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Outlook India

India Today book review

TOI guest column

Verve essay

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE

 

Margaret Mascarenhas

The Prophet, 2002 (Outlook)

 

The Prophet of Undemocracy had waited 50 years in the city of Aryan for his proverbial ship to come in.Finally, it arrived.And the prophet said to himself:“Shall the day of rejoicing be the day of equivocation?”

 

And the people of Aryan hailed him and said, “Ere you buzz off on your ship, speak to us the truth of Undemocracy, and we will give it to our children, and they to their children, and so forth and so on.”

 

And the Prophet answered:“People of Aryan, what can I tell you except that which is already in your corrupt little hearts and beady little eyes?”

 

And the people of Aryan said, “Speak to us of tax breaks.”

 

And the Prophet gave a gigantic belch and said:“My people, the business of religion is the best business to be in precisely because of all the tax breaks.Besides which, you never have to worry about anyone asking for a refund on the product.When, for example, have you ever heard a dead Christian crib about not getting to heaven or hell because the warranty was bogus? When has a Muslim martyr gone to consumer court about not getting his 72 virgins? When have you heard a Hindu complain that he would have preferred to come back as Bill Gates the Third, rather than Laloo’s publicity handler? Also, I’d like to point out that if anyone does criticize your product, you can always counter by accusing him of being a Foreign Hand, a terrorist, a false-propagandist, a bimbo-brain, or anything else that sounds bad.”

 

And the people of Aryan said:“Speak to us of marketing.”

 

And the Prophet answered:“ Preferably you should target a populace with some IQ (so they will have enough to contribute to your coffers), but not too much (so that they will readily imbibe your dogmas).The ideal consumer is someone not too good with logical thinking, who is frustrated, who has never read the Indian Constitution or the words of the Mahatma, and who has disposable income.And, you should always take pains to convince everyone that your interpretation of the religion you are peddling is the only true one.”

 

And the people of Aryan said:“Speak to us of recruitment.”

 

And the Prophet answered, saying, “Do not forget to instill a code of conduct in your consumers that stigmatizes healthy human concepts such as Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom of the Press.At the same time, you should subtly endorse Intolerance, Communalism, and the Pursuit of Absolute Power.Once you have enough of a critical mass of consumers, you can reach out to the public at large by repairing thousands of potholes, signing MOUs with like-minded conglomerates, and hiring an extra 2000 cops to protect you and your interests.Also, take the example of the Prophet Hitler, may he rest in peace, and recruit cadres of the young. Organize morchas and send them on Cox and Kings spirituality tours as incentive. If you get them when they’re young, they are yours for life.This is true not only of successful religions, but also of tobacco companies.”

 

And the people said :“Speak to us of consolidating power and wealth.”

 

And the Prophet replied:“For that you need an ideology.Any ideology will do. But I like to say that a good ideology is like a well-prepared pudding: light, palatable, and capable of holding the shape of any mold in which it is placed. Therefore, your ideology must be all things to all people. And for this, you need a body of myths with an authoritarian flavour that offers to explain away all of life's trials and tribulations. Of course, you could make up your own myths as you go along like that Benny Hinn cult guy, but it is both preferable and easier to draw from sources already embedded into our psyche: such as Genesis or the Mahabharata. I realize that creating one's own myths might at first seem advisable from a perspective of total control, not to mention that you would gain the opportunity to reap enormous profits in book retailing. However, I believe that view fails to take into account the advantages of using the large and already established body of mythology in the world over the past several thousand years. For example, over the past two thousand years, the Bible has been used to rationalize both sides of every human conflict. It has been used to support such divergent views as democracy, monarchy, science, superstition, fascism, slavery, freedom, and Slobadov Milosevic. And imagine just how much more weight and credibility you will have with the Vedas, which are even older. Ay, it is like an ocean, which is to say: the possibilities are endless. Whatever religion you choose, it should be replete with an ample supply of previously accepted myths that can be twisted in a manner that will benefit you the most and consolidate your power base.”

 

And the people said:“Any last words?”

 

And the Prophet said:“If you follow my marketing plan, you shall control the hidden purposes in all things. And you will prefer darkness to light. And we shall build our temple of Undemocracy.”

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE

 

Something to think about (Gomantak Times)

 

I have been following the escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians with foreboding. Everyday, I watch Israeli tanks and helicopters crush the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. Then I watch the coverage of the carnage from a suicide bombing. Then I watch Ariel Sharon, who increasingly appears to me like a Jewish Hitler, turn around and say Arafat is not doing enough to arrest Palestinian guerillas and dissuade young Palestinians from killing themselves and busloads of Israelis. And George Bush agrees. And Tim Sebastian, whose IQ is possibly even lower than George’s but who, unlike George, can usually express himself in grammatical sentences, acts like he’s George’s personal spokesperson and grills the European Union guy on why the EU wants to impose sanctions on Israel.

 

I change the channel, only to get a dose of Vajpayee saying he can’t face the world because of Gujarat.

 

Out-of-control violence based on fundamentalist belief systems seems to be on the rise everywhere. My mind clicks on the fact that Gujarat is a lot closer to home than the West Bank. And I get a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. I try to convince myself that nothing like that could happen here, in our little tropical enclave. Come on, I say to myself, Goans are so laid back, they don’t even have the energy for that sort thing. And I look around. Under the current caretaking government, some of our most corrupt politicians have been neutralized under what is coming to be known as the “dossier system”. The availability of basic amenities and services seems to have improved, the roads are being taken care of, the city is cleaner, things work, traffic is better controlled, and every time I cross the Mandovi Bridge after 12 pm, the cops are out there doing their job and protecting civilians.

 

Okay, I think, sure, some degree of fundamentalism exists among Goans, like that time my friend of many years, Ashok Chowgule, got mad at me because he thought I was the author of a Reuters piece criticizing the VHP (it wasn’t me, although I am clearly not a cheering fan of the VHP). But he’s a still a staunch VHP man and we’re still friends, so how serious can the communal issue really be here in Goa?

 

I look at the palm trees swaying and the gentle beating of waves against the shore, and it is so easy to feel that nothing is really too out of whack in my little world (except for the looming vision of the River Princess). Oh, but then I remember the mosque that got wiped out, which somehow became a non-issue. And there was the church that allegedly burnt down because of some candles. And there was that business during the bandh which was declared after the Godhra incident, when thugs were running around Goa threatening shop keepers and burning tires on the road, and we were afraid to go out—that’s definitely a new thing. And, wait a minute, wasn’t our man one of the kar sevaks who went rushing off to Ayodhya to help tear down the Babri Masjid? Hmmm. Something for people to think about during the upcoming elections.

 

Something else to think about: April 18th is World Heritage Day. To commemorate it, Heritage and Conservation groups plan to have a public celebration at the Panjim Municipal Garden, starting at 5 pm. The objective is to revive the public use of the garden, which has a noteworthy architectural heritage history. Accordingly, musicians, artists, theatre groups are being invited to attend and perform for the public. They have agreed to do this free of cost. The Police Band, which in earlier times used to play regularly at the garden bandstand, is being invited to kick off the event. Press releases will be out this week encouraging the public to participate in the celebration. People are advised to bring some candles, since the garden is not very well lit. Nobody is worried about the bandstand “accidentally” burning down.

 

I personally hope this will give the Municipality some alternative ideas on how this space can be utilized, other than filling it with fake fiberglass mountains and absurd toilets in the shape of castles. After all, the Municipal garden is not Disneyland. Maybe I’ll see you there.

When I was first asked to contribute something on Goan identity for this issue of Goa Today, I thought it would be a piece of

Goa is a state of mind(Published in the August issue of Goa Today)

Margaret Mascarenhas

 

When I was first asked to contribute something on Goan identity for this issue of Goa Today, I thought it would be a piece of cake. But as the deadline approached and I actually sat down to write, I discovered it involved more soul-searching than anticipated.

 

Certainly a culture is defined by certain characteristics, a commonality of history, customs, belief systems, musical traditions, food preferences, etc. But all that is too obvious and done to death where Goa is concerned. I want to find my own turf.

 

When I reach into myself in an effort to grab onto that part of me that is quintessentially Goan, what I finally come up with is a fistful of ingredientssights, sounds, smells, and feelingsthat change and shift in the metaphorical palm of my hand. And I suppose this is not so unusual or surprising, or even unique to myself, since identity, like culture, is never static.

 

I was born at the University of Michigan hospital in Ann Arbor, USA. Ours was a classic nuclear family, comprised of my parents, myself, and my younger sister, Fernanda. The earliest bedtime stories I can remember are those my father would tell me about a magical place called Goa, where people lived in big extended families, sharing everything, and went for picnics together on beaches with white sand like sugar. Where his sister lost a diamond earring, and his aunt threatened St Anthony before digging her hand into the sand of Calangute and pulling out the solitaire, which shone in the moonlight like a star.

 

I doubt that my father had any preconceived notions about acquainting my sister and me with our Goan heritage; more likely, it had to do with the fact that he was homesick. So when my sister and I were old enough to travel, he began the practice of flying our family to Goa every two years. The result was that I was hooked on Goa from an early age.

 

I was six or seven the first time we made the long haul from New York to Bombay on Air India. We spent a night with friends and took a flight to Goa the following day. The airport was a makeshift shack, and our suitcases were unloaded onto the tarmac. It was hot and humid, and the air smelt like salt. My fathers youngest brothers were there to pick us up in their pale green Ambassador. But before we left the airport area, we stopped at a local bar. My sister and I were given some kind of soft drink (ordinarily prohibited by my father), the adults drank beer. What I remember most about the drive to Cortalim was the incredible expanse of green for as far as I could see. Even at that age, it took my breath away. While waiting for the ferry, the adults again stopped for a beer. After crossing the ferry, there was yet another beer stop. And when we reached Panjim, my uncles pulled up in front of the Olympics Bar, only a few hundred metres from my grandparents city dwelling, for more beer. I had never seen my parents consume such quantities of beer; they seemed perfectly content to drink beer indefinitely. But when my sister threw a full-blown tantrum out of sheer exhaustion, screaming I want to be INSIDE Goa, by which she meant inside a house, they quickly decided it was time to complete the last leg of the journey.

 

When we finally entered the home of my grandparents, my great uncle Jorge and my grandaunt Olga, and their son, Alvaro, were waiting with them. We were covered with kisses and all our newfound family members took turns holding Fernanda and me on their laps. Then Tio Jorge entertained us with hand shadows on the wall.

 

So, my first memories of Goa, are of the heat, the smell of beer and salt air, the laughter and the excited chatter of a number of people I didnt know, and the sense of being enveloped in a big love blanket. Oh, and of not wanting an ayah to watch me while I bathed, which was a stunning show of independence as far as my grandparents were concerned. But my favorite memories are of summers in my grandparents house in Anjuna, which involved a big production process of packing pots and pans, provisions, and my grandmothers chickens, and where sometimes up to thirty peopleaunts, uncles, cousinswould congregate, all laughing and telling stories and dancing before dinner. And of Naguesh, my grandfathers right hand man in his pristine white dhotis, who would bring me tender coconut to eat. And of Muncu, who would take out my dist.

 

When my family moved to Venezuela, it was almost like being in Goa; the Venezuelans are warm and friendly people, with a great sense of humour and a love of music. Like Goans, and unlike Americans, they have a strong sense of family. After awhile, one of my uncles from Goa came to live with us. He cooked Chinese soup and taught me chords to fados on the guitar. On the weekends, wed have parties, and by the time I left Venezuela to continue my studies in America, all our Venezuelan friends knew how to sing a mando.

 

A year after graduating from college, I came to Goa to visit my grandmother (my grandfather had died a few years earlier) and I was offered an editorial job in Bombay. I decided to take it because it would make Goa and my family more accessible. Several years later, it occurred to me that if I loved Goa so much, I might as well live here. And so, here I am. Not a small number of people think Im crazy to live here, when I have the option to live in America. And I suppose I would be crazy if I were a rocket scientist. But Im a writer, and the advent of the internet has made it possible for me to conduct my work from anywhere I choose. And I choose Goa.

 

Awhile back, I met a guy who struck me as somewhat deficient in the IQ department. Or maybe hed had too many beers. People like you come to live here because its cheap, he said as if he wanted to pick a fight. And it seemed pointless to educate him on the fact that there are hundreds of cheap locations in the world that are just as pretty as Goa, that many of the governments of these places are more environment friendly, and more amenable to foreign residents. And actually, Goa isnt exactly cheap. So, no, it isnt that.

 

I am not an idealist; I know that there is a downside to Goa. I have seen men living with their parents and remaining financially dependent on them right through middleage, never becoming self sufficient, never striking out on their own, or accomplishing anything productive. Just sitting around in their banyans on their balcao, drinking beer or feni, and talking big about how they taught this one or that one a lesson. And I want to tell them to get a life.Ive seen women marry the man of their parents choice, rather than their own, and never having a moment of self discovery. I have witnessed the steady rape and pillage of the land, the gauging of hillsides and destruction of forests, the pollution of the rivers and coastal areas, the demolition of heritage buildings, the increasing polarization of the people. The Goa of my youth is rapidly diminishing. So maybe one day, I will decide that Goa is no longer where I physically want to be. But wherever I go, I will carry Goa with me. Because for me, Goa is a state of mind.

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing Grace 

Posted on Saturday October 27, 2001, Navhind Times

By MARGARET MASCARENHAS

ONE day, about eight years ago, Leonor Rangel-Ribeiro, founder of ACDIL, invited me for tea to discuss my possible involvement in one of her projects. Her reputation as a UN Community Development Expert and founder of ACDIL, had preceded her, and I was pleased to accept the invitation.

The elderly woman who received me at the door was of diminutive stature, with perfect posture, and a voice like the tinkling of wind-chimes. The features of her face were of such refinement that I concluded she must have been beautiful in her youth. Her eyes were bright and her manner charming. Her mind was razor-sharp. As I came to know her better, I would discover that few, if any, could best her in a battle of wits. I would also discover that this was a woman with nerves of steel who had ridden a horse down a ravine in Colombia to reach an impoverished community in need, who had fought and won a battle with breast cancer in her forties, who had gone to jail after the Liberation for her stand that Goa should not be merged with the state of Maharashtra, who was viewed as an equal among men of accomplishment at a time when the concept of gender-equality was even more unfashionable than it is now, who was passionate about bringing heath-care and education to the disenfranchised, even at her own expense. I would witness her compassion, when she gave out her guest room to a raggedy and crazy street woman who had no place to go.

Luckily, I was smart enough to figure out early on that this was someone I could learn from. And that realisation marked the beginning of a long and enduring friendship of which I have been the major beneficiary.

If memory serves me correctly, it was Mickey Roonie who said, the best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person. For eight years, I spent a great deal of time in the `classroom of Leonor Rangel-Ribeiro, earning part of my degree in Life, where the lessons included such diverse subjects as love, friendship, poetry, music, faith, family, gender issues, forgiveness, patience and humility (the hardest lessons for me), growing old, death and the after-life, grief, world peace, and humour. We laughed a lot.

When I look at twenty-somethings in this era of global strife and upheaval, rushing about purposefully, as if they know what theyre doing, I want to tell them to go and visit their grandparents, an elderly professor, an old age home. Then I imagine them giving me a polite smile and rolling their eyes as they turn away, because this would probably have been my own reaction at twenty-something, had an old person wanted to discuss world peace with me. And it would have been my loss.

My classes with Leonor took place several times a week, in her modest Miramar apartment, usually by window in her living room, where she could see the budding rose bushes. And later, in her bedroom, where she waged an arduous and courageous battle with age and severely debilitating illness. An illness she offered daily in prayer for the well being of others.

My last class took place one day in May, just prior to my departure for America. She lay with her head on my lap and offered that days physical suffering to God in exchange for my safe journey. Afterwards, she said, I would like you to sing with me.

What shall we sing? I asked.

Lets sing Amazing Grace, she said.

Leonor Rangel-Ribeiro died on October 22, 2001. She approached her death as she had approached her life: with courage, with faith, and with amazing grace. Mentor, mother and dearest of friends, I salute her.

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Bye, Bye American Pie (Gomantak Times and Asian American Journal)

Bye, Bye American Pie (Gomantak Times and Asian American Journal)

Margaret Mascarenhas

 

Today is September 11, 2001.As I write, I am sitting in Ann Arbor, the town of my birth, at a U of M cafeteria, watching replays of the American Airlines and United planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers and the smoke billowing from the Pentagon. The casualties are enormous. New York City Mayor Giulianni appears for a CNN interview looking and sounding shell-shocked.The President is summarily whisked away to an undisclosed location. Across the country, air traffic is grounded.Schools, major shopping centers, corporate headquarters of American companies are closed for the day. Even Disneyland. National Guard troops rush to New York City.Major bridges are shut down. The military is on the alert.Aircraft carriers and battleships move off the Eastern Coast of the nation. National security officials are scrambling.White House grounds have been evacuated. A state of emergency has been declared.

 

This is not a movie. This is real.

 

You would think that with all the spy novels and Hollywood films that have more than adequately depicted the hypotheticals of a terrorist attack on the U.S. with Washington D.C. and New York City as the primary targets, the American would be better equipped to ward off such a scenario.Or at least conceive of the possibility.And better prepared to deal with it. This is not the case.The U.S. State Department had no clue of any potential terrorist threat; they have admitted as much.

 

With its ascension to supremacy in the world, Uncle Sam has dissolved into complacency.In my minds eye, he no longer looks like President Lincoln, but like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, smug, fat, greedy.Unreasonably self-righteous.Sooner or later unbridled self-indulgence catches up to you.In this case, sooner, is now.

 

For years, the U.S. has relied predominantly on satellite intelligence to obtain information on what is going on in a world where it has the dubious distinction of being Chief Cop.Effective human infiltration and information-gathering was virtually aborted with the end of the Cold War.This means that the U.S. has a diminished capacity to analyze, much less anticipate, events of this nature before they occur.

 

Why, why? a young woman at the table next to me murmurs repeatedly. A perfect example of the fact that most Americans dont get the corrosive effect that years of economically driven policies and support of oppressive regimes has had on the psyche of those who have suffered the consequences of those policies and regimes. This is, undoubtedly, the biggest failure of intelligence in US history.

 

Clearly, this is a country that is out of touch with reality.Having lived, worked and traveled abroad for so many years, even I could have told the U.S. government that.And, in fact, I have repeatedly commented to my American friends that the U.S. is too insular, dangerously unaware of a steadily growing hostilitynot just in the Muslim worldbut even among its so-called allies.To anyone paying attention, it was never a question of whether the U.S. would ultimately have to face terrorism in its own back yard, but when.And now the suspense is over.There is only the grisly aftermath.There is only damage control.The U.S. spin doctors are insisting that the government is in control of an out-of-control situation.Beefing up security after the fact.†††

 

It doesnt help, that in the time of the worst threat the U.S. has faced since World War II, the country has the most inept of leadership.Here is a situation that requires deft handling, excellent response time, the brilliance of a Robert Kennedy, the charisma of a Teddy Roosevelt.George W Bush, the accidental President, has neither the charisma nor the IQ to inspire confidence among the American people. When he appeared on national television this morning, he looked like a frightened Boy Scout (Daddy, what should I do?) spouting bravado rhetoric.

 

To those Americans who have been paying attention to world affairs (a minority), it is pretty clear that Texas Cowboy politics may not be what the doctor ordered. And as I look at the bewildered faces of the students on the university campus around me, it is pretty obvious that the average American is as scared as the President. Reactions range from raging we should just nuke the bastards (who?),to stunned disbelief.

 

Not since Pearl Harbor has the U.S. been required to contemplate, much less confront, and act of war on its own territory.And whether the incumbent U.S. government is prepared to come out and say it or not, this is, ladies and gentlemen, an act of war.The problem, of course, is that the perpetrator is not readily identifiable.Of course, the Bin Laden organization is the most obvious suspect, being as it is, possibly the only terrorist organization with the incentive, the money and the capability to execute such a maneuver.The Afghanis have issued a statement denying involvement. However, if you will recall, it was only recently that Osama Bin Laden nominated the head of the Taliban as the spiritual leader of the Muslim world, and declared Afghanistan as the true Mecca.The name Saddam Hussain is also being bandied about by various American terrorist experts.

 

I watch some news clips of the Palestinians celebrating the Attack on the U.S. And I phone a Palestinian friend, a professor of economics, to get his take on this.According to him, Americans are right now getting a tiny taste of the horrors the people of many other countries have suffered for decades, often with the endorsement, implicit or explicit, of the U.S.It is terrible what has happened, but it was also inevitable.

 

The tragic price that so many American civilians have had to pay for the negligent short-sightedness and absurdly childish smugness of those they have elected to power has been the worst possible kind of wake up call.We can only be proud of New Yorkers, but it remains to be seen whether the same can be said of American leadership.

 

Anatomy of Indian Fiction Review (Gomantak Times)
Margaret Mascarenhas
 
Some time ago The Hindu carried an articleby T. G. Vaidyanathan wherein he critiques Manjula Padmanabhan's review of Amit Chaudhuri's "A New World". Which, incidentally, I thought was a very good book indeed. A review of a review? How odd. But actually it wasn't. Here's what he said:  "That so consummate a story teller as Ms Padmanabhan should falter so completely in her critical estimate of a contemporary only serves to remind us that criticism and creative writing are as different as chalk and cheese. My sentiments when I read Anita Nair's review of my own work in India Today. My protagonist, says Ms Nair, is rift with angst. Rift? Is my protagonist a valley, then? My plot, she says, is pre-ordained. But wait!Suddenly, in the very next paragraph she makes a complete U-turn and says the plot evolves through a series of coincidences. Pre-ordained coincidences?
     It isn't that one can't stomach a tough review; on the contrary, the toughest one I've received so far was the one that appeared in The Statesman, (March 11, 2001,New Delhi) by Mita Ghose which was about 25 percent flattering and 75 percent scathing. But it was intelligently and painstakingly written, with considerable literary merit and no axes to grind, and I was more grateful for this review than the flattering ones that were flattering for all the wrong reasons.
     As Vaidyanathan points out, it is not the job of a reviewer to second-guess the author and claim more omniscience than the novelist him/herself. "[Padmanabhan's] essay bristles with a plethora of false certainties like: 'Even his divorce does not seem to have done more than have left a faint scar. We know that it cannot really be faint, and that it did require a struggle and legal battle ...' One almost gets the impression that Ms Padmanabhan was an eye witness of the events described in the novel."
     While I think most authors fully anticipate, appreciate and accept the right and duty of reviewers to point out discrepancies in creative work, there is nothing intellectually elevating about criticism for the mere sake of criticism. In another strange review of my book, Manohar Shetty (Skindeep, The Hindu, New Delhi, dated April 15, 2001) allows his distaste for feminism, or what he calls ferocious feminists, to adversely impact and severely compromise his reading comprehension skills and reviewing capabilities. Hence, his several
astonishing embellishments (otherwise known as fibs) in delineating what he perceives to be the inherent narrative flaws in the book. These, Im afraid, go far beyond his irritation with the paucity of likeable male characters in the book--a sentiment to which he is certainly entitled. What he is not entitled to, however, is to discuss the implausibility of what is clearly a nickname (Pagan). At this very moment, I have a number of male Goan relatives over-forty who, without any raising of the eyebrows whatsoever, go by such unlikely soubriquets Tu-tur , Bebe, Capo, Nu-nun, Clamac , Paloo, etc. Which only serves to underline the fact that truth is often stranger than fiction. Shetty is also not entitled to imply that I have somehow overlooked the entire history of colonial Portuguese distribution of wealth and property, when he states so righteously and unequivocally, that in the novel Skin, there is not a single Portuguese character or mention of their magnanimity in gifting large estates, coats of arms, and other titles and favours to their servile Goan faithfuls. An apparently unforgiveable omission in Shettys view, and I would have agreed with him myself were it true.
     I refer my readers, and Mr. Shetty in particular, to page 23 of
the Penguin-India edition of Skin:
 
  [Dom Afonso] selected his friend the nobleman (earlier described on page 22 as an enormously wealthy Portuguese patrician of minor title renown for his generosity and virtue) as godfather to the child, and so, predictably, upon his death he had bequeathed a substantial sum of money to the boy. Also in his will was a clause stating that he was appointing him as legal heir and administrator of his estate, and that he was transferring his title to him.
 
     In fact, at least half the estate of the protagonist family in Skin is donated by a Portuguese grandee with title et al. This information is not in code; it is explicitly detailed at the beginning of the book.
     My point being, that if youre going to torch someone, it should be done without leaving your own derriere exposed to inflammation.
     The Indian reviewer of fiction is a peculiar sort of bird, who is more often than not under the misguided impression that a fiction review is about addressing issues of typos, synopsizing the plot, and judging fiction by reality, rather than discussing narrative elements of style, technique, theme, language and readability. But, as I have repeatedly said to my own creative writing students, the minute you get out on a public platform, you're fair game for all and sundry even the illiterate and you have to take this in your stride.
     My own editor, David Davidar, says that perhaps the first book to evince a wide divide ( the word rift would be appropriate here) in critical opinion in India was Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. Similarly, Arundhati Roy's The
God of Small Things
, which, like A Suitable Boy was sold abroad for
a huge sum, received reviews that were about 50:50 in favour and against.
     "Envy has something to do with it," said Davidar recently in an interview. "When a mere book earns a huge amount of money in precious foreign exchange reviewers here seem to feel compelled to examine it very critically indeed to see what on earth it contains to justify such largesse. So far, I dont seem to have that particular problem.

 

Pretzels--weapons of mass destruction? (Gomantak Times)
 
Margaret Mascarenhas
 
My friend Robin emailed me: "I know I said this year couldn't be worse than the last one; however, when I wake to hear that Bush collapsed with a pretzel lodged in his throat, but survived with an unsightly bruise (in my fantasy his wife slugged him after he mouthed another of his more inane comments), I can only feel that we missed a unique opportunity. Perhaps some Republican came back from the future (I've seen this movie starring Arnold Swartzneggar) and pried the glob from his mouth to keep us all tormented with Bush-speak for the next few years."
     What the hell is a pretzel? My Indian neighbor asked. I explained that a pretzel is a type of bread snack. Some historians claim the first pretzels were made in 610 A.D., when monks in southern France offered them as a reward to children for learning their prayers. Others argue that the hard, brittle, glazed and salted treat came from Germany in 1835, where the dough was actually shaped to form the letter B, and stood for Bretzel. Still others return to the monk theory, only they insist the pretzel was first made by monks in 1800, who spent long hours forming bits of dough in the shape of a person's hand in prayer. (If you look closely at a pretzel, this theory is only believable if the praying person in question is double-jointed and also arthritic.
     The only thing that is certain is that it was the immigrants from Europe who introduced the pretzel to the US in the 19th century. Sneaky of them, wasnt it?
     The first commercial pretzel bakery was established in the town of Lititz in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania by Julius Sturgis in 1861. The modern age of pretzel making began in 1935 when the Reading Pretzel Machinery Company first introduced the automatic pretzel- twisting machine. Prior to that, most commercial pretzels were actually shaped by a cracker-cutting machine, then placed on baking pans and put into the baking ovens by hand. This innovation made pretzels available in all parts of the country.
     There is the soft kind and the hard kind of pretzel, there are large pretzels and small pretzels. At this time it is not clear which brand of pretzel the American President was munching while watching an American football game. However, it serves him right for watching American football, which isnt football at all but some incomprehensible mess involving 250 pound men in shoulder pads and a ball which isnt actually a ball, but an eye-shaped three-dimensional thing which is rarely kicked, and often carried to the goal line. The Americans really have no business calling it football, as I was known to frequently remark last summer whenever asked to accompany American friends to a game.
     Millions of American men spend Sunday afternoons just like the President: wolfing down pretzels and watching American football. Allegedly, this has led the newly christened Home Security Department to contemplate the true motives of the producers of pretzels, and to the concern that pretzels might potentially be used by terrorists as weapons of mass destruction.
    Bush, perhaps in an effort to calm an already unhinged American public, told
reporters he felt great. Bruised but unbroken, the President, offered advice
when dealing with this new potential threat to the American people, saying,
"My mother always said 'When you're eating pretzels, chew before you
swallow. Always listen to your mother."
   Well, I listened to my aunt, who is almost like my mother, and she told me to read Wendell Rodricks column in Goa Today recently--all about his new year's resolution to teach terrorists in Goa a lesson. According to Wendell, the breed of terrorist we have to contend with here on the home turf are a group of
free-loading non-Goans who try to poison us with oily biryanis and ugly meat
dishes. On further investigation, it was revealed that this group of six is led
by a minor deposed king and his appendix. I recommend serving them pretzels.

Parties, Recycled (Gomantak Times) Margaret Mascarenhas

Check out these little crackers laden with cream cheese and caviar, topped with parsley. these mushrooms wrapped in bacon and sprinkled with parmesan.Delicious. Sexy.Would the masses would get off on such hors d'oeuvres, do you think?I mean, do poor people like caviar?Or little mushrooms?Or asparagus tips smothered in white wine sauce? Or little cheeseballs covered in mashed up nuts?All of which are being offered by sprightly waiters in white carrying sparkling silver platters.Other waiters are gliding about with the mixed drinks--Black Label, Bombay Gin.Even Tequilla.And French white wine (very sec) for the ladies.It's simply all so chic.

 

My poor darling, you must be exhausted, someone is gushing to the hostess.Yes, it'll take me months to recover, she replies.

 

That's right.It's the party season in Goa.But, you might ask, if it's such a nightmare to entertain, why do it?And this reveals the most gauche attitude, an utterly profane ignorance of the fundamentals of LIFE.Parties are an imperative.These gatherings are what divide THEM from US-- the glitterati from the geeks, the hep from the square, the conscious from the comatose.

 

Do without parties?Fat chance, sahib.

 

"I suppose society is wonderfully delightful,"wrote Oscar Wilde, "To be in it is merely a bore.But to be out of it, simply a tragedy."And so it happens that, this month, tragedy is being averted in Goa.Tis the season to be jolly, and irrespective of any other combination/permutation of Armageddon such as jet-lag and indigestion, an invitation to a wedding or party is not for lining wastebaskets.

 

Not too long ago, you would have known the guest-list of a High Society function by heart.But the main development in Goa is that, over the past decade, those who were considered "establishment" now have many friends they didn't grow up with.No doubt about it; Goa's social circuit is expanding its horizons, for better or for worse.The bastions are crumbling.The new boys in town are moving in on the "Social Register" turf and the denizens are moving over.

 

Certainly, the large number of travelling elite has been one contributing factor to the rapid growth of the social establishment in GoaA large percentage of Goa's New Year party crowd is from Mumbai.The emergent social retinue is therefore based on opportunism, a reflection of the Mumbai influence.At the same time it still retains its quota of third and fourth generation families who consider themselves aristocratic and who bemoan the infiltration of the newcomers.

 

Like all social establishments, the one in Goa is exclusive--the concept being to keep social equals in and others out.In addition, the society crowd in Goa is divided into cliques and circles, which sometimes intersect for large events and blur into an indecipherable chaos.Yet, out of this disorder, there emerge certain distinctions thatset the elite of Goa apart from ordinary society, characterized primarily by a sort of blasť self-indulgence, and an attitude of ENJOY AT ANY COST.At the moment, it is still cool in Goa to dress in designer(Wendell or Sosa) outfits and go to a party every night.This merely means that, due to the low population factor, the same people meet each other repeatedly.Wannabes refer to this club as a tough gang of insecure snobswho can snub a non-member or crasher as fast as they can pop a martini olive.Under the veneer of polish lurk the scruples and petty politics of primitive communities.

 

But actually, just who is or who is not included in Goa's swirling social scenario is an elusive cast of characters. The Glam Party Crowd list is usually comprised of Jimmy, Morad and Jiva, Raj and Dipti, Lucio and Corine, some Chowgules, with some foreigners, Mumbai socialites or YPO types and a few locals of the art genus thrown in, like Mario or Wendell, for a creative mix. Among the local politicians only the Ranes are considered "inner wheel". The Music Party Crowd consists of Michael and Veena, Kevin and Sarita, Marion and Jehangir, Nandu, Leslie and Michele and any jazz musicians or crooners available for the evening.Then there is the Young Insiders Businessman's Crowd--Verner, Pankaj, Vishwajeet, Srinivas, and so forth. For the intellectual party-goer, there is a savvy gang of thirty-somethings like Vikram and Gauri, Dean and Alice,Apurva, Val and Anjali, etc. The Portuguese Crowd is usually comprised of the Consul,the Fundacao Oriente Director, the Portuguese Chancellor and, frequently, a bunch of Goan stuffed shirts who sit around pretending to be in Portugal. But hanging out with the Portuguese crowd is still preferable to attending the blue-blood Margao do's where one of my friends was recently heard to remark, "What a terrific party. Maybe later on we can get some fluid and embalm each other." South Goa is not the place for a party.

 

A few people move with impunity from one clique to another. Outsiders are occasionally invited to these trendy do's for their entertainment value. Everyone else is simply scum.

 

Confused?Don't be.Basically, it's just the same party, recycled.

 

Personally, I'd classify myself as a literary charity snob.For my own party, anyone who meets the following criteria will be welcome:

(1) You must have performed at least one act of charity this month equivalent in cost to your New Year's outfit.

(2) You must have successfully expunged archaic words like "nay" and "alas" from your vocabulary and be able to spell MILLENNIUM correctly.

Of cowboys and heroes (Gomantak Times and Asian American Journal)

Margaret Mascarenhas

Today is September 18th 2001, one week after the Twin Towers fell in New York City. Americans are still trying to adjust to a new reality:  that they are not immune to terrorist attack on their home ground.  For the most part, middle-class America has rallied round the flag; everywhere you go people are wearing it, waving it from their cars and from their windows.  The volunteer efforts and  relief donations coming from average citizens, many of whom have never even been to New York, are munificent and moving. New Yorkers are actually hugging each other.  Major Giuliani has established himself by trial of fire as one of the most competent administrators in the country. The NYPD and the NYFD have emerged as national heroes. Wall Street opened as planned yesterday and took an expected beating, but no one is discouraged. Many Americans are buying stock to buoy the economy. At the insistence of Giuliani that normalcy must return, Broadway re-opened. Massive memorial services are being held throughout the nation. Everyone is proud of New York and of the compassionate response to calls for aid from a vast majority of American citizens.

 

I dont want to sound trite, said a U of M student the other day, but this may be a blessing in disguise. How sad it is that it has taken a disaster of this magnitude to pull Americans out of their self-centered fantasy.

 

In the political arena, and for the first time in years bipartisanship in the American House and Senate is negligible, which on the surface might appear like a good thing. President Bush, is beginning to both look and sound Presidential.  But lets not get carried away.  An analysis of actual content of his various speeches since last Tuesday, are enough to give most thinking people the willies.  Looking firmly into the camera and saying he wants Bin Laden dead or alive, seems an over-simplification of what needs to happen here. To the objective observer, it appears that America is unbelievably naÔve, flailing to pinpoint the blame and expecting the world will rally behind them.  They are out for blood.  Whose blood, is the question. In a less than diplomatic way, the attitude from the Capitol is unequivocally: You are either for us or against us.

 

Not to detract from the horror of the deaths of over 3000 civilians, and the billions of dollars it will take to rebuild in New York, but it might be pertinent to point out that numerous other countries, of which India is one, have lost thousands of lives in their own battles against terrorism. I dont recall any world-wide playing of the Indian national anthem when India lost so many to Kargil.  I dont recall the US giving those who train the terrorists who attack on Indian soil any ultimatums.

 

To give you an example of American ego-centricity at this moment in history:  CBS anchor, Dan Rather went on the David Letterman show last night, and fell to pieces at the thought of how much they, a handful of madmen, hate America. When Dave asked why they hate Americans so much, Dan said, its because they are evil, and wept.  Apart from being sickened by the sight of a professional blowing it on national television, I was flabbergasted at the irresponsibility of such a statement. This is because, just an hour before, I had watched 60 Minutes, where Dan Rather anchored a segment in which young educated Muslims in Pakistan were interviewed.  These young men were extremely articulate in their support of Osama Bin Laden. They had Long Live Osama as their screen-savers. They told the 60 Minutes  that even if the Americans managed to capture and/or kill Bin Laden, there would be hundreds of other Bin Ladens behind him.  And, as current investigations indicate, there are a number of governments and wealthy private individuals who support the cause of Bin Laden and his ilk. His network is believed to extend across  50 or 60  countries, including the U.S. A handful of madmen? Lets not kid ourselves. This is much bigger than that.

 

Meanwhile, speaking of madmen, the New York Times reported that evangelist Jerry Falwell announced on public television that it was the gays, lesbians, feminists, abortionists, the ACLU who invited this disaster upon America.  

 

If I were Bush, instead of yelling war cries, one of the first things Id do is lock Arafat and Sheron in a room and make them hammer out a deal that would take effect not in two months or two years, but right now, in the next two weeks.

 

It is a fact that terrorists and their sympathizers, do not distinguish between a government and its people. But there are many who argue that neither does the U.S. government. Thousands of innocent Japanese were put into camps after Pearl Harbor. In Vietnam, civilians were killed by American bombers. The U.S. mined the waters of Nicaragua. It has repeatedly supported tyrannical and anti-democratic regimes, and interfered in the sovereignty of other countries for its own economic and/or military interest: South America, the African Congo, and, of course, the Middle East.

 

At this moment, Indian Americans have become the objects of hate crimes, especially Sikhs because their turbans remind the perpetrators of the head-gear of Osama Bin Laden. How ignorant is that?

 

The American public needs to educate itself, if it is to understand why the world may not be quick to rally round beyond lip service.  American media should consider participating in that education. American intelligence agencies might consider spending less time investigating the sex lives of their politicians and more time protecting American civilians.

 

 

 

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