Monday, 31 May 2010

Thailand: A country like no other.

You are the Prime Minister of a country and what do you say to yourself every morning when you look in the mirror?
“I am the Prime Minister of a country whose economy runs on women selling and men buying.”

I have never understood this about Thailand. What’s there to understand, you might ask. It is classical Economics. It is demand-supply. It is poverty. It is better than dying hungry.

We are outside a temple in Pattaya. The temple offers traditional Thai massage, but there is an hour-long wait. So we ask a motorbike-taxiwallah for a good massage centre. He doesn’t have much English but wants to know what kind of massage. He opens and shuts his fingers to indicate pressing. Then he slams his open palm on his fist. Which massage? We choose fingers.

The taxi driver, the tuk tuk driver, the hotel concierge, the guy who hangs outside the mall scratching – they all want to sell you a massage. In the anonymity of the parlour or in the comfort and privacy of your room.

We have reached Bangkok just after the army has moved in, shot the general of the Red Shirts and cleaned up the neighbourhood where they were lodged. Our tour guide loves to talk. After every piece of information, he puts a finger to his lips to indicate that what he has just told us is a secret, as if he is afraid of being charged for espionage for sharing sensitive information with foreign nationals.
“The king doesn’t like the PM. Remember the Yellow Shirt protests a few years ago? They were the PM’s supporters. They took over the airport, there was a coup, the democratically elected PM, who the king liked, was overthrown and the current PM was chosen by a simple show of hands. But the army is with the PM because the overthrown PM had siphoned off money meant for buying stuff for the army. So when the general of the Red Shirts was giving an interview to foreign TV channels, an army sniper shot him in the head, dead. The big mall that was burnt down by the protesters – there it is, on your right. It is owned by the PM’s friend. And the movie hall too. The king’s son is a naughty man; he has many wives…”

You are a young girl growing up in Thailand. One of your career options is…

There are four young men, all from India, in the van with us. They speak in hushed voices because there are women and children in the van. Their parents know they are on vacation, but don’t know where. Two guys complain about not being able to do the ‘work’ they have come for in Bangkok because of the curfew at night.

You are a young girl in Bangkok and you look at yourself in the mirror every morning before going to your job in a bank, a hotel, an ad agency… And you take a deep breath and brace yourself for the commute because every tourist in the city thinks you are, well, a girl in Thailand, so.

Apparently the Thailand situation is a result of the Vietnam War. American soldiers came to Bangkok for their break and turned the place into what it is today. I guess that is an easy thing to do: Blame the Americans for all the ills in the world. Like Mac Donald’s. Which, by the way, is not their most irritating export. No, it’s not even the weed they sent along with the free wheat to India in the last century. It is the cockroach that travelled in ships from America many more centuries ago. But I guess the world is paying back. There are enough illegal immigrants in America who live like cockroaches… But I digress. ‘Someone else started it’ is no excuse for continuing anything. Never has been.

The king is everywhere in Thailand. On the pillars on the roads leading out of and into the airport, on hoardings, in tuk tuks, in taxis, in hawker stalls, framed on walls in restaurants, in massage parlours, in people’s wallets. He is the Big Brother who watches everything and sees nothing. He is not god, but he is almost there. “Of his three daughters, two are like the queen – they are drinking whisky all the time,” our guide tells us and puts his finger on his lips, “One daughter is good; she is like the king”. As he says this we pass a ‘Just married’ black and white picture of the king and the queen. The king has the earnest look of a studious school boy. The queen has her hair waved like Garbo.

In the street below the hotel, there is a cart with an LED sign: Lisa’s Street Bar, run by Lisa who is in her late teens or early twenties. Next to it, a woman in her late forties runs her street food cart. She is not at the food cart when I pass by. She is on the other side of the road, trying to wake her husband who has passed out drunk on the pavement, his head resting on a heap of garbage.
The pavement that runs parallel to the beach front in Pattaya is lined with stalls selling souvenirs, CDs, tee shirts and what not. Two or three men sit around an upturned carton with glasses and discreet bottles of whisky and soda in the shade of most of the stalls.
I stand in the window of the hotel in Bangkok. I can see the building next door. It has a sign in Thai on it and its architecture says, ‘government offices’. It’s around nine in the morning. I stand at the window for almost half an hour and every person who walks or drives into the building is a woman.

You are a young boy in Thailand. One of your options is to grow up and become a woman.

I enter the restroom at the airport and am reluctant to pee. There is an attendant cleaning the basin counters. And she is a woman. But I soon get used to it wherever I go – hotels, restaurants, malls etc. I even smile at one as she hides in the men’s restroom in the gem and jewellery workshop-store and talks to a friend on her cell phone.
Before boarding the flight back to India I am frisked with a hand-held metal detector by a cop who is a woman, but of course.

I haven’t met or had a real conversation with a local. So there are no conclusions in this post, just observations. Though I did notice that there weren’t too many Thai women wearing pink.

In the picture above: Lady boys outside the Alcazar Show, Pattaya.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Far Eastern Wardrobe Philosophy

I have a problem. No, let me re-phrase that: I have many problems. This is just one of them: I cannot tell the Chinese from the Japanese or Koreans from the Vietnamese; not by looking at them or by hearing them speak.

As I sit here on the floor of the lobby of First World Hotel in Genting and watch them stream past I notice one thing: A disproportionately large number of older women are wearing pink.  Pink tops, pink bottoms (oops), pink from top to bottom. There are little girls who are wearing pink of course, but the young girls prefer black, white or grey. Blue is restricted largely to jeans.

I wonder why.

I am reminded of a saying in my mother tongue: Old age is the second childhood. Maybe the Far Eastern languages have a modified version: Old age is the second infanthood. That would explain pink. And adult diapers as well. But I am not satisfied with the explanation; I am a writer and have the propensity (defined as 'a city with too many buildings that require props to stand up, for example Mumbai), to come up with linguistic (which is the opposite of statistic), answers for everything. So I use my contacts in Mainland China, the restaurant, not the country, and fix up a meeting with Dr. Feign Shoey, the leading Chinese scholar in adult films, sorry adult psychology. Dr. Shoey is 300 years old, give or take half a century, and has a pronounced hunch. I am sure if he takes off his shirt I will find a tortoise shell instead of a human back. That would explain his age and the skin of his neck.

We greet each other and I bow excessively and surface to find that Dr. hasn't bowed at all. 'This bowing thing is Japanese and I am not,' he says and begins to explain the tradition. I interrupt him; I know my Japanese bow. 'Yeah, it's a hierarchy thing, right? The more powerful person bows less...'
'You are right, you are wrong,' Dr. says. 'Oh my god, he is Confucius,' I exclaim in my mind, 'He is the one who writes those little notes inside fortune cookies! The guy who first started the practice of writing meaningless messages in less than 140 characters!' 

He continues, unmindful of my silent exclamations. 'It started off as a democratic tradition - you just bowed to each other in greeting without caring about who was senior or junior until one day the oldest man in the village bowed too much and too far and all the king's soldiers couldn't straighten him up'. 'But how did it become the hierarchy thing?' I am keen to know. 'Haven't you watched Japanese and Chinese movies? The older the Master, (I am not kidding, he said master with a capital M), the more powerful he is. Unlike the rest of the world where as you grow older, you lose hair, teeth, memory and the ability to hold your water or to have... Yes, that also. With time, things got confused and the Japanese tradition came to be what it is.' As he finished this a very beautiful girl of barely legal age (I know this for sure because she was wearing black), entered the room and said, 'Honey, I was missing you so much'. Dr. shut his eyes and pointed a finger at her and muttered something under his breath and whoa! she was on the floor enacting that famous scene from 'When Harry Met Sally'.

Then I realized why he was such a great doctor: Because of his bedside manner!

After much philosophical banter like: Why do the Chinese eat practically everything if they are Buddhist? Answer: To hasten their ancestors on the karmic cycle; the sooner a creature dies the sooner he or she will come back as a human. Or, how to eat crab with chopsticks? Answer: I am allergic to crab. Also to chopsticks. And so on. Until I finally slipped in the Pink Question. Dr Shoey nodded sagely. Then he woke up with a start. 'You have already found the answer my son!' He declared, 'Also it is time to change my diaper'.

As I took my leave (yes, it is MY leave. You don't say, 'I will take YOUR leave' because it is you who is leaving), I didn't bow. This time I had two reasons: Dr. wasn't Japanese and plus, I didn't want to bow when he needed a diaper change.

So what is the answer to the Pink Question which Dr. claimed I had found?

Is the answer in the same vein as Botox, 'tucks' and plastic surgery? Maybe it is.

Or maybe I will find it in some fortune cookie I will open one day. But I will have to wait until I visit the USA and order take-away Chinese. Because forget serving fortune cookies after a meal, the Chinese I have met around here haven't even heard of cookies.

Unless of course, they were Cambodians or Malays.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Missing in inaction

The past few weeks I have been slogging and hence not blogging. Not as much as I would like to. There are things in the head but the fingers are busy banging the keyboard for stuff that puts chapatis on the table.

All that slogging has been in the aid of finishing work before I leave town and switch off internet access for two weeks, beginning tomorrow. Things might happen in these two weeks that might lead to more blogging. Or if we do too much shopping, more slogging to pay for it.

But this post is presumptuous, which is the same as sumptuous except you can't eat things that are presumptuous. Like this post.

This post is inedible because it presumes that there actually are people who will miss my posts if I don't write for a couple of week. What cheek.

So long readers. I will miss you.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Hang 'em all.

This post might ruffle some feathers. But then, I always hope it is people and not birds who read this blog here. So shoo, if you have spent a fortune on styling those feathers, go find some blog by and for bird brains.

Ah, now that I have finished insulting birds, down to ruffling them feathers.

I simply fail to understand why a lot of people are celebrating because Kasab has been sentenced to death.  And here’s what I don’t understand about it:

1: Kasab was on a suicide mission. He came here prepared to die. Whether a cop’s bullet kills him or a hangman’s noose is immaterial to him and his masters. (We have to find a hangman of course: These days he has become a celebrity and acts in ads for light bulbs. He might soon be part of some reality show. A news anchor will ask him an intelligent question like, “Why did you decide to hang your gloves?”)

2: One would imagine that after a year and half of being arrested and crores of rupees being spent on teaching him Marathi (kidding, he is a murdering villain and not a Mumbai taxi driver, though there is not much separating the two), being spent on extracting confessions from him, the Police of Maharashtra and the Government of India would have enough information to name the people and organisations who trained, sent and ‘handled’ him. One would also imagine that finally, after having concrete proof that Pakistan-based outfits are behind this, we would attack Pakistan the way the USA attacked Afghanistan. No sorry. We got freedom through non-violence and we will always uphold its principles and send unarmed men to the battlefield, or give them guns that jam and bullet-proof vests that can’t stop a housefly. So, the least one would expect is we go to the Interpol (or whatever is the right organisation) with the information, file a complaint, make a song and dance in the UN (hue and cry is for others, we are Bollywood), shut down our embassies, consulates, borders and sever all diplomatic ties with Pakistan.

Instead, we waste our breath (just look at our breathless TV news anchors; you would imagine they go to oxygen bars on weekends), on coining terms like Shoania and inviting Pakistani leaders or their relatives for talks on how we can improve relations with each other. Doesn’t it occur to these idiots that peace will be regained when those jokers return our land, stop meddling in our internal affairs, stop sending trained terrorists to blow up large chunks of our population and stop pretending to be a democracy?

3: What about the cops? No, not the ones who died. But the ones who took forever to send in reinforcements to a place that is a five-minute walk from the Commissioner of Police’s office. (A five-minute walk if you are not wearing rusty leg irons of fear or bureaucracy or politics.) Where were they and what were were they doing at that time? One top cop opened his mouth and got transferred to take charge of police housing and welfare. What about the politicians who ‘took responsibility’ and once the echoes of gunshots died got ‘thank you for your sacrifice’ berths in the Centre? Or came back quietly after the elections? Or the news channels who (unwittingly) provided the handlers in Pakistan live coverage of the action? Or the idiots in power who didn’t realize (!) what the news channels were doing? Or the guys who signed on those purchase orders for useless bullet-proof vests?

4: Why is it so difficult to see that Kasab is a pawn. And his sacrifice will protect a whole bunch of people. On either side of the border.

My blood boils. But not at Kasab alone.

My blood boils because when Kasab will be hanged, we will be happy. Happier than we are after the judgement. More fire crackers will be burst. Songs will be sung. Movies will be made. And we will go to bed thinking justice has been done.

And while we sleep the Government and its machinery will laugh.  Quietly. Because the black bag would not have been put only on Kasab’s head. It would have been put on the head of an entire nation.

Until another Kasab lands on the shores of some other city.

I wonder, if he is caught and sentenced to death, will you burst fire crackers again?

I shot the picture upstairs in January '10 in a working class neighbourhood in Mumbai.