Happy Birthday, Anna!

Photo by NexTser/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by NexTser/iStock / Getty Images

Last week, Bangalore was called upon to celebrate — willy nilly — two birthdays: that of Mr. Suresh, who is a member of the legislative council; and Mr. Kharge, recently a minister in the union cabinet, now the leader of our modest opposition in parliament.

Posters and big and small and colossal billboards appeared up at the start of the week in all public spaces. I'm not sure all the spaces were paid for. The posters were designed after the fashion that has evolved these recent years. The birthday boys (Suresh is about 35, it seems; Kharge turned 75) are featured in the middle. Round their picture is a garland of heads of their party bosses, the big boss's head is bigger than the smaller boss's head and so on, and through tracing the size and location of the heads you gain a complete understanding the party hierarchy. Reading between the heads, you can tell who's in favor and who's not. There are other heads on the posters, of sidekicks, and again the biggest head belongs to the closest sidekick, the right-hand man, and the next in size to the … you get the picture.

Happy birthday, anna! The posters gush in garish color. Anna means elder brother, but you could also think of him as Big Brother.

I pass Kharge’s house often. It is on the way to my coffee. He lives in Delhi, being a national leader, but his home is here in Bangalore. Last week, the billboards and posters were prolific in his neighborhood. They had blinded other houses in the area, and since the ceremonies were held on the street, for a time traffic was closed off as well. You should be rich to live in Kharge-anna’s neighborhood. Being rich, and needing to hold on to your wealth, you will allow with good grace the erection of the hideous, humongous, loud and colorful affairs before your house. You may say no, of course, but that will hurt anna, who will wonder why you won’t consider him your buddy. If the wound is deep, his devotees might call on you and offer the hand of friendship.

We are not invited to the party. The posters are for our kind information only, to note, by the number of them, how powerful one anna is over another at the moment. For instance, Mr. Parameswar is the boss of the Karnataka State Congress Party. His birthday posters ornamented the streets a few days before Kharge-anna’s. But Parameswar-anna's posters were fewer.

This celebration of birthdays in this fashion is a recent phenomenon, it is something that started a few years ago. It is taking interesting turns. For example: If you are politically inclined, and if you have access to some money, you embed yourself in the public psyche by printing your own posters, adding the faces of a few of your friends for form, add images of the biggies in the party you choose to chase and pay someone to paste the posters across town. That's it. Do it!

It also helps the politician assert himself, and grow his head, and dislodge other heads on party posters when they appear next. As in the case of Suresh-anna, whose grandmother, uncle and other relatives were all legislators, and Suresh-anna was miffed last time when he was put in a contest for his party's nomination in the assembly by-elections. His posters were so numerous and so widely deployed last week, his party better take him seriously — especially when the next assembly elections come upon them.

And so, we the commoners endure the visual feast that our leaders treat us to in this honest and very public display of their rat race. You turn your face from one poster, another smiles at you, or frowns; you turn again, and a face that could well cause trauma in a child bores into you. In this city in which you could see an explosion of flowers on treetops in any season, this instead is what greets you these days.

The biggest presence in my psyche these days is my two-year-old grandson. I can't tell his inclination for politics yet — but he loves birthdays. Last month, when my own birthday happened, he came visiting with his parents. “We brought a cake for you,” he said. “I’ll cut it."

Soon my grandson will ask me who these people are, whose faces always adorn our streets and walls and buildings and lamp posts and traffic islands and pedestrian bridges. I must tell him, and I must also inform him their great deeds that allow them to usurp space that belongs to all. You mustn’t lie to children, of course, so I’m doing mental workouts to build the most pleasing narrative I can.

This post won't make the cut, I know.

Back and Blue in Bangalore

I’m in Bangalore now, and in this moment at Cafe Noir on the terrace at UB City. I'm drinking their vegan espresso — a shot of espresso with steamed soya.

The guys at the next table are venture capitalists, talking millions and millions of dollars, and of monies lost, and monies that fetched 3x and 2x and 5x returns. Across their small square gray table they're trading — in loud voices -— assessments of business outlook in India and China and America and Europe. They are waiting for another person to join them. Their present task is to offer an exit for a chap in one of their investments, and they've asked him to come at 6:30. It is 5:45 now. "You think he'll take 25?" one asks the other, and they conclude, "He should be fine with 22." That man must be small in their scheme: The two have spoken of a fund of 750 million dollars, a single investment of 360 crore rupees, a startup that’s rocketed to 4000 crores. One of them is a desi American, the other is a Mumbaikar come down for the meeting. The American has stretched his legs, and has manspread one leg into the space beneath my table. He has begun to stamp its heel on the wooden floor. I turn and look at him a moment. A decent man, he seems. His accent suggests he's a born-in-the-USA American.

The numbers begin to get bigger, in the meantime. They're leaning into the future now, looking to invest in every promising sector. These aren't the one percent. They're of the higher, rarer field — the point-one-percent bracket, I bet.

The American isn't stopping stamping his heel. On my part, I’ve stopped writing; I'm reading Don Delillo. Cosmopolis. I cannot concentrate anymore, so I throw a repeat glance at the American who doesn't return it, but I see him sense my eyes. He rests his jiggling feet, and his shaking leg.

"Let's go to my office," the Mumbaikar says. He's read my annoyance. So their office is here in UB City. They rise. And they hold their chairs on top and, instead of tucking them into the tables, they drop them. They are light chairs, and the vibration of their limbs has greater effect than their thud on the floor. My peripheral vision informs me that the American is looking at me. My peripheral attention tells me he's spoiling for an exchange of hostility. I won't play.

Now there's silence, although Cafe Noir is busy in the evenings. My Kindle has my eyes all for itself, but it has almost nothing of my mind, and a good few minutes pass before I resume concentrated reading. But I still have those rich men in mind. Should I have been forgiving a bit? Should I have loosened my grouch as they left?

Such forgiveness I received yesterday at the PVR Cineplex in Forum Mall.

Some ten minutes of the movie were left when the ringing began and I gave a start. Tring! Tring! But I'd switched my phone to silent right after I'd taken my seat. After I’d silenced it, putting my phone in my pocket, I'd looked about to see if the others were doing the same.

The ads and previews were running. I had young people on either side of me, their faces lit by their phones even as they chatted with their buddies. The ones next to me held their devices at a sly slant, but the glare from them got my side-vision all the same. I glanced left and right but none noticed my bristling face. Will they silence their phones and pocket them, or no?

And now my own phone was ringing. No, no, not the phone, I realized in a moment. It was my iWatch that was letting off a high soft ring. I fumbled, tap-tapping on the red on the watch face, and it felt like it rang a hundred times until it obeyed my insistent rapping. My face tingling, I gave furtive looks to either side and checked the rows of heads front of me. Not one stirred from watching the action before them. I’d upset no one.

I reckon some three persons in ten are depressive in my part of the world. But across the rows that I could see that were in earshot, it seemed that everybody was ready enough to ignore a minor annoyance.

The movie was Baby Driver, which had non-stop music vying with the musical noise of speeding motorcars — in Surround Sound. I must tell Sujaya about these people, I thought. It had been she on the phone, I'd stolen off to the movie without telling her, and in the movie hall I'd cut her call.

The book I’ll read next is This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, by Daphne Merkin. What’s my lot, I must embrace.

Lesson in Crime and Punishment

I decided I’ll go to Haw Par Villa, having never been there in all the years I’ve been going to Singapore.

The brothers Haw (Tiger) and Par (Leopard) were the Tiger Balm entrepreneurs. It was the time of the Empire, and the pair started their business in Rangoon, and came down to Singapore and increased their fortune there. In Singapore the brothers built a mansion on a hill, and that estate in their time and afterward has transformed into a public garden with statues and dioramas that tell stories and parables and aphorisms from the worlds of Tao, Confucius, and the Buddha. The most touted exhibit there is a long man-made cave depicting the Ten Courts of Hell. A sign outside the grotto cautions there's gore inside.

It was blazing hot on the exposed hill; so the enclosed space was inviting. And who doesn’t enjoy gore? Also, I’m at an age where one is keen for hints of the afterlife, and I found them in that dark interior, in neat, dim-lit dioramas.

The virtuous dead have it easy. On arrival at the Courts, they’re split into two classes, somewhat like the gold and silver card holders of airline loyalty programs. The best get on the golden bridge, the next best are routed to the silver bridge, and both bridges offer a quick passage to paradise. The sinful dead are sent on a rough ride. They’re to be dealt with across ten courts, each ruled by its own Yama, its own god of death. When the dead arrive before the Yama and the sins read out, the Yama has a ready list of punishments to hand down.

The prostitute, for instance, is presented before the second Yama. Her punishment is to be drowned in blood. The third Yama's jurisdiction is ungratefulness, disrespect to elders, and escaping from prison. He also tries drug addicts, drug traffickers, tomb robbers, and fomenters of social unrest. He is severe: If you belong here, you could have your heart cut out, or you may be bound to a red-hot copper column and grilled. The fourth Yama tries tax dodgers, rent defaulters, fraudsters and sends them to a stone mallet for a pounding. The sixth Yama takes cheats, those who curse, abductors, misusers of books, patrons of porn, rule breakers, and food wasters, and he saws them in two, or throws them upon a tree of knives. The seventh Yama is named as King Taishan: He pulls out the tongue of rumormongers, and those who sow discord among family. The eighth Yama digs the visceral organs from those who abandon filial obedience, cause trouble for family and cheat in examinations. If you have robbed, murdered, or raped, the ninth Yama will see you. He will have your head and arms chopped off; if you have neglected the old and the young, he will crush you beneath boulders.

It seems that you’re condemned to emerge from each court alive so you’re fit for punishment at the next court. After you have passed the first nine courts a fresh lease awaits you at court ten. Here a lady serves you a potion that erases the past from your mind, and sets you off on a new life, as human or animal, as the tenth Yama sees fit.

I regarded myself. I must prepare for the sixth Yama, and the eighth; I must prepare to crash on a knife-covered tree; must prepare to be sawed in two; must prepare to experience my visceral organs hacked. I haven’t known it was this serious to waste food; I could've been an obedient son. My belly writhes as I write.

These sins and punishments are declared on plaques posted alongside the thick-painted dioramas populated with expertly crafted oriental figurines — a diorama to illustrate each court. Reading the plaques, I wondered first if the Yamas catalogued them in an uncharacteristic fit of humor, and if the entire scheme is all in jest. Later, it struck me that the punishments lacked in imagination — they’re merely torture that man has inflicted on man down the ages. The retributions didn’t appear divine to me; they read like the secret penal code of a despot, ready for administering here and now — even as the sinner in the despot’s book lives. At any rate, I cannot imagine that the Ten Courts of Hell as described in Haw Par belong in the sagely Buddhist scriptures. They’ve perhaps mutated through time and in translation.

Leaving, in the cool of the taxi, the driver asked me, “First time in Singapore?”

“Naw … .” I told him how much I love Singapore, and how often I’m there.

“Foreigners don’t come to Haw Par, la.”

There hadn’t been many locals either. Haw Par Villa seldom made money over the decades when it was a for-profit. It’s a non-profit now, and entrance is free, and I’ve described only one exhibit from the sprawl.

Sounds of Silence

Minutes ago, my wife came home. She’d been to a trade association dinner. She's on the phone since she came in, talking business. Talking, she opened the refrigerator, pulled out a bottle, and tried to open it, all with one hand. The bottle fell, breaking the silence I’d been basking in.

"Need help?" I called from here on the second level. "No," she said from below, not coming off the phone.

I'm in the living room, writing. Until now, only the dogs on the street back of my house have been intruding into this quietude once a half-hour. There's not the sound of a motorcar, or of people talking whilst walking down the street. Or the patter of rain on top.

Bangalore is good these days, after many torrid weeks. The temperatures are around 29°/19°. That’s because it’s raining — but in the way it does in Bangalore — discreetly. The town has turned green, which change strikes me best when I arrive at my workplace, where trees recently planted have gained height and stand like teenager before full-grown across the campus, and their huddles are minor woods with the scent of rain among them.

Bangaloreans reading this may raise the eyebrow. Before they call me out let me admit there’s not been as much rain as we should’ve had. I’m only keeping this post steered toward the good.

While writing I’m distracting myself with the Guardian. And the New York Times. They bring into my microcosm big news of big people. I rather enjoyed it when Obama was in charge, and I welcome anything the tough-but-sweet German leader says or does. But, like with most folks these days, I’m locked into the Trump soap, and although I tell myself every day that Trump is none of my business, even if the climate is changing, the Greatest Nation on Earth won't leave a quiet foreigner alone, even if what it’s got now is Trump. He’s bad for the system, its media says, and shoves him through to my gut.

I read this comment by a certain Musteshfaibnalbitar, below one of the Trump stories in the Guardian:

"While I agree with your analogy, he is not, nor is any American, the leader of the free world. I live in a country that's truly free and he ain't my leader. That so called 'free world' thing is utter bullshit and smacks of the worst kind of 'murican (sic) propaganda."

Someone steeped in liberties would invent a username such as Musteshfaibnalbitar. As regards me, and us in my country, I must admit we're some distance yet from true freedoms. My username is the same as my real name everywhere. But I so agree with Musteshfaibnalbitar.

Trump, Merkel. May, Trudeau, Putin, Boris Johnson. And Tusk and Gorsuch and Corbyn and McConnell and Xi. Comey. These names are crowding my head in my home. I sift big names and mull big happenings when in a coop. Out in the wide, wide world I exult in the small things.

But I like my coop. I write and read here these days, rather than in a cafe, for the silence here. But I forgot to mention that I have an inner noise thanks to a recent onset of tinnitus. The doctor said I must practice to ignore it. I didn’t tell him the affliction is rather like Trump, it knows how to get in, in spite of my best efforts. I need sound to counter the tinnitus. So, and also because the writing was going nowhere, I did other things. It is getting to midnight now, and I watched The House of Cards. Wow. Can that Greatest Nation and its White House keel like in the serial? Now or ever?

There's a siren approaching. Our ambulances used to be shy and timid. The city appears to have fixed that. There’s at this time an occasional roar from the far-off main street — kids doing wheelies. During the Ramzan month just ended, local Muslim leaders realized that a good number from their flock were doing this daredevilry during the night hours. They pointed them out to the police, and urged the rest of their young to not sully their community, during Ramzan in particular.

I’ll go to bed. I cannot do anything now, except look for a Guardian response to yet another Trump tweet. I’m liberal, but I don’t mind him anymore. Rather, I’m anxious for him, he has begun to seem to me like a lead from a Greek tragedy. The climate may correct itself in spite of man, but Trump won’t, and I’m feeling anxiety for him, same as I feel when a play approaches end and tragedy. But, of course, Trump has no care for the concern of an Indian plebeian.

Last Week, In Paris

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The runways at CDG run flat, as they should, among swells of rolling land. The terminals on this wavy terrain are a circular construction. Inside, long travelators running from the gates to immigration fall off first, then run level, and rise back up. In the stretch to the exits, another set of travelators climb steep to the upper level, the belts shaking beneath the feet as they work upward. This airport is different. But then, there's the fact of French achievement in art and architecture, and one develops through repeat visits a taste for this airport, like the drinking type who develop a taste for French wine.

Our first meal was at Cafe St. Andre, where we were served an assiette of vegetables and rice. On subsequent days, at the Cafe Paris on rue Buci, we picked a table inside whereas everybody sat on the sidewalk, and the only vegan we could eke out there was an arabbiatta. A French business partner took us to dinner at Les Editeurs, off St. Germain Boulevard. The color red ruled the place and its walls were lined with hundreds of books. They brought us a bowl of boiled potatoes and artichokes touched by herb and a bowl of thick green cold soup, all of which tasted good with the flavors coming out in full in the rich ambience. A key customer hosted us at Le Procope, where earlier patrons have been Voltaire, Danton, Benjamin Franklin, and such. Here we ate grilled vegetables dosed with herbs and olive oil. Looking later for vegan-focused joints, we were pulled into a nice-looking restaurant on the corner from our hotel, with a view to the Seine. It had large splashes of green on the menu displayed outside. Inside, the handed menu ran several pages, with many organic references, but the only vegan on it was a list of sides: "exotic" rice, mushrooms, french fries, cold quinoa, and beans and thin-sliced carrots. We ordered the entire list, and they arrived in white china, each dish in a bowl and the set of them on a curvy plate — in the fashion of the Indian thali. We ate with the same vigor we approach the thali.

We were in Paris for the Air Show. The show was hot, the weather hotter. On the RER the systems struggled with the cooling but the ride was still okay, whereas on the free shuttle from the RER station to the fairgrounds we received a twice-daily feel of hell. In the morning most folks lined up for the buses, and those who jumped were graciously ignored. The minders sent into each bus a first batch to fill the seating, a second batch for standing, and a final few to fill spaces left. Then making sure the bus had no room for a mouse even, they waved it on and called the next bus. Like this we traveled in universal brotherhood the last mile, black and brown and white and strong and weak and man and woman and rich and poor and Christian and Hindu and Muslim and atheist all pressed together for a torturous half hour for the short jammed distance to the fairgrounds. Everybody seemed to endure the ride with impressive forbearance, steaming people in a sealed bus, working hand phones and speaking in murmurs, doing perhaps what I was doing, being calm outside, cursing within.

Evenings, the western civilization was put to the test. The minders were fewer than in the mornings, and ineffective, their energy drained by the day's heat. Visitors crowded the bus stops at the fairgrounds, many smart ones edging and sneaking through to the front. When the bus arrived people forced their way in, rather like in our India, even if not so badly. One evening, a man behind me, squeezing in with the others, said, "It's happening, it's happening, I'm going to vomit." Did he mean the demise of order and the consequent decline of the evolved west? Grand line, but thoughts like these roiled me in the heat of Paris.

There was time in the week to go about Paris a bit, to watch Parisians enjoy Midsummer's Day on June 21, and listen to music by buskers who'd taken every available public space. Each had an audience, some a half dozen, some even a hundred. While we lingered in Saint Michel the police arrived in six opaque vans. Doors opened and men in blue jumped out and took positions under the trees, by the bus stops, at the fountains, and whereas the men with rifles gazed with detached eyes, assessing but not engaging anyone, their other colleagues stood by the vans, alert to calls to action. When I passed a van by a drinking fountain, a youngish policeman broke into a gig, lured by the Afro drummers before him.

The most important thing, for me, is that I went to the Louvre, and went straight to the Denon wing, to the gallery of Italian paintings, to the Mona Lisa. There was a constant throng before the lady, but I could stand undisturbed on the periphery to her left and gaze. She did not disappoint, holding her composure and being herself in spite of this daily assault by the thousands, by some who look, and some who look and shoot, and others who come to shoot only. A blue phosphorescence issued from her direction, and through it she returned and outlasted my gaze. I'm shaken by her still.