February 28, 2002

greed breeds at the auction

ever observed people watching a game of table tennis? their eyes focussed on the ball and the hand of the players as they tackle the opponent’s reflexes with their own, smashing the ping-pong ball against the table, neatly spinning it with a backhand or forehand, or dodging a losing point…as the indoor sport echoes with a distinctive tock-tock-tock of the flying white dot.

yesterday, praveen and i went to watch a similar game. no, we even participated in it for a while. only here, there were many many players, and the jumping white dot was replaced by a monetary figure that kept increasing in its value, feverishly. the points were decided by a black-suited umpire who handled the players as smoothly as the gel that held back his hair. when the number reached its highest value, he brought down a hammer, and yelled “SOLD”.

this served as an indication to the more men in black suits standing on either side of the umpire. armed with long notepads, and a pen that seemed to have a life of its own – scribbling every number spoken in those fractions of a second. one of them then rushed to the player who had raised his hand to the highest number. that hand would then sign a cheque, and willingly part with a bank balance that was probably earned over an entire lifetime of hard work.

yes, it was an auction.

nothing short of a game that is amazingly well synchronised, like a pattern…
the reward here is a house. the auctioneer (our gel-haired umpire) lures the players with information about the house, throws in a number and every person according to his or her capacity makes a bid for that number. the value of the number increases to match the profit margin that the men in black suits have to make, and sure enough, the bidders respond. when the bidders respond, the number again goes up. once again, the bidders respond. there comes a point when the number now borders on a fine line between a visibly increased profit margin, and a shadow of greed and impracticality, mischief dancing in the auctioneer’s eyes.

“come on, make that a round figure, surely you can spare that little extra”

the bidder, blind to everything but the house, raises his hand again reluctantly. another voice in the audience, a new one, challenges the number, with a higher amount. the first bidder cannot back out having come so far, and promises a bigger number. the duel continues; adrenalin racing, hands come up even faster. finally, the gavel strikes the board. the first bidder gets the house, now for a price too ridiculous to even be discussed anymore.

what was it about the auction that to us didn’t seem to fit? what was it about the houses here, that prompted old hands that had worked hard to rise to just any number thrown at them? is it all about “winning”?

seven such houses were already sold, each with the same intensity or more. there were five more houses to go. but now, thoroughly intrigued, and amused by the game, praveen and i decided we had had enough. raising our hands to the auctioneer, we waved goodbye, and walked out, grateful to have our sanity (read, bank balance) intact.




February 14, 2002

on the ladies coupe, a new cousin

each time i picked a new book, i always wondered why i almost always never miss the acknowledgements section, instead of skipping it and getting on with the story like most people do. when i had ladies coupe in my hands, i did just that.

however, something about this new routine made me very uncomfortable. so midway through the book, i went back to the i-owe-my-thanks-to section. the last three lines by the author on that page goose pimples all over my skin, as i read it over and over again:

“…Uncle Mani in New York for cheering me on. and Uncle Mani in Mundakotukurissi, Kerala, for opening the doors of the village library and the world of Malayalam literature for me. To hold my hand, as always, there were my parents Soumini and Bhaskaran…”

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imagine reading a book about your homeland sitting far away at a quiet library in london. the novel you find is very engrossing, the author, a fast-emerging writer. you flip the pages to the front to read more about the author and out of nowhere you suddenly face another revelation: she’s your cousin!

it happened to me. half-way through ladies coup?, i discovered anita nair and i were related — children of first cousins who were very close in their childhood. they grew up, got married and simply, drifted apart, busy moulding the shape of their own little families. i recognised the uncles she’d named, mundakotukurissi was also the name of my hometown, soumini and bhaskaran had called on the day on my wedding…this was the anita nair i had never met when i was visiting kerala.

i wanted to write to her rightaway, and congratulate her on her being who she was. i wanted to shatter the looming silence of the library and grab the nearest unassuming englishman, hey guess what! my cousin is a writer.

but what would anita think of me? would she be too busy to bother? would she think of me as a pile-on relative to her success, and crush the new-found pride with which i rushed to tell my only friends and family here – rashmi, zubin and praveen? or would she be happy to hear from me? what would i write to a writer? i swallowed my questions, and decided to mail her anyway:

hi

umm, how do i begin conversation with a *cousin* i’ve never met?

ok, i’ll do that by introducing myself:
my name is radhika nair, daughter of p k janardhan…from shoranur. achchan had told me long ago, that “bhaskaran uncle’s daughter is a writer in new york, and she’s in the advertising field…”

perhaps i was too young then to bother to find out more, besides, for me you were ‘just another cousin’ and we had never met, leave alone spend time together.

i got married this november 25th (your parents called to wish me too) and i’m now in london with my husband praveen. i was waiting for him in the library yesterday and my eyes fell upon a new section in the library — imaginasian — works by asian writers.

ladies coup? was the first i picked…i guess it was the title that got me curious, not the author, not the cover. and sure enough, the characters in the novel really gripped me (here i had planned to surprise praveen with flowers i’d bought when he arrived – being my first valentine day ;-) – and i didnt even notice when he sneaked to my table, thanks to your book!)

it was only when i reached midway through the book that i decided to read about the author. when i saw your reference to uncle mani in new york and mundakotukurissi in the acknowledgements section, i sat up, amazed.

we are related!!

i just want to congratulate you on being such a good writer. i know you might have a busy schedule, but i hope to hear from you soon.

regards
radhika

two days and a slightly-dampening enthusiasm later, she replied :-)

this may, when she’s here in london for the launch of ladies coup?, she’s offered to take time off her busy schedule just to meet me.

gee, suddenly i wonder…am i going to meet a cousin i’ve never met before, or get a peek into a writer’s life whose book i’m just about to finish?