20 Years of Wannabe

Spice Girls

August 1996. Wellington, New Zealand. Bill and Hillary Clinton are in the White House, and no-one’s heard of Monica Lewinsky. I’m 13, my baby sister 9. She’s mainly been an annoyance to this point – something she’s not shaken in the subsequent 20 years – but is starting to develop a personality of her own a little. She’s the creative one; I’m still passable at Maths and enjoying English and Social Studies. She asks my mother for a CD. It’s called “Spice”. She likes one song on it in particular. It plays in the CD player of our Nissan Maxima all that Summer. My grandfather passes away in September. My sister and I have adjoining bedrooms for the next year or so. In the evenings, after homework, she comes to my room with her ghetto blaster with the latest CDs and the top 40 hits that I don’t know. (I’m devoted to my bagpipes and Cricket at the time, finding I’m not much good at either.) The group talks about girl power and getting with their friends and “Easy B” who “doesn’t come for free; she’s a real lady”. I’m not always the best brother afterwards, but I hope my sister always knows that I want her to be powerful.

1997, they release a movie – Spiceworld. It’s not very good, but the cast has some people who become a big part of my life afterwards. Those guys my mother likes from the Jeeves and Wooster TV show, a bunch of others who might one day be famous. I am an adolescent boy. The ginger one always piques my interest. One of them marries a football player. She doesn’t seem all that posh.

1999. A boy in my house at school is a Spice Girls obsessive. One week he’s ginger, the next week sporty. He knows all the words to the songs, including the less good ones, like “Live 4Ever”, “Say You’ll Be There”, and “2 Become 1”. He seems troubled, often cries in the shower, wants to wear skirts. When he’s not being bullied he’s a bit of a loner, and I don’t talk to him much. When I do, I’m sure I’m not as kind as I should be. He leaves a year early, for another, more liberal school. On his last day he runs around the main quad yelling “I’m gay”. Many of us think he’s strange and speak of him derisively the next year, because that’s not “normal”. Not many years later, with education and a little thought, we realise how wrong and unfair we were – and that it’s ok to be interested in stuff that’s “normally” been the province of girls. Also, the Ginger one leaves.

2000. They go on an “indefinite hiatus”. I am sad. There are reunions later in the decade, which are not as good.

2001. A fellow named Ali G is on TV often. He’s funny and rude and sends everything up. The Posh one does an interview. “Every boy wants to be in his boots. Every man wants to be in his missus.” He asks Beckham if he ain’t never been “caught offside”, referring to their bedroom antics. He’s hilarious, with jabs about Scunthorpe United. Watch the interview here. He fills my screens with Borat, Bruno, The Dictator, and wonderfully in Talladega Nights.

2002. A movie called “Bend It Like Beckham” comes out. A Punjabi girl wants to play sports in it, and is allowed to. Her friend, Tony, “really likes” Beckham. Along with the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mel C (“Sporty Spice”) sings a song on the soundtrack. My worlds seem to collide, not for the first time.

2007-10. I leave home to live in Dubai. Soon after I do, Benazir Bhutto is killed, posing a threat to Talibani insurgency by being an articulate, Muslim, female leader. Many of the women I meet in Dubai have accents like the Spice Girls. They don’t seem all that posh, either, but I sing along when the song comes on – especially at karaoke bars in Emirates Towers. I am not very good at karaoke.

2008. The financial world goes to hell in a handbasket. All the major banks’ CEOs are men. The German economy, one of the few to come out of things without too many problems, has had a woman at its helm since 2005. Michael Lewis notes how few women were making decisions in Iceland.

2009. Obama’s Inauguration, Washington, D.C., the coldest I’ve ever been. I’m happy that there’s a black President, but sad at the fact that it’s had to come at the expense of a woman who might have been as good – and that his opponent party callously put up someone who defined tokenism. Beyonce – who, in 2008, released Single Ladies and changed the world, confusingly – sings at the inauguration. I like her a little less when she sings If I Were A Boy and implies that all men are assholes. But maybe we are. Later that year, Kanye West kind of proves as much, when he’s not the first man to interrupt a woman trying to say something when Taylor Swift goes up to get an award. (Ironically he claims Beyonce should have won the award.) Taylor Swift is so stung that we never hear from her again.

2010. I move to New York. The women sound American, and are cleverer, in general, than any people I’ve ever met before. Some like my accent. Many scare me. I learn that pay is far from equal between the genders, 14 years after girl power was meant to have begun, that many of the women I call friends and who seem to have everything together have been assaulted, and that there is a yawning chasm between men and women when it comes to expectations of childcare and appearance. This feeling carries on when I join the workforce there a year later – not least because the women around me feel the pressure to look immaculate, and I’m, well, me.

2009-2013. Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State. She sends some emails and some people get killed in Libya. She also reassures China that their treasury bills are safe, becomes the first US Secretary of State to visit Burma in many years, and just happens to be in the Situation Room when Osama Bin Laden is finally captured. Her close aide, Huma Abedin, is married to Anthony Weiner, an unfaithful jackass. It doesn’t affect Hillary’s or Huma’s performance of their duties.

2012. I discover the journalism of both Caity Weaver and Julieanne Smolinski, both younger, funnier, and infinitely more talented than I am. Christopher Hitchens’s 2007 troll should now be done and dusted for good, surely – Schumer! Louis Dreyfus! Fey! I wonder if it is.

2013. Sheryl Sandberg releases Lean In – a confusing, flawed, but necessary book, which starts people talking about the differences in the way gender is treated and perceived in the American workforce. I find Anne-Marie Slaughter more convincing. It’s an ongoing discussion, and there’s no reason why you should agree. A recently redundant magazine editor accuses me of mansplaining in a restaurant in the West Village. I balk at the charge, explaining that I’m just really condescending. Beyonce releases maybe her best album yet at the end of the year.

2014. At an Australia Day Ball, I find myself five martinis down still able to rap the lyrics of Wannabe; a skill I didn’t know I had. I fail to get with anyone’s friends, but I do slam my body and wind it all around. A close friend has a son – the first child of anyone close – and I send a note with a few thoughts. Item 4 to the baby reads:

Learn to rap the lyrics to “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. I hope you fall in love one day. When you do, that special someone will probably have a mother or two. However stern her face is, shiny the hubcaps on her European Sports Utility Vehicle are, or peroxide-rinsed her hair is, that mother was probably a giddy schoolgirl or university student around 1995 or at some point in the ten years thereafter. Unleashing those words at a family dinner before you’ve known her a year should melt any reservations she might have towards you. If they don’t, call me. We may have a problem.

I do not resile from this two years later, but cringe a little at my gender normativism. There ought to be no reason why fathers can’t like the song, either.

Malala Yousafzai wins the Nobel Peace Prize, after Taliban militants tried unsuccessfully to kill her with a volley of bullets, but failed to silence her.

2015. Rosanna Arquette calls out unequal pay in Hollywood at the Oscars, as she should. Later that year, I finally make it to Cambridge, where the Jeeves and Wooster chaps and Ali G went to university. The undergraduate women I meet are wonderful and brilliant and clever, as were the women in New York (whom I wept at leaving). This time, at university, I find myself writing about issues that a younger version of me might have avoided for fear of being “effete” or “too female”-  like Sex and the City, or high heels, or even movies some might call chick flicks. The young women here leave me in the dust, though, writing bravely and candidly about the effects of porn, the trials of growing up sexually, and suicide attempts and mental health. More women tell me about assaults they’ve suffered, leaving me shocked and feeling helpless. In brighter news, all three presidential elections at the Cambridge Union when I’m here are won by women. The last was born after Wannabe was released.

2016. God help us if Hillary Clinton doesn’t win the Presidency. The next British prime minister seems likely to be Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom. I like neither very much, but they both might just be able to clean things up, sensibly, with Angela Merkel (still in charge in Germany) a bit better than Boris or Dave or Jeremy might have. Posh Spice releases a video to mark the 20th anniversary of Wannabe highlighting the many injustices still in the world affecting women.

I send the Guardian an op-ed submission, offering to write a piece like this one (but possibly shorter, and maybe more coherent). I never hear back; a veteran female journalist writes it instead. She does a much better job than I could.

I realise that it’s been nineteen months since I last saw my family, and what a shit I’ve often been to them. I know both the world and I have a long way to go before we start being vaguely good, or understand the implications and consequences of girl power.

Although the world seems like w slightly better place for women now, I miss a time 20 years ago that I remember fondly for the pre-teen sense of wonder that my sister had – when she sang along, uninhibited, to lyrics that she didn’t understand but loved anyway.

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Some Brief Weddings Notes, 10 April 2016

neil-diamond-wed-01

Much has happened in the eighteen months since I last looked at the New York Times Weddings Section in any depth. For one, I’m not presently living in New York, although I miss it dearly and often. But sometimes, you need to take a rest from the city that never sleeps. Sometimes, those rests involve ten month long sojourns in universities an ocean away. The bars here don’t stay open as late, and I’m still not sure if I’ve left for all the reasons for which I once said I would. I soothe myself with the thought that I might go back.

At times of such uncertainty, and even when far away from the city which spawns the announcements, it’s nice to return to familiar routines. In my case, that means Sundays spent flicking through the wedding announcements, while firing up an old favourite singer on YouTube autoplay, and saying Hello, Again, to old friends. Yes, that’s  this week’s listening.

Just as a proctologist begins work by examining a patient where the sun doesn’t shine any more, so our first wedding this week requires us to approach New York via Cornell. (For the analogically challenged, I’m pointing out that Ithaca is New York’s rectum.) And much as the “fifth lady” in Sex and the City was New York City, so, too, did the barren cold of upstate New York bring Mariloly Orozco and Michael Cases together. It was the classic story of a car getting stuck on an Ithaca incline, a cute “random” guy getting out to push the car, and then coincidentally showing up in all the same places as the beautiful damsel in distress. He remained “random” until her dog took a liking to the guy on a long hike one day. (Any excuse to get away from Ithaca?) It might not have been love at first sight for Mariloly, but she had the good sense to trust her Shiba Inu’s instincts. The best part of the story? Both bride and groom appear to have made it out of Ithaca, and now live in Manhattan.

The tech industry rightly gets a lot of stick – or, at least in my view, deserves a lot of stick – for its stated aim of “disruption” really just being a euphemism for “treat everyone like crap, cut costs, gouge profits and give the money to that guy who thinks the British should never have left India.” (See, for example, this Times Review piece this week.) Passive aggressive smoothie-drinkers in the Bay Area aren’t manna from heaven for snorting quinoa and maintaining a running habit while firing people and undercutting prices and killing the publishing industry. Still, even I must admit that some tech stuff has good consequences. For instance, I’ve not seen the son of a New York City Taxi Driver from Queens marrying a Barclays in-house lawyer (and get featured in the Section for it) before. A little disruption of class hierarchies is no bad thing. Thanks, Match.com

Note: Tech industry, this doesn’t justify the other misdeeds. And Match.com, I still haven’t forgiven you for all the women who stood me up or made up suspicious stories to explain their absences, or never texted back after dinner at Bagatelle, or didn’t offer to pay for their drinks at Bathtub Gin as they extracted NYC’s bachelor tax from my paycheck and eviscerated my dignity. I’ve also not forgiven you for my still broken heart after things didn’t work out with that one girl with whom you said things would be perfect, according to the algorithm and our shared interests in the Babysitters Club. Or for making yourself such a big part of my life that I now write open letters on a basically defunct blog to a dating website as though it’s a person.

Finally in main weddings, this entry from April 1 is older than usual, but wonderful – and the story may just be an April Fool’s prank played by Yale on the rest of us. The couple was first in the same room in a 1978 screening of Love Story. (Not just a Taylor Swift song. Who knew?) They reconnected at a Harvard alumni event, after which they went to drinks at the wonderful Royalton Hotel, and then fell in love. She wondered if MIT Professors moonlighted as Harvard tour guides. His proposal matched the one in the movie. They married at the Harvard Club, under a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. Was her garter crimson? Did he urinate on a statue to prove his virility? Will their mating rituals involve personal reenactments of primal scream in their yard? So. Many. Questions. 

Still, as they try to answer these questions, at least they have the “fact that [they] went to Harvard together as the ballast to keep [them] steady.” It could be worse. Imagine what their ballast would have been had they gone to Princeton – or, for that matter, Oxford.

Briefer notes:

  1. This may be the most imbalanced gay wedding announcement ever. Curt Sowers, I want to know so much more about you than your parents’ names. Are you a part-time playwright or musician, too? Do you merely own the hair salon, or do you style, too? What are your religious persuasions? How much hair do I need to lose from my crown before it’s worth shaving it all off? Is 35 too young to be 50% grey? I’m hoping to keep it at that, but I might not be so lucky.
  2. Best facial hair and meeting story goes to these chaps. Burning Man communities are the new bingo nights. It’s great that one of their mothers is named Magnolia, after the cupcake boutique, too.
  3. It’d be remiss of me not to mention the wedding that had top billing this week, a story of two real estate agents with interests in show tunes. It’s fabulous and wonderful. I have nothing snarky to say about it.

That’s about it for this edition. Clearly it’s not full weddings season yet, or else there’d be more material. I also wonder if the section is being more discriminating, with fewer big spreads. We should know more by September Morn

To those who’ve borne the Neil Diamond songs while reading this self-indulgent effulgence, I’m sorry. And here’s Will Ferrell parodying him, as a treat. You’re welcome.

That’s all. XOXO.

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On Freedom

Listen to this while reading this. Or don’t.

September 11 happened barely six weeks after my 18th birthday, and the world changed. America was shortly thereafter at war in Afghanistan, and then, with far weaker justification, with Iraq. Baby boomers seemed to become even more hubristic over the next few years in their quest to wreak havoc with the world’s financial system. Brought face-to-face with their own mortality, the Dick Fulds of this world lived like there was no tomorrow, making short-term financial bets on toxic assets with the sort of reckless abandon that people with a view to a longer-term future might have eschewed. Most painfully for a teenager in New Zealand who could barely speak to a girl, the next season of Sex and the City was maudlin, trying in a truncated eight episodes to capture what the city was really about. (Apparently it was about a guy named Berger, Weight Watchers, growing old disgracefully, and divorcing Bunny McDougall. And SJP was surreptitiously pregnant the whole time.)

14 years later, I have now lived in New York for more of my adult years than anywhere else. If it’s not home, it’s doing a damn good impression of it. I am now an adult in a place where the defining moment of my adulthood took place. And for the last four years, September 11 has remained a little maudlin – but for reasons not connected to the attacks. For my first couple of years here, America was at war. Sometimes, the government shut down in a heap of bipartisan bickering. Most years, there have been instances of senseless racial violence, political intolerance, and manifestations of unjustified and unfathomable bigotries in the newspapers. The whole disappointment has apparently been personified in the form of the President: so young and so hopeful in late 2008, but looking ever more grey, ever more beaten down, challenged in the courts on one hand and in the legislature on the other, at almost every juncture, over things that have often seemed pretty daft.

New York, of course, has remained brilliant and indomitable. My midtown job has seen me hunched over a desk almost every September 11, working on the sorts of deals that many of the people working in the towers went in to execute on that day. In reading the papers and watching the news all this time, though, I’ve had a nagging sense that America could and should be doing better. The best sources of news in a functioning democracy really shouldn’t be caustic comics. It would be nice if election districts weren’t quite so polarised, and if laws and the economy didn’t seem to favour certain groups above others. On September 11, the people who took down Flight 93 and the first responders and Rudy Giuliani showed us what this country really could be at its best. For much of the time since I’ve arrived here in mid-2010, I feel like I’ve been seeing this place at its worst, with names like Cliven Bundy and George Zimmerman gaining hero status rather than being written off as nutjobs. Was this the spirit of those first responders, the people coming together to protect Sikhs and Muslims from vengeful attacks all across America? What resemblance has this humourless selfishness to Mayor Giuliani asking Lorne Michaels why he would start being funny now only a few weeks after the attacks?

I’ve had cause to feel a little more hopeful during the past few months. Yes, change is in the air on the airwaves: Leno is off the air, and Fallon, refreshingly, is on. Colbert seems to be moving from sarcastic conservative caricature to the mainstream, and John Oliver may be the most authoritative Englishman in the United States since Cary Grant. (I miss Letterman, Craig Ferguson, and Jon Stewart, of course.) More than that, in a year that has still been marred by countless shootings and senseless, racially motivated deaths at home and the worrying rise of a fringe group overtaking Syria and Iraq in the vacuum left by American military travails abroad, there has been a major glimmer of hope, and of change. And it has come in the form of 30-odd pages written by a then 78-year old Catholic man from California.

It’s hard not to be hopeful about the fate of this country when reading passages like:

rights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era. Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here. But when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the State itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied. (Obergefell v. Hodges, Pages 18-19)

or

The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. The Nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter. An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act. The idea of the Constitution “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.” West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 624, 638 (1943). This is why “fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” Ibid. (Page 24)

It’s a tenuous connection, but I’ve always believed that those 19 hijackers were attacking American – and by extension, Western – freedom 14 years ago, much more than they were avenging some perceived slight to their religion. There were all sorts of freedoms that they disliked. My shortlist includes the electoral, the political, the financial, the religious, and, of course, the sexual. (There’s a brilliant article by Christopher Hitchens, which Vanity Fair refuses to put up on its website, about the links between sexual frustration and suicide bombing. Hitch set this out in much better prose than I ever could.) In some of the measures that this country has taken in response since September 2001, it has seemed almost to be caving – if not to those terrorists’ ideas, then to baser, more fearful instincts that are taking it away from being the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Of course Obergefell sounds no death knell for NSA wiretapping and ridiculous security measures at airports, but perhaps, just maybe, some of the spirit that ignited the civil rights movement (and, dare I say it, for which so many people were unwillingly martyred 14 years ago) may still be alive when decisions like Obergefell are able to come out. (Yes, that pun is entirely intentional.) We still care about freedom, Justice Kennedy seems to be saying, and about basic decency. We will let people express their love unhindered by the state and the shallow bigotries of their fellow citizens, because that’s what democracies with bills of right do: they understand fundamental rights of their people, and empower rather than crush them. It would be demeaning and stigmatizing to do otherwise. As an idea, this is America at its very best. So much of what has happened since 9/11 has been disappointingly other than this. With same sex marriage now legal, and people of all stripes and types being freer than they were before, this place appears, again, to be making strides towards being the sort of country that the hijackers hated. Again, this is a very good thing. (Of course, New York legalised same sex marriage in 2011. But then, it would.)

Every September 11, I try to do something thoughtful and reflective. Normally this involves buying a girl a drink and gazing at my reflection in the bottom of an empty pint glass. This year, for the first time, I built up the courage to go down to the memorial site. It’s still a little bit of a morass of construction down there, but the memorials are accessible and I witnessed a small ceremony featuring bagpipers and speeches. There’s also a new tower that’s now open and fully functioning. There were certainly two eerie beams of light staring up at the sky and kissing the clouds this year, as there have been every year since 2001. There was also this edifice standing tall, in this: the greatest city of a country that seems once again to be living up to the tower’s name.

Freedom Tower
Both as an idea, and as a tower, I think that freedom is pretty fabulous.

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Travels in Modistan, Part I

ModiYoga

The new Sahar – sorry, Chhatrapati Shivaji – Airport in Bombay – sorry, Mumbai – is magnificent. The floors are made of marble. The immigration queues are efficient. The time taken from landing to entering my uncle’s waiting car – which we access through a lift, in a multi-storey car-park – is 30 minutes. This is a nice contrast with the trek through the throng of paan-­spitting cab-drivers and supplicants for our dollars outside the airport that was once customary. I also have memories, as a child (and perhaps even from earlier this year), of spending hours making my way across peeling grey tiles and through an arrival hall that bore the unmistakable fragrance of stale urine. (Perhaps this is the conflation of unreliable memory, and one smell overpowering the memories of my other senses. We travelled a lot on trains in that India, too.)

This, though, is a space to rival Changi or Dubai’s Terminal 3. Having come from Newark 14 hours ago, and braved LAX’s incompetent hipster insouciance barely eight weeks ago, this is very welcome. Some relatives turn out to have been on my flight from Newark. As I drop them home, one tells me that the BBC doesn’t report this.“Instead, they want to show our slums.”

I understand the airport in Shanghai is wonderfully impressive, too.

The next morning I drive to Pune. My driver, Aslam, comes from a family that was originally from Lucknow. He grew up reading and writing the nastaliq script and can read Arabic and Persian, too. He tunes the radio to a station that plays Mohammad Rafi’s and Lata Mangeshkar’s hits from the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a warm day. During one ad break we flick to a station that is amplifying the unmistakable tones of the country’s leader. My Hindi isn’t equal to the task of understanding it all, but I hear the words “nasha” (drugs) and “terrorist” (terrorist) several times. He’s telling people not to take drugs, or support drug-dealers, because the money could go to fund terrorists. I ask my driver how he voted this election.

“For Modi”, he tells me.

“Is he ok with Muslims?” I ask.

“Yes. A lot of my people – maybe 80% of my people – think he isn’t, but the things he’s doing, they’re for everyone. He’ll be ok. See, he’s telling us to stop taking drugs. This is good. There’s a lot of brown sugar in Bombay. Rich people, poor people, in the slums: everyone’s taking it. Especially these Biharis, they’re dealing a lot of it. They do bad things. Cause problems: work in houses, kill people, run off with their money after they gain their trust. And drugs. It’s not good. Modi’s stopping this.”

Wizened monkeys sit on the railings on the Bombay-Poona expressway – a legacy of a previous government – and chuckle sagely at us as we cross the ghats. Some appear to be bearded. They’re not yet wearing blue and orange kurtas with contrasting vests.

I’ve been hearing echoes of my driver’s words in many places this trip. An uncle in his 70s talks about another nephew of his who lost admission to medical school some years ago, in favour of a minister’s son who didn’t have the marks.

“Things like that won’t happen under this government,” he tells me confidently. “And we need to stop pampering the Muslims. We need one civil law. Family planning doesn’t apply to them.” I try to press him on what this actually means. How are they pampered? What are the consequences?

“They’ll outnumber us,” he says, unable to tell me why that would be terrible.

Later, another relative, a retired army brigadier, is less sanguine about this government’s policies. “Secularism is going to take a beating,” he tells me from his hospital bed. “And the press, and education, and the courts, he doesn’t deal with them properly. Smriti Irani – what’s she on about? But the economy, that will work out.”

Over dinner and a glass of scotch, that evening, I suggest that those of us abroad may be intellectualising things a little much. “Maybe India needs simple messages for now. Stay clean, don’t be corrupt, don’t do drugs. And everyone wants security, for their families, against Pakistan. Maybe we weren’t ready for Nehru’s idealism. Maybe these Ivy League intellectuals abroad confuse ideals with achievements.”

I shudder a little at my own condescension when saying this. Anyone who knows me will know how rare this bout of self-awareness is. It quickly passes.

“Well, I haven’t been abroad,” the anti-pampering relative tells me. “But I know what a mess things have been these past twenty years. Let’s give this guy a chance.”

On my return to Bombay over the last couple of days, so far the things I like most about this city seem to have remained intact. The booksellers at Flora Fountain remain undisturbed. Lawyers still scurry from the High Court in suits entirely of black or the former Indian Cricket uniform of grey flannels and black blazers with white shirts. A friend at the High Court shows me a plaque bearing the name Wodehouse (apparently a relation of PG’s), adorned with the honorific of Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India (slightly less redundant by age, and perhaps just as offensive, as the also dormant Order of St Patrick). The cold coffee remains comfortingly exorbitant at the Oberoi. The lights of Haji Ali shine as brightly as ever as I approach the Colaba causeway on the way back to the suburbs in the evening. For now, the important things about Bombay appear to be safe.

But there are also small, probably good, changes. One driver gets out of his cab, wordlessly, at a public toilet not far from Apollo Bunder. He relieves himself in closed doors rather than on the side of the road as would once have been de rigueur. (I do still yell at him for leaving without telling me where he was going. It’s a big city. A chap needs to look after himself.) Another tuts at a motorcyclist who disposes of his trash on the side of the road. “What are they doing to our footpaths?” he says of the raised platforms that I’ve always seen used as makeshift lavatories. Somehow the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) initiative seems to be striking a chord with the people for whom it mattes, even as we get lost under a flyover trying to find Vincent Road (which is apparently now called Babasaheb Ambedkar Marg). The inherent conflict between defecating indoors and the term “Make in India” doesn’t seem to be perplexing anyone too much.

Another relative, now 91 and retired as a radio operator from the national carrier after working there for 40 years, tells me that the merger of Air India and Indian Airlines was an act of corruption.

“The minister wanted to eat money, so got kickbacks from buying aircraft. The airline’s been heaving under the strain since. Now, though, it’s a nationalised airline. It will do better. Modi will make sure it will.”

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Marriages that Mattered, 5 October 2014

Listen to this while reading.

There’s a lot to love about my favourite featured story in this week’s New York Times Weddings section. The bride went to a private school in Los Angeles. She followed this with film studies at Columbia. This may have been a mistake, since her surname is – get this – Yale. If she wanted an even greater connection to the best Ivy, she married a chap who went to Exeter and grew up in New Haven. (New Haven, Vermont, that is.)

The groom, Rhys Marsh, worked at Citibank (and then moved to Lehman before its collapse). Like many a 22-year-old recent Duke graduate working in finance before and since, he was at a bar in the Meatpacking District on a Friday night in February in 2006. He had lost his phone, so did not try to take her number after they struck up a conversation at the bar. (I am fairly sure that he was not being disingenuous. My out-of-date iPhone 4S often dies on me after a late night out. Few people have called or emailed me after I’ve handed them my card in such circumstances, but perhaps they just need an excuse.)

It was sleeting and a garbage truck drove by as they were waiting outside at the end of the night. This was fortunate for Mr Marsh. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t all that unique a situation. It often snows in February in New York. And garbage trucks often drive by at inopportune times on 8th or 9th Avenue late at night and splatter people with a mixture of snow and mud. These things do not often happen when you’re standing next to a 19 year old Columbia student with loose butterscotch hair, with surname  Yale when you’ve grown up in New Haven, and with whom you’ve recently struck up a promising rapport. So Mr Marsh is a lucky man. He persuaded her to go back to his place to dry off. (That wasn’t good fortune. It was just smooth.) She persuaded him to go into renewable energy. She makes films in Burundi and involves him in finance when doing so. He proposed in Antarctica. Fingers of mist crept over the ridge as they said their vows.

Everything about this couple is perfect. By rights I should hate them, with the sneering jealous contempt of someone fated never to traipse down the yellow brick road of perfection. Even the timing of their wedding is perfect, though, since my vitriol right now is reserved for other weddings (which, fortunately, the Vows section had the good taste not to cover) right now. In the circumstances, I can only wish Mr. Marsh and Miss Yale every happiness.

Other wedding announcements I enjoyed this week include the story of Mary Birnbaum and Justin Shane. The bride and groom are both teachers. She teaches acting for singers at Juilliard. He teaches middle school science in the Bronx. Earlier, though, he was a lawyer. He has now recovered, and Miss Birnbaum has a husband with whom she might spend meaningful time in the evenings.

Diane Delgado, the new bride of Duane Loft, a 34 year old Boies Schiller partner who splits his time between London and New York, may not be as fortunate. The painter bride may have to get used to long conversations with her sculptor father-in-law as her husband takes calls at family dinners. There will likely be compensations. I don’t see her struggling to find the cash for canvas or paints any time soon.

And, to round off the weekend, some more traditional Weddings Section fare. In my primer to the section late last year, I ought to have mentioned that a major rule when reading is to scan the surnames of couples for Presidential or Founding Father surnames. You might just hit gold. Such was the case when it came to the union of Virginia Taft and Robert Powell this week. (They happened to meet at Union College.) The bride is a great-great-granddaughter of President William Howard Taft. The groom goes one better, claiming descent from John Howland, a signatory to the Mayflower Compact.

On the subject of American History, it’s Columbus Day in a shade over a week. This ought to remind us that not all marriages – whether between two people or two races – wind up being preternaturally happy. I mention this not because of the Times’ section – I hope and am sure that all of the people whose weddings featured this week will have the most blissful of marriages – but because of that other wedding. For her own sake, I hope that Miss Alamuddin has taken plenty of advice from Jemima Khan on the do’s and don’ts of being married to devastatingly handsome men with accomplishments in their chosen fields, determined to make the world a better place.

If you haven’t, are reading, and ever need to talk, Amal, feel free to drop me a line.

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Brief Weddings Update, 21 September 2014

Ali MacGraw + LOVE STORY + cream coat 4 Some people tied the knot this weekend. I like the couple here best. The bride, 63, was a widow. She “made it a point that [she] was going to avoid all contact with lawyers if possible, both professionally and personally, based on previous experience.” I love seeing people who aren’t in relationships but who have adamant rules about what works for them see those rules broken into a million little pieces. This isn’t misanthropic, but self-preserving. When a chap is on no-one’s list of an ideal mate, it’s about all you can do to hope that the list is somehow wrong for someone. Mrs. Suzuki learned, to her benefit, that even lawyers can be “very loving”, “very caring”, and “the best kisser”.

Late Summer/early Fall always features some people who are likely to be very powerful (and produce powerful spawn) in coming years. Like this couple, which features a bride who graduated from Brown, has an MBA from Harvard, a father who runs Wachtell, and who now works at Goldman Sachs. (How many prestige ticks is it possible for one person to have? However many it is, I think she has all of them.) Her husband’s no slouch either – he works in private equity after an MBA at Wharton. There’s the private banker who married a tax lawyer. Between them they’ll be able to handle all of your avoidance of, and ultimate contributions to, the government. And Google marries Facebook here. Is anyone else slightly worried by the possibility that between them, this couple can both see all of your selfies and show other people how to search for them? Isn’t there some kind of antitrust violation at play here?

Second favourite couple for the week, though, goes to Mitchell Reich and Patrick Pearsall (and not just because I’m a step of separation away from one of the grooms). Mainly the distinction arises because I’m a big fan of Kagan weddings of all hues. Note, for example, that this is by no means an unconventional match for the junior-most justice; at 34 to 27 this is far from the biggest age gap in a wedding over which Justice Kagan has presided in the past few years. I also like this couple for the facts that they’ve covered Yale, Harvard, and Columbia, that there’s going to be a bit of a name change (still unusual for same-sex weddings in the Times), and because they’re both lawyers. (Again, the Times hasn’t had all that many same-sex lawyer marriages featured since the recent spate of legalizations.) Hopefully because of – or perhaps despite – their joint profession, they’re both very caring and very loving. I also hope that they don’t give up on the third attribute of good coupling just because his wife has declared that Stafford Duff Ritchie II is the best going. They might not be the best, but lawyers can be good kissers, too.

Fall’s a romantic time of year, particularly when the heating bills start going up. I hope that all three of my readers won’t waste the coming weekend afternoons, filled as they will be with fetching pullovers and crunchy leaves.

Happy weddings everyone.

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City Snippets

If someone wise never said that a chap should think seriously before he wanders into a bar alone – and by alone, I mean, with the sole purpose of being there on his own, without anyone waiting there or due to meet him – then he or she should have. (It’s too late now. I’ve said it. And I make no claims to wisdom.) For all that Manhattan has many bars, and the bars are often inviting places with jovial gamekeepers and attractive flora and fauna, wandering into them alone is a little like a jungle escapade. If you just want to smell the flowers and skirt the boundary in search of quiet contemplation, that’s fine. Wanting to mingle and make yourself at home in a place where people are drinking is a much more fraught endeavour.

I try not to wander into too many bars on my own. Still, there are spots that feel safer than others, especially after a late night in the office when it feels like sleep will elude me for an hour or two yet. St Patrick’s Day 2014 was one such night. It was about 1 in the morning when the black car dropped me at a bar on the Upper East Side where the air was filled with the scent of cigar smoke and there were more bottles of whisky on display than there were beers on tap. I am not sure what I wanted, really. I sought some entertainment, perhaps, or conversation. I sat at the bar – it was one of those long, u-shaped things – and ordered a cocktail. There were a few people around me. Directly to my left, a couple of guys were playing chess. One, thick-set with a Bronx accent, was explaining the rudiments to his friend.

“After your Queen, the rook’s the most important piece. After the rook, it depends. Do you feel more comfortable with a piece that moves diagonally or that moves in an ‘l’ formation? Me, I like the ‘l’. You may not.”

Next to them, an older man was talking to two women with Eastern European accents wearing low cut dresses and far too much lipstick. They had put the lipstick on in a hurry, clearly, as it had smudged their teeth. He would mumble inanities in an accent that may have been from Long Island, at which the women would laugh. Every few minutes he would whisper something in a language that I assume was Russian. His female companions would giggle at this, too, albeit less comfortably. Next to the girls sat a younger, broad-shouldered chap. He didn’t say much, preferring instead to nurse a vodka. At my end of the bar, I did the same. Now that I’m older, I find that I need to be in a mood to drink. That night I wasn’t.

Eventually the older Russian gentleman turned his attention to the Chess lesson.

“You seem good. I used to be good, haven’t played for a long time.”

“I’m still learning,” the teacher said. (His student had wandered to the bathroom.) “I’m James. What’s your name?”

“Sergei,” the older gentleman said. “I’d like to play, but I don’t like losing. I hate the way I am when I lose,” he explained, more to the women at the bar than anything else. The women giggled. The one on the right facing me, a brunette, had a chipped canine. I only noticed this when she seemed to be straining particularly hard to laugh.

“None of us like losing, but if you don’t play, you can’t win either. I’d like to learn from you,” James responded. “You could teach me things.”

“Yeah, but I don’t like losing,” Sergei said again. He moved back to the women. The student returned from the bathroom. James asked him to sit away from the game, set on playing Sergei, who didn’t like losing. They tried this again a few times, Sergei getting more agitated each time. Eventually, James gave up.

“If you don’t want to play, you don’t want to play. I just want to learn from you.”

“Hey, I’ll play,” Sergei’s younger friend finally said. “I’m not great, but I’ll play. I’m Boris.” And they sat down to play, and Sergei went back to the women with the smudged lipstick and the broken teeth and the loud giggles. He bought them a couple of cosmopolitans, and they giggled even more loudly than they had before.

I don’t know if James won or Boris did. I did not feel like finishing my drink. I paid the cheque, and I left. The air wasn’t as smoky outside. It felt better there.

* * *

With the amount of time I spend reading about, occasionally analysing, and, these days, traveling to and attending weddings, I suppose it was inevitable that I would come face-to-face with the trauma and terror that comes with being a bridesmaid in early 21st century New York. I hasten to add that no-one has asked me to be a bridesmaid – my slim, decidedly male, hips would make a dress-fitting a nightmare – but I have friends who have been asked. On Thursday I went, at lunchtime, to a place that seems to stand as a metaphor for a bride’s determination that she will be the star of the show, no matter how much she might love her friends. I went to a store that displays and then makes bridesmaids’ dresses. (It also has a line on the side in hideous, off-white lace and taffeta creations that might pass for a wedding dress for when you’re in a hurry, on a budget, and not even sure that you’re really in love.)

The dresses in this temple to kitsch slump on rack after rack, in every distasteful colour imaginable. Towards the back are the browns, ranging in shades from mud to excrement. To the right stand the cyans and the faded magentas, like icing on a cake that you’re sure will give you indigestion. In a special corner that good taste seems to have forgotten, there are the mustard yellows. As far as I could tell, bridesmaids who buy their dresses from here don’t wear bras – or, at least, bras that satisfy Bette Midler’s definition of an “over the shoulder boulder-holder” – since all of these dresses are strapless. The potential for accidents seems high. The dresses don’t look especially comfortable, either. Nor are the ordered alterations always designed to flatter. I wonder if the tailors are under instructions from the brides.

I had thought that the “Bridezilla” stereotype was a myth, or an exaggeration. I was finally disabused of this notion this week. My friend told me that she was paying for this dress. At $300 (which may or may not have included the cost of the many necessary alterations, since sacks need to be tailored in order to look slightly less like sacks), the dress was not cheap. My friend had also paid for her own attendance, and one-tenth of the bride’s, at an expensive bachelorette party. Her dress was black, which seemed to hinder its utility in other scenarios. Other than at this wedding, a floor-length black dress comprising many layers of lace seems useful only for funerals. (The one redeeming aspect of a dress in vomit yellow, or Denver-the-Last-Dinosaur green, is that it might be loaned to your drag queen friends or used for bad taste parties.) I suggested that my friend might want to buy a veil to go with it, in order to be prepared for the next time she might wear this dress.

There seems to be something awfully Newtonian about the way that some straight women of some means in early 21st century New York navigate the marital minefield. The dating game seems to be a one-shot deal for the suitor: one mistake, false step, or misspoken word, and he’s out. If he takes too long to tether himself to her for the next fifty years, she goes looking elsewhere. Once he asks and she accepts, she then starts making financial and emotional demands of her dearest friends (all the while feeling as though she’s won some prize, like the bitch correspondent seeking Caity Weaver’s advice in the second question here). At the same time, our putative bride seems to make herself miserable, not eating or drinking and frenetically exercising in an attempt to be skinnier than she’s ever been or will be again.

There appear to be equal and opposite reactions for all of these things.  To make up for the starvation, I suppose, there’s pregnancy and the ability to eat what you want, free of guilt, because there’s someone inside you. And to make up for the pain that she has caused her husband and friends while preparing to be a bride, I imagine, there is childbirth. (This doesn’t necessarily hold, of course. I am working on my theory. And if there is a karmic justice to all of this, I imagine that nice brides have easier childbirth experiences, elective caesareans, or surrogates.)

* * *

Most great cities have grand thoroughfares. Shanghai has the Bund, Paris the Champs-Elysées, Singapore Orchard Road, and Delhi has Janpath. London has a few – I like Piccadilly, but I also like driving up the Mall to Buckingham Palace – but I think Manhattan is unique. Everyone will talk about Broadway, because it runs across the island from northwest to southeast. (The three dimensional aspect of the Flatiron Building at the spot where Broadway meets Fifth Avenue helps.) There are others that I like just as much. Amsterdam Avenue, for its proximity to Columbia and its brunch spots, will always have a special place in my heart. Fifth Avenue, with the Empire State Building on 34th Street and decorated most nights with homeless people sleeping on park benches on the west side of the avenue and museums and monolithic mansions for millionaires to the east from the 60s to the 90s, raises its own questions and has its own charms.

BloomingdalesThere are the less well-known avenues that merit attention, too. One night this week, I left work early, reasonably certain that my email wouldn’t trouble me. Instead of taking the subway or hailing a taxi, I decided to walk, choosing Lexington Avenue with a pair of headphones in my ears. My iPhone at the moment features a mix of Mika’s latest album, Kings of Leon’s Only By The Night, the new Beyoncé album, and the soundtracks to the new Great Gatsby film and Anchorman 2. It makes for an odd sort of mix. Neil Diamond’s “Shilo” took me through the late 40s and early 50s. By the time I reached Bloomingdales, Beyoncé was telling me about how she was a Grown Woman, and my Sex was on Fire well before 65th Street. I may have been rapping along loudly when Jay Z talked about being a “new Kennedy”, just as I passed the building that Jacqueline Kennedy’s grandfather had been responsible for building eighty years earlier one block to the west of me.

People probably wondered what I was muttering about. At some level, so was I, but it did not much matter. On a pleasant evening, with the wind fondling your hair and a tune in your ear and a pair of legs that can take you places, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than here. At the right time of year – which late March clearly is – I am not sure that anywhere in the world can put a bigger Spring in your step.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. For all its tarts and tough guys and brides with great expectations and less great taste, this is a wonderful town.

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