Running with Eyes Shut

Two From Delhi

Cyberspace is filled with duplicitous profiles, trolls, bad people, mad people, people I’d cross the street from if they were to alight into the same physical space as me.

It is also a place where I’ve come across people who are creative, funny and downright fun. One of them is Anna Palmer, whose name suggests that she could be a bit player on The Crown, or at the very least an Anglo-Indian woman living in Delhi. I first encountered “Anna” (let’s call her that for now) through a couple of friends’ Facebook walls. They are filmmakers and “Anna” is a film editor. When she told me the origin of her nom de guerre, I burst out laughing. It was perfect. And for someone from the former colonies, it was absolutely hilarious.

Many of us have “coffee shop” names, to make it easier to order a beverage without having your name so fatally mangled that you’d certainly not recognize it. Mine is “Simon” (easier for me to remember as it’s my youngest son’s name). In Thai restaurants for takeout it’s “Sy-MON.” The only place I use my real name to order coffee is in India.

So, when Anupama Chandra was a young student, she went to Oxford to study and frequently people would hear her first name and say “Anna Palmer?” It’s a kneejerk reaction —a foreign-sounding name? Impossible to pronounce! Let’s not even try. I’ve heard it a million times. I still SPELL out my 2-syllable, 4-letter first name because I am tired of the quizzical looks. So Anupama made the ridiculous mistake her very own.

Besides being an independent film editor and a short documentarian ( Books We Made, about Kali for Women, the first feminist publishing house in modern India), Anupama Chandra, is, in my estimation, a clever and funny writer. She has thus far refused to write anything longer than posts in social media, which I laugh at all the time, marvel at the deft constructions, and try to cajole her to write more. Failing all that, I asked if I could post some here. She agreed and here are two.

Note to Readers

  • I haven’t translated any words or phrases that are not English. I’ve italicized them. It’s easy enough today to either Google the meaning or use an online translation site. Plus, speaking in at least two languages while conversing is a defining feature of urban Indians. Almost 40 years ago, Salman Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children in just such a cadence, the first time that the colonizer heard the colonized speak the Queen’s English along with Hindi and Urdu slang in just about the same breath. It blew my mind.

  • The titles to the pieces are mine (I didn’t check with Anu. I can easily change them)

  • The linked words or names are intentionally so. Please click on them.

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Winning an Oscar

With the Oscars coming around yet again, it's time to accept that I have not yet won one, nor am very likely to. It set me to musing on the fact that I don't think I've ever won anything, except some khitaabs that actually come only under the heading of "Things I Didn't Do But Was Credited For.”

 When I was seven I had been carefully observing the school's leading athlete as she ran her races. I was particularly taken by the way she closed her eyes and threw her head back as she breasted the ribbon yards ahead of everyone else. Most impressed (and otherwise as unathletic as it is possible for a born bookworm to be), I figured that this was the secret to her success. Which bookworm doesn't fantasize about winning a track-and-field Olympic gold? In the next rehearsal race for Class 3 at India School in Kabul, I ran the whole thing with my eyes closed and head thrown back. I finished FIRST.

My classmates tried to complain to our PE teacher that I had zigzagged wildly across their course, causing them to trip, stumble, falter and lose, but he dismissed them as sore and unsporting, and beamed at me and said, "Shabash.”

At Oxford, an Irish friend was distressed at a friend from Dublin visiting just when she was eyeballs-deep in writing her thesis and had no time to show him around or anything. I said, in full tradition of desi hospitality, not to worry, I shall look after him. So that day I took Edward here and there over the University, about which I hadn't bothered to learn much myself, but improvising nicely (I remember showing him New College and saying, "It's called New but it's actually really old.") Come evening, we had a basic dinner, and now what? I had a bottle of Glen, so I suggested we drink it. Irish Ed enthusiastically agreed, and off we went to my room. I poured us both a drink and we chatted about Dublin, et cetera while he glugged his like beer. So I poured him another when I was halfway through mine, and another as I neared the end of my first. And he got one more in just as I finished. We carried on like that, Edward drinking about four to my one, and getting drowsier and drowsier and mumbling something about, "vishit Ireland...show you 'round...pleashurre" until he passed out on my carpet, next to the empty bottle, almost all of it inside him. Well, I did visit Ireland the next year and met Edward and a bunch of tall, strapping, Irish lads at a pub in Dublin. They looked at me with total RESPECT: "You're the girl who drank our Edward under the table!"

(Paco de Lucia)

At the film institute, I bought my first guitar. I couldn't play the damn thing at all then, and the best I could do was plunkplunkplunk for about ten seconds before my aching fingers gave up (it had very high action). Everyone knew how terrible I was so they didn't ever ask me to play it or anything. Well, one lazy afternoon, I decided to not plunk and listen to a tape of Paco de Lucia instead, full volume. Ah, magic. Later, when I exited my room, I bumped into two batchmates: "We heard you playing this afternoon, Anupama. Man, you've really improved!" I didn't deny it, ‘cause I figured that this was as good as this was going to get. [Maybe aise hi galti se, I'll win an Oscar one day.]

When I Faced Mrs. G

'Tis all over the news that Trump and Melania were taken to see our new, improved Delhi government schools and that the most famous face of the party that actually improved them was not invited. I, for one, know how Kejriwal feels at this snub from PM Modi ---because me and a friend were similarly snubbed by our school Principal in Kabul when Indira Gandhi visited. July 1976.

(Schoolgirls in Kabul, Afghanistan, 1976)

Madam visiting. But those were simpler times. Our idea of suitable tayyari was not mile-long walls or crores ke flowers, but one bouquet and a lineup of schoolchildren to say hello (of which I was one). The bouquet went off without a hitch and, still holding it, she walked up to us to say hello. She looked at me and I looked at her, and there was intense eye contact. At once I knew that here was a woman who had no pleasantries for small children, and distinctly remember thinking (in a five-year-old way), "This is a very difficult and complicated person." Till then, however, I had been uninterested in the event but after meeting her, albeit briefly, I was suddenly very, very interested. Here was someone who knew she had to be pleasant, but couldn't be, and so was irritable. Here was an older lady I couldn't dream of calling auntie (something in the glare of the eye she fixed on me challenged me to try if I dared, which I didn't). And there she went, striding in a rush over the school grounds, though to what she was rushing, I couldn't make out. She stared awfully at everything ­­­­---the basketball courts, the chemistry labs, the deferential teachers, our soldierly Principal in his academic gown --- and smiled at nothing. Very soon, I realized, she would be entering the art exhibition, to which me and my best friend had contributed two gigantic paintings. The Principal had made it clear that we were all to stay away as he showed her around, and the area had been cordoned off with velvet ropes. I was indignant. Clearly, the Most Important Person In The World was going to be shown our masterpieces by the Principal, who would probably pass them off as his own or something. In the general tamasha that was going on, no one noticed two small kids slip under the cordon ropes. So, when a still-unsmiling Mrs. Gandhi came up to our paintings, we were standing right in front of them as proof of authorship. Our Principal remained impassive when he saw us (years of dealing with school madness), but Mrs. G, confronted by two clearly very expectant children, was finally compelled to make small talk. "Er," she said, "Did you make these?" "YES." we said, beaming. "Uh, um," she examined the paintings, and gave something like a half-smile for the first time that day, "Nice."

Kejriwal should try more direct action and cordon-breaking. It works.