Friday, April 30, 2010

People's (Gay) Prince

I get into the elevator from the 11th floor club room to get to the hotel lobby in San Francisco one Saturday afternoon and I see two guys with a slight funk factor, chatting each other up.
“Is that where you buy all your swim wear?” The blonde guy asks the muscle guy with more interest than all my shopaholic friends display when they inquire about a new something at brunch.
“There. Hollister. It depends. But OMG I have to give you the name of this website. It has like yum swimsuits for us.” The muscle guy replies with the thrill of a new bride showing off her wedding ring, putting an extra emphasis on “us”. I am leaving all the body language to your imagination by the way.
“Good deal. I’m still new to the area you know.” Blondie confesses.

“Yea don’t worry about a thing. You’ll be taken care of.” Muscle man says with a mischievous smile.

The elevator reaches the lobby level and the door opens. But before I could step out, the muscle guy, with an animated expression on his face, bows and tells me “show time honey”.

See this is why I need a gay friend. No one’s told me that before! And it seriously helped add that spring in my step although I was just meeting a few regular friends. I hate to generalize but they’re so full of life. And I love their perspective on most things and their arty eye and their uninhibited opinions and their sense of humor and their fashion gene and… ok now I’m getting carried away so forget I said that. Back to the episode. That would be just another scenario if you’re in SFO. It’s not the gay capital for nothing.

But the story I heard today has disconcerted me a tad. Only because I didn’t expect it. It might uproot you too if you haven’t heard it before.

He's lanky and completely sans the royal ego. Cool, calm and approachable, he teaches yoga on the lake front to a responsive group of people. He's an activist who works hard to prevent the spread of HIV through his NGO. He's one of those with multiple first or middle names. Add the words 'his royal highness' to name and it would become seven words long. He is Manvendra Singh Raghubir Gohil, the prince of Rajpipla. And oh yeah, he's gay. Minor detail I guess. I wonder if he's ever had a boyfriend in a town like that though. Amidst family disownment (emotional; I don't believe the legal system allows for that anymore) and contempt from his region, it's a shocker he's not only survived in that place but evolved. I can already see Oprah nodding. His NGO has provided services to some 17k gay men so far in Gujarat (what? 17k gay men in Gujarat) and he plans to create an old age home for gay men in Rajpipla (holy cow). A people's prince in the real sense. Having heard the details from an interview, I feel ignorant. I still don't know the details of the last massive project hubby has been working on for years and that's ok but if THIS I learn for the first time, I must be ignorant.

Now imagine I’m going down the elevator at a hotel in Rajpipla. And imagine the same scenario as the San Fran one. Tell me your jaw is down at the ground and your eyes have popped out! Not too far from that day, are we?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Too real to be fake?

The voicemail that I'd received in lieu of a formal invitation, the one I've replayed a million times already mentioned today's date. In pure unadulterated exhilaration mode I arrive at Aer at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai. Aer is 34 floors above the bustling streets of Worli and India's highest rooftop bar I think but don’t quote me on that one. It takes my breath away quite literally as I begin to borderline gag. There’s nowhere else like it in the city. Being so high up, I feel as though I've have been transported to a parallel universe. All one can see is the sea and the lights of Mumbai spread out like a blanket beneath you. It's totally worth the hype in case you haven't been.

Oh and did I mention the occasion? Brace yourself for this one. Chennai Super Kings had just become the 2010 IPL champions by beating Mumbai Indians and this was their larger than life celebration party. My friend Zubina does PR for Super Kings and was giving me special treatment on my trip back home. She was a die hard John Mayor fan and I'd taken her to a concert in LA once. Thought she was just returning the favor but boy was I wrong. My premium seats for $150 at the John Mayor concert wouldn't even have covered me valet parking and a decent tip at a party like this. She was just being nice. Way too nice.

The crowd was, no points for guessing, a killer mix of the sparkling faces from tinsel town and the cricket world. And models. And TV artists. And influential politicians. And people with connections. But the shock factor came not from the faces but below the necks of those faces. Guccis, Pradas, Diors and Cavallis seem to be the big contenders jostling for some breathing space. Most of them I recognize from very recent runway collections. But that wasn't it. Gosh why am I spotting a million brands around and who are these unknown faces sporting them? Yves Saint Laurent, Diane von Furstenberg, Herve Leger, Mango, FCUK, Bottega Veneta, Stella McCartney and tons more. What WHAT? How? And why do I feel like barfing instead of going wowza when I see amazing things on seemingly unknown faces? Don't even get me started on the bags and shoes. May be because I wasn't au fait with the norms of the glitzy world, had decided to precariously follow my instinct and slipped into a teal Forever 21 silk dress... or what is Charlotte Russe from a couple years ago and looked so meh. That's all the 411 you get on me because I'm going to maintain dignified silence after that major blow to my self esteem that will require god knows how many therapy sessions to get over.

I hear an ear piercing splash that uproots me and abruptly open my eyes to realize my kid had jumped into the Jacuzzi despite a detailed lecture to hubby and baby on the concept of me-time 30 minutes ago. The dream sequence, I presume, was a result of too many IPL news updates I get hit by and too many High Heel Confidential (it's a website that is very very habit forming for non-males) updates I get by hitting it. But what I did NOT dream about is the international designer pieces on nobodies part of it. It's true. I've seen it. And I've got proof. The question again is, HOW? Call me bitter and you might be right but that isn't the correct answer. How is every other whats-her-face suddenly sporting labels that cost a liver or a kidney in India? I don’t mean to raise the status of this burning question to the level of how can we preserve the earth question but trust me its getting there. And it is killing me slowly but surely. I know India is home to the largest number of billionaires in Asia now but hello I’m not talking about royalty here. I’m talking about those who you might have seen in some reality dance show once or an item number or an anchor hunt challenge. The blink and forget category. Are they wearing fake? But it looks like the real thing. Are they really buying it? I majorly doubt it. Is there a common pool where people contribute monthly to buy latest runway collections and use it turn by turn? Yikes… err brilliant. Do international designers have a different pricing system for India just to be able to penetrate the market? Perhaps. Wait are they renting it? They are, aren’t they? Think even my thinking neurons are exhausted.

I may need to safe drown myself in that Jacuzzi water for a minute or two to detox my head.

p.s. The first gal below, Natasha Poonawala (who?) is wearing a Cavalli top which I'm in love with. The second gal below, Renu Chainani (who?) is sporting a Gucci gown.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Living and breathing the hookah culture

This appeared in The SA Times on Saturday.

I've lost (not lost lost) a few colleagues and friends to it so was about time I 'investigated' what the big deal about it was. It bugs me that I slept through the transition when 'smoking' Hookahs was becoming such a big part of our culture. Actually think I've slept through every major transition that hit our culture in the past. Let’s see... I slept through the hippie culture that hit us in the 70s.... actually wasn't even born then so doesn't count. I slept through the MTV culture but blame that on dad. No matter when I found that one spare moment in a day when I was home and around TV while growing up, dad would just magically appear out of nowhere much like characters in Indian epics and make it go away. Then the beauty contest/queen culture hit but I think I played dumb charades all through it. Then globalization hit and permeated through in many forms and I have no clue what I did but I barely noticed. Size zero, living in, mwaah mwaahs, divorces and polygamy (behaviorally) were amongst the latest few but I'd already moved out. And as was evident in my last trip back home, the latest one to have hit us seems to be the Hookah effect.

You couldn't go to a Metro in India a few years back and not visit one of the Mocha Cafes. It's prolly a thing of the past now. And you can't go to a house party in LA and not spot the Hookah equipment. It amazes me how easily we adapted to it. But then we're good like that. Ever so accepting of new fads, harmless or otherwise. Me, I couldn't care less about it but just because you don't swim, it's not like you can't get into the pool party.

If you worked out in my gym which like any other has several TV screens but unlike no other has one screen with trivia questions on auto play (makes me feel so dumb coz I score close to 0 each time unless I see repeat questions), you'd know that hookahs are also known as nargilehs or argeelas in Arabic. Flavored tobacco has been used for centuries throughout the Middle East for filling smoking pipes but in Western and now East Asian countries, to make it more socially acceptable in urban areas, fruity non-tobacco flavors are widely available. Of course in Middle East, it was considered tradition and luxury and everywhere else, just a trend.

I remember one chilly night at an authentic Lebanese restaurant in Glendale where our server who identified himself as a Nargileh specialist (wonder if his occupation read that on his visa form), sat down with us and shared a few insights while a very graceful belly dancer was doing everything in her power to ensure no one would converse amongst themselves. His first insight in his exotic accent was interesting. "Smoking hookah is more than just smoking." The surrounding environment, the music, the conversations and the smoking are just as important as smoking hookah itself apparently. But what was intriguing were the unspoken rules. The Hookah etiquette as he called it. Given my constant battle with my memory, I'm amazed that I could recall so many after months. Or has it been years? Check ‘em out… they’d surprise you. I paraphrase below.

  • When you pass the hose, you must point the tip of it towards yourself. (Umm sure)

  • When you receive the hose from someone else, you must slight tap their hand as a sign of “thank you” and “respect”. (Blah unless you're in Morocco or sthng)

  • If you are smoking a multi hose hookah and you are not smoking from your hose, hold the tip with you finger so the rest can smoke easier. (Ok. Whatever.)

  • Never blow smoke in someone else’s face. (Only Client Eastwood is allowed to do that, no?)
    Pass the hose to next person before they ask for it. (Mommy taught us all to be considerate.)

  • If you and others are not smoking, wrap the hose around the shaft. (Smoking hookah sounds like so much work.)

  • Respect the hookah owner/host/server. (Lol isn't that going overboard?)

  • Do not give advice on how to better make the hookah or pack the bowl. (He must be kidding. It's in our blood.)

  • If you damage the owner’s hookah or property fix it or pay for it. (Haha another good one.)

  • Never smoke cigarettes around a hookah. (Aah sacred rule 1 about avoiding conflicts.

  • Never light a cigarette from the coal on the hookah. (Sacred rule 2)

  • Never ash a cigarette on the hookah’s tray. (Sacred rule 3)

Whoa look at that list! On second thoughts, I should have not given out the story about the Lebanese restaurant. That’d have perhaps established me as a ‘Nargileh specialist’. Oh well. One day I will learn.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Spare The Plate, Please

With an eminent bounce in my energy, I get up, get dressed and head out. The duo welcome me at the entrance. She looks sharp in her crisp white shirt, and he carelessly alert. Graciously, they find me a seemingly comfortable spot, away from the rest of the crowd. It doesn't take them much convincing for me to get dreamy eyed. The spread, the colors, the tang, the varieties, all too consuming. That mix fills the air in my brain and engages every cell. Almost instantly, I begin to calculate the permutations and combinations to accomplish the enormous task that lies ahead. There's a finite quota to fill with little room to expand. Should one of each be considered or should I leave the less appealing ones for the next round? And if I end up loving one or more from the first round, how will I accommodate it with the untried ones in the second round? Choices choices.

With slightly wobbly hands, I hold a thick white plate and put my decision making skills into high gear. Being a vegetarian, half the options attractively laid out on the Indian Buffet stand are of no use to me thereby making it easier on the conclusion. A small serving of saag paneer rapidly spreads itself out on the plate like lava and takes over a significant area. I squeeze in chole, pakora kadhi, dal makhani and aloo bhindi with no aesthetic arrangement whatsoever. I look at the plate through the corner of my eye and it looks ready to induce a heart attack. I ignore that threat and the very creamy matar paneer and walk towards the Salad stand to pick a few slices of red onion. The greens on that stand make a mockery of me but I ignore that as well. Firm pink sliced strawberries catch my attention and happily I reach out to them. Identifying the color of my plate has become quite a challenge at this point and all I can do is switch off my brain much like the process of watching a signature David Dhawan film. I begin to walk towards my chair which I honestly wish had dark curtains hung from the ceiling on all four sides so I could hide whilst I indulge but an unknown overpowering feeling makes me take a u-turn. I watch in helplessness as my right hand pours some matar paneer on those innocent little strawberries for lack of any available spots on my plate and instead of chocolate covered ones, I now have gravy covered ones. I walk in shame and take my seat not looking up even once.

Before I could even settle down on my table, the skinny girl who looks like she could be surviving just on those tiny peas from matar paneer appears out of nowhere with my drink and a plate full of steaming crisp garlic sprinkled naans and puts them on my table. I half smile instead of verbally thanking her and avoid eye contact but I know I've been exposed. She's seen my plate and already judged me in one fleeting second. I've probably been categorized as "one of those" in her minds. One of those who take the expression and their offer of "all you can eat" at face value. One of those who probably skip dinner the previous night and wear loose pants so they could shove all that rich food down their throats like there's no tomorrow. One of those greedy souls who eat until they explode putting aside one dirty plate after another. One of those who act all urban and polished at work but let their uncivilized sides out when tons of food is in sight. Honestly I think she's got a wrong sense of judgment because I don't belong to either category. I'm usually on some crappy no-grain, no-oil, no-sugar diet and couldn't care less about the food she has to offer but like any other social being, dine in heaven once in a while with family and friends around on special occasions. I feel like getting up and giving her an explanation but she's already walked off to munch on some more peas or make more people fat.

For lack of viable options, I do what everyone else in that distastefully decorated 30x40 feet room with colorful chunris, taj mahal paintings and tiny LED lights adorning the walls is doing. Keeping their heads down and eating. I finish what I can and get up to treat myself with some desert. What's another 1000 calories when you've already had 4000 in the past 30 minutes? I feel gross at the end of it all and vow never to eat another buffet until I've celebrated the year end. But we'll see. Bon app├ętit.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Umm, what was that name again?

If you haven't come across funky names of newborns in the recent past, you probably haven't been social or have been avoiding gossip channels and newspapers altogether because all I see is them! There are those who differentiate names with an additional 'a' or 'e' or by taking away a 'y' and the likes. Then there are those who use foreign names and shockingly enough, there’s also a new category that does not shy away from using proper nouns as names. The fad is all pervasive across states and stratas, across industries (hello bollywood!) and individuals and across literacy levels.

We've come a long way from the days when Sanskrit names were the norm. Plebeians like us probably got inspired by celebrities or just by traveling around the world. Lately, Russian and Spanish names aren’t uncommon even in the interiors of India. Here in the US, celebrities have taken 'unique' to the next names. Check out some interesting, odd and downright crazy celebrity baby names: Arthur Ashe's daughter is called Camera, Christie Brinkley's girl is called Sailor Lee, Cher's daughter is called Chastity (!!!), Barbara Hershey's son is called Free, Penn Jillette's daughter is called Moxie CrimeFighter, Shannyn Sossamon's son is called Audio Science and Frank Zappa's daughter is called Moon Unit.

I’ve had no luck figuring out potential thought processes of other people behind such life altering decisions. How many kids’s share of teasing, for instance, would Chastity or Free or Audio Science go through during their school years? Kids are brutal. It’s public knowledge. Why then in their sane minds would parents venture into these things? The poor kid might hold a grudge forever.

It isn’t just people names. Video games are known for some of the craziest names ever: Zeitgeist, Um Jammer Lammy and PenPen TriIcelon just to name a few. Oh and Sony Ericson just launched two new phones in India: Xperia and Vivaz.

Let's face it guys. Our generation counts on auto spell check even for one liner emails. And we have the attention span of a gnat. So good luck to us trying to use these names or hearing them out and remembering them. But we live in a world that’s constantly evolving and making progress. So next time you hear someone’s kid named as Go-Kart Massacre or Kosher Raccoon or Silly Sudoku, don’t fret. We’ll just have to embrace them and move on.

As someone once said, life was much simpler when blackberry and apple were just fruits!