Sunday, August 28, 2011

Love Virtually: (Loved the book, read it - if not the review!)

It made sense that after reading Love Virtually, I looked for its presence on Twitter. And there it was, @LoveVirtually, trying to map readers around the world. The book – originally in German by Daniel Glattauer – is a modern day love story between two strangers over email. It's an appropriate romance for 2011, in a world where Facebook is breaking up marriages on one hand and reuniting lovers on the other. In fact, in a world dominated by social media, an email romance seems almost quaint. And in a world even more dominated by the physical expression of love, an emotional affair is, frankly, refreshing.

The plot starts with an accidental email from Emmi to Leo, which slowly develops into an email flirtation. Curiosity abounds, with Emmi taking the first step: 'Either Google's never heard of you, or it knows how to keep you hidden,' and Leo following it up with the first guess: 'Your shoe size is 36. You're petite, bubbly, and you've got short, dark hair. And you effervesce when you speak. Am I right?'

Emmi is married, while Leo is in an on again/off again relationship. For both, the email exchange takes a life of its own. Emmi finds herself getting jealous of Leo's love life, and Leo wonders if Emmi is unhappy in her marriage as she devotes so much time to emailing him. The banter takes a turn when Emmi asks Leo if he's wearing pyjamas and Leo wonders if she sleeps naked. They decide to 'meet'. Not really; but go to an assigned café for an hour,and later go online to hazard a guess over email as to who the other person was. Soon after this, Leo's mother passes away, and their bond becomes stronger. Drunken emails reveal real wanting stirring behind the mask of friendship. And in an attempt to prove to herself that Leo is only a friend, she sets him up with her friend, Mia, and finds herself madly jealous when they actually get along. And then, it's no longer a game: they are in love. You have to read the book to find out how it ends.

The story is told through email exchanges and nothing else. There is no narration, no description other than what the characters offer each other, and the reader knows only as much as they do. But the passion that language allows, harking back to the 'original' romance of love letters, coupled with the urgency of instant communication, makes the story both fast moving and very compelling. There are moral issues here: Emmi is married. She might not been physically cheating on her husband, but having a few glasses of wine with Leo over email exchanges is her way of going on a date with him. There are also human issues here: Leo finds himself utterly in love with a married woman, who seems to feel the same way. And then there are reality issues: Emmi's husband finds out about the depth of their emotional connect.

The third character in the book, to me, is time. In an era when email is instantaneous, an hour's delay can be catastrophic and a whole day, impossible to bear! Each email exchange is qualified with the time it took to reply: 'Five minutes later', 'Fifty seconds later', 'One minute later'. It hints at Emmi and Leo's impatience and confusion at certain emails, and adds the element of an unseen offline life to the story. The brutal honesty of it all makes for utterly interesting reading.

Love Virtually is a book you can finish in a few hours. I read it on a flight. But I couldn't stop thinking about about words and what they mean to people, and how we can read moods through the placement of words. In time, Emmi and Leo want to attach voices to these words and leave voicemails for each other. But they never translate the curiosity to actual phone calls, favoring the literal language of love. And Glattauer succeeds in giving two distinct, decipherable voices to his protagonists, Emmi Rothner and Leo Leike.

Ultimately, the story is about wanting to keep the fantasy, but wanting to realise it as well. When Leo suggests they (finally) meet up and Emmi asks why, his reply: 'Insight. Relief. Catharsis. Clarity. Friendship. The solution to a personality puzzle which I created and then blew out of all proportion.' She teases him further, asking him how he kisses, to which he says: 'I kiss like I write'. Her reply: 'That's incredibly big headed of you.'

As the jacket cover says: 'Writing is kissing with the mind.'

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The endgame?

I don't know what to make of the question everyone seems to be asking: "Who is handling the government's PR/strategy?" It is welcome, in a way, because it shows that we think someone is making incorrect decisions -- those which can be rectified -- as opposed to the government being *bad*. We do seem to have a problem of elitism vs everyone else -- lets not forget that men running India right now are highly educated and boast of qualifications from Cambridge & Harvard etc. They are able to give their point of view (but sadly, arrogantly) and have resorted to finding technical legal remedies to a largely emotional situation. "Don't be clever by half," they would be scolded if they were children.

I find myself in an interesting position of not being sure exactly how to support Anna Hazare. Even during the first fast, I lauded the fact that he got people to care about issues, be it by fasting or coming online to engage in the functioning of this country, and I still do. Helped by constant media coverage, Anna became a household name, synonymous with honesty, and it encouraged others like Baba Ramdev to jump into the frey. Now, we know the Anna side of the story: he wants to see Jan Lokpal through, seemingly with no inputs from the government. There are many who have argued -- convincingly -- that adding another layer to our already weighty bureaucracy is no solution, and there is no guarantee that Jan Lokpal will be manned by honest people. Then there is the whole issue of who can be investigated, and if the PM/judges should be under Lokpal. Okay.

I'm trying to understand the political theatre taking place in front of me. Anna's first fast was a huge success, and the government invited the core gang to be part of the drafting committee. It was the first time any such gesture had been made (etc) and it was an interesting way to invite Anna and co to be part of the process. But a big blunder followed: Ramdev and the government's complete inept handling of his entry into the hunger strike arena. This is another one of those times when you must wonder - of course cabinet ministers knew the press was following them to the airport. Who thought it was a good idea to meet Ramdev there? Would it really raise his profile or lower theirs? Then to send the police in the middle of the night? The ironic part about the whole Ramdev fiasco is that once he was sent out of Delhi, it literally became a out-of-sight-out-of-mind situation, though I have heard that he planning to join Anna & co at Tihar. Anyway, to recap the rest of the story really quickly: the joint drafting commiitee of the government & civil society didn't really work out, Anna and co claimed that only 15/71 of their recommendations were in it, they want their version tabled and passed in this monsoon session of Parliament, else they will keep fasting till the first man drops dead.

Now, I want to reflect upon a few things: the first is this very interesting suggestion by Varun Gandhi (who, btw, also offered Anna Hazare his personal residence for fasting purposes when the government denied Anna permission) to table the civil society Jan Lokpal as a private members bill. I remember commenting, after the joint drafting committee, that Anna & co should exploit democratic options by asking politicians to comment on their bill, if they agree with it or not etc. It seems that as "civil society" one needs to immediately accept their draft as the *only* and *best* solution. Fair enough, but the suggestion to introduce it anyway is smart politics, and makes me also understand that this is obviously an option they (Anna & co) had on the table but rejected in favor of a fast. They might be ok with Varun Gandhi tabling it, but clearly they didn't want to share a podium with him, instead wanting to keep the mass movement going.

I was in Bangalore this weekend, and in my discussion with the cabbie understood that people do understand this issue pretty well. Its tough to be aware of all the nuances, of course, but the two drafts, what is included in each, and how this is the time to act! At the same time, CNN IBN headlines of the country "erupting" over Anna is stupid, its been fairly calm all over the India. Perhaps the government really thought that Delhi IS India and felt the need to stop a hunger strike, but I think they could have clearly avoided putting Anna on this pedestal if they had thought it through. And after arresting the man before his hunger strike, and then offering to release him 8 hours later, there were small news items floating around that this was done due to Rahul Gandhi's urging. Something like that *should* fall flat on its face.

I guess the question I am asking myself is: am I comfortable with endless hunger strikes to move legislation without discussion? Well, to be fair there was discussion but Team Anna didn't like what the Government was saying as much as the Government didn't like what Team Anna was saying. At the same time, the government is struggling to fit Team Anna's actions into neat boxes which they can "lawyer" their way out of. But I think that is the point: Team Anna has the right to fast/assemble peacefully and by placing inane restrictions, the government is exposing itself. Someone on TV commented that political rallies have so many people attended, so what is the point of stopping Team Anna? Soli Sorabjee said that the Congress should beware; the next time they want to hold a rally in a BJP state, the government there might place similar restrictions. So you should be able to fast against the government. Check. But to what end? That is the question I am grappling with.

How would it be if the government bows down? Says, ok, Team Anna -- your bill is law. You are the custodians for morality in the country etc etc. Then what happens? Fresh elections? More fasts for hosts of issues by people more dubious than Team Anna? Breakdown of democratic procedures? Populist policies (well.... I suppose that we already have). Multiple investigations followed by the arrest of the Prime Minister, a few judges, a whole lot of bureaucrats. The Bhushans & Kirat Bedi as the new cabinet? BJP in power before New Years? What I mean is.... where are we going with this? I want people who are to look beyond the political theatre and try exploring this... I would love to throw some ideas around.... ??