Saturday, November 14, 2009

Updating the hard-boiled detective drama in Castle and Bones; the modern Nancy Drew; urbanite grit & much, much more

It’s widely accepted that Moonlighting broke fairly new ground with its combination of mystery-solving, witty dialogue, and sexual tension between Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shephard) and David Addison (Bruce Willis). It’s also widely understood that Moonlighting’s ratings dived during the fourth season, leading to its cancellation.

Why? Commonly, it’s thought that it’s because it fulfilled the tension between the characters in the third season. Its’ contemporary Remington Steele didn’t fare that much better, dragging into a fifth and final season. But that’s not the only reason these series let their viewers down – it’s because both series relied too heavily on romantic tension as a foundational plot device.

Neither show was terribly kind to the women: Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) was forced to take on nameless, man-without-a-past, bad-boy Remington Steele (Pierce Brosnan) for the need to have a male partner in her detective business and Hayes was an ex-model, embezzled by her ex-accountant, and with debts to pay. Hayes needed Addison to resurrect one of her failing investments, Blue Moon Detective Agency, as well as to have a purpose in life post-modeling career. Needed. That’s the key word.

Navigating the “will they or won’t they” dynamic is tricky territory. I don’t think detective/crime-drama television series have come back this way since the 1980s. That is, until now: Castle (Andrew Marlowe) and Bones (Hart Hanson). Both series are finding very clever ways to sustain the dynamic, but more importantly to give it real progression.

Why are these two series succeeding where the predecessors failed? The story-telling is far better – with Castle often moving deftly like a Dashiell Hammett mystery and Bones ooing us and awing us with the details of forensic science and technology. It’s almost sci-fi, Stargate geeky. Each episode is equal parts National Geographic and psychological thriller.

However, ultimately, the success comes down to strong, in-depth lead characters as the core, engaging sub-plots, and fleshed out secondary characters . . . who can be foils, but not caricatures. Bones should be commended, next to Battlestar Galactica, for having one of the most racially diverse (and stunning) set of female characters.

Bones and Castle have as leads – strong, beautiful, intelligent, capable, women who do not need their male partners. The interdisciplinary partnership, however, enhances the overall ability to more effectively solve cases. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) is a brilliant forensic anthropologist teamed up with confident, intuitive FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) and Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) is a hard-boiled, tough, probably Ivy League-educated, NYPD homicide detective in league with insightful writer Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion).

I’m reminded of the best elements of the great noirs of the 1940s with Humphrey Boghart and Lauren Bacall (who were as equal to each other as one could be then). Castle and Bones succeed in part because yes – they are sustaining our curiosity on whether or not the two leads will get together. But only in part.

The dynamic is tricky because if it happens too soon, the viewers lose interest. If the producers wait too long, there is the danger the show will get canceled, or that the viewers will become frustrated and lose interest. My friend Stina asks the question – why have co-worker romantic tension at all? Yes, why have it indeed?

Well, because the dialogue, when executed well, is just marvelous. In Bones and Castle, not only is it intelligent in and of itself, the topic at hand is also intellectual. But a series that relies heavily on sexual tension between two characters, no matter the genre or content of the dialogue, will always fail. (A series that relies only on sexual tension between several pairs of characters is a soap opera - *cough* Grey’s Anatomy.) It may be fun, but it lacks substance.

Whatever happens in Bones, I will be satisfied knowing that Brennan and Booth have came this far – they have transformed each others’ lives. This is not just about witty dialogue and tension – it’s about a genuine friendship and a partnership – a true emotional bond with serious ramifications. Like relationships in my favorite novels, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. Like a Miyazaki film, it sends shivers up your spine. Television rarely enters this territory.

As for Castle, the relationship between Castle and Beckett is so far, more playful. It’s always fun to see her cut him down in her Lauren Bacall/Katherine Hepburn sort of way and to see him catch her off guard. That said, the comic relief is mixed in with some very dark tones of murder cases as well as a sub-plot involving Beckett’s past. I think Castle explores the personal dynamics between those involved around the victim with excellent skill.

Castle is also a fantastic and clever example of life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating… – and I’ve totally lost track. Moonlighting may have been a spoof of detective series. But Castle takes the best elements – breaking the fourth wall, extremely witty dialogue, and maintains the edge and grit of a real mystery.

Castle is a boyish, playboy, popular mystery writer, who is brought in by the NYPD to help solve a string of murders that mirror those in his novels. In the process, he meets his new inspiration (Beckett) and works out an arrangement (much to her chagrin) to shadow her as research for his new book. That book is actually on our bookshelves. Additionally, the show takes us outside of the homicide lounge and into Castle’s life, which includes his eccentric mother and charming teenage daughter. Castle brings the best elements of comedy sitcoms into a drama . . .which even a lot of non-detective dramas do badly.

It’s Beckett who remains the mystery – to Castle, and to the viewers. Not to mention she’s totally gorgeous with her dark brown hair and enormous green, heavy-lashed eyes, and legs to die for. And jackets to die for – I haven’t seen such great outerwear since Audrey Hepburn’s coats in Charade.

Once you develop great characters, not to say that the story writes itself; but, the viewers are far less likely to be disappointed by what or what does not happen between the leads. One tends to accept it and respects it as the choice of the characters. That my friends, makes a great detective yarn, a great romance, and simply, a great story that keeps me watching week after week. I haven’t had this much fun since reading Nancy Drew novels as a younger girl. And both Castle and Bones make me want to believe that an epic partnership could in fact potentially be real.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sari Special

I love silk: chiffon, crepe, organza, china, georgette – you name it, I love it. Silk is an odd fabric, almost too delicate for normal handling, sensitive to rain, snow and heat, food elements, dry cleaning, other fabrics, nails, jewelry, and even its own embroidery. And yet, there’s no other fabric that’s quite as elegant or luxurious for a skirt, blouse, dress, scarf or shawl.

It’s natural that I’d love a sari. However, it was only last New Year’s that I would learn how to wrap or tie it on my own. I had just returned from an overdue visit to India, where I had selected several saris. Like language and cooking, it took lessons, from my mother. There are many ways to drape a sari depending on the region. I won't attempt to list all of them - I leave that to French cultural anthropologist Chantal Boulanger.

I myself am familiar with only two styles, which I have nicknamed “namba” (Tamil for “ours”), the predominant style in the South as well across the subcontinent, and the other mainly worn in the north, “Gujarati” since the first time I had seen it draped that way was amongst my counterparts of Gujarati origin.

There’s only a minor difference between the two: in the South, the “pallu” or the end is draped across the body then over the left shoulder, creating a streamlined fall at the back. And in the North, it is draped over the right shoulder, fanned out across the body, with a pretty, hanging J-shape at the back. The latter style is better suited for saris with extreme embroidery or beadwork. I have worn those the other way, but my left shoulder generally suffers for it. In both styles, the pleats for the skirt part are tucked into the petticoat at the waist.

I don’t find tying a sari very easy or intuitive at all. The first time I attempted it independently, it took multiple tries. I was sweating by the time I’d got into reasonable shape. I still had problems safety pinning the pallu to the blouse.

Furthermore, not all saris are created equally. For georgette silk, the pleats are easier to manage, the pallu is more watery (this is where I’ve had the most success). Saris with a lot of beadwork and embroidery on chiffon can be tricky because of the need to manage a light fabric while the ends keep getting weighed down. Chiffon with less beadwork can be equally as tricky to handle. Heavy silks are well...heavy.

The great part is when the silk gets caught in its own beads and you’re struggling to disentangle it all. Although, it's even better when figuring out exactly what to do with the slack, since sari tying involves much estimation: of height, pallu length, number of pleats for the “falls” as my mom calls them – probably not the technical term for the pleated skirt part which fans out like flower petals from waist to ankle. What part should one adjust? If there’s not too much slack, usually you can hide it— which is what I do!

The success to tying a sari is all about controlling the pleats with your thumb and index or middle finger. It’s actually tortuous pain. In the Southern style, the pallu is the easier part, particularly as there is a great deal of versatility in how you can drape it – it can be partially pleated, fully pleated and pinned, or left loose for a more informal, sexier look.

But perhaps, versatility is the watchword overall – a sari is an extremely versatile garment. And you never really know what and how works for you and the fabric until you yourself try it out. So, do what I did to supplement my lessons: watch these YouTube videos.

You may ask: why even bother? How often do I wear a sari – 5 or 6 times a year at best? It’s October and my 2009 tally will likely conclude at 4. Am I holding onto culture unnecessarily? No. Culture comes and culture goes, but I wear a sari for one predominant reason: because it makes me feel beautiful.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The quest for true, hypoallergenic makeup

Now that I’ve dead-ended in my quest for boots in the United States to fit skinny calves (Paris, Tokyo, and Geneva or custom-ordering are probably my best bets), I’m on to my quest for truly hypoallergenic makeup.

I’m allergic to most makeup. If I’m not allergic to it right away, then I will develop an allergy to it. I inherit this from my mother, who has for her entire life, worn very little make up besides Revlon powder, eye liner (kohl is normal for Indian women), and nail polish (yes, this is counted as makeup). Except my mom in her youth looked like a 60s model, bearing an uncanny resemblance to both Twiggy and Edie Sedgwick. I have no such luck.

Powder is usually not a problem – I find Neutrogena, Loreal’s mineral line, and even Revlon if I’m in a bind, to be more than adequate. Same with blush and bronzers – but I stick to Body Shop. I don’t use liquid foundation; it makes me feel like I’m not breathing.


In most cases, I can’t do cream-based lipsticks. My lips are too dry and cream lipsticks dry my lips out. I tend to use gloss, stains, and in most cases, Vaseline. Chapstick is like Tylenol for me: pretty much, useless.


Eye shadow:

I have rabid allergies to most eye shadows. Revlon’s mineral shadows, Physician’s Formula, and Almay make my eyes itch. Estée Lauder and Lancome produce morning-after puffy eyes, even after removal the prior night. Clinique was okay for all of 6 months. Mac worked for a year. As of today, I’ve not made a firm decision to discontinue usage of Mac. It’s better than most, and I’m partial to their color Velvet, a wine/burgundy which is a nice alternative to brown and black for a smoky eye and which a makeup artist used on me the one time I modeled designer bridal gowns. Body Shop is the best and has caused me no problems so far: smooth application, great colors, no allergies.

Eye liner:
It’s not that I’m actually allergic to any liners, but I have great difficulty removing it once applied. And when I can’t remove it, then it causes irritation. My mom applies it on the inside of her under eye lid, which I have always been far too squeamish to do. My hands shake too much for proper use of liquid liner.


Ah, and now the apex of makeup troubles. I cannot do 99 percent of mascara. And yet, I love it. Maybelline Great Lash is terrific in theory and only $5 for the bottle. But, like cheap wine, I pay for it in the morning. Neutrogena is actually hypoallergenic; however, it’s so ineffective, I may as well not wear mascara. I went the medium-price route, trying Body Shop, which was good till it made my eyes itch and subsequently balloon. Though I have to note, while it seems illogical, the tube I bought in Johannesburg a few years ago was good; the one I bought in the U.S. was not. Could the formulas be different? My brief foray into Clinique mascara was horrific.

Wandering through duty-free at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I shelled out 22 Euros for Dior Show. Which I absolutely loved for the dramatic look, but I developed mild allergies to that as well (and yes, I throw out mascara after 3 months when opened, as one is supposed to do). I would try Dior again since it’s been the best results-for-allergy trade-off so far. Today, I talked to a Mac makeup specialist; however, she directed me to Lancome’s Definicils. So I paid yet another $24 for hope. You ask why?!

Anyone who has seen me within handshaking distance would observe that my eyelashes are almost unparalleled in their thickness, length, and blackness. If Michael Jackson was Janet Jackson’s only comparison for dancing, my younger brother is my only comparison for lashes. In fact, I had a debacle with Cambridge Eye Doctors over the summer, when I chose a frame with a saddle bridge. My lashes hit the lens, and since they couldn’t adjust the frame to prevent it, I had to have an entirely new frame made. I can only get the distance with a nose bridge. Similarly, when I look in a microscope or telescope, all I see are lashes. It’s stupid when important bacteria and Saturn’s rings are being obscured by your own lashes. So why mascara?

Oh, but isn’t that the point? I melt when I see photos and clips of Aishwarya Rai or Audrey Hepburn with tremendously long and luxurious lashes. I don’t think one can ever have lashes that are too long or too thick. Infiniti is the limit.

The question of color:

While the makeup industry has come a long way from the days of when Iman, as the only black model on the runway in the 70s, could not find a foundation to match her skin tone, and while there are lines that cater specifically to women of color (like Iman’s own makeup, most of which I love and am not allergic to), good options for colors are not always in the mainstream brands. Clinique offers dismal choices. Mac and Body Shop are good, along with Revlon. A lot of colors aren’t formulated in ways that work. If not all pinks are created equal, they don’t apply equally either.

Lessons learned:
Upon advice from my mother, I stopped using makeup altogether for a week and found that my face was fresher, less lined, and less stressed out than before. So after putting you the reader through all that, I’ve decided to drop most makeup. Black and white film actresses used Vaseline for a dewy, glossy look. I tried it. It works. It’s also safe. Perhaps Vaseline, lip gloss, and a little powder, is all I need most of the time. Besides, as Scarlett O’Hara and Cleopatra have shown the world, beauty is 90 percent attitude.

And dark nail polish, of course.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Exploring South Asian identity politics & the art of the short story

Jhumpha Lahiri has a remarkable ability to charm the socks off her high-brow reviewers. "Lahiri is 'wow,'" says Caleb Crain for The New York Times, on Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies. Colleague Michiko Kakutani calls The Namesake "a debut novel that is as assured and eloquent as the work of a longtime master of the craft."

I’ve tried to like Lahiri’s writing. I really have. I found Interpreter of Maladies to be beautifully written, but thematically tepid. I read a few pages of The Namesake and became irate with her generalizations of Americans and Indians. I perused a few stories in Unaccustomed Earth and nearly threw the collection out the window. Ah, the art of the short story! The exposition of identity politics!

I became so fed up with Lahiri’s focus on identity that I vowed to write short stories where identity politics were incidental and irrelevant to the story. In trying to mask the politics of identity, I think I missed the point. As recent events and conversations have revealed to me, identity politics are heated and salient as ever. It’s that Lahiri presents them in clichés, platitudes, and obsessions with infidelity and apathy. She also writes about a very tiny subset of Indians – first and second generation wealthy, Bengalis who have studied and/or live in the one mile radius of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I lived in Cambridge for two years – this profile isn’t even me.

Where are the other Indians? East Asians? Jewish people? Other Bostonians? (Oh wait, I forget that people in Cambridge hardly ever cross the Charles River). Young professionals outside the medical field? Almost nowhere to be found – it’s like they don’t even exist, exposing both the limitations of Lahiri’s personal experience and imagination. Lahiri’s angst isn’t the issue – her characterization of it is outdated. A friend of mine remarked to me, “You know where Americans are stuck? Mississippi Masala. People still ask me if my life is like that.” Let me remind readers that this Mira Nair film was released almost two decades ago. Identity politics and culture is mutable and ever-evolving.

Admittedly, Lahiri has a fine flair for expressing tragedy. However, her characters are recycled and under-developed. I keep thinking to myself “Thank gods, I am not these people.” Her protagonists are passive and lukewarm, and her command of suspense incredibly poor. Her stories give me so little hope. There is no triumph after struggle.

In many ways, film and comedy are well-ahead of the curve over literature. Nair's films have always been visionary. Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002) is a film about South Asian identity politics; however, it’s also about the challenges young people face whenever they want to do something different. Harold and Kumar (Danny Leiner, 2004) is ground-breaking, because it’s really a story about two smart guys being total idiots. The cultural elements -- the pressure on Kumar (Kal Penn) to get into medical school and the need for Harold (John Cho) to stand up against his manipulative, fraternity-boy co-workers -- are presented through comedy. Comedian Russell Peters makes fun of Indian stereotypes and makes us laugh.

Short stories are difficult to write. An author has about 2500-5000 words to place point of view strategically, develop major and minor characters, frame the setting, spin the plot, and reveal the themes – in other words, to make the point. In my opinion, there are very few genuinely good short story writers: William Faulkner, Flannery ‘O Connor, Angela Carter, Edgar Allen Poe (who arguably invented the genre in English literature), and Anita Nair. Now there’s a South Asian writer you should read, along with Chitra Banerjee Divakuruni, who addresses domestic violence in her work. All the writers I mentioned incorporate the weird and gothic, strong elements of suspense, and/or even magical realism.

Why shouldn’t I write a collection of short stories focused on identity politics that is salient to my generation? Suddenly, the inspiration for stories and themes was all around me: pan-Asian identities; the relationships between first and second-generation South Asian peers; similarities in the immigrant story across cultures; where exoticism can turn out to be perceived as a liability for image-creation rather than an asset; the apparent success of Jewish-Indian romances; the paradoxical experience of being a third-culture kid; racial profiling; vulnerabilities in the workplace, where being young and a woman is equally problematic; and how class differences, of even the minutest kind, are often far more dividing than cultural ones or color lines.

Electing President Obama, who is white, black, second-generation, and a third-culture kid, is just a first-step; we as Americans still have a long, long way to go. The unfortunate fact is that humans are 99 percent similar to each other. Unlike Lahiri, who is obsessed with cross-cultural differences, I'm obsessed with cross-cultural parallels. The more I travel, the more I see that we are more similar than we are different. But we focus on the one percent that’s different: the one percent that causes all the conflicts, the one percent that is the reason for rich, cultural diversity in the world. “Identity politics are a whole lot more complex than they need to be,” I said to my friend with a deep sigh.

True lack of prejudice and worldliness is a necessary, two-way dream. To understand curiosities, one has to be curious. To be accepted, one has to accept. To globalize, one needs to be globalized as well. The real question is can we all get over ourselves in order to genuinely eliminate racial and cultural discrimination? I will not give up on the possibility.

A powerful short story of identity politics would be one which they are the undercurrent of the story and not the story itself. One in which the multiple layers of identity draw us together just as much as they pull us apart. The themes can (and perhaps should) be universal in nature. After all, as Lord Alfred Tennyson said, there are no new stories, only new ways of expressing them.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Addendum: Bride and Prejudice

Part Two of Rejection Served Up Three Different Ways.

When I first wrote that entry and discussed Liz Bennett's declining Mr. Darcy's affections, I had thought that there wasn’t an equivalent scene in Bride and Prejudice (Gurinder Chadha, 2004). There is a parallel; it just occurs much later in the narrative development than the other versions I've analyzed. This film oscillates between scenes of extreme hilarity and scenes of extreme awkwardness (funny for the wrong reasons); however, the rejection scene isn’t too bad.

Lizzy here, who is named Lalita (Aishwarya Rai) and Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) have just gotten over their mutual pride and prejudice and have started falling for each other. They walk into Lalita's best friend Chandra's wedding together only to run into Darcy’s mother. She’s opposed to Darcy’s liaison with Lalita not on account of the fact that she’s Indian (misunderstandings of that nature between Darcy and Lalita occurred at the beginning of the film, but they’d been gotten over by this point), but because Lalita’s family is far less wealthy. Darcy’s girlfriend, which it should be noted Lalita didn’t know he had, is also present. Lalita has also just discovered that it was Darcy who discouraged Balraj (Naveen Andrews) from proposing to Lalita's sister Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) and is primarily devastated by this knowledge.

Given these immediate circumstances, the rejection scene takes on an extra poignancy and understandably, Lalita is angry. Rai is not an amazing actress, but Henderson isn’t a superb actor either, so their combined ingenuity makes the scene feel very natural. Instead of going off into a long, frustrated speech, Lalita’s brevity of response to Darcy’s confession of love is quite refreshing. She says, cool as cucumber, “Only you could say that you love me and insult me at the same time.” Lalita handles the scene with maturity and level-headedness that is distinctive from the other Lizzy’s.

The rejection scene actually starts at 2:30, but I provide the entire clip for context. Chadha was sharply tongue-in-cheek in including Ann’s mispronunciation of Lalita’s name. A similar circumstance has happened to me on a few occasions too. Except for me, it’s been “Evita… like Don’t cry for me Argentina?” My reaction: [. . .] followed by awkward laugh.

There’s also something very definitively Indian about Rai’s posture, tone, and manner in which she handles the scene. I’m not sure I can explain this properly -- perhaps some mix of keeping anger under wraps, wanting to save face, and just needing to leave an embarrassing situation -- except to say that I probably would have reacted the same way.

Lalita has more agency in this scene than the other Lizzy Bennet’s. She’s the one who walks away. The dramatic vocals that begin at 4:32 are quite typical of a Bollywood/Indian film. Lalita’s exit in the sheer white sari is also well done – although it’s not clear exactly where she’s going.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

On Chennai: my retrospective

In December 2008, I returned to Chennai, India for the first time in 12 years. The minute I felt the thick humidity and sandy dust even in the midst of cool winter, it was like coming home.

But a decade changes any place. Lattice Bridge Road, the main road off the street where I had lived in Thiruvanmiyur, was nearly unrecognizable. If you asked me to give directions to my favorite bookstore Odyssey, which still existed, I could no longer do it. The roads were overflowing with cars, traffic was exponentially worse, and once plentiful bicycles were few and far between. I used to bike to nearby destinations every now and then just for fun – I’d never risk it now.

I think the most startling changes were the ascending of tall glass tower buildings, the kind you see in technology parks, which were almost all call centers, the disappearance of slums (I think they were just hidden or pushed out), and the profusion of cell phones – everyone, rich and poor, seemed to have one. At least at the urban level, there appeared to be some breaking of inter-generational cycles of poverty.

I lived in this chaotic metropolis for three years in the mid 90s. Even then it was a bustling city of four million (the population has since doubled), a drastic contrast from the manicured spaces of suburbia I had inhabited in Georgia. At the time there, the uphill battle had been proving I was American, whereas, in India, I couldn't downplay my U.S. nationality if I tried.

I went to a school that was run by Christians, so we had a daily assembly which ended with the singing of a hymn. I even had a hymn book – in fact, you were thrown out of line if you didn’t have it in your pocket. We were otherwise totally secular and multireligious. The student body was almost evenly split between Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, so we got out for all of the holidays. And instead of snow days, we had rain days during monsoon season, as the streets were sometimes so flooded that I dreamed of kayaking down them.

We had school from 8 a.m. to 1:40 p.m., with only a 15 minute break in-between. I was picked up by our driver and at home by 2 p.m. I would have lunch, breathe, change, and would be out the door again by 3:15 p.m. in order to make it to my 4 p.m. French class downtown at the Alliance Française. The journey took me 45 minutes. It takes well over an hour now. My peers in French class were mostly college kids – sometimes they took me out for ice cream after class. There were of course no cell phones, so I would ask the administrative office for a favor and call home hastily to let my mother know I would be late. I was 12 and 13 years old. Our poor driver was also my ad-hoc chaperon.

In many ways, my social life was far more vibrant and free than the one I had before, and more than the one that would follow later in high school. I had an unprecedented level of mobility. With my school friends, I was always going to houses, lunches, and dinners and parties in malls, recreational clubs, and restaurants in the city centre. I was quite aware I was moving in high circles compared to people living in abject poverty around me. This troubled me – in fact, I think the knowledge of this disparity pervaded so much into my conscious, I would later gravitate towards work in international development.

Even then, I placed a high premium on my freedom and independence. I had a bicycle, a purple Huffy mountain bike, which looked ridiculously out of place on the streets of Chennai, where bicycles were colored neutrally and built for speed and transport, high and with thin wheels. But the bike served me well across the uneven roads. Amidst great protest and total lack of understanding as to why I’d used it for transport when I had access to an air-conditioned car, I would bike to stores, to my math tutor’s house for classes, and on occasion to a friend’s house.

I would bike to vegetable markets and convenience stores to fetch groceries for my mother if no one else was around, picking up a bar of Nestle Crunch or Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut as my prize. Consumer choice was somewhat limited. I think toothpaste choice was generally confined to Colgate. At a time when quality baked goods were rare, I would run all over town to find the best cakes. Though, as the years went by, the presence of international products increased. It was the beginning of trade liberalization, market reforms, and deregulation of television and radio. Now you can get anything and everything you want. No need to smuggle Head & Shoulders shampoo and VCRs through customs, as we used to do.

Could I live here again? Of course. Chennai is modern, yet as my friend who I met with whom I had not seen in 12 years noted, it has managed to maintain its “rustic” quality in comparison to Mumbai. I was sitting outside at a café on Arundel Beach Road in Besant Nagar with her, chatting as we used to chat, enjoying a strawberry milkshake, and I felt completely in place. The only thing that truly bothered me was that with the traffic and lack of sidewalks, the main roads were not very safe to walk on anymore. I nearly got run over by a few auto rickshaws. I hesitated to come back for a decade, and I could take it no longer. I will never let another 12 years pass. My heart currently resides in Atlanta; I left a huge chunk of it in London and go back regularly; but I also think I left a part of it in Chennai.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Layers

Layers can reveal complexity, like peeling away the layers of an onion. Layers can be protective, such as piling on clothes in sub-zero Boston weather. Layers can also be oppressive, like flakes of honey-drenched baklava, adding suffocating, cloying density.

I’m a second-generation American woman of Indian heritage. I am a woman, I am American, I am Indian, I am a Southerner, and I am an Anglophile. I am twice post-colonial. I do not consider any of these elements as being in contradiction with each other. Though the navigation can be complex, these “layers” have provided me with multiple lenses to view the world and tremendous opportunities to engage with it. Yet, there are other layers. I write of the things that are expected of us from family, friends, and society as we get older.

They say it’s the little things that you push you over the edge. I have traveled from Tangiers, Morocco to Algeciras, Spain at 2 a.m. on a cargo ship, was abandoned at the Dar es Salaam airport and had to find my way into town on a dead Sunday early morning, navigated sprawling Mexico City in local taxis knowing little Spanish, and nearly missed a ferry off Gorée Island, which would have stranded me in Dakar. I’m only a semi-reluctant adventuress; it takes a lot more than a few wrong turns to rattle me.

Earlier this month, I went to go see Monet’s “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I barely made the exit from the highway. The 14th Street detour took me around in a circle. I ran several red lights, made a series of wrong turns, pulled to the side of 16th street with cars honking at me, and blocked the middle of the intersection of Peachtree and Tenth. A half-hour after I took the exit, I drove into the Promenade parking garage and burst into tears.

I think this ordeal finally brought out all of my uncertainties over the future. In just a short while, I will be out of a job, will not have an apartment, and my next geographical destination is as yet, undetermined. In the long term, I am expected to have a job that takes me into positions of leadership and influence, to be financially self sufficient, and to be married and have children (I have my doubts on both of these last counts). Though it is not expected, I also want to support my parents financially and morally in their old age.

When did life become so hard? When did hard work and solid qualifications not always pay off? I went to two pretty good schools and am wrapping up a job with a decent academic institution. Where is the clearing? Am I just being whiny? Or am I just losing hope and fast? If so, why? After all, I’m not an HIV-positive mother in Uganda barely able to make ends meet or a GM worker who has recently lost a job.

In a conversation with poetblue, she indicated that in college, there were far fewer expectations. We were expected to show up in class (if even that), impress key professors, and get good grades. However, as we move into the post-graduate and working world, there are many more actors and factors monitoring our progress and holding us accountable to our success. Suddenly, in a cultural universal, our parents who had left us in a collegial cocoon, want to see us “settled” in all senses of the word.

As Kate Bush writes mockingly in her song “Suspended in Gaffa”:
That girl in the mirror
Between you and me
She don't stand a chance of getting anywhere at all.

The mirror often laughs at me, chanting, trying to make me believe that some vital element lacks.

But wait just a second. I’ve been through more than this. The friend who introduced this concept of “layers” to me, herself lost her mother to cancer a few years ago. I know not a small number of friends and acquaintances who have lost parents. Life has thrown me a few curve balls too. When I moved to India as an adolescent, my pursuit of perfection precipitated a self-esteem dive. I became anorexic, lost just about half of my body weight, reached the point of serotonin-induced complacency, and nearly became a statistic. That took a few years and a great deal of resilience and persistence to get over. I haven’t developed a reputation for being as tough as nails without reason.

As Stevie Nicks has often noted of her cocaine addiction, there was no sudden epiphany. It just gradually occurred to me that I wanted to continue living. Moving back to the U.S. was no piece of cake either. Once an expat, always an expat. I found strength (and continue to do so) in my writing. I used to think that I cheated the Universe, and that it’s been trying to catch up to me since. I’ve stopped believing that, and I’ve started thinking maybe I was brought back from the brink for a reason, or many reasons.

Sometimes, I’m tempted to believe that I’d have more peace of mind and a greater sense of security if I took on fewer layers. There’s definitely a tradeoff. A fluid identity comes with a certain rootlessness, but I wouldn’t trade in my chameleon-like self for anything else. My refusal to identify myself as one thing and my choices has given me what I sought in the first place: independence and agency. As we face greater responsibility in multiple spheres, I’m not sure if there’s a benchmark for being “settled” or having fewer expectations. Maybe as my mom says in the cadence of the Eagles song, “Take it easy. Life is so. . . long.” To which I respond impatiently, “No, it’s not! That’s why I don’t have enough time to do everything I need to do.” Right, time-out.

On the issue of parents, they can only be a guide. Our friends can be supportive mirrors. Mentors can see the light in us and light our way. And society... to hell with society. Maybe not quite, but it was trying to live up to its conventions which led me into darkness before. There’s only one person whose expectations I need to live up to: mine. That girl in the mirror is my worst enemy and my closest ally. I’ll never be perfect, but I now know that’s ok. The adventure has just started. There are many more paths yet to travel. I recently told a friend that I can’t do everything; that I have to cut something.

“I think you should cut flossing,” he replied. Indeed. That’s about the only thing I plan to concede.