On Dying Alone

Deep in the most thickly populated part of a metropolitan suburb, the police break down the front door of an old single-bedroom apartment. The neighbors had reported an increasingly fetid odor coming from it – an odor that now hits the cops like an olfactory tsunami.

We’ve all smelled it to different degrees while driving down anonymous country roads and highways. It is the smell that announces that organic life of some kind or the other has recently reached the end of the cycle and is shaking hands with Mother Nature again. There is no antiseptically sanitized version of this process in nature – decomposition is decomposition, period. It stinks, it’s messy and it does NOT make for good dinner-table conversation.


They find the source of the stink lying on an old metal cot, dead as the dodo but alive with a rather energetic colony of maggots. We will not talk about maggots here right now – they have their place in the larger scheme of things, and there is a time and place to talk of maggots, but this isn’t it. I’m trying to make a point about the guy UNDER the maggots here – the guy who everyone in the apartment building knew as ‘that strange recluse in 3C’. He had lived in his seedy little flat for something like fifteen years, but may as well have not existed for all the impact he had on the neighborhood. Let’s call him Bill.

Bill was not an antisocial sort, but he mostly kept to himself. He would greet those who greeted him, help search for a lost dog when required, contribute to the small charity drives that the building’s unrealistic idealists undertook from time to time… but he kept to himself. Nobody knew where he came from, if he had ever been married, what his life was all about – nothing. He asked for no information and sure as hell never gave any.

Now he was dead, and they’d have to fumigate the entire second floor because he hadn’t been considerate enough to inform the building superintendent well in time of his intention to kick the bucket, and to make provisions for his removal.

Never mind how Bill died – suicide, stroke, what does it matter? He was dead, and there was no foul play involved. My point here is that he died alone, and it seems fairly certain that he knew that it would happen precisely in this way.

Sounds familiar? It should. You read about such stuff in the tabloids almost every day. Some poor old (and sometimes not-so-old) blighter or blightress is found moldering away in his or her home, and the neighbors have something juicy to talk about for a while (once the stink has been addressed, of course). I’ve only been around for a little over five decades, but I’m pretty sure that folks had been dying alone long before my dad first noticed that my mom had some pretty appealing curves to her and decided to do something about it.

So why does it happen? Why are some people alone enough to DIE alone? Don’t we have a population problem? Aren’t there more people around than there should ideally be? Is there any shortage of company if we really WANT it? No, there isn’t – and that may be the key reason why certain folks prefer their own company over that of others.

Many call me negative about people, but I’d like to state here that I’m not, really. I firmly believe that we were designed flawlessly in every respect. We all started out as perfect players in the drama called Human Life – it’s just that we hopelessly buggered up the game. We added stuff where nothing should ever have been added, subtracted where there was simply no scope for subtraction, fixed what wasn’t broken and wound up as fallen angels cooking in a Hell of our own making.

Yes, we were designed as social animals, but then we discovered ‘individualism’ – that celebrated concept which states that the best of the species do NOT conform. Right from the start, we toe the line only to the extent required to get all the goodies of social life – but then strive to ‘be different from the rest’.

Since it is not really feasible to be REALLY different in this massive cauldron of human life we’ve launched, we find the most puerile ways of differentiating ourselves. We become MCPs, feminists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and stuff like that and start barking at everyone else, or we simply draw a febrile line around ourselves and call it our ‘space’. We state our personal ‘rules of engagement’ and make as big a deal of them as possible. We require our friends, spouses and associates to change enough in our presence to conform to our personal image of ourselves as unique human beings – much as they would have to in the presence of a ‘child with special needs’.

That’s all very nice and charming – sort of like kids playing ‘House’, kidding themselves that they really do own a physical or metaphysical corner of this teeming planet. The fact, however, is that we’re ALL at odds with the planet to begin with, and we lost our ability to live on it with true dignity long ago. I genuinely feel that the last time anyone at all led a perfectly normal life – in the way it was meant to be – was around the time when we still lived in caves.

So here we are today, touting our ‘unique’ differentiators and – paradoxically – pitying the folks that die alone in their bachelor/spinster apartments. With the staggering loads of attitude, baggage, traumas and ambitions that we expect everyone else to dance attendance to, aren’t we ALL actually working real hard to be as alone as possible?

I try to see it from the urban hermit’s point of view, and must say I see rather clearly. Out there is nothing but a huge mess of humans waiting to tell you why what you’re thinking, doing and eating is wrong and why you should change your ways. They will not miss a chance to tell you why you must pay court to their individual peculiarities if you want to befriend, marry or employ them. They drag a formidable machine bristling with rules of engagement behind them, and the urban hermit has very likely tried to operate that machine many times in the past, getting mangled each time.

However, he has an alternative – unlock that single-bedroom apartment, walk in and close the door behind him. No people, so no rules of engagement. Behind that closed door, he feels the pressures of this artificially embellished world drop off his shoulders. He is free to be what he truly is – sloppy and ill-mannered, his face bereft of false smiles, his soul free from the bondage of pretended regret over some misdemeanor or the other. He is NOT relating to ANYONE, he is not engaging – and therefore he is free.

And if he dies that way, would it be more appropriate to pity him for his pathetic solitude, or to envy him for having the courage to face the final fact of 21st human life – that we have modified and individualized ourselves beyond all hope of relating to each other anyway? At least he was not pretending that there is any hope at all.

Extinction By Communication?

There is far too much communication going on. In fact, there is so much communication going on that SOMETHING has GOT to give sooner or later. It’s against all laws of nature for people to be THIS connected – across countries and continents, across timelines and most definitely across personal boundaries.

We moan about our stress levels, about how our time is not our own anymore, about lack of personal space. And it makes as much sense as moaning about pollution, which we do all the time – almost in the spirit of “Nature is not what it used to be”.

No, Nature is most certainly not what it used to be and air pollution is most certainly killing us. That’s because we have gone against all its laws and ensured that no matter how much Nature tries, it cannot clean up the noxious airborne cesspools above our cities. And as we all know, something has got to give on a larger front sooner or later, and I don’t mean just dying of emphysema. Sooner or later, the whole bloody system is going to break down.

What has this got to do with communication? Everything. There is communication pollution of pandemic proportions on the loose today, as well.

Picture, just for a moment, a scenario in which all invisible bands of ether and cable-borne communication in use today became visible for just a few minutes.  If someone were to take a photo of that from outer space, it would probably look as though the planet has been consumed by an incredibly virulent cancer. Human beings were never meant to be so much in contact with each other. No argument about how this kind of connectedness is good for business, but what about the basic psyche?

In a manner of speaking, borders and time variations came into being when the continents parted ways a few billion years ago and splintered further at the edges during the cooling process. Human beings weren’t around when all this happened, and that’s good. They only arrived and spread at their assigned geographies when the fences were firmly up.

Here is a critical point – we did not arrive on one seamless piece of Earth. The land masses were spread around the face of the globe, leading to differences in climate, colour, metabolism, languages and time lines. When one side of the globe slept, the other side was awake. I think we were supposed to evolve somewhere along those lines.

In our early primate state, we were certainly not equipped to monkey around with the natural order of things.  We gibbered good-naturedly at the monkeys in the adjoining caves when we felt good and pulped them with rocks when we didn’t.  There was no question of gibbering long-distance to whatever had crawled off the trees or slithered out of the ocean on the other side of the globe.

When we picked our noses or scratched our asses, we did not have to worry about our indulgence in such small pleasures being captured and disseminated to everybody else over the ether.  Our priorities were basic and manageable. We were individuals with dignity and a clearer concept of boundaries than we have today.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Everyone is connected, all the time – by regular and cellular phones, by television and by Internet. Satellites probe every nook and cranny of the globe for significant and insignificant events and flash news of them out to everyone in an instant. They transmit communications from one end of the planet to the other in a fraction of a second. Gone are the boundaries. Time differences are merely notional. Privacy is a laugh. And we love it that way, never once considering that this could be wrong – that it was never meant to be this way.

There has been a serious communication and information overload happening for quite a while now, but it has all happened in a relatively short period. The first telephone call was placed in 1876.  The first radio transmission took place in 1900, between two towers just a kilometre-and-a-half apart. The first television broadcast, if it could be called that, was in 1925. The first email was sent in 1971 and the first cellular phone call was placed in 1973.

All this has taken place in less than 150 years – a totally laughable period in terms of evolution. In fact, we have still not outgrown our body hair. We still have a tailbone. Men still grunt when they see a pretty woman, and women still shriek when they catch them doing it. The hairs at the backs of our necks still bristle when we sense danger. We still procreate in the same old messy way. And we still kill our contemporaries when we perceive them to be peeing on our side of the fence – which is all that war has ever been and ever will be, regardless of whether we wage it with sticks and stones or nuclear bombs.

And even though we haven’t evolved one bit over the past two hundred years, we have literally killed off all concepts of privacy, peace, dignity and personal space by investing more and more relentless ways of communicating with each other. We have reached a stage where we have the means to make trans-continental calls, send instant messages, email each other and pry into others’ lives over the Internet in a single device that we carry in our pockets. We just can’t conceive life without the ability to do this, either:

A – The Vodafone network is down again

B- WHAT?!? AGAIN?? It can’t be! It was gone for a whole ten minutes last month!

A – Well, I guess we’ll survive…

B – SURVIVE?!? ARE YOU CRAZY?!? I can’t survive with my Blackberry on the blink!!

A – Why? What will happen? So you can’t read your mails, check your stocks, play online Scrabble or pry on your girlfriend for a few hours. What’s the big deal?

B – God, I had no idea that you’re so dense. Don’t you get it? IF I CAN’T DO THOSE THINGS, MY LIFE IS FINISHED!!  I MAY AS WELL DIE RIGHT NOW!!! Let’s go and get drunk till service resumes…”

Flash back a hundred a fifty years. A mail arrives at a serene little farm at the foothills of a Montana mountain range.

Farmer – Juliet, there is a letter from Emily. She’s finally reached Boston. She says she’ll write again in a couple of weeks to let us know how the new job is.

Wife – I’m so glad. By the way, have you fed the chickens yet?

Dignity. Perspective.  Respect for space. Things we have to live without today. Our air and water are polluted with toxins, and our sanity is polluted with communication. Our own smartness has hijacked us, and who is to say that there won’t be a price to pay for it soon?

We already have documented cases of Internet-induced insanity, but have they identified the first serious mental disease brought on by cellular phone use yet – or will that only happen next month? Relationships are already breaking down en masse because of the communication / information overload. But what will Nature’s final revenge be?

(PS – The author of this post has killed himself by swallowing his Blackberry 9810, which also figured several times in his suicide note. Mourners please avoid texting him – the Urgent Chime alerts are freaking out the mortician)

The Case Of The Perfect Parent

(A fictional depiction of an alarming social condition)

Finally, I could see the sheer cliff-wall give way to thunderous skies above me.

There was no doubt that I was an intruder here – the elements had made no bones about it ever since I had begun this climb. The wind had now redoubled it howling, freezing reproach, lashing at me with frost-laden whips as I dug in my gloved fingers and spiked boots to tackle the last ten meters to the top of the mountain.

How far will a parent go to find the answers that plague us every step of father/motherhood? Is the yen to be the perfect parent not a quest that beggars that of the Knights of the Round Table for the Holy Grail?

Back in my hometown on the other side of the globe, the surface of my study table had long since succumbed to the avalanche of ‘be-a-better-parent’ books. Instructional CDs on how to become the perfect dad/mom had ousted Chopin, Mozart and John Lennon from their rightful places of honor on our music rack, relegating them to dusty lower shelves.

Linda, always a die-hard seeker for new self-improvement avenues, had blown the budget for our Mauritius vacation on parenting workshops (bringing home more even printed research material) and long, rambling telephonic discussions with the other confounded parents she met there.

My bachelor friends had marked off my home on their weekend-visit maps in red Gothic letters that read ‘Here There Be Dragons’. This was definitely no place to drop in on if you wanted to discuss anything but advanced diaper management, the fine art of bonding with your kid and parent-induced trauma syndromes.

Unsuspecting visitors to 10/4, Mapleville Drive were subjected to inquisitional inquiries into their parenting styles, berated for their lack of awareness of the latest techniques of wholesome child-rearing, and forced to look at every single photo in a three-foot stack of baby albums (with a running commentary on genesis and circumstantial background).

We had lost a lot of friends since little Brian had arrived four months ago.

However, there were some positive outcomes too. Watching Linda and me tackle our new roles as parents the way that Oxford toppers tackle their final exams, my parents had disengaged their stranglehold on our affairs, removed themselves from the landscape and begun serious work on their own marriage. They seemed to be having a lot of fun for the first time in thirty years…

x  x  x

“How’s little Brian?” asked my boss on that fateful day last week. Little had I suspected that this seemingly innocuous question would have me clinging to the sleet-covered side of a mountain three hundred and fifty feet above the Tibetan plains five days later.

My boss was one of the few people who could ask me the above question without endangering the next two hours of his life with a new father’s agonized monologue on the pitfalls of effective parenting. After all, he had asked it while I was on company time – and company (which he heads) takes a jaundiced view of employees frittering away potentially productive hours on such stuff.

“Fine, sir,” I replied, stifling the usual avalanche of angsty moaning about how I’m certain my uninformed Daddying approach is turning the four-month old blighter into a mass murderer or, even worse, condemning him to a call centre career.

“And how are you and Linda managing?” he asked. I was getting worried about this unprecedented level of interest. Had word gone round in the office about how ineptly we were bringing up our kid?

“Uh… we’re on top of it, sir,” I answered with an egg-sucking grin. My faux confidence wouldn’t have fooled a retarded donkey with Alzheimer’s.

He nodded good-naturedly, indicating that he had either not heard me, or that he had but was not swallowing it.

“You know, I met up with my brother the other day – he’d just returned from Tibet. He told me of a wise man who sits on some godforsaken mountaintop over there.”

I wondered what this had to do with Dr. Zeuss, parenting-oriented rational emotive therapy or the ‘quality time’ school of thought.

“This wise man has apparently got the Ultimate handle on parenting,” he said. “My brother was a physical, emotional and mental wreck after his daughter was born… you know, he wanted to get everything right on the parenting front. He says that this wise dude had to say to him pulled him back from the brink of suicide.”

“I see you’ve lost about twenty pounds since Brian was born. Your efficiency levels have also dropped – I attribute this to loss of sleep and appetite.”

My heart sank – here came the pink slip.

“I’ve also heard that you and Linda are buying every parenting book and DVD in sight at the local bookstore. I want to you to go see this wise man in Tibet and see what he has to say. The company will pay for this. I hate to see a good employee kill himself this young.”

x  x  x

At last I reached the top of the mountain. The wind screamed its protest and tried to yank me over the edge again, but I was here to ask The Question and get The Answer and wasn’t about to let it do that.

I looked around, wondering how anyone could survive the numbing cold up here. At last I spotted him.

He was a shriveled, ancient and extremely weathered specimen, sitting cross-legged on a tacky prayer mat under a sturdy bamboo-thatch roof that did nothing to keep the elements out. The old party was bundled up in one of those fancy Nepali coats that they try to sell to you at every street-corner in Khatmandu. He was about eighty years old and maybe five feet in height, with a few stray wisps of hair still sticking to his otherwise wind-bleached scalp. He was reading something and paid no attention at all to me.

I stumbled across to where he sat and fell to my knees on the cold mountain rock before him.

“Master! I have come to seek The Answer,” I cried abjectly.

He looked up from what I was startled to see was a fairly dated copy of Playboy.

“Another one,” he said, sounding quite disgruntled. “What’s wrong with you people anyway?”

“Master, I am the father of a four-month-old boy,” I continued. “He’s…”

“… the sweetest, smartest, most promising child in the whole, wide world,” he finished for me. I was amazed. This man was truly gifted – he had read my mind!!

“Yes!!” I said, “Yes!! And I…”

“… want to be the perfect father to him, and your wife wants to be the perfect mother. You do not want to take a single wrong step, because you will get only one chance at bringing him up right and you don’t want to goof up. Goofing up will mean traumatizing him, and that would mean a warped child, and it would all be your fault,” he finished for me,  perusing the Playboy’s centerfold with a gleam of approval in his eyes. “So, we go on to The Question that haunts every new father and mother – How Can I Be The Perfect Parent?”

I fell silent. There was nothing more to be said. Playboy or not, this dried-up relic had just said it all.

He put the magazine aside and looked at me through the weary eyes of aged wisdom. It was a compassionate look, but there was also impatience in it.

“Here’s the answer, son,” he said. “Get a life and LEAVE YOUR KID ALONE.”

x  x  x

“WHAT?!?” I gasped. “Leave… leave him alone? But he depends on us for nurturing, for guidance, for the right values in life. We have to show him how much we love him by….”

“… giving him what he really needs, not what your guilt makes you BELIEVE he needs,” he finished for me. “What he needs from you is the basic requirements of life – food, shelter, education and undemanding affection. Damn it, every animal knows better than to follow their offspring around, catering to every imagined need and being a pain in the neck. Why can’t humans learn to do the same?”

“Because… because humans are DEEP!” I said. “We are intelligent. Our offspring has a broader spectrum of needs, and…”

“You, my dear misguided friend, are just another victim of so-called progressive thought,” he said disdainfully. “You can’t leave good enough alone. You HAVE to fix what isn’t broken. No – you have to BREAK what isn’t broken and then try to put it together in a way that your insane feelings of inadequacy tell you is the RIGHT way! Your son is doomed.”

I was beginning to have enough of his primitive outlook on life’s realities.

“Listen, Monk Man – children aren’t animals. They are extremely sensitive beings,” I said.

“You mean animals aren’t?” he spat at me. “Fellow, beasts don’t write book on parenting, have all-night discussion sessions on the subject or tear themselves up over a wrong move here or there – but they do a really fine job of bringing up their offspring. They are there for their little ones when they are needed – not when they need to be there. They feed them, protect them from predators, house them till they’re old enough to strike out on their own, and let them go. It works!! Have you ever heard of a yak, cockatoo or antelope traumatized by anything other than human mischief?”

I shut up.

“Have you ever heard of an Australian aborigine child who felt he didn’t get enough approval from Dad? Or of a maladjusted Sioux papoose turned juvenile delinquent because Mommy didn’t spend enough quality time with him?” he asked me, a bit more kindly now. “Have you ever heard of an Eskimo child who can’t take the peer pressure? Fellow – in Nature, everything finds its own perfect level. It is when you screw around with the natural order of things that you have problems.”

He got up and handed me the Playboy. I accepted it with cold-numbed hands, not really knowing what I was doing.

“Go home,” he said. “You and your wife must have fun in your lives, and you must let your son have it too. There are only so many years each of us has to experience the gift of life. How many of them do you want to waste on trying to find some mythical Right Equation? The Right Equation is whatever existed before humans decided they are smarter, more compassionate or more innovative than the very Nature according to whose rules they were born in the first place.”

Resentfully, I realized that I had nothing further to ask him. In less than ten minutes, this man had reduced the whole issue from exquisite complexity to grassroots simplicity. If what he said was true, then Linda and I had to excuse left for twisting ourselves into worried, frustrated wrecks. There would be no further expeditions to the Non Fiction section of the local bookstore to get our next fix of parenting acumen.

Then I realized I had one last ace in the hole to play! One last question that would surely flummox him and cause him to dissolve into a helpless pile of confused grey cells – just like it did everybody else on earth!!

x  x  x

“Before I go, please answer one last question,” I said with forced humility.

He grunted dustily, rummaged under his prayer mat and produced a fairly recent issue of Penthouse.

“Ask your question,” he said, going straight for the centerfold.

I drew in a trembling breath, stunned as always by the magnitude and sheer magnificence of The Final Parenting Question as I geared up to utter it.

“What is Quality Time?” I asked, my eyes filling up with tears of awed reverence. Never mind dumb animals – only intelligent humans were capable of asking such a profound question. In fact, our ability to ask it literally PROVED the existence of God…

He guffawed toothlessly. “Quality time, you dolt, is the time you spend with your child in which you:

  • DON’T tweak your own or your child’s sensibilities
  • DON’T try to find meaning in every nuance of body language
  • DON’T adjust to the moment while nevertheless praying that you’ll somehow get it right
  • DON’T anticipate favorable or unfavorable present or future reactions
  • DON’T either compensate for or further build on your own or your own parents’ inadequacies

Quality time is time you spend with your child without any kind of agenda, forgetting that you’re a parent. You throw away the rule book. You become human, not superhuman. You let your hair down, relax and let your child do the same. Quality time is whenever you don’t try to be the Perfect Parent.”

He pointed to the edge of the cliff and waved me to it.

“Now get out of here,” he said. “I have more interesting stuff than this to occupy myself with. Mind your step on the way down – there’s sleet on the slope at this time of the day….”

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” – Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

To Quit Chewing Tobacco, Leave The Country

At 2.00 AM on yet another dismal day in Mumbai (all days are dismal in Mumbai) I took a cab to the international airport. At 5.30 AM, I was on a Turkish Airlines flight to Berlin via Istanbul. In my pocket was a plastic baggie containing five chewing tobacco pouches. It was September 26, 2011, and I was determined that these would be the last that would ever cross my lips.

But I get ahead of myself – first, some background…

Chewing tobacco – you don’t really chew that stuff. In its loose form, you assemble a wad of it in your mouth and park it between your lower gums and lip. With pouches, you do the same, except that you don’t go through the process of wadding it up first. The tobacco releases its nicotine and assorted carcinogens into your bloodstream via the mouth’s mucous membrane.

A new user needs to spit out the fetid fluid every now and then, because swallowing it causes nausea and hiccups. (This is not a problem in India, where democracy exists in such a pure form that folks let fly without notice at any currently unoccupied spot on the road. I have no idea how people manage in less progressive countries.) The more seasoned chewers (I was one of them) have no problems with swallowing the stinking brew and do so it in small amounts at judicious intervals.

Chewing tobacco is the less glamorous cousin of smoking, but it is a hell of a lot more damaging.  For one, it shoots its load of goodies into your body via a small, extremely focused surface area of the mouth. Mouth cancer is most certainly on the agenda sometime in the future.

Also, a load of chewing tobacco has a lot more time to do its work than a cigarette does. You don’t face any of the limitations that smokers do, especially in these dark days when lighting up anywhere but on the road or in your own home lays you open for severe social sanction at best and legal action at worst. This fact makes smoking a bit of a catch-as-you-can undertaking and curtails indulgence even among the jitteriest smokers. Moreover, a cigarette doesn’t last longer than three to four minutes.

A tobacco chewer, on the other hand, pops the stuff into his mouth and it’s business as usual. No elevator rides down to the street or long walks to the office’s designated smoking area.  In other words, anyplace and anytime is good enough. He can last a very long time without having to spit, and the nearest toilet (or, in the case of India, the nearest window) is just fine when he does.

No lighting up. No tapping ash every ten seconds. No outraged health freaks baying for your blood. Just keep your gob shut and do your thing. Veterans (again, yours truly among them) can even drink coffee and eat a meal with tobacco still in place. It takes some very dicey oral acrobatics, but it can be done.  And so, the tobacco chewer is often wired into the deadly load for an hour or two at a time – sometimes even the whole night through. This is seriously bad news, bro.

A note on ‘gutkha’. This is a very lethal variant of chewing tobacco invented in India and enthusiastically consumed all across the country. This shit is a truly deadly combination of betelnut pieces, paraffin, tobacco and lime (yes, the stuff you put on your walls). As far as I know, it is only made and sold in India. Gutkha kills folks maybe twenty times faster than chewing tobacco. For the record, I was hooked to this as well. I’m 47 now – all said and done, I was not counting on seeing age 65. One has to be realistic – you simply don’t do stuff like that to your body and expect to eventually bounce grandchildren on your knee.

How had I gotten on this lethal ride in the first place? Well, I had been a smoker for something like 20 years, and switching to chewing tobacco had been my misguided way of quitting. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’d gone from the frying pan into the fire, but it was too late by then. For ten years after that, I needed chewing tobacco and gutkha from within ten minutes of rising in the morning until I went to bed at night. I’d tried quitting like a thousand times, but it never worked.

Okay, so I land at Istanbul Airport with one of my last five tobacco pouches in my gob. I suck it dry, spit it out into a garbage bin and throw in the remaining four, as well. Now I’m in a foreign country where no chewing tobacco exists (at least not on the airport, and as a transit passenger I was not at liberty to waltz off and sample the local souks). I was waiting for a flight to an even more foreign country where the mere mention of chewing tobacco would probably get me fined.

In my haversack were twenty nicotine patches and ten strips of nicotine chewing gum. Cold turkey? Not for this hombre. I am a orderly sort of guy, and willing to believe that needless suffering has its place – but it has no place in my life.

Four hours later, my mother folded me into a hug at Berlin’s Tegel Airport. I was chewing Nicotex and trying to be brave about the ordeal that I thought awaited me over the next ten days. None materialized. I arrived back in Mumbai (yes, it was a dismal day) eleven days later, but did not make a beeline to the nearest tobacco vendor. Five days earlier, I had ditched the nicotine patches and was only on gum now.

So far, so good. It’s been a month now, and I’m switching to a lower dose of nicotine gum soon. No overpowering urge to say “the hell with it” and fall off the wagon has shanghaied me, and I know that I’m rid of the evil shit for good.

Here’s what didn’t work – patches, gum and good intentions while I was still in my comfort zone. By that, I mean a country where chewing tobacco is available even in areas without electricity and drinking water.

Here’s what worked – complete non-availability. Moral of the story? In situations where no other options but doing the right thing exist, even the most degenerate compromisers among us tend to do the right thing.

No, this won’t work for smokers. Contrary to common belief, folks in Germany and probably the rest of Europe are still puffing away for all they’re worth, and fags are available at every street corner. But if you have a chewing tobacco problem and tried every other method to quit and failed, consider leaving the country and heading for Europe for a couple of weeks. The period of forced abstinence will open for you the window of opportunity you need. After that, you’re obviously on your own. But if you’re like me and have felt the tightening noose of doom around your neck for long enough, suddenly being tobacco-free for two weeks may be all that you need.



My valued friend, I am complete
Don’t add to me, or take away
You, who sit in judgment’s seat
On behalf of the moral elite
And think you know a better way.

There’ve been a thousand instances
I’ve faced the Critic’s Crew
I’ve heard each kind of remonstrance
And faced each disapproving glance
Now show me something new…

Don’t ask me what I think of you
I’d only spoil your day
It’s sad, of course – your hot wind blew
When I was trying to stay cool
But hot wind finally blows away.

Hell is full of folks like you
Each one has cursed and died
Go on and curse – there’re blessings too
Maybe you should learn a few
Invest a bit on Heaven’s side……

Let’s thank God for each point of view
This world would be a bore
If we resolved our differences
And united in our nothingness
To agree for evermore…

The God Of Small Things

Ashish D. is not his real name, and this overweight disgrace to my neighborhood could thank me for my discretion in keeping him anonymous.

The man takes his morning walk an hour later than I do. This means that he’s just starting off on his perambulations when I’m on my way back. He’s a regular, just like I am, but I never paid him much attention over the years. You know how it is – we see people, yet their existence registers as more of an abstract concept than an actual fact.

I’ve never so much as exchanged thoughts on the weather with him, and the only thought I ever spared him was an idle wondering…. how can a man walk like that for years and never lose an ounce of that gross flab? And why, if these nominal saunters have proved so utterly futile, has the oozy blighter not done something more constructive about his improbable girth? I mean, he has surely got a clear title deed for a 3BHK flat in Heart Attack Country and he’s bound to take up residence there anytime. Doesn’t that BOTHER him?

Anyway, one day the fact that he does figure on the landscape was driven jarringly home to me. The realization came in the form of a loud, agonized canine yelp. Jerked from my pleasant dawn reverie, I cast about for the source of the sound. A weathered dog was making tracks for the opposite side of the road as fast as three legs would allow it. Three, because the other one was drawn up against its belly in a tortured spasm of muscle and bone.

Ashish D. threw me a brief grin of vicious triumph as he took after the injured animal, brandishing the heavy stick he has picked up to launch the morning’s festivities.

“Saala kidela _____ (worm-raddled %#@>),” he cursed, enjoying every second of it. “Come sniffing at me once more and I’ll……”

He emphasized this sentiment by chasing the dog and giving it another lash of the stick, which caught the hobbled beast squarely on the back. The dog was out of its mind with pain now and was squalling like a bagful of BEST bus brakes during the peak hour crunch.

I was stunned into complete, impotent inaction. D. delivered three more blows to the animal before a window flew open above us and an irate woman leaned out.

“Oye, stop this immediately. My husband can’t sleep!” she screeched in hellish accompaniment to the dog’s vocal efforts. The dog in question used the lull to crawl beneath a paan shop and cower there for dear life.

D. flashed a spitless grin at her, favored me with a fading version of the same and discarded the stick. Then he waddled off, his mind obviously already switching gears to the stock market or some other good-time stuff. The beleaguered mutt crawled out from under the paan shop, scanned the surrounding topography and found it fortuitously bereft of fat middle-management prototypes headed for Stroke City.

Fade to black…

No, of COURSE Ashish D. bears no resemblance to any of us. WE wouldn’t kick a defenseless street dog just because we feel so hugely superior to it, would we? Nor would we tell a street urchin to scram when he or she sucks up for a spare coin just because the sight reminds of too uncomfortably of how our own kids would look if the Powers That Be had not somehow transpired to set them above such a lot, would we? OTHER folks do such stuff, right? Sick folks. Folks like Ashish D. Right? Huh? Right?

What circumstances spawn such moral bottom-feeders in the first place? A desire to rid the city of unsanitary elements such as stray dogs? The trauma of having been bitten in the butt by just such a cur back in childhood? I don’t think so.

I close my eyes and see a different scenario – one littered with bugs that squirm and scamper for the shadows when sunlight hits them. Behind my closed eyes, I see a Ashish D. who is not as secure in his precariously overloaded skin as he pretends.

The economy is see-sawing wildly, inflation has eaten into his once unassailable bank accounts and he may just have to pull his bounder son out of that fancy ‘international’ school next year. His wife, no less bloated on excesses than he is, treats him like the last dirt on earth – just like his dad did before him. His boss has chuckled forlornly every time Ashish has hinted at that promotion. Ashish smells his essential powerlessness over the world he inhabits with every wheezy breath he pulls into his blubber-cased lungs.

He does not like this smell, and he needs to rid himself of it.

What old Ashish therefore does is treat each waking hour as another opportunity to bolster his sagging pride by taking pot-shots at the various hapless targets that the world has placed at his disposal. Therefore, the beggar on the road is cursed and waved away like a leper who has dared to cross the Holy Temple’s threshold. The street kid is treated to a look and words of utter loathing and revulsion. The maid is threatened with sudden unemployment every time she goofs up. And the street doggie gets a kick in his scrawny backside if he is presumptuous enough to make an appearance during Ashish’s fruitless morning waddles.

He does not have what it takes to tell his wife what HE thinks of HER. He doesn’t have the courage to tell his boss to shove his job up the old waste-pipe and look for a better prospects. His dad died of an apocalyptic, ghee-induced stroke years ago and is unavailable for settling scores with.

He is the overgrown schoolyard bully, even now desperately trying to salvage his self-esteem by preying on those who seem weak enough not to put up a fight. And, of course, he’s going to die in un-heroic circumstances before his time; he isn’t man enough to save his own ass. If that isn’t enough to sign the death warrant of every stray dog within kicking distance, what is…?

Pune – Lost in Transformation

From Pensioner’s Paradise to Pseudo Boomtown… Pune’s story of degeneration is being rewritten every year. The city’s infrastructure rocks and reels under the onslaught of reckless urbanization; the town planning authorities dither over where (if at all) to plonk the international airport. Meanwhile, Pune unfolds itself in a sweeping signature of chrome glitz and tinted sheet glass like something out of a bastardized Transformers episode written and directed by Ram Gopal Verma.

Is anyone complaining? Not yet – there’s no time or scope for regret when you’re dancing as fast as you can, after all. However, we do have what the Pentagon would describe as ‘a situation’. We’re talking of major identity theft here. Or should I say identity abandonment?

Pune has sacrificed its human side on the chrome altar of crass commercialization. Traditional youth hangouts like Empress Garden, Sarasbaug and FC Road wear a faded, jaded look as the city’s brand-conscious yuppie crowd heads for the new shopping districts and watering holes to scuttle their call centre and software salaries. Camp’s iconic MG Road barely manages to hold its own.

As the mountains that previously kept Manic Mumbai at bay and Pune’s clement weather in place surrender to the bulldozer of metropolitization, the line that divided Sin City from the Oxford of the East grows hazier. As physical and spiritual distance between the cities reduces, Pune is turning into a cheap Mumbai clone – in appearance, in temperament and in values.

Who cares? I do! Damn it, this city is my foster home, and I love it for a reason!

Sure, I moved to Mumbai to pursue better career options, but with the consolation that nothing and nobody would steal the peth-and-wada culture of Pune from my heart. I would endure the kicked-anthill craziness of Mumbai just as long as I had the option of withdrawing to Pune’s blessed peace, quiet and laid-back laissez faire when I needed to.

My visits to the city are turning into a poor joke – these days, I find myself wondering where Mumbai ends and Pune starts. Kondhwa looks suspiciously like Bandra did a few years ago, before it gave up the human element forever. Kothrud and Karve Nagar bear a doom-laden resemblance to Dadar and Mahim – not the city’s ‘happening’ places, but more of its congested launch points to the glitzier locations. The once proud Puneri is bending over backwards to sound either like a Dharavi tapori or a Nariman Point magnate. I can’t see the ‘misal’ for the McDonald’s anymore!

Hello, Ground Control calling Spaceship Pune – you’re spinning out of control. Return to base before you run out of fuel and crash….

Goa Vacation Survival Guide

So, you’re going on a Goa vacation. You’ve made an online booking in what may be the last of the decently priced hotels in Goa, have your flight tickets in your hand and are raring to go. Goa beach culture – here you come!

Good for you. I salute your prudence and good taste. To be sure, there aren’t many options that compare to a Goa vacation. You’ve made an excellent choice. I love Goa, and recommend it highly over India’s other beach-based tourist destinations. Kerala’s Kovalam? Gimme a break. Mumbai’s Juhu? You’ve GOT to be kidding me. Lakshadweep? Hey, I thought you want to be where the ACTION is!!

So, your plane lands at Dabolim Airport. Or your train pulls into Margaon Station. Or your bus wheezes to a halt a Panjim. Or you’ve survived a self-driven car journey and are trying to figure out if this IS Panjim or just another of those towns with pseudo-Portuguese names that you’ve passed through. Read the hoardings and see what area the joints they advertise are at, dummy. Don’t tell me you can’t see all those Dantesque monstrosities that vie for your attention. Eat that lobster platter. Drink that beer. Take that pleasure cruise down the Mandovi River. Move into that Goa resort, because no other resort even comes NEAR in terms of ‘tropical ambience’, hospitality, facilities, cuisine (don’t bother looking for the room rates, though).

(Read the complete article on http://www.goa-beach.com/goa-vacation-survival-guide.htm)

The Purpose Of Life – Yes, Again!!

Enough has been written on this subject to wallpaper every square inch of the planet if the printouts were laid out edge to edge. The Internet space this material occupies could, if put to more fruitful use, host enough information to the true nature of politics to put that revered business model out of the running forever.

And yet, there are no answers – only vague suppositions, amateur conjecture, the dubious assurances given in the Bible, Koran and Torah, and the impotently dry intellectualism of philosophers and latter-day pop gurus. Nobody has really been able to tell us, with immutable logic and indubitable power of conviction, why we crawl across the planet.

No, I don’t have the answer either – but I have two eyes, a like number of ears and a backside that learns reasonably well from experience. Even with limited knowledge, the power of observation and deduction can carry one pretty far. In fact, because everyone has at least a modicum of these faculties, we all know at least SOME baseline facts about the nature and purpose of human life. The problem is that they’re so unpalatable that we look for better explanations.

The best (and worst) I can do here is to stand on my soapbox and spill these facts out in broad daylight. Nobody will thank me for doing this, and I consider it fortunate that I’m NOT here for gratitude. Now, to the subject.

The last office I worked in had a creaky old lift, traveling in which was always new incentive to reflect on whether one’s life insurance policy was still paid up and current. The walls of this death contraption were generously plastered with stickers, posters and scribbles that promoted some product, service or school of thought or the other. One of these, half torn away but still faintly legible, simply stated:


“WHAT?!?” you scream. “HAPPY?!?! How mercenary! How shallow! How utterly bereft of social spirit! We are here to HELP EACH OTHER!! To make this world a BETTER PLACE TO LIVE IN!!!”

Yeah, right. Okay, your time is up. Gimme my soapbox back.

Let us examine some facts here, shall we? Yes, yes, I know it will hurt, but hey… you can’t expect a perpetual ride through La-La Land, now can you? There have to be way stations, right? Places where we can alight and have a quick cup of hot Realitea before we embark on our cocooned journey again.

Now stop whining. The facts:

* Nobody achieves anything of true universal importance in his or her lifetime
* Suffering achieves no purpose other than to displace happiness
* Nobody’s watching, applauding or preparing a Welcome Cart on the other side
* There IS no other side

I have no real reasons to give you, but I strongly suspect that whoever put that sticker up was right. We are, indeed, here to be happy, simply because being sad is such an inferior option. However, the pursuit of happiness is traditionally equated with hedonism. ‘Hedonist’ is NOT a qualification that most of us would want on our visiting cards. So, even though each of us definitely DOES want more than our share of the good times, we make sure that there’s enough misery in our lives to soothe our uneasy conscience.

Let’s define misery. No, forget the Oxford dictionary, I mean let’s really DEFINE misery here, okay? No farting around with semantics, just the bare bones. Misery is the state in which our wants are not met, and those that were being met before are also compromised. That’s misery. Misery is also other people, but only to the extent that OTHERS get what THEY want and we don’t.

Pretty self-centered, huh?

Did you just mention the bleeding-heart social activist who is miserable because his PEOPLE (or maybe not even HIS people) are being deprived of their rights? Gimme a break. The man may be crazy now, but he wasn’t born that way. He had this harebrained stance implanted into him by his parents, in school or perhaps in the Army. His natural state is as selfish as yours and mine. Anyone whose heart bleeds for others is merely on a sanctified ego trip. And even THIS person is looking for a state of personal happiness, even though he or she erroneously believes that this state is somehow linked with the happiness of others. We are here for ourselves, period.

Closer home, we are often tempted to believe that our purpose on this earth is to serve our family and fulfill their needs. Another ego trip – we just want to get a healthy chomp of the feeling of personal achievement that doing this provides us with. Examined closely, it would logically seem that we would be happier WITHOUT those appendages that we added or were added to us somewhere along the way – if we had never met that doe-eyed beauty, scraped that orphan off the road or taken that doggie home. After all, it’s not as if anyone is desperately UNHAPPY until he/she is married or accepted into the local Lions chapter. It just so happened that we did, thereby inheriting a whole new slew of complications on the final journey towards personal happiness.

Now let’s go to the original model of the human being. No, I don’t mean the protozoa crawling out of the primordial ooze. Not THAT far back, okay? Let’s examine the blighter who recently descended from the trees and found that this cave actually beats that nasty old tree hollow when it rains, shines or freezes over. Did I hear a Christian anti-evolutionist squawk back there? Put a sock in it and read your Bible, okay? We’re talking REAL LIFE here, not your grade of nebulous candy floss. Hey, barkeep, give that poor numbskull a double shot of Holy Water and make him shut up.

I have understandably not met such a recent descendee myself (though I DO get a brief glimpse of him when a traveling relative lands up at my doorstep, asking if he can crash out here for the night.) However, I do believe that the kind of brains going round then were pretty rudimentary, and therefore not too hard to pick. Simple motives.

What did it take to make a caveman happy? No philosophy about the meaning and purpose of life there. Get fed, get laid, keep warm/cold/dry, biff that fuckhead from the next cave on the head if he comes sniffing around your mate, and a swim in the river would go down pretty well, too. Bingo, happiness. Purpose of life achieved in full – let’s file that report! No concerns about the state of the nation, the absence of a red Ferrari or the fact he can’t pay for bambino’s summer camp this year. Just because we’re complicated matters of personal happiness beyond all salvage today doesn’t mean that it is no longer what we want, and what we live for.

Yes, we’re here to be happy, but there is a problem there. Happiness is a highly subjective term, considering that some folks are happiest when someone is whipping their hide to shreds while they’re chained to a post. In fact, some folks are only happy when they’re in the midst of a state that most other humans would pay considerable amounts of moolah to avoid.

Yup, happiness is subjective. By the same coin, so is sadness. Some folks are only sad when they’re in a space that others would equate with happiness. These worthies find the state of being without problems intolerable. If none exist, they bend over backwards and sideways to create problems. You get the picture – happiness and sadness are subjective, and YOUR take on them is by no means the global standard.

Okay, now for your original objection. We are here to help each other, is it? Why are we here to do that? Does our help somehow change the equation? You’re going to die, and so will the dude you’re helping. His life’s purpose is the same as yours – to be happy, period. No more and no less. So now you’re going to fulfill HIS purpose is life, are you?

Even if your help somehow results in him becoming the president of your country some day, everybody in this country is going to die too. You may not have noticed it, but human life comes with a limited shelf life. Whether or not you help someone else or not, that fact will not change. So, what precisely ARE you achieving? Totting up credits in Heaven for yourself? Well, even if that’s the case, you’re still being selfish, aren’t you?

The purpose of human life is to make this world a better place to live in, you say? Playing God again, are we? This planet is going to hell in a handcart. Nobody on it is going to make a dime of a difference in the Universal context. My guess is that in a thousand years or less, it will be no more than a smoldering cinder cluttering up space. Nobody will have got off it long enough to impact any larger scheme of things. The Earth is essentially a doomed, localized infection, of absolutely no significance to God’s plans for the Big Picture.

So, don’t worry and be happy, already. You’re running out of time.

Death – The Final Frontier


Last night, it suddenly occurred to me that I’m 45 years old, and that a lot of people die by the age of 60. I’m not in terribly bad shape, but I’d say that consoling myself with that is sort of like whistling past the graveyard – a lot of shit happens to fit people, too.

The human body is not your precision Swiss watch, where one can account for every tick and tock, replace a single worn out gear and have the whole thing running on again as if nothing had happened. The body is an organic mess of unfathomable complexity, and it keeps throwing up surprises. Pick up any Reader’s Digest and you will read about at least one new radical, hitherto unsuspected process that is making medical scientists skip their lunches and wet their pants in glee. Pick up any metropolitan tabloid and you will read of some poor bastard who went face-down in his lunchroom soup for no apparent reason.

And then there’s Chance – that wild card that the Universe throws on the table just when you thought you had a winning hand. Along comes a drunk driver and runs 200 pounds of steel and rubber all over those gym-toned muscles, calcium-nurtured bones and carefully moisturized skin of yours. There goes your hard-won physical wellbeing. There go those good looks. Here come an instant of incredible torture, gut-wrenching ugliness, the deletion of all your carefully hoarded knowledge and permanent, uncompromising oblivion.

Occasionally, my eyes meet those of someone across the street, at a bus stop or at the local tea vendor and I see a reciprocating flicker of dull knowledge… it’s no use. We strive. We struggle. We set out to win, lose instead, wrench ourselves onto the path again, win for the moment and feel good about ourselves – and all the while, we are only whistling past the graveyard. Death awaits us all somewhere along the line, and the more we add to our lives by ways of victories, experiences, knowledge and possessions, the more terrified and unwilling we will be when the moment comes to give it all up and face annihilation. The luckiest among us will go in an unaware flash – the luckless ones will see it coming and have enough time to be extremely afraid of being utterly, completely erased at the end of at least some degree of mental and physical suffering.

I see knowledge of this in the eyes of someone struck immobile and speechless by a stroke. “I have lived a long and eventful life,” those eyes say. “I have experienced practically everything that can be experienced in the gamut of possible human experiences. Nothing has prepared me for this. Everything I did, everything I learned and everything I strove for was related to life. To enhance the quality, security and durability of life. But I don’t know how to die! Death is not life – death is the End of Everything!! I don’t want to die…!!”

I mention the inevitability of death to some friends over coffee. One laughs nervously, looks away and says, “Sheeeeit, you are such a loser. Order yourself something stronger – that java is not cutting it!’ Another looks at his watch, fumbles for a cigarette and lights up.

The good-looking middle-aged woman at the next table throws me a poisonous look, hurriedly pays her bill and leaves.