Wake Up, John Donne

It was like those Middle Ages paintings of God & Heaven, clouds parting and light bursting forth – but the all-powerful bearded giant had been erased, leaving an enormous hole in which the sun could dance freely.

I was on my way home. The leaving-India saga had finally closed, in spite of more deathly bombs on the night of my departure. I would soon be reunited with my mother, and subsequently the rest of my family, for the first time in two and a half years.

Sat next to me on the red-eye from Mumbai to Kuala Lumpur was Ashwin, a kind and extremely well-spoken purveyor of fine precious metals. (He took over the family business instead of following his dreams and becoming a pharmacist.) I don’t know if any of his clients in Zaveri Bazaar were hit by the terrorists, but I imagine he was pondering the impact of the attacks on his business. Or, perhaps he was looking forward to the 40 Years On high school reunion he was due to attend in Malaysia. Maybe he was simply asleep. In any case, I noticed the view before he did.

Nothing’s ever taken my breath away; neither did the stupendous sight out my window. It did, however, move me nearly to tears. That was partly a result of the moment being the culmination of a month of uncertainty over my future, not to mention a desperate final week in Varkala that sapped my last feelings of belonging in its insular, arrogant atmosphere. Still, it wouldn’t have mattered which emotions were coursing beneath my external mask. It was stunning enough to push me first through disbelief and then into a sort of cathartic ecstacy. I cannot adequately describe it, but nevertheless I will try:

The sun brilliant, full, yellow, rising. Magnificent columns of cloud streaked red, orange, pink & purple, the first plain rays of the morning hitting each droplet of moisture and becoming art. Bands of clear sky, the wild blue yonder thinned to white at its lowest point and left deep and calm at its highest, hanging like a mute witness in borderless layers above the sun. A spellbinding wonder in each direction. A sight to still any racing mind, to silence the music in your head and open mental doors that are usually closed.

Ashwin was looking past me now, out into an atmosphere where the magic hour had surpassed itself. We watched in silence as the sun’s fierceness grew and diminished behind thin streaks of water & ice. The Earth’s surface, to which we would return in just half an hour, was absent and forgotten.

I breathed in and out slowly to clear the lump in my throat and allow myself to just take in the view. I was sure it was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen.

You’re Very Not Welcome

Those who know me or follow me on Twitter have heard all about my bizarre and extended difficulty at leaving India. For those who don’t, or who want to get ‘reacquainted with the facts’ as Gandhiji would say, here’s a quick summary (feel free to skim over, this isn’t the important bit):

1) I was asked to leave India because my salary is too low. The Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in Thiruvananthapuram told me that I had to get out before July 5, which was when my final visa extension would expire.

2) However, in two and a half years here I’ve never received an actual physical stamp of extension from Delhi, so Immigration rejected me at Mumbai airport and scolded me for not having an exit permit. (The FRRO had told me that I didn’t need anything to leave.)

3) I returned to Kerala to get the exit permit, which I was assured would be ready by Friday 8th July (yesterday); it wasn’t, of course. This meant rebooking my flight a second time. The FRRO insists to me the exit permit will be ready on Monday 11th; I’ll take a train to Mumbai on Tuesday 12th and fly on Wednesday 13th, hopefully to be in NZ Thursday 14th.

4) [I’ll leave this space blank for whatever goes wrong in the coming days. There will surely be something.]

(I acknowledge that it is ultimately my fault that I’m in this mess, because if I’d done more research back at step (1) I’d have known of the need for an exit permit. I’ve lost upwards of Rs 30,000 as a result, which was all the money I’d saved for my intended one-month holiday in New Zealand (most of which would go towards a tour of the country to visit family), so when I get back to NZ it will be for an indefinite period of time and I will be looking for work straight away.)

Okay. Those are the facts. What I want to talk about now are the implications I derive from this saga about where I am or am not welcome.

In India, a key philosophy is that ‘the guest is God’ – or, in other words, a visitor is a blessing and should be treated as such. Whenever I visit somebody’s home, all the family members present will be called to come and welcome me. I’ll be seated in the most comfortable chair in the living room and someone will bring tea and a selection of snacks (or, if it’s around lunch or dinner, a small meal). The TV will be switched on so that I have something to watch, if I so wish, and to make me feel at home (I don’t own a TV but okay, the gesture is sweet). Until the time I leave, the house’s entire focus will be on me. If a child sleeping in another room wakes up and starts crying, someone will quickly go and return with them, missing only a few seconds of doting on me, the guest.

This literal sequence of events has happened many times over during my three years in India. Apart from that, I am very fortunate in that I know many wonderful people in India (again, both in person and on Twitter) who have made me feel extremely welcome here. I’ve even felt at times like I belong – which is ideally how it should be. We’re all human, after all.

The past month or so, however, has been a constant struggle against a system which simply does not care, and certainly makes no effort to make me feel welcome. I’m by no means saying that I deserve special treatment – and my experience is not even close to the worst it can get for a foreigner, let alone a poor farmer in Bihar – but between traditional Indian hospitality, which I so keenly feel among regular people, and the impenetrable bureaucracy of the government and its processes, there’s an enormous disconnect.

When one government worker rebukes me loudly and openly for following the instructions of another government worker – which is what happened at the airport – I certainly don’t feel welcome, even as I was being told I couldn’t leave. When one government worker rebukes me for following his own instructions – which is what happened the moment I got back to the Trivandrum FRRO – I feel absolutely insane, like an insignificant insect who keeps knocking on the door of the system, thinking ‘this time they’ll listen’. The FRRO then went on to lie to me about what he would do to help me, just to get me out of his office; once my planned exit permit fell through yesterday, he finally adopted a remorseful and guilty tone, though of course he didn’t apologise.

I still take responsibility for not getting things done the right way at the start, but all this just made me think that there’s only one place where I am truly welcome, and that’s New Zealand. Why? Because I hold a New Zealand passport. Most of my family is there, and they do accept and support me wonderfully, but the passport is the key here. After all, there are kind and genuine people everywhere, and thus potential for feeling a sense of belonging wherever you go, but the only order of law that will serve my interests is that of New Zealand.

Naturally, every single one of my calls to the New Zealand Consulate in Mumbai was answered respectfully and with great care, including several times by the Consul General himself. Concurrently, I spent three days calling the Trivandrum FRRO while I was in Mumbai but he rejected the call or let it ring every single time; I had to travel 2000 kilometres over land just to speak with him. This now does not surprise me. He is part of a system which is neither set up to look after nor care for me, let alone make me feel welcome.

So, back to New Zealand I go, unsure of my next move. I had intended to come back to India at the end of July – I even booked a return ticket – but that is now impossible for a number of reasons both financial and temporal. New Zealand is my legal home and I can live there largely free of the hassles of bureaucracy, so it makes sense to be there while I get back on my feet.

The most distressing implication, for me, is that in today’s world one simply cannot expect to feel automatically welcome with one’s fellow men and women around the world. In fact, the opposite is true. In India, since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and the David Headley scandal, the majority of people – especially government officers – are extremely suspicious of foreigners. By the sounds of things, it’s the same everywhere. Foreigners have plenty of trouble trying to enter or remain in the United States, in Europe, and in New Zealand. The fallacy that outsiders pose the greatest threat to a nation’s security has become rule of law.

I’ve made a number of deep and strong human connections in India, connections that I hope will last for a very long time, and I have in many ways felt at home here. Those connections, those people, are a home of sorts. (I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘home’ is lately, especially since I was asked to leave India; am working on a long-form post about it.)

Those connections will have to wait, though, or at least remain strong across continents until I’m in a position to wade through the bureaucracy once again. I can’t help feeling that there must be some way that we could all move freely, as if each of us were a citizen of the world rather than a particular nation. But it would require everyone to behave with the collective good, the best interests of our species, at heart. That is hugely idealistic and unrealistic to begin with; now that the system is set up to engender suspicion of foreigners and promote the idea of ‘us versus them’, such a genuine global community is unforeseeable.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially when I know that in a place like in India, the prevailing traditional ideology was to be welcoming. I suppose I’m lucky that I’ve been able to experience its influence with so many great people. More than anything, those people and experiences drive me to overcome the system, to jump through its hoops and fight it if necessary, just so I can spend an extra minute in their company.

“The joke happens in real life and then I blog about it”


Jayanth Tadinada, aka g2, is the author of gtoosphere, a blog of satire inspired by his life as an IIT student and a member of India’s growing upper middle class youth. He is also my colleague on The NRI, contributing regularly hilarious posts such as his aam aadmi interviews.

His posts on gtoosphere are a mix of observations about television media, social networking culture and Indian society in general, and they often seek to explode myths and inspire people to look at the world around them in a more mindful way. In the line with his heroes, his method of confronting people is to amuse, something at which he succeeds apparently effortlessly. His irreverent ideas come across as equally inspired by Indian and American senses of humour, and will hopefully strike a chord with many.

Jayanth did me a favour and answered a few questions to help me get this Inside the Bloggers Studio thing rolling again, even though he is a busy college student preparing to join the salaried masses.

***

Why did you start blogging?

There was a phase when I was bunking a lot of classes and yet I was not happy. (Those were pretty depressing times!) I felt I needed a better reason to continue bunking classes. So I thought a hobby might help.

In your first blog post, you mention a diary. Is gtoosphere an extension of that diary, and do you still write it alongside your blog?

No, I don’t write a diary in the traditional sense anymore. I maintained a diary for a couple of years in high school. It was mostly about what was happening in my life around that time. After coming to IIT, I no longer felt the need to keep an account of things happening in my life.

I was into reading psychology for fun (nerd alert), interpretation of dreams and stuff like that. I started maintaining a dream diary where I describe the dreams I have at nights (afternoons actually). We remember our dreams only for a very few minutes after we wake up. So I always sleep with a book and a pen somewhere close to my pillow. (Yeah, I know that’s weird!)

For the last year and a half or so, I developed the habit of noting down funny ideas, silly observations and interesting thoughts as soon as they pop in my head. I store them in Google Wave (yes, Wave!) and refine them from time to time. So technically, I do write a diary but it’s more about what is going on in my head rather than what is going on in my life.


What is your first memory of writing creatively?

The first time realized I enjoyed writing was when I was writing essays in high school. Most of the topics were very dull and ordinary like ‘your hometown’ or ‘post man’. I took it as a challenge to write those essays in interesting ways.

I often broke the conventional school essay format and made up stories with long dialogues, exaggerated descriptions and bizarre storylines loosely inspired from the Famous Fives and Hardy Boys I was reading at the time! Luckily my English teachers did not discourage that sort of behavior and often rewarded me (with generous grades) for my attempts, however lame they were!

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

I consider any of the little things that momentarily make me lose sense of time as beautiful. It could be a movie or a book; a conversation or a cat playing; filter coffee, National Geographic channel, a warm shower on a cold morning, dessert before main course, an intelligent conversation, yawning, huge spiders, useless trivia… it’s a very long list.

I also find extremely complex stuff like snakes, Scarlett Johansson, the human brain, religion, the Internet, Godavari, classical music, history etc. all to be very beautiful.


gtoosphere fits quite nicely into Indiblogger category of ‘humour’. Are you ‘the funny one’ among your friends in real life?

Yes, I am definitely ‘a funny one’ if not ‘the funny one’. Most of my friends have a very good sense of humour too. I get most of my ideas from the conversations I have with my friends and my brother.

What differences are there between telling a joke in real life and telling it on your blog?

The joke happens in real life and then I blog about it. That is usually how it is. A joke in real life is about timing and spontaneity, it just happens. But when you’re writing a joke, you have the time to think and build the context. So the onus is on how funny the idea is to begin with. Maintaining the flow, the punch lines, the comic art – all just follow from the idea.


Speaking of Indiblogger, you’re quite active on there, as well as on Facebook and sporadically on Twitter. How important are social networking sites in relation to your blog?

Very important! They are the lifeline for my blog. I would have never got myself to write anything more than sticky notes if it is not for the instant feedback that I get from readers through social networking sites.

Comic art is integral to many of your posts. Which do you enjoy more, drawing/design or writing?

What I enjoy most is the ideas – coming up with them and connecting two or three ideas that people wouldn’t otherwise think of connecting. That is what drives me. I also immensely enjoy the process of refining the lines over and over trying to find that elusive economy of expression. I feel I am moving in a direction where words come easier to me than strokes.


Name some of your favourite satirists, and whether they’ve influenced your own creative style.

The first comedian that comes to mind is Jerry Seinfeld (his standup). He has this ability to point out really silly things around you which makes you go, “how did I not think of that first?” In one of his interviews, he explains that he never uses profanities in his material because he feels that (in many cases) they are a shortcut to get a few cheap laughs. I adopted that policy for my blog too.

One more thing I picked up from him is to not misrepresent anything just for the sake of getting a laugh. This pushes me to work from an honest feeling about something. So when I joke about how the aam aadmi doesn’t deserve any sympathy, I really mean it!

George Carlin is a personal hero of mine. His body of work is just so vast that it’s an encyclopedia on how to construct a joke. The philosophical undercurrent that runs through his material had a huge influence on not just my writing but on me as a person as well.

Larry David, the genius behind Seinfeld (the sitcom) and Curb Your Enthusiasm is another big influence. He kind of convinced me that profanities are funny when used in a tasteful way but I decided to stick with Seinfeld on that one ;)

When it comes to political satire, Jon Stewart is the best it can get. All my posts on politics and media were directly or indirectly inspired by him. I also like Bill Maher (I did a couple of “New Rules” posts) and Woody Allen.

I love Telugu comedy in general. I think we people have an amazing sense of humour. I am a huge fan of Mullapudi Venkataramana. He is a genius when it comes to capturing the beauty, the simplicity and humour in middle class life – something that our entertainment industry completely overlooks.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

If I have to choose one, I’d probably choose my take on Meter Jam. This campaign sort of summed up the attitude of the young city folk of my generation. They protest because it is cool and they only do it in the comfort of their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Their anger in most cases is justified but none of them are inclined to do anything more than cathartically yell at the symptoms.

I am also proud of the articles I wrote for The NRI. I really pushed myself to write about issues that I wouldn’t have written otherwise and they were very well received too.


Do you believe in God?

Depends on how you define God. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I was like, “If the Gods are really that powerful, why do I even have to pray? Don’t they have access to the wish list on my Facebook profile?” That was when I realized praying for material things makes no sense. I’ve been kind of agnostic since then.

But I feel that Hinduism (technically, it’s too broad to be an -ism) is an awesome religion to be born in. It gives you a lot of freedom of thought. You can be atheist or agnostic and still be a Hindu. The line between culture and religion is really blurred in India. I never pray but I do celebrate all festivals. (If you remove the puja from the festivals, all you’re left with is good food, family reunions and fun activities. Now who doesn’t like that?

I love the culture. I love the mythologies. I have immense respect for the religion and its philosophy. I just don’t subscribe to the over-the-counter-30-million-Gods-in-the-skies version of it! I only scratched the surface of Hindu philosophy and I definitely want to go deeper. Not now but maybe later!

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click here.

Talking points from India v Bangladesh

I have written before about being tired of too much cricket, but this World Cup is in India, and I’m beginnning to care more the national team’s fortunes. I think that just happens to everyone who stays here long enough, because India is completely cricket mad. It’s not that every last person is in a cricket thrall, but even if only half the population cared – and I’m guessing the percentage is a little higher than that – you’ve got 500 million plus flag-waving, tv-shooting supporters.

In the first match of the tournament yesterday, India thrashed their co-hosts Bangladesh with a fantastic batting performance. Follow the link below for my talking points from the match, including why Virat Kohli is the most dangerous player in India’s batting lineup, but for now here’s why the Kerala connection – wild and wacky fast bowler Sreesanth – was my favourite thing about the day:

Personally, the best moments of the day came when Sreesanth was bowling. He’s the one wild card in India’s pack: utterly unplayable one ball, overstepping and shipping wides the next. To me, he looks perpetually in need of a cigarette. Even if he goes for ten an over, I hope he keeps his place purely for the entertainment value he brings.

Read more at The NRI…

My First Meditation

A couple of years ago, a friend recommended that I try meditation. I had a lot of barriers up and found it hard to focus on anything, let alone what I wanted to do with my life, and she thought meditation might help.

Well, it took me three whole years, but I finally tried it. Gavin, a guy I met via CouchSurfing, turned out to have experience with Vipassana meditation and offered to lead us in a short session. In times past I would’ve said something like, “Yeah, we should totally do that sometime, that’d be awesome,” and then never actually done it. This time, I jumped at the chance.

The experience was full of unexpected lessons, ideas and delights. Above all, it brought home how quickly and far the mind can wander:

Start with the breath, the air crossing my upper lip. My… moustachioed upper lip. The air’s only coming out of my right nostril. The left one must still be blocked from that strange illness I had last week. The vitamin B complex tablets seem to have fixed me up, though.

Come back to the breath. In… and out, my chest expanding and contracting. The guests in the next room are talking in French. I should study French again. God, I studied it for five years in high school, and it would be so great to be able to speak it properly. Maybe I should ask Franҫoise to teach me.

Come back to the breath. In. Out. I like that name. Franҫoise. What was the name of that Spanish woman in my second year German class? Ah, Florencia. Beautiful name, Florencia. The way it rolls off the tongue is so pleasing. Florrrrrrencia. If I have a daughter someday, I might call her that. Florencia.

Read more at The NRI…

Fair/Lovely/(Evil)

Last week I wrote about how I am treated as a white guy in India – but what about the opposite, the darker-skinned individuals in this society? Well, to put it bluntly, they are treated much worse.

As I suggested in part 1, the disadvantages of having dark skin are entirely cultural. The relevant cultural factors could be ancient, like caste and untouchability, or modern, like job and marriage market prospects, or a combination of both. Physicality isn’t in question: light skin doesn’t make you run faster, jump higher or think better. But sometimes, cultural and social pressures are more vivid and powerful than a physical disadvantage could ever be.

Enter big business. Cosmetics. Fair is Lovely. Fair is Handsome. It must be true: these words fit together so cosily on those little boxes of cream you can buy at Big Bazaar or your local pharmacy.

Read more at The NRI…

White People Have Money & Sex

Without getting into too much detail – I’ll leave that for the academics slaving away in universities – I had a look at the perception of white/light skin in India, and how I feel about it. In short, white skin is beautiful, and foreigners who have it are rich and debauched. That’s the general consensus over here, but my own self-image?

I am very light-skinned. Pasty, even. My body is covered in spots of pigment, called moles, which prevent me from spending long amounts of time in the sun, and thus I cannot get a natural suntan. If I were so inclined, I could slather my skin with tanning creams on a daily basis and perhaps give off some orange illusion that I’m not almost translucent, but I’ve come to accept that this is just the way I am. My skin is not beautiful. There’s not much I can do about it, so I might as well learn to live with it.

Read more at The NRI…

Laptopless and Listless

I decided not to take my laptop to Mumbai last month, hoping its absence would help me to enjoy my stay more. And I really think it did. But when I came back home to Varkala and it didn’t work, it was the start of an important lesson for me.

Oh no. Anything but this. My laptop, dead? The cornerstone of (my) life, suddenly as lifeless as the desk on which it sits? But I was only gone a week!

Wait a moment. Now,

remove and replace battery / doesn’t work / remove battery press power button 32 times replace battery / doesn’t work / remove battery connect to adapter plug into wall / doesn’t work / grit teeth mash keyboard with palms of both hands / doesn’t work

Read more at The NRI…

You Have -7- New Messages

On Indian trains, vendors often come around and dump a pile of booklets on the empty seat next to you. They’ll leave you to riffle through them for a bit before returning five minutes later, ready to accept a few rupees from you if you’re going to keep one. Without fail, every pile will contain a few publications devoted solely to text messages for every occasion. Jokes, loving sentiments, declarations of friendship, quizzes, and all sorts of other little 160-character bundles of joy.

I know that people buy these booklets, or at least pass them around at school. Why? Because I receive the damned messages every day.

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine switched to a new mobile service. As far as my quite limited cellphone needs are concerned – although the atrocious call centre service of my current option makes me wonder if it’s time for a change – I see most providers as more or less the same. For my friend, however, this new company was a hot ticket. They were offering 666 free text messages, or SMS, per day.

he sed “666 s so mny, can snd lts to frnds ”. i sed “666 s th nmbr of th dvl, dnt u no???”

From the moment I first gave my number to someone in India, I disliked those forwarded SMS. I saw the phone as a communication tool, something with which you can speak to someone in another place or send them a quick personal message when you really need to (i.e. sporadically). Young India sees it quite differently: your mobile is a status symbol and a means of keeping in constant touch with friends. And it is preferable, even encouraged, to use txtspeak for every SMS.

ther wr sm msgs i had 2 read 2 or 3 tyms 2 gt der tru mng n it ws v anoyin

Read more at The NRI…

A Mall Away From Home

Way back in 07, a few months into Japan, I wrote a bit about missing the familiarity of a New Zealand supermarket while getting used to the ones in Japan, which obviously contained completely different products. Something somewhat similar happened when I visited Mumbai at Palladium Mall, a ather opulent (at least by Indian standards) edifice in the CBD. I had expected something quite different, and found myself comparing the experience both to my (glorious?) past experience of malls in NZ and my preconceptions of an ‘Indian Mall’.

Upon arrival, my charming host needed to do some toy shopping for a children’s birthday party, so she suggested I go for a wander in the main mall while she waded into the crush of Hamley’s opposite. Off I went, into“Mumbai’s most luxurious retail destination centre”, and what greeted me was a cavernous space rising up three floors, ringed with exclusive outlets on each level. Everything sparkled and looked very expensive, all brand names and price tags, and the biggest impression of all came from the fact that it was nearly empty at lunchtime on a weekday.

I instinctively whipped out my cameraphone and started taking a few pictures. A security guard came hurrying over. “Sir. No photography.” I apologised and put my phone back in my pocket, then started to meander up the escalators and into the abyss. I wasn’t allowed to capture the moment, for whatever reason, but in a way there was nothing to capture – it was this bizarre, static world of exclusivity and nobody actually buying anything.

Read more at The NRI…