. But everyday, you're not here. Every instant, I mutate into something else.

Where're you from? They all ask me. What's your backstory? What makes you who you are? It's a series of questions asked with a strange blend of uncaring casualness and somewhat discomfiting curiosity. New Yorkers aren't supposed to care. They've seen it all, remember (after all, everything happens in New York, doesn't it?)

So when they ask, not out of a habituated boredom - just the closing verse of a well-rehearsed liturgy - but out of a genuinely actuating desire to find out, it's much more uncomfortable.

Perhaps there aren't that many brown multi-lingual ex-bankers with a pierced eyebrow and a serious sense of personal style in this world after all. Not everyone can be glamorous, you know.

*********

I haven't stopped thinking 'bout you, you know. There have been times that I've wondered what it would have been like to have gone travelling these past four months with you. What if you had kept me company, if you had been there?

Fantasising about you sticking around is never a good thing. It's not going to help me get over you, now is it? But did you think that I'd have moved on, so quickly?

Do you miss me? Do you think of me? मेरे लिए भी क्या कोई उदास बेकरार है?

*********

Last day in the Big Apple.

Hanging out in the Upper East Side. Art galleries, Iranian contemporary painters. Holding myself back from making a deposit for a 55 inches (square!) canvas. Only 35 grand. Yes, its US dollars, but that's still like 25 grand sterling. Not cheap.

I like it here in NY. Not like it was in 2007; hostile, alien, unwelcoming. 2009 NY is like the NY of my childhood, when I felt like I was a part of the city. Funnily enough, NY is not home anymore; not the way it was when I was growing up, and I have a strong feeling that it will never be home; not in the warm, comfortable way that London has adopted me over these past five years. But London is European, English, Indian, worldly; whereas this place is so decidedly one thing: American.

Life is manic here; you feel like the alien that you are each and every minute. Either you conform, fit in, become that most unnatural of things - a New Yorker - or you remain alien, touristy, a foreigner.

I "know" this place; it is familiar to me as an adult in the same way that London was, but whereas London was a place that I got to know through the prism of my first adult debacle, my sorrow and my intellect, New York is what I know from a happy and warm childhood memory; warm, fuzzy, hazy, with big shoulder pads and clashing colours, but still familiar and known.

It helps that this time I haven't been treated like a criminal at immigration. I know that I'm a single brown man, but seriously, how many terrorists have had my good looks and impeccable sense of fashion and personal style?

But this time, I don't really mind. I enjoy being the outsider, living in liminal spaces. I've realised that I've grown up always being on the periphery, so why start trying to fit in? In London I sound Canadian; in the US they're not quite sure, and the poor Canadians keep going, "what the f*ck?"

(Warm and muggy August afternoons in the Upper East Side; Central Park is four blocks west of this Starbucks cafe. The radio plays kitschy American shock rock pop.)

And of course, being exotic never hurts in the bars and clubs. "You're beautiful" is not an uncommon thing to be told, especially here in New York. Random checkouts on the street, in shops. Bearded, tattooed, clean shaven, pierced, twinks, rough trade; all good. The girl on the subway who wouldn't look away; the guy in Whole Foods this afternoon.

Maybe I'll hit the Lower East Side this afternoon. Gay it up a little.

Puddles of green coolant shimmering in the summer haze beneath the white van pulled up in front. Gay rights campaigners trying to get people to care in this, the most indifferent of world metropolises. My Starbucks iced green tea (grande, unsweetened) strong, bitter, healthy.

People are good looking here, but often quite tediously slow. So much effort, primping, preening, pumping, running, plucking. If you're not beautiful, you're automatically ugly. Not much of a choice, but the food here is so super fortififed, the portions so huge, that it's a bit of a default option if you're not killing yourself in the gym.

Puerto Rican shop attendants stunned at my knowledge of Spanish.

*********

So the Lower East Side absolutely rocks. Far grittier, grimier and down-at-heel than the much fancier and trendy West Village & Chelsea area that I'm staying in right now. Perhaps, if I ever moved here, I'd end up trying to live in the LES or East Village. Chilled, relaxed, grungy; immigrants, rent control, graffiti, almost a Ladbroke Grove / pre-trendy Notting Hill as compared to South Kensingon / Mayfair in London.

Note to self: places that are called Chelsea are almost always pretentious and quite expensive. Not that that's a problem; au contraire, its quite nice to have places like that around, if only to keep the wannabe trendy and tres hep guys out of the actually cool and happening places.

I'm writing this entire post in XES Lounge, a fantastic little bar on 24th St, near 7th Avenue. Speaking to a guy who works here called Derek Tod. We both agree that people should do what they want with their lives, as long as it makes them happy. Not a bad approach, if you ask me. But then, I wouldn't disagree now, would I? I quit a job in banking to be happy. Poorer, definitely, but infinitely happier.

New York (or should I say the Northeast) is very recession aware. People are shopping smarter; denial is the new cool. You save today, spend later. Credit cards are soo 2005.

So this is it. I'll go back to the fancy 2-bed Chelsea pad where I'm crashing with a friend, go out for dinner with R&D. We get along, despite distances, in time and space, despite different realities, different world views, different expectations from life. R&D are mainstream; cool, funky, but mainstream. I, on the other hand, voluntarily seek out the periphery. Liminal spaces; always at the fringes.

Peripheral in the straight world. At the edges in finance (you're not supposed to kick the money in the face and walk off, remember?) Liminal in the brown world (not an immigrant, not Indian either). And don't get me started on the gay scene.

Damn. I'm a fr*cking minority. That Polish Jewish grandmother didn't help my efforts at mainstreaming either.