Saturday, March 29, 2008

Aliyah Shahid, reporting from Bombay

Here's another one. Check it out here.

Video games on video

Two more TV pieces by Aliyah: here and here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holy Holi!

The rainbow motorcycle gangs sped through Delhi's streets with a strange mixture of tough guy malice in their eyes and bright Easter egg pigmentation on their faces.

There were three, sometimes four, to a motorcycle, packed too tightly against each other, each of them looking for victims with a fierce devotion understandable in a 14-year-old trickster on Halloween, but downright puzzling in these 25-year-old Indian professionals covered in bright colors.

This was Holi, India's festival of colors, a day on which millions of people purchase packets of bright chemical powders and industrial strength dyes, which they then proceed to toss, rub, smear and shoot onto their friends, family, and, most importantly, complete strangers.

The significance of the holiday is still something of a mystery to me, even after diligent Wikipedia study. As best I can tell, a demon king was made immortal by some other make-believe deity, grew arrogant, declared war on heaven and earth, and demanded that all worship no other god but him. The nerve.

The demon king's son defied his father and continued to pray to Vishnu. Dad tried to kill his son. Several times. He kept failing. There may have been some magic involved in his son's odds-defying escapes. So demon dad ordered his boy to sit in a pyre on the lap of his sister Holika, who had a magic shawl that could not be burned. The fire started. The shawl jumped providentially from Holika's shoulders to her brother's. He survived, she burned to death. Holika's death by fire is celebrated as Holi.

What? I know.

Generally, we found there to be two sorts of Holi practitioners. Members of the first group were kind and friendly. They would approach, smiling, their white teeth the only unblemished part of a face that was a maroon-pink smear. Tipping their head as a means of asking permission, this Holi celebrator would then gently rub a colorful powder on my forehead, ask me to do the same, and then embrace me while saying "Happy Holi."

And then there were the rainbow warriors, who seemed to view the holiday as an excuse to indulge in vacant machismo, an invitation to throw anything and everything at anyone and everyone.

We encountered our cruelest example of such a dope when, already splotched with pink and green, Aliyah and I were in a bicycle rickshaw on our way to lunch. Our colorful faces and clothes had drawn honks and smiles from many passing cars, and one family in a sedan had even slowed to throw a water balloon at us (it landed unbroken in my lap, so Aliyah threw it back at them). All was in good fun.

And then we rounded a corner, only to see a beat-up gold car coming at us too fast, and head-on. There was only one person in the car, and as he pulled even with us, he leaned out his window, narrowed his eyes, snarled like an angry dog, and threw an egg at us as hard as he could.

"Yuck," Aliyah said.

"I hope we don't get salmonella," I said, picking bits of gooey eggshell off each of us.

Even our rickshaw driver felt bad for us, and recognized the violent hurling of a hard projectile full of colorless (and possibly-diseased) goo as antithetical to the spirit of the holiday. He handed me an oily rag to clean with.

But in the end, the friendly smearers certainly outnumbered the rainbow motorcycle gangs and egg-chucking thugs. After all, violence is no way to celebrate a holiday that commemorates with festive colors the burning of an innocent woman.

You can check out the photos here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

It's Vogue!

It's been 36 hours since we waded knee deep in the in the absurdly luxuriant waters of glitterati life, and I'm still a little queasy.

We'd scored an invite to a ritzy party thrown by Vogue and Audi celebrating the magazine's "love affair with India" at a swank five-star hotel in Delhi. So we put on our Saturday best (that's a button-down shirt and jeans for me), had an autorickshaw drop us at the hotel's back entrance (tuk-tuks aren't allowed to use the fancy front), and got ready to live large.

To get into the party, we had to walk across a red carpet and get passed a polystyrene woman armed with a brilliant smile and a guest list. She looked at my natty beard, my tangled hair, my ridiculous Thai street market shoes, and -- perhaps assuming I was some sort of artist (how else would I have such a hot girlfriend?) -- let us in.

Inside, the setup was fantastic. One room held a sharply arranged frameless photo exhibit of dozens of compelling photographs with Indian themes that had run in Vogue over the last 70 years. Indian butlers circled with trays of champagne flutes. We stayed in this room just long enough to drink a couple and eavesdrop on several catty men commenting on the "horrid" outfits of many of the young models in the photographs.

The next room: bonanza! A huge spread of first-rate sushi. All-you-can-eat sushi. And I did. Indian butlers circling with trays of toothpicks and appetizers, the best easily being the shrimp tempura that were each the size of a small lobster.

After I ate my first of four plates of raw fish, we hit the bar.

"Can I get a martini?" I asked the bow-tied bartender.

"Sorry," he said genuinely, shaking his head. "All I have is red and white wine, this," and here he held up a bottle of Belvedere vodka, "or this," and he held up a bottle of Chivas Regal.

"I'll take a scotch."

We strolled the room laughing. I felt like I was in a living, breathing modern art exhibit. An Indian man with dyed blond hair was wearing a leather jacket, tight leather pants and leather boots. A white woman showing too much leg for her age wore a floppy white Mad Hatter cap as she flirted with a Michael Stipe lookalike. In a corner, a senior leader of a national political party best known for Hindu nationalism chatted with a woman half his age while a bodyguard in full camouflage and shiny black boots held a machine gun beside him.

We ate and drank and laughed for awhile, but soon we began to feel really bad, if not outright disgusted. The whole thing was so phony. Plus, with hundreds of millions of people living in abject poverty in this country, hundreds of thousands of them in this city, and thousands of them within a strong stone's throw of this party -- well, it seemed pretty awful to wash down unnecessary bites of imported octopus with fancy scotch. We left.

I woke up in the middle of the night with a tumultuous tummy and vomited. I'd like to think that it was the physical embodiment of my moral reprehension, a physiological rejection of the useless glamor I had soaked in.

Really, it was probably just the raw fish and scotch.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

An open letter to the state of Ohio

Dear Ohio,

We've had some good times together. The batting cages in Toledo. My cousin's basement in Cleveland. That time I changed planes in Columbus. It's been fun. We've shared a lot. But I think we need to talk.

You see, Ohio, you keep disappointing me. I didn't pay much attention to your betrayal in 2000 -- I was too busy yelling at your unfortunately-phallic-shaped cousin in the south. You pretty much got a free pass.

Four years went by, and I thought we'd be OK. Surely, I thought, you'd learned from your mistake. You'd lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs -- more, I've read, than you lost during the Great Depression. You were poor and sick -- dying, by some accounts. But I believed in you. I knew you'd taken some time and gotten in touch with who you really are. I was sure you'd turn things around.

And then you went ahead and got behind W. Again. Sure, there was probably some cheating. But you should have known better.

Today was almost the last straw, Ohio. Now I know Hillary Clinton is no George Bush. And despite the hyperventilated parsing I eagerly watch each day on CNN, I know that her political platform is nearly identical to that of the candidate I'm so enamored with.

No, Ohio, your latest mistake is neither as ludicrous nor as calamitous as your errors in the recent past. But it hurts just as bad.

Now you may be thinking, Ohio, that I'm being unfair. After all, plenty of your pals have been just as foolish as you. Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma -- they almost always pick wrong!

Ah, but that's part of your problem, Ohio, always shifting the blame to someone else. I expect better from you. Those other states, they just don't know any better. But you should.

Really, Ohio, I just don't know what to do with you. If you hadn't given me Aliyah (who I'm fairly certain is the smartest among your native born), I think you and I would have to call it quits.

I'm not ready to break it off quite yet, Ohio, but I'm really hoping you'll do some serious thinking about who you are. Against my better judgment, I'm giving you another chance in November. Don't let me down. Because I really don't want there to be any weirdness when I see you at Christmas.


Say Cheese

Check out Aliyah's latest TV piece.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

We're not in Kansas anymore

I felt like the Wizard of Oz.

We'd just spent a half hour flying in a hot air balloon several hundred feet above verdant farms, barking dogs and the occasional waving villager in Haryana, several miles south of Gurgaon. Our balloon cast a shadow on the square green grids beneath us, and we watched from above as animals that looked like deer but weren't seemed to swim through the farms below.

"It looks like Ohio," Aliyah said.

And OK, I admit it. Flying 500 hundred feet above the ground in a delicate basket carrying two meter-high metal cannisters full of liquefied natural gas just below a nylon balloon entrapping 77,000 cubic feet of 212-degree air -- it might not have been the smartest thing we've ever done. But it sure was fun.

The private balloon ride was part of what seems to be a never-ending series of birthday gifts to me from Aliyah. The balloon trip was operated by a company called Exciting Lives that also traffics in chocolate spa treatments in Bangalore.

The balloon ride was fantastic, but the best was our Oz moment at the end. Our pilot, Captain Jack, had just put us down in a barren brown field that was a little too close to a string of giant power lines (Don't worry -- this being India, it's unlikely electricity was running through them).

Our basket hit the ground and tipped forward, though not steeply enough to toss us out. We threw our weight to the other side, and the basket was evenly grounded.

"Wow," Aliyah said.

I looked across the field and saw two villagers hurrying toward our balloon. One had a colorful scarf wrapped around his head. We smiled and waved.

Then we turned around. Eight more villagers were coming from the opposite direction. I turned a bit to the right and saw a third group moving toward us. Aliyah tapped my shoulder. I turned around and she pointed to a half dozen Indians emerging Field of Dreams-style from a tight wall of brown stalks about 50 feet away.

"They're coming out of the weeds!" I said.

Within seconds there were 40 villagers huddled tightly around our balloon. Captain Jack wouldn't let us get out of the basket because he said our weight was holding it on the ground, so we stayed inside. The villagers stared at us in awe. I think they thought Aliyah was God, and I might have agreed with them, were it not for the indisputable fact that Aliyah exists. But the farmers sure were impressed. I felt like I was the main attraction in a zoo exhibit of some strange future. The villagers were all incredibly nice, but they were also quite stare-y.

As the crowd closed in tighter, Captain Jack pulled a metal lever and a 15-foot jet of flame exploded into the balloon. At least a half dozen villagers literally ran for their lives.

I pulled my camera from my pocket and started taking photos. I showed each photo to the villagers using the screen on the back of my camera. They were duly amazed. And rightly so! I had just dropped out of the sky and had a magic silver box that perfectly captured their likeness. I am Ben, the Wonderful Wizard of India.

After about ten minutes of gawking, the car that had trailed the balloon finally caught up with us, and the Exciting Lives guy pushed through the crowd to get to our balloon.

"So sorry we took so long," he said. "We usually try to beat you here so the villagers don't crowd like this."

"Are you kidding?" Aliyah said. "This was the best part."

Saturday, March 1, 2008

American Idol, Idol America

“Hurry up Ben. You’re going to miss American Idol!”

Ben came running out of the bathroom, his hair still soaked. He was just in time to see Ryan Seacrest’s smiling face as the host announced the night’s remaining contestants. “Phew, that was close,” he said.

“It’s a great day to be alive,” I added.

We’ve both become desperate when it comes to watching television in India. Because American TV shows are so limited here, we’ll watch anything we can get. We pop popcorn for My Wife & Kids, we sing along to the theme song for Friends, and we jump up and down when American Inventor or Hope & Faith is on. We even download episodes of American Idol that we may have missed during the week. And no, I’m not proud to admit it.

I think our standards have lowered because of the slim pickings. For example, we went and saw American Gangster in the theater last weekend (I didn’t know what the movie was about, only that it had the word ‘American’ in it). We thought it was the best movie ever. But when we asked our friends and family about it, they merely replied that “it was just okay.” Just okay? How about the best movie of my life?

I just hope I can distinguish what’s really good and what’s not when I come back.