The Faithful Hound

Thursday, August 31, 2006


"Eh?.. oh wow! Hi"
He blinked as he tried to take her in. Her face revived a cascade of old memories that now inundated him.
She laughed, and her laugh brought back so much more.
"Close your mouth and stop staring at me like that."
"Sorry" He snapped it shut, embarrassed. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to meet Gautam Bhaskaran, the poet. I'm interviewing him for a book."
"Haven't heard of him. What book?"
"Oh, nothing special. It's a coffee-table book, 'Art and Culture in Bangalore'" she made quotation marks in the air with her fingers.
He smiled, she smiled back. They looked at each other in silence.
"Well, are you coming in?" He asked.
"The watchman won't let us in. This fellow was supposed to meet us here, but we're early and..."
"Yes, this is Pooja, she's a photographer."
He had barely noticed the plump girl a few feet away. She was wearing a faded green T Shirt with the word 'SEXY' written across it in sequins.
Odd choice for an interview, he thought.
"Oh, hello." He wondered if he should offer to shake hands with her, but decided against it. She wasn't near enough and he would have had to step forward.
"Hi." Pooja smiled back uninterestedly and then turned away, watching the traffic on the street with her arms crossed.
They were silent again.
"Anyway, why don't you come in with me. I'll ask the watchman to tell... Gautam is it?... that you'll meet him in the lobby."
"Oh, ok... thanks"
They walked into the club together, Pooja trailing at the back.
"Listen, do you want to get a cup of coffee while you wait? You could tell your friend to stay in the lobby and call you when he arrives."
"Umm... yeah, ok... give me a minute."
She walked over to Pooja and spoke to her briefly.
He watched her as she returned. She looked older, her face had filled out and her eyes seemed more deep set than he remembered. But then the sun caught her hair as she reached him and he got a whiff of her perfume. He felt as if he had traveled back in time.
"I can't believe you still wear those ridiculous flowery skirts."
"Hey, behave! You can't talk to me like that anymore."
He smiled. 'Anymore', as if they had broken up yesterday.
They walked in silence to the coffee shop. Their shoulders almost touching.
"Where's your wife?" she asked "I heard you were married."
"Out shopping with my mother."
"Really? I can't believe your mother actually approves of someone you're with. Didn't she always think that you were too good for anyone?"
"I don't know what you mean" he smiled back.
"She couldn't stand me, remember?"
"Nonsense" he lied, "my mum always liked you."
"Oh right, that must have been why she called me a slut."
"Oh come on, she apologized to you for that. She was just upset because she came home early that day when..."
"Okay, okay, I remember."
They sat down. A steward recognized him and hurried over. "Good morning sir."
"Hello Shivram."
He ordered two coffees and a plate of chicken sandwiches without consulting her. She didn't take her eyes off him while he ordered.
"You look the same" she said.
"Thanks... I guess."
"I was hoping you'd be fat and bald by now."
He laughed, embarrassed again. He tried to think of a witty comeback, but couldn't.
"Sorry to disappoint you... but at least that means you've been thinking of me, right?"
"Hmm..." She looked out of the window, her profile towards him, her chin resting on her knuckles.
There was a strand of grey hair above her ear, tucked back among the curls.
"So what does your wife do? Is she working?" She still faced the window.
"She was in advertising, but she quit when we had our son."
She turned back, eyebrows raised.
"I didn't know that. So you're a father now? Wow. You really are domesticated."
He looked at her intently, wondering how to say it.
"We actually lost him soon after he was born. Sudden infant death syndrome." He spoke the words carefully, as if each weighed progressively heavier on his tongue.
She raised a hand over her mouth in shock.
"Oh my God! I'm... I'm so sorry, I..." She reached out to touch his arm, but he flinched away visibly and she hurriedly withdrew.
He was already wishing he had never mentioned it. He detested the sympathy the whole thing elicited and normally never spoke of it.
"Don't worry about it" he said awkwardly, looking at the table. "It was more than two years ago, and we're trying again now..."
Trying again now! There was another phrase he hated.
They were quiet again for a while and he thought he saw tears in her eyes.
"What about you?" he asked, trying to break out of the moment. "Any men in your life?"
She smiled again.
"Actually yes. I'm engaged to Vivek. Remember him?"
"Vivek...? Oh, Vivek! Yeah, of course I remember him. Ha! Not bad."
"What do you mean 'not bad'?"
"I always knew the bugger had a crush on you. How long have you two been going out?"
"A while, six... seven years."
"That long? And when are you getting married?" He leaned back as the waiter placed two cups of coffee in front of them.
"Soon I hope. He's searching for a new job. My dad's not so keen about me marrying a 'struggling writer'" She made the air quotes again. When had she picked up that silly habit, he wondered.
"Can't he get a job in one of these call centers?" he asked, stirring the sugar into his coffee. "I hear they hire anyone who can speak English."
"You're still the same you know" she snapped, all traces of sympathy gone from her voice. "You're so condescending about everyone."
"No, no... that's not what I meant." He was secretly glad that her tone had changed. "I really was just trying to be... you know... constructive."
"Whatever" She looked out of the window again.
He remembered why he had broken up with her.
"Honestly, I hope he finds something soon. Tell him I said hello, I haven't seen him in years."
"He hates you" she replied. "He said that anything you touch turns into shit."
"What?" He was offended. "That's a nasty thing to say."
"Can you blame him?"
"I guess not" he said, remembering, "...but come on, we've all grown up since then."
"Not all of us."
"What do you mean?"
"Vivek's still a boy" she replied, smiling fondly "He's always so worried about giving up on his writing and 'selling out'" She made the finger quotes again.
"That's just like him" he said. He was about to say more, but checked himself.
"Sometimes I feel like his mother. You know he still collects those comic books?"
"Oh, I remember... Marvel, right?"
"As if I would know" she shrugged.
"I can't believe you're making him give up on his writing."
"Don't say that. It's for his own good."
"You don't think he should decide that for himself?"
"We discussed it and decided together." She seemed flustered. "Anyway, tell me more about yourself. You're in the US, right?"
"Yup, Chicago."
"...and you're with Morgan Stanley, or was it Merryl Lynch?"
"Something like that" he replied.
"It's exactly where I pictured you ending up. Does it make you feel more secure, surrounded by all that money? You were such a pseudo character even back then... all that big talk and strutting around with your 'bad boy' image. I knew you were actually an 'establishment type'..."
"Could you stop doing that with your fingers?" he exclaimed. "It's fucking irritating."
She sat on her hands and scowled. "Vivek says it's sweet."
He would, he thought to himself.
"Hey" she said, cheering up suddenly "I saw your dad's name in the papers the other day, there's something about him in the news every other week."
"Yeah, he's keeping busy. What about you? Have you written anything new?"
"Nothing serious" she shook her head "I stopped soon after you left. There's no money in it anyway. I was writing children's stories for a few years and then I got this coffee-table book job. It should be published sometime next year. It's mainly write ups on local artists and galleries. If you want..."
"Listen..." he interrupted.
"Nothing... I'm just.."
"Just what?" She leaned forward, eyebrows raised with an encouraging smile.
"I'm really sorry for everything that happened back then" he blurted out. "I was such an arsehole."
"Oh" She leaned back again.
"Honestly. I made a fucking mess of things and I'm really bloody sorry."
"It's okay."
"I've been wanting to talk to you about it forever. I just feel terrible about the way I handled the whole thing. I was young and stupid..."
"It's okay."
"I can't believe you're even talking to me now. You must have hated me for so long."
The steward walked briskly up to their table.
"Madam, your friend is calling" he said, beaming at her.
She turned around. Pooja was waving frantically from outside the lobby. A sour looking bearded man waited besides her.
"I have to go" she said, standing up hurriedly. Her eyes were glistening again.
"Wait, do you have a number I can reach you at?"
"For what?"
"I don't know... maybe we could meet up again some time."
"I'm not going to sleep with you."
"Oh come on, don't talk that way..."
"Bye" She leaned down and kissed his cheek. "It was nice to see you again."
He caught her hand "Stay in touch, please."
She wriggled free "Bye"
He watched her as she walked out. As she turned the corner he pulled out his cell phone and began to dial.
"Hi love, how's the shopping going?"

Thursday, August 24, 2006

To each their own

The new season of Survivor, in its attempt to stay as controversial as possible for the ratings, has decided that the four 'tribes' this time will be divided by race. A white tribe, a black tribe, a Hispanic tribe and an Asian tribe (which I assume includes people of Indian origin, although for some reason most people in the US seem surprised that Indians tend to categorize themselves as Asian). Some observers worry that the show is meant to exploit racial stereotypes; The hot-blooded Latino, the athletic black and the super-intelligent Asian etc. Gambling websites are already laying odds that the white tribe will win (I checked purely out of curiosity).
Am I reading too much into this, or does it seem to be part of a growing trend? Is political correctness seriously ill, if not on it's deathbed? The entertainment industry usually grasps on to impending social phenomenon before the rest of us do. Has it seen signs that people are becoming more open about the fact that they are most comfortable around others of their of own ethnicity and mistrusting of outsiders?
A recent BBC bulletin reported that in England "some communities were leading 'parallel lives' with little or no contact with each other." The article, while primarily dealing with disaffection among Muslim youth, pointed out that in many diverse communities there was a tendency for ethnic groups to remain largely segregated from each other and that the British government was starting to see that multi-culturalism may not be a rainbow colored dream after all.
Islamic fundamentalism among segregated minorities may have shone a light on the problem, but it certainly did not create it. Simply take a look at American jails to see how groups of people function when devoid of social obligations. California Prison Focus, a human rights group for inmates has this to say in an article on segregation in state prisons - "Inside prison everything is determined by race. Housing, exercise, eating, clothing and access to various jobs and programs depend on skin color. One prison in California had weightlifting equipment labeled 'B' for black, 'W' for white, and 'L' for Latino to avoid fights over it. Each race might have its own barber who uses clippers only on members of one race. Prisoners segregate themselves at meals. Whites and blacks prohibit their own from exchanging food, candy or cigarettes. Just walking the halls with someone of another color can bring angry questions, taunting or assault."
The US Supreme Court in a recent attempt to bring a halt to segregation in California prisons ruled that the state must abandon its policy of assigning inmates to racially segregated cells when they arrive. Andres Romero writes in the Pasadena Weekly "Behind prison walls, however, you have no choices. You stay within your own race and keep away from other ethnic groups. No ifs, ands or buts. Break the rules of segregation here and you could end up injured or dead.... what prison officials understand, and the Supreme Court fails to think about, is that this is not the free world. This is prison. Segregation in here helps maintain a sense of stability and civility."
Who's to say which approach is right? Do we try to continue with the politically correct notion of being color blind and pretending that the average person is not at least slightly racist deep inside? Or does that mean that we're just ignoring the big dead elephant in the room? And if we choose to accept the notion that people, left to their own devices, prefer to be segregated, then is it correct to shove integration down their throats?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Social Mobility

Today my office is having its carpeting replaced and the whole place is overrun by an army of movers, installers and handymen. The work crew rubs its large, tattooed, sweaty shoulders with the starched shirts of my pencil-necked colleagues. They yell across the hallways and laugh heartily when one of them drops a 200 pound cabinet on his toes. My co-workers cower in their cubicles, obviously uneasy with having to share their breathing space with the kind of people that they would cross the street to avoid in a dodgy neighborhood.
Watching the two groups side by side, it's easy to understand why liberals bemoan the lack of social mobility in today's America. The two are practically different species. I cannot see how anyone from the mouth breathing section of the population could transition to the heads-up-their-asses segment, without some form of early life miracle.The American dream of the hard-working mail clerk struggling up through the organization to become CEO is not just dead, it's laughable. A child from a poor and uneducated family will not be able to join the white-collared throng that clogs the freeway at rush hour in their tin coffins, unless he has a great deal of luck and significant internal motivation when he is still young.
While making the inter-class leap may be difficult in the US, it is virtually impossible in India. The flattening world has given the well educated minority a huge boost, while leaving the vast unwashed practically untouched and staring at a rapidly growing rift that they never will cross.
A maid from my college days in India sent her son to meet me when I was down there, in the hope that I could give him some career advice. Honestly, I was stumped. The boy had dropped out of school after the 5th grade and now helped his uncle at his electrician's practice. I racked my brains for a practical and honest answer, trying to put myself in his shoes. If I were him and knew what I know, how could I get back to an economically secure position without my college degrees, social connections and inside information of the system? The only answer I think of was this - if you're ballsy then get into crime, if you're glib then get into politics (although, come to think of it, the latter is just a slightly polished version of the former). Of course I didn't voice my thoughts, but instead dismissed the boy with some meaningless platitudes about working hard and trying to complete school.
If I had to guess then, based upon current trends, I would say that eventually the whole world would be broken up into the uneducated poor and the educated ownership class and that the gap between the two would increase substantially.
Rich countries would outsource the old service sector jobs that were once used as a bridge from one class to the next, to poorer countries. People in management or those who own shares in large companies will grow richer as productivity increases, while the uneducated and even the poorly educated will find it increasingly difficult to land a competitive job.
In developing countries again, those who have a good education will land high paying employment in global companies and those who are already wealthy will grow even more so as their assets appreciate in value. Children born to uneducated, poor families will never be able to accumulate the tools required to compete in one lifetime - unless, again, they turn to either crime or politics (After all Dawood Ibrahim was the son of a beat constable and the Rt Hon Deve Gowda used to haul sacks of potatoes at the Mandya railway station).
My advice? The chasm is going to grow increasingly large as the years go by. If you're born on the wrong side of it then at least try to lay the foundations so your children can cross it. If you're fortunate to start your life on the right side of the tracks then start accumulating blue chip stock (Big companies are always going to get bigger) and real estate (God isn't making any more of it) as soon as you afford it. That way even if your children grow up to be potheads or art history majors, they will still have a decent shot at a good life.