Friday, May 30, 2008

Octavio Paz on modernity

I’ve quoted Octavio Paz a couple of times, and here he is once more: this time I pick from his dense and wide-ranging Nobel speech. The theme that ties it all together all is that elusive creature, modernity. What does Paz have to say? Consider, first, his thoughts on the connection between tradition and modernity:
I am not sure whether this unexpected historical lesson has been learnt by all: between tradition and modernity there is a bridge. When they are mutually isolated, tradition stagnates and modernity vaporizes; when in conjunction, modernity breathes life into tradition, while the latter replies with depth and gravity.
So much in the world today is attributed to that supposed fissure between the two - and one seems to step on the foot of the other. But as Paz notes eloquently at the end of his speech, modernity is evanescent, not easily grasped; it is startling; it can use the very, very ancient to produce the new:
In this pilgrimage in search of modernity I lost my way at many points only to find myself again. I returned to the source and discovered that modernity is not outside but within us. It is today and the most ancient antiquity; it is tomorrow and the beginning of the world; it is a thousand years old and yet newborn. It speaks in Nahuatl, draws Chinese ideograms from the 9th century, and appears on the television screen. This intact present, recently unearthed, shakes off the dust of centuries, smiles and suddenly starts to fly, disappearing through the window. A simultaneous plurality of time and presence: modernity breaks with the immediate past only to recover an age-old past and transform a tiny fertility figure from the neolithic into our contemporary. We pursue modernity in her incessant metamorphoses yet we never manage to trap her. She always escapes: each encounter ends in flight. We embrace her and she disappears immediately: it was just a little air. It is the instant, that bird that is everywhere and nowhere. We want to trap it alive but it flaps its wings and vanishes in the form of a handful of syllables. We are left empty-handed. Then the doors of perception open slightly and the other time appears, the real one we were searching for without knowing it: the present, the presence.
It's a rather dramatic piece of prose - I've noticed in other essays too that Paz takes such flights - but his message couldn't have been more accurate.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Environmentalism - a worldwide secular religion

Freeman Dyson ends The Question of Global Warming - an essay in The New York Review of Books - with these passages that capture the essence of the issue:
All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world.

Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the be-lief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Thoughts on Alaa Aswany's The Yacoubian Building

While reading Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building I was reminded of Robert Altman’s movie Short Cuts. Altman is famous for his ensemble movie making, and in Short Cuts, he weaves Raymond Carver’s short stories into a web of intersecting lives. The result is an eclectic mix of personalities, each carrying his or her personal conflict, but appearing, often inadvertently and peripherally, in the trajectory of some other character. This technique, while disorienting since it shifts focus often, is able to portray a diversity and complexity not possible in more conventional methods.

In The Yacoubian Building too, Al Aswany uses a number of intertwining Egyptian characters assembled from all walks of life – the son of a doorkeeper; a rich businessman with political ambitions; a well-off elderly man with an incurable weakness for women; the daughter of a poor family, living in cramped quarters; a lonely newspaper editor yearning for a lasting relationship. All these characters are tied, one way or the other, to the Yacoubian Building in downtown Cairo: they either have their office space there, or live there, or visit the building to meet someone who lives there.

Through this cast of characters and an ever-shifting third person omniscient narrative, Alaa Aswany manages to convey the political and social changes Egypt has witnessed in the last fifty years: the move from monarchy to an authoritarian regime; the pull towards socialism and radical Islam; the struggle to eke a living amid the corruption that pervades society, where it matters who knows whom. Aswany does this not through a narration of facts, but instead through the actions, thoughts and the conflicts of the people in the novel.

Much is revealed, strikingly, through the frank sexuality that runs through the book. If we look closely, though, we see that Alaa Aswany doesn’t really dwell on the details of the lovemaking. Instead in the moments before an intimate encounter, or the contented moments after, we learn a lot about the characters – through their thoughts or the conversations they have with their partners. The author must surely believe we reveal ourselves the most when overcome with desire or when satiated.

Aswany also makes plenty of other astute observations. How, for instance, might a servant with an amputated leg cleverly use his handicap to appeal to the emotions of the most hard-hearted? (“…with a special move, suddenly bending his torso backward and pulling his worn, dirty gallabiya upward with both hands so that his truncated leg, attached to the depressingly dark-colored prosthesis, was displayed.”) How might a woman who has decided to use her body for some financial gain change in her attitudes?
“She had lost her compassion for people and thick crust of indifference had formed around her feelings – that disgust that afflicts the exhausted, the frustrated, and the perverted and prevents them from sympathizing with others. She had succeeded, after repeated attempts, in ridding herself of thoughts and feelings of remorse and buried forever the guilt that had afflicted her when she took off her dress in front of Talal and washed off his defilement, then put her hand out to him to collect ten pounds. She had become crueler, more bitter and daring, and no longer cared what the residents of the roof told one another about her reputation.”
Aswany seems especially adept at this sort of insight. The best one in the book, though, pertains to a young man, Taha, the son of the doorkeeper to the Yacoubian building.

Taha is studious and intelligent and is much better at school than the sons and daughters of more well off residents. But because of his father’s occupation – lowly in the eyes of those around him – he never gets the credit he deserves. He is looked upon condescendingly. He bears these implied insults and soldiers on, studies hard. His ambition is to become a police officer, and leave behind the life of squalor, poverty and humiliation in the Yacoubian building. He clears the required exams, and the last step – a mere formality – is to go through an interview process. He gets to the end of the interview successfully, but the presiding general, who up to then had admired Taha’s well rehearsed answers, looks through some papers, and asks him:

“Your father – what’s his profession Taha?”

“Civil servant, sir.”

“Civil servant or property guard?”

Taha is silent for a while, before he says in a low voice: “My father is a property guard, sir.”

Taha is not offered the job. He is frustrated and unable to get over it. But he eventually joins the university to study economics and political sciences. There, he meets a group of poor students of rural origin, and slowly through them gravitates towards Islam. He becomes close to Sheikh Shakir, the immensely popular leader of the Islamic political movement. Shakir becomes his spiritual mentor.

Taha is transformed after this experience. He was always religious but he is more ardent and serious now. He begins to see everybody around him in binaries: his worldview begins to absorb the absolutes of the faith. But the most striking transformation is how he feels within. He now has a dignity he never had before. Gone is the perpetual undercurrent of humiliation he felt because of his father’s occupation. One of the best passages of the book in my opinion is the following where Alaa Aswany describes this change in Taha:
“Those who knew Taha el Shazli in the past might have difficulty in recognizing him now. He has changed totally, as though he had swapped his former self for another, new one. It isn’t just a matter of Islamic dress that he has adopted in place of his Western clothes, nor of his beard, which he has let grow and which gives him a dignified and impressive appearance greater than his real age….All these are changes in appearance. Inside, however, he has been possessed by a new, powerful, bounding spirit. He has taken to walking, sitting, and speaking to people in the [Yacoubian] building in a new way. Gone forever are the old cringing humility and meekness before the residents. Now he faces them with self-confidence. He no longer cares a hoot for what they think, and he won’t put up with the least reproach or slight from them. He’s no longer interested in those small banknotes that they used to give him and which he used to save in order to buy his new things, in the first place because of his firm faith in God will provide for him and secondly because Sheikh Shakir has got him involved in the sale of religious books – small errands that he undertakes in his spare time and which bring him in a reasonable amount.”
This vital fact, this new sense of dignity we see in Taha, is not something we could have necessarily gleaned had Alaa Aswany not expressed it so well, with such clarity. The book is full of such moments, and Aswany's directness seems well rendered in Humphrey Davies’ translation. Not surprisingly The Yacoubian Building was a massive success in Egypt and now abroad as well.

Pankaj Mishra recently wrote about Aswany and his political views recently in the New York Times. Here you’ll find links to other reviews of the book. And The Yacoubian Building is now a movie as well.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Chandrahas Choudhury on fiction

My apologies to those who might have read this post in the twelve hours after it was posted - there were some glaring, embarrassing typos.

I might have posted two fiction pieces this month but of all forms, I've found fiction the hardest to write. It’s the hardest, paradoxically, because it gives you more freedom than any other form. One doesn’t have to be precise about the details and can invent them howsoever one chooses so long as they are plausible - in contrast to the constraints that fact imposes on a non-fiction narrative. And yet, fiction takes enormous effort and control and there is no guarantee that the end effect is as desired – I’ve found it very exhausting, and have almost always preferred the safety of non-fiction.

In his recent review of Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Chandrahas Choudhury provides some lessons on what can go wrong in fiction. If you read Chandrahas’ reviews, you’ll find something I don’t see much – or at least not as well expressed – in other reviews: a broad, general commentary in the beginning that connects beautifully with the specific criticism of the book he is writing about. Consider the first three paragraphs in his essay on The White Tiger. There are some sparkling observations here:
When compared to the journalist or the scholar, the fiction writer seems absurdly free. He or she can construct a story in any way he chooses. His characters have freedom to say whatever they like – in fact they are most persuasive when we feel them to be “free”, and not mouthpieces for the author’s ideas. All we demand in return is not that the story be true but that it be plausible - that it not give the appearance of being contrived.

But this requirement shows us that the fiction writer’s freedom is actually a difficult freedom. Constructing a plausible story from scratch – a story in which narration, dialogue, and plot construction work together to produce the effect of lived experience – can be harder than reporting or analysing a true story. This is the reason why, when judged by the highest standards, most novels are failures, some are honourable failures, and few are successes.

Fiction writers can misuse their freedom through simple incompetence, or by manipulative plotting, or by a failure to imaginatively realise the inner lives of their characters, or by simplified and schematic thinking that waters down the complexity of the world. Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger seems especially instructive in this regard, because it seems to me to be culpable in all the ways mentioned above.
That’s about what can go wrong, but Chandrahas has an earlier essay with brilliant opening paragraphs where he talks of the strength of fiction:
Is fiction useful? Does the reading of novels or stories serve any constructive purpose other than diversion or, to use the specifically Indian word for the same experience, timepass? That it does not is the implicit argument of many readers who choose to apportion their reading time to history, biography, reportage, political analysis, books on management or (increasingly) inspirational literature—but not to fiction.

In a limited sense, this understanding is actually correct. Were the measure of a piece of writing to be its obvious utility, fiction would find it hard to defend itself in that court. After all, fiction does not offer any facts, hard empirical or statistical truths: It is by definition make-believe. It says nothing on the matter of improving relationships, establishing financial security, or controlling the breath for greater calm and energy. It seems ambiguous: it does not even deliver clear judgements on the characters it has itself presented. Fiction cannot even make up its own mind, let alone help us make up ours.

Yet, looked at from another viewpoint, the compass of fiction is precisely that which other disciplines and approaches leave out. What other schools of thought consider insignificant, or prove incapable of weighing, fiction treats with the greatest care and attention: a word, a gesture, a memory, a misunderstanding. As Milan Kundera observes, the knowledge we take away from fiction is existential knowledge. Reading the work of a skilled writer, we are at first taken by surprise, and yet we later close the book and say yes, life is like this.
The analysis is spot on. Do read Chandrahas’ blog, The Middle Stage. He’s an exceptional interpreter of books and literature, and you’ll find his blog is full of priceless essays that begin in a similarly sage way.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Bollywood Omnibus

More fiction. Nearly five years ago, I wrote a story with a narrative blatantly assembled from the kitschy elements of Bollywood. My purpose, I guess, was to revel in the kitsch, enjoy the exaggerations and generate humor along the way. What you see below are the first few paragraphs of that story. I was never completely happy with it, and have kept it aside all this time, but isn’t a blog the best way to test things out, even if they are embarrassing?


Police Inspector Arjun Sinha, a dashing, curly-haired, mustachioed man with a gently protruding paunch, was a prolific apprehender of underworld dons, criminals, mafia lords and smugglers. He was endowed with special shock-absorber legs that enabled him to land without losing balance on fast-moving trains from tall cliffs; with rocket-propellant thighs that enabled him to make long leaps and ascend ten-story buildings almost instantly; with a sharp vision that allowed him to trace bullet trajectories and thereby dodge staccato bursts of machine-gun fire from his enemies; with special sparring talents that enabled him to tackle ten thugs at the same time – so powerful and gifted was he, and so strong was his commitment to justice that he had, in just a few years as a police officer, been the nemesis of such deadly villains as the bald don Shakaal, the petty smuggler Loin, the evil scientist Dr.Dang, the cult leader Kooka Singh, and, most recently, the despotic and Hitleresque Mogambo.

But the one evil-doer whom Arjun still sought for, whose mere mention made his blood boil with rage and whose extermination for very personal reasons was his only goal, was the dacoit Ganja Singh, who had gained his name from his liking for marijuana and whose notoriety stemmed not only from his merciless raids on the villages in his area but also from his recently burgeoning, globe-wide drug-smuggling ring. Ganja Singh’s foray into the world of drug peddling had not changed his dacoit-like, nomadic ways that he had maintained for nearly thirty years: he still lived in barren, rocky valleys with his gun-toting, sycophantic thugs, and his characteristic rumbling guffaws could be heard for miles, especially during the drugged and delirious celebrations that ensued after successful village raids. His opening gambit to all enemies was: “If you’ve drunk your mother’s milk, come see me eye to eye!” or “My name is Ganja; and I was born at the banks of the river Ganga!” Ganja Singh was famous for his antics in the river: he would hold conferences in it, and suddenly, without warning, would immerse himself completely in water for well in excess of a minute, much to the concern of his loyal ruffians, and would then rise up in dramatic fashion with a loud “Yaaahhh!” as if rejuvenated by this experience. His followers, genuinely thrilled to see the feat, would then culminate the ritual with claps, cheers, lusty whistles and celebratory gunshots.

Ganja Singh’s drug-network thrived on account of his association with some powerful and important men. The most influential of them was Swamiji, the long-haired, bearded Delhi-based saint and Godman, who sported fifty gold and silver rings on his fingers and a thousand rosary beads of various sizes on his chest, and whose hypnotic and charming demeanor attracted many spiritually starved Hollywood beauties, business tycoons and impossibly rich sultans. He was especially invaluable to depraved politicians who sought astrological advice from him on when to campaign for the elections or start a new party or splinter an existing one. In his younger days Swamiji’s interest in numerology had mistakenly inspired him to study mathematics but unable to withstand its dreary formalism and objectivity he had abandoned the pursuit quickly. However, he never missed an opportunity to parade his peripheral knowledge of the subject: his metaphysical thoughts were almost always peppered with number tricks and mathematical constructs. Once, at his plush ashram in Delhi, during the course of a theological discussion with those around him, Swamiji had said:

“The universe is a vector, each infinitesimal moment defined by a realization of one of an infinite set of choices, this one choice chosen by the random rolling of a roulette, and this one choice makes all the others impossible, even if the others had had greater chance of occurring. Who rolls this roulette? If someone does, who rolls this someone who rolls the roulette?”

One of the fifty politicians who took shrine under Swamiji was Karun Yadav, popularly called Neta Bekasoor, as he always professed innocence although there were hundreds of cases against him: of rape, bribery, illegal transactions, and murder. He claimed that his detractors dreaded his incorruptible character, and had therefore employed their party cadres exclusively to plant evidence against him, invent crime after crime to keep him busy in the courts. Bothered by the incriminations, he sought spiritual bliss with the soothing Swamiji, who, after listening to his problems, had looked at the end of his long beard, at faraway stars, galaxies, revolving roulettes, planets, particularly at the aspect of Saturn, and had suggested that Karun Yadav, to gain popularity and prove his innocence to the masses, would somehow need to show his generosity to them before the next elections.

Karun Yadav had mulled over this suggestion and decided to use a fraction of his large cash reserves in his Zurich bank account for the construction of the Karun Yadav Janata Center in his birthplace, the idyllic, picturesque and vista-filled town of Pipalkot. The center was vociferously advertised throughout the nation, with the motto Muft Me Milega (You’ll Get it For Free): it promised a fresh, free loaf of naan to all those who visited it every day; on special festive occasions of the year – such as New Year’s eve and Diwali – and Karun Yadav’s birthday, it promised a paisley-patterned sari with a matching blouse for women, and pajamas and kurtas –100% cotton – for men. The most enduring image of the campaign was the thirty-feet wide and twenty-feet long billboard of the smiling Karun Yadav donning thick black goggles – that he wore perennially, even at night – and dressed in his special starched-white, long-sleeved kurta that almost covered his fingers; whisker-like, graying hair sprang from the edges of his ears, symmetrically, on either side of his woolly astrakhan cap. Next to this endearing portrait was the message: “Come, you’ll get it for free from the only truly innocent politician you’ll see!”


And so the story goes on and on for ten thousand inexorable words. Here's another passage - the last one I'll share in this post, so you don't get too bored - that appears towards the end, just before the climax. It features Ali, Arjun Sinha's twin brother. Ali was separated from Arjun at birth, and while Arjun became a policeman, Ali went to Dubai and became a local gangster and petty thief. Ali, however, has now returned to India to meet Ganja Singh:

Incidentally, it was on the same day that Arjun’s twin brother and Ganja Singh’s new recruit Ali arrived in Pipalkot; he was dressed stylishly in a leather jacket studded with tiny blue and yellow light bulbs that he now and then flicked on and off using a switch in his pocket. He waited, arms akimbo, at the outskirts of the town, next to a dirt trail that disappeared into the jungle, for one of Ganja Singh’s men to take him to the dacoit’s camp. In a short while, he meticulously chose a Marlboro cigarette from its pack, nonchalantly flipped it several meters into the air, expertly intercepted it at the corner of his mouth, lighted it, drew deeply, and looked up at the sky. He was exhilarated after having flirted with two women on his flight from Dubai to Delhi: one, a beautiful Indian air hostess, dressed skillfully in a bright blue sari that allowed him long glances at her beautiful waist; and the other, an Indian passenger, seated next to him, equally beautiful, but dressed instead in a bright red sari, licking the richly colored tops of a maroon lollipop. Later in the flight, after one of his meals, he ordered strawberry and mango for dessert, and imagined the two beauties biting into the luscious fruits with slow sensuousness; he saw himself as a sheik reclining on a plush cushion, surrounded on either side by the two women in see-through veils, in a well-lit tent full of tapestry curtains and the silhouetted humps of resting camels. He also dreamt of a golden bowl overflowing with fruits and of placing purple grapes in the navels of the two moaning beauties and using their bellies as springboards to pop them into his mouth.

Just as his thoughts had been interrupted then by the crackle of the pilot’s voice, announcing their descent into Delhi, so was his pleasant recollection of the flight interrupted now by crows that had chosen the tree next to him to work up a ruckus. He glanced at his expensive Swiss watch that he had pilfered expertly from one of Dubai’s shopping malls, frowned and shook his head in disapproval at the absence of the promised escort to Ganja Singh’s hideout. He resolved to find the place himself, headed along the dirt trail and disappeared into the canopy of trees, fiddling with his switch restlessly, the colored blinking bulbs on his jacket making him look like a strangely illuminated apparition entering the jungle.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Ramesh's turnaround

Fiction, after a long time. Hope you enjoy this. All comments welcome.


Ramesh worked and lived in a small Midwestern town. Life was generally dull, but not when it came to buying groceries. For spices, Ramesh went to the only Indian store in town, but for vegetables, fruits, nuts, cereals and lentils – yes even lentils, that indispensable Indian staple – he went to an “alternative” store called Good Organics. Ramesh felt pleased and excited about his choice. He made sure all his co-workers and friends knew he shopped there. At parties he brought expensive potato chips and made it a point to mention, much to everyone’s surprise and sometimes irritation, that they were organic and kettle cooked.

Ramesh’s enthusiasm for all things organic came from his uncle who owned a farm near Coimbatore in south India, and who had shifted from conventional to organic farming a few years ago. With an ardor that is to be found among converts, his uncle now campaigned fiercely for organic farming; he traveled to talk and evangelize in seminars and workshops in India. Ramesh had been impressed and had resolved to do his bit, halfway across the world, in the wind-swept American prairie town he lived in.

That was all very well, but Ramesh hadn’t accounted for the quirks in his own personality. Though good-natured, he was notoriously short tempered; he flew into a rage for the most trivial reasons, and stuck stubbornly to his own point of view. But even his closest friends – who well knew Ramesh’s eccentricities – could not have predicted his temper would turn against his beloved grocery store.

How did it begin? Probably with the organic and supposedly locally produced tomatoes that Ramesh, a few months after shopping at Good Organics, found to be almost tasteless. Maybe the mold-infested packets of organic blueberries, expensively priced, ticked him off too. As did the heavy emphasis on “fair trade” dark chocolate, which Ramesh, a lover of sweet milk chocolate, abhorred, but which all employees in the store waxed eloquently about. So the euphoria and prestige of buying organic and healthy was slowly beginning to wear, but there was one incident that pushed him decisively over the edge.

That incident, of all things, had to do with a small clarification that Ramesh sought regarding cooking oil.

Ramesh had recently begun using organic olive oil for his cooking – extra virgin olive oil, actually. He had been using canola before, but olive oil was extolled by just about everyone. Ramesh, who primarily cooked curries, had never used it for his high heat cooking and stir-frying before. Olive oil, he had felt, was only for salads and pasta. But on the Food Network channel, he once saw a ham and cheese sandwich being fried in a vat bubbling with extra virgin olive oil at a restaurant in Venice. Ramesh was indignant: If Italians could deep fry in extra virgin olive oil, then why couldn’t he stir-fry his vegetables, lentils and spices with the same?

He began using organic extra virgin olive oil profusely, anxious to compensate for the health benefits he had missed. A bottle would disappear within a week into his dals and sabzis. And as with everything else, he loudly announced this alteration in his cooking habits to his colleagues at work. He mentioned it so much that his friends had to remind politely that they already knew about it.

One day, while at Good Organics, Ramesh realized that all the bottles of organic olive oil were extra virgin. He asked Melanie, one of the store employees, “Just wondering – do you carry olive oil that is not extra virgin? You see - I do high heat cooking with the extra virgin variety, and was wondering if just olive oil may have better properties.”

It was an innocuous question; Ramesh was only idly curious and wasn't expecting to get an answer. It led instead to an unraveling he could never have anticipated.

Melanie was a short, young woman with an expressive face. She left her blond hair stylishly tousled and bunched at the top and used a long pin to keep it together. She always beamed at him when he entered the store, and was effusive in her mannerisms.

“Wow, you’re from India!” She had exclaimed when she met him the first time. “Do you cook vegetarian? You should share some recipes with our vegan deli – maybe we’ll introduce a curry sandwich into the menu!”

Ramesh had found her booming voice and pronounced friendliness endearing in the beginning, but lately they had begun to grate.

“Olive oil for high heat cooking!” She now cried in response to his query, her face showing alarm. “You use that for high heat cooking? Oh, no, no, no, you shouldn’t do that…Olive oil should not be heated at all!”

“Really? I mean, a little bit of heat…”

“No, oh no, you shouldn’t!”

“But you know, I saw a sandwich being fried in extra virgin olive oil in Venice…”

“Yes, chefs do it all the time, but they shouldn’t be really. Researchers have recently found that that isn’t good – it’s actually toxic for you!”

Toxic!” Ramesh said, taken aback, getting genuinely concerned. “Toxic, really? But I’ve never deep fried, I just stir fry …I heard…”

“No, no you shouldn’t be heating it at all…Coconut oil is better for high heating.”

“Coconut oil?” said Ramesh, now confused. He had thought coconut oil was used only for hair - and how he hated it! He’d been forced as a kid to use it liberally to set his unruly hair before leaving for school, and over the course of the day it seemed to diffuse slowly onto his face, giving him a greasy look.

“Yes, coconut oil, research has shown is good for high heat and frying!”

Ramesh stood there uncertainly.

“I know it’s a bummer!” Melanie said, sighing. “But that’s what research says!” She pursed her lips and shrugged.

Ramesh walked around the aisles in a daze. He lingered in front of the bottles of organic extra virgin olive oil, recalling the amazing rapidity and gusto with which he had consumed them in past months. He felt slightly dizzy, half expecting to fall ill that very moment from toxicity. He clicked his tongue, admonishing himself and finally picked up a bottle of organic canola oil. There was no way he would have used bought coconut oil, even if it had been available.

He returned home, a frown on his face, determined to get to the bottom of the matter. He searched the Internet about the ill effects of heating olive oil. And he found that virtually all the websites stated that olive oil could be heated, no problems – it might lose its flavor but its nutrition, not much. As he dug deeper and deeper, it became even clearer that there was nothing wrong with heating at all. It certainly wasn’t toxic, as Melanie had so convincingly claimed.

For nearly ten minutes he paced around his place, Melanie’s statements playing repeatedly in his mind; the more he thought about about what she had said, the more incensed he became. Her voice and her demeanor annoyed him to no end. When he returned to the store, Ramesh was bursting with anger. The bells at the door tinkled urgently as he stormed in. One of the cashiers, a man with a Mohawk hairstyle, looked at him in surprise.

“Where’s Melanie?” Ramesh asked him.

“Melanie? Um… well, I think she’s in the bulk room. But why?”

Ramesh didn’t respond, and headed there, his face flaming with rage. He saw Melanie checking on the open containers of flours and cereals in the bulk room.

“Back for another round?” she asked laughing when she saw him, but quickly realized something was wrong. “Are you okay?”

Who told you heating olive oil was toxic?” He was breathless with aggression now, and wasn’t very coherent.

“Hey now…cool down,” Melanie said. “I read it somewhere. Some researchers…”

“Which researchers? Name them now!”

“I don’t know… I read it in some magazine…”

“Which magazine? Name it now!”

“I don’t have to name anything to you, okay?” she retorted, her eyes flashing and voice rising. “I am not here to answer your questions…”

“Well, then are you here to give false information, huh?” Ramesh asked almost hysterically. “To scare people to death?”

He took out his wallet; his trembling fingers searched for his membership card, which gave him a ten percent discount. He finally squeezed it out with difficulty, muttering incoherently all the time. With an exaggerated gesture, he threw it to the ground, and ground it with his foot.

“You see that’s what it deserves! With liars like you…” He picked the card up again, and again threw it violently to the ground.

Ramesh was so engrossed in this that he hardly noticed anything else. He had lost his temper, but he hadn’t expected Melanie to lose hers. But she too was just as prone to unleashing her temper in unexpected ways. In one swift motion she hurled a fistful of wheat flour at him from the container behind her. And then another, and another! With her other hand, she grabbed raisins – a large jar of raisins was close at hand – and barraged them at him.

In just a few seconds, Ramesh, who’d had to time to gauge what had hit him, was covered in white. The raisins were of the sticky kind and some had stuck to his flour-laden cheeks. They slowly fell off but a couple remained.

Get out!” She screamed

Ramesh came to his senses. He was startled but still angry. If he had waited a few seconds, Melanie might have sloshed him with honey next – in fact, she was reaching for a jar. But he stomped his foot, kicked the card – now half hidden in a small mound of flour pocked with raisins – one final time and left. The cashier with the Mohawk hairstyle stared at him, seriously for a while, and then burst out laughing.

“Holy freaking Christ - it’s like Halloween here!”

But Ramesh didn’t hear him; he had already left.


And that was the end of that. Ramesh never set foot in Good Organics again, but store employees often found him on weekends picketing outside, with a placard that said: “Moldy blueberries and scabbed potatoes – Good Organics sells and deserves only rotten tomatoes!” He cut a lonely figure, but claimed to customers he was following the Gandhian form of “non-violent, grassroots protest”. A couple of times he exchanged frosty glances with Melanie and store employees. Melanie had actually apologized to him once and even asked him out to coffee, but he would have none of it.

When winter set in and snowstorms put an end to his protest, Ramesh resorted to a different strategy. He shot off formal letters to various supermarket chains, including Walmart, encouraging them to “takeover Good Organics”, and thus help in ending “the tyranny of local stores”. He claimed that these stores were perceived in the community to be “exemplars of local democracy, but were shams really, purveyors of all sorts of falsehoods.”

And yes, to make his point, he had begun to shop at a supermarket chain, where he now bought all his groceries, including his olive oil.