Sunday, April 29, 2007

I rant without standing on ceremony

Today, I attended a function in the family, a sacred thread ceremony (Upanayanam) for a cousin. As in all other Tamil Brahmin ceremonies I have attended (or been forced to attend)
over the years, this required me to wake up at the unearthly time of 0430 hrs. This, the morning after the Cricket World Cup finals. The religious festivities were apparently scheduled to start at six. This got me thinking, and led me to pose a very profound question - "Why the HELL does everything have to be so early?!".

I vaguely remember my own Upanayanam (I think it was about 13-14 years ago). I was shaken awake at a similar ungodly hour and was tortured with a series of rituals I had no idea about. (The jolly course of things also included standing around for hours at end smiling at people I'd never met before - and probably never met since - and multiple baths in @#$#$@ly cold water.) The same early start principle was applied to weddings (not mine, of course), house-warming ceremonies, exclusive TamBrahm bingo sessions, EVERYTHING. Apparently that (by which I mean the period of 5 to 7 ante the freakin' meridian) is a very good time for the Gods, my reliable sources tell me. I guess the Gods work on American time.

My usual course of action at any such function, including marriages, is simple. I walk in with bleary eyes, glare at everyone around me, give the obligatory What-Ho to the (un)lucky boy/couple and head for the food. However, if I were to take a minute, sit down, take a deep breath and try to actually cast my mind back and recall the scenes of the various functions, smaller details come to mind... little things that appear, unfailingly, in every tableau of such an event. A wedding (or, yes, an Upanayanam) would not be a wedding (or, yes, an Upanayanam) without these.

If you were to give me an untold sum of money and say, "Go forth AC/Kaka/Arvind/whatever-moniker-you-know-me-by, and throw me a typical TamBrahm wedding!" I would ensure the presence of the following
a. Food. Lots of food.
b. Several middle to old aged ladies, commonly referred to as maamis (singular: maami).
c. Several arbitrary children running around at random.

Other add-ons such as the priest, the gifts and the poor saps actually getting married are practically a sideshow in the face of the above three constituents.

Let's take them one at a time

a. Food. Lots of food.
Served by often shady looking yet enormously gifted cooks, helped by shadier looking but astoundingly organized chaps serving the hungry hordes. They juggle 30 different forms of dishes and answer to random calls such as
- "More rasam!"
- "Water, dammit, water!"
- "There's a hair in my payasam!"
- "Has anyone seen my bride?"

Their phenomenal Logistics Management would put RaviC to shame. Armed with nothing but
- an array of eversilver (stainless steel) utensils,
- stentorian voices that wouldn't be out of place in a military exercise,
- a dynamic memory of which diner of the 300 in the hall was last served what dish, and
- a patented method of tucking their dhotis so that they never unravel,
they travel the world serving up a storm... on call 24x7 to cater to your TamBrahm wedding.

b. Several middle to old aged ladies, commonly referred to as maamis (singular: maami).

They are in general pleasant people whom you would be inclined to dismiss as gentle, harmless and rather ineffective in any sphere of human activity. At your peril! Gentle they are, indeed. Harmless would describe them to a T (or a filter kaapi). But completely ineffective they are not, for there is one activity in which their collective might is unparalleled... match-making! And no, I do not mean either the incendiary device or the sporting encounter, so can the sad jokes.

Any function is a beehive of information exchange, and God help any eligible bachelor or bachelorette who steps into the area. If a personable young chap in his mid 20s were to walk into such a gathering, all conversation would freeze, and the air would be as thick as the special wedding payasam with expectation. All the maamis would instantly swivel around to focus on him, size him up, figure out who they knew of in need of a groom ("He'd be a good match for Radha's second cousin's daughter-in-law's granddaughter, no? Such a sweet girl... and he's an MBA! Let's exchange addresses!") Marriages aren't made in heaven, they're made in maamiland. I can imagine the computing power behind all the contemporary matrimonial
websites, much like Google's Pigeon Rank, except this is probably no prank!

c. Several arbitrary children running around at random.

This is a universal phenomenon, one that is seen at every occasion across geographies, religions, races and sexual orientations. One only needs to step into any marriage hall and take a look at the hordes of screaming children to realise the Government's family planning initiatives aren't working. (So what's happening to all the free Govt distributed condoms? Well, the next time you attend a Govt party and there's a water balloon fight with astonishingly strong balloons...)

The children don't even seem to have a plan. They merely run around in circles, weaving through the throng skilfully, taking a minor detour to step on my toes. Some chase each other, others merely follow a mental path all by themselves. At least one child will have his arms outstretched like an aeroplane. At least one child will be dressed in an obviously uncomfortable mini-three-piece-suit. And at least one will be crying. Exactly which child is crying will never be known, but it will continue to haunt one as the evening's background theme. I am inclined to believe this faceless lachrymator is the same one who follows me on every train or plane I board in my life, letting loose his 140 decibel bawl exactly two microseconds before I drift into a much-needed nap. Maybe this kid and the others are not kids at all. Maybe they're machines, programmed to run around aimlessly, yell at the top of their voices and bang against your knee every 2.15 minutes. That would explain how they are present in the hundreds at every event, and yet India's population isn't a gazillion. Technology rocks.

To those who are still reading this, thank you. I'm done. Really. Whew.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

To pee or not to pee is hardly the question

There is something extremely disconcerting about having to pee on demand. We have spent a lifetime learning to control the urge to relief ourselves, crossing our legs and thinking desperately of anything but a loo to avoid embarassing ourselves on trains, in classes, at a shop or whereever. We have been schooled to a reasonably high-degree of self restraint, and have built the ability to hold on (and I mean that in a purely figurative sense!) until an appropriate opportunity to pee presents itself. Forcing the mind to work the other way - encouraging a tinkle - simply does not work, and disproves everything psychosomatists have ever said about the mind influencing the body.

Alright, backtrack. I realise a little explanation is in order, some elaboration on the context of this sudden discourse of urination. A few days ago, I went for a medical checkup, just a routine formality. And one component of it required a urine sample. So there I was, banished into a fairly spacious and well-maintained bathroom, with a little transparent plastic container in my hand that I was supposed to have brimming in a minute. The kindly nurse asked me to leave my bottle (with my name stuck on it in what I felt was a completely unncecessarily large font) on the rack along with the samples of others who'd been through it before me.

I don't know why, but it's always in times like this that I truly come to understand what performance anxiety is. There's nothing particularly complex about micturition. I've spent a good number of my mornings involved in the activity. At one time, I was so good at it I did it in my sleep. And yet, on this one day when I needed it to happen... nothing. It was embarassing, it was frustrating, it was frightening. And it's not the kind of situation you want to face at eight thirty in the morning on an empty stomach.

I balefully eyed the other samples lined up against the wall, in their varying shades of yellow. All the containers had fetchingly colored caps (red, blue, pink...) that did nothing for my mood. The whole arrangement looked straight out of a Asian Paints commercial ("Presenting the widest choice in India - blue, red and 37 shades of yellow!") They seemed to be mocking me, all of them filled well over the 75% mark with the morning cheer of random strangers. And here I was struggling to do my bit...

Add to this the fact that the mouth of the container was agonizingly small, which essentially made the whole exercise less of a clinical activity and more target practice, and I was - if I may be pardoned the pun - thoroughly pissed. What kinds of thoughts and images would one need to conjure in such a situation to ensure the job got done? This wasn't as simple as in the case of a blood donation (where you manfully steeled your features and silently yelled blue murder in your head while someone stuck a smacking big metal stick in you) or a sperm donation (where... erm... ahem.). I had to fall back on memories of feared exams, near accidents and other such incidents that had caused me, at those times, to come close to wetting my pants. I don't know if this is what worked but five minutes later, I found the container not entirely empty. The level of fluid in there wasn't anywhere near as much as in the the bottles along the wall, but I didn't care. Just how much would they need to test anyways? I zipped up and zipped out.

It's easy for this guy, his Government pays to ensure he pees. But mere mortals like you and I must fend for ourselves, and make the best of a messy situation. Sigh.