Category Archives: Uncategorized

The pain and glory of remembering

At school, my history teachers made me learn the important dates off by heart. Battle of Blood River: 1838. Anglo Boer War: 1899-1902. World War 1:1914-1918. Arab-Israeli War: 1967.

My father was my true history teacher. He made me understand that the dates were important but not as important as the context in which those events happened and the bigger stories at play.

We live in an age that asks us to mark dates that mean something to us, be it frivolous and fun or deeply profound – Braai day, National Cleavage Day, break-up dates, hook-up dates, the day we lost our virginity, the day we stopped smoking, the day we cried for the first time in a movie, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Women’s day, Mandela day. And so it goes.

We are date obsessed so when it comes to remembering a day you would rather have obliterated from the Gregorian calendar, it makes it more difficult because of our ceremonious conditioning.

One year ago, today, my father died. June 18, 2014. I want to remember the day because it is natural and it is a marking of a rite of passage of someone I loved. But I also want to forget it so desperately because it was the day the light was snuffed out. The lead up to this day was torture – a giant, looming, dark 18; a clanging bell over my bed. I’ve been tense and angry, irritable and sullen. I don’t want to be reminded of the day the Universe took my rock, my teacher, my hero, my confidant, my father.

If he was alive today, he would say, “Suhani, remember the dates are not that important. History needs to be understood in context. You need to understand the bigger picture.” So I will do just that.

There is a big picture and hundreds of thousands of extraordinary pixels that make up that big picture. I will start with a small list:  Holding me above your shoulders at the beach. Green chillies and salt and vinegar. Red- beans Saturdays. Your red gown. Red Toyota Cressida. 4am History lessons. Chaiyya Chaiyya. Popsicles on holiday with a wheezing chest. Long strides. Arthur Murray. Sunday crosswords – completed. Post-Diwali shopping lounge modelling. Nani bhen. A capful for the ancestors. J&B – Juggath and Bhagath. December 16 Caddie. Old Folks Laugh by Maya Angelou. “Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch of the rang’d empire fall.” Trips to Silverglen with Pankaj Udhas. Highway Sheila. Impeccable suits. Amitabh Bachchan. Dirty jokes. Clean shave. Kouros.

Veterans of war, wives of soldiers and mothers of sons will always remember dates in ways that historians won’t. June 18th is someone’s birthday. The day someone will get engaged or publish a novel or learn to ride a bike. For us, it is the day we said goodbye. The philosopher in my father would remind us that it was just a farewell to the mortal coil. The pragmatist in him would remark on the laws of equilibrium in all things of this world.

While it is the most difficult thing to do, there is a pain and glory in remembering.

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The Rules of Engagement

bermudatriangleIn my mother’s time, when Cliff Richard was a heartthrob and when a boy and a girl became boyfriend and girlfriend, they would call it “going steady.” If a boy kissed a girl, he would be “getting fresh” with her. Growing up, I would cringe if my mum asked me if I was going steady with a boy. I still cringe when she asks if there’s a “young man in my life.” It makes me feel like I’ve just stepped off a carriage into the worlds of Anne of Green Gables or Pride and Prejudice, which, albeit charming, are a tad archaic.

Like me, I presume that the single women of the thirty-something generation, have been sitting on our couches, eating ice-cream, watching Bridget Jones’s Diary and repeating that line over and over – “He likes me just the way I am.” And boom – midway through our screechy renditions of All By Myself, we’ve suddenly realised that the dating world has changed dramatically. You realise you’re not part of the Elvis generation but you’re not of the Shake It Off-Taylor Swift generation either, which means you’re in the no-man’s land of dating. You’re in the Bermuda Triangle of dating – where people still call shorts, Bermudas.

Upon waking up in Area 51 of boy-meets-girl, I decided to consult with the young ones in my office who seem at ease and au fait with all terms dating related. They were eager to help an aunty out and provided some very useful wisdom. These, ladies and gentlemen, are the terms and stages of engagement as they stand at 2015:

Stage 1: We’re chatting

You went on a night out and kissed someone or just met someone at a pool party and now you’re chatting on Whatsapp. There’s no commitment; it’s nothing serious, just flirtatious and perhaps a bit of Facebook stalking.

Stage 2: Hooking Up

According to my young advisors, this is generally “when the shit starts.” For guys, this stage is just about sex. They prefer you to other girls but will not turn down other opportunities. This is possibly a once-a-week occurrence. For girls, this stage is tricky. Girls know that they are not exclusive with the guy but most girls wouldn’t hook up with other guys at this stage to avoid a “slutty” reputation.

Stage 3: Kinda vibing/Kinda seeing

You see each other on weekends and maybe once during the week. You’re not going to hook up with anyone else but still there’s no real commitment. For girls, this might also be called “A Thing”. For guys, “A Thing” is only the next stage.

Stage 4: Vibing/Seeing/A Thing

This is a level up. It includes seeing each other more frequently; perhaps some sleep overs – without leaving after breakfast.

Stage 5: I’m with…/I’m dating…

You are pretty much a couple but you have not defined the relationship and haven’t put it up on Facebook.

Stage 6: Boyfriend/Girlfriend

Quote my young colleagues: “Obvious.”

What all of this means, is you should thank your lucky stars if you’re safely wedded and not still trying to hook up at thirty-something. It also means that either I have to turn into a Cougar, or find a man my age who has decoded the social-togetherness conundrum.

Shew. Between chatting, hanging, right swiping, vibing, sort-of-seeing, I feel that there are a lot of ‘ings’ out there including beginnings and sharp endings. If it’s okay with the dating world, I might just stay in the Bermuda Triangle for a while longer. Perhaps there, I might encounter my Mr Darcy who maybe wouldn’t mind going out for a coffee.

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The Hills Are Alive

photo copy 2Yesterday I climbed a mountain.  It’s called Policeman’s Helmet. It’s become my ritual hike in the Drakensberg Mountains. Last time I did it, I fell into the river less than ten minutes into the hike and was met by a big, grumpy alpha-male baboon on the way back, whom I’m pretty sure was interested in the savoury rotis stashed in my backpack.

 This time, I didn’t fall into the river or meet King Kong. Being alone on this 3-hour journey, I did, however, imagine the following:

  • Being bitten by a baboon and then being airlifted to safety
  • Encountering a black mamba along the path and then considering the extent of my flexibility and whether I’d be able to reach my calf and suck out the poison
  • Being trapped overnight in the mountains and having a shower under a trickle of water that wasn’t quite a waterfall but just enough to have a morning wash
  • Having just turned a year older, I also imagined my knees giving way and falling off the mountain, where I’d lie in wait for days, drinking my own urine to survive

Of course, my imagination was running wild like Maria in the hills and I knew that this was Policeman’s Helmet, not Mount Everest. Plus, I signed a register before I embarked on the hike and it was sunny with no chance of drama.

Still, I sang loudly to myself just to ward off any mountain creatures (and possibly mountain-men suitors too, if you’ve ever heard my singing voice.) Shakespeare and ee cummings joined me as I thought about love-which-alters-not when-it-alteration- finds and that it felt right to thank-you-god-for-most-this-amazing-day. And then, nature called and I answered by peeing in the bushes whilst a long, sharp blade of grass poked me in the bum. Ahh. One with nature.

But perhaps the moment I wait for out of all moments in the berg, is climbing the ladder onto the plateau and taking in a 360-degree view of the Northern Drakensberg’s Amphitheatre. I gave a thunderous shout out to my father and remembered how he always said: “If you ever feel the need to be humbled, look at the mountains.” With all the time on my hands, I found a perfect spot to assume the lotus position. There, I meditated a little, telling all guides, angels, gods, mountain spirits and Kung Fu Panda my affirmations for the new year. And then I took a couple of shameless selfies, ate my savoury roti, an apple and a biscuit and saved the peach (just in case).

As I sat on that mountain, I thought about three things –

  1. This is the perfect way to open the door to 2015 and send 2014 packing out the back door.
  2. Fearlessness is the feeling I want in the pit of my heart.
  3. Maria from The Sound of Music (Don’t judge. I was on a mountain; it’s an obvious association.)

Maria made me think of the thing we all must do – despite our roaring fears, our nasty inhibitions, heavy hearts, endless subconscious debates and unruly imaginations – we must … Climb Every Mountain.

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Haikus For You

 1.

The day still won’t end.

The month gone by just begins.

Ambiguous time.

 

 2.

I want to keep all.

Death is the most unreal real.

Defying any grasp.

 

 3.

When your world ended

The knees of mine buckled, broke.

But I stand in awe.

 

 4.

When walking with you

I tried to keep your long stride.

Walk with me always.

 

 

 

 

The Awkward Hindu

 

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I believe in the Grand Master Sensei upstairs. I do.

I like to think that He conducts the Universe from a friendly call centre with angels at the operating desks. He takes an interest in our insecurities and idiosyncrasies; He shakes his head in dismay when we ignore the massive signs He places in front of us. He gets angry when we behave like marauding, malevolent idiots. I believe He too likes Nutella and ‘One Simply Cannot’ memes. And I think He is simultaneously saddened and amused by us all.

I recently embarked on a Hindu prayer called Navagraha. Navagraha refers to the 9 planetary Gods in Hinduism – Surya (Sun), Chandra (Moon), Mangal (Mars), Budha (Mercury), Brihaspati (Jupiter), Shukra (Venus), Shani (Saturn) and Ketu and Rahu (points of intersection of the sun and the moon). It is believed that these celestial bodies affect our lives in a good or bad way. The Navagraha prayer is performed to counter any negative effects of these planets. It involves a fast over 9 Saturdays – no alcohol and no meat and a visit to the temple to conduct the ritual.

I’m currently in week 4 of the prayer and it has been something of a comedy of errors. On day one, my spiritual knuckles received a rapping because I wore pants and a hoodie to the Lord’s House. When I asked for a reminder about exactly what to do with the offerings one makes at the 9 statues, the priest gave me a blunt response, effectively slapping this religious ignoramus over her uncovered head.

This week’s temple visit was also particularly embarrassing. The ritual goes like this: Remove shoes. Walk around the main temple three times. Place your fruit and milk at the altar. Stand in the queue to perform the Navagraha. Make your offerings. Perform the chants. Sound the prayer bell. And leave. As I began my walk around the temple, I spotted the priest in his traditional garb. Instead of bringing my hands together and saying, “Vanakam” – the traditional Tamil greeting, I found myself giving the priest a gangster-type nod and a small smile. Immediately, this strange Holier Than Thou Voice rang out in my head: “What is wrong with you??? You can’t nod at a priest!!!”

I sheepishly made my way to the Navagraha queue. Usually, people perform the prayer one party at a time and everyone waits patiently – some pass the time playing with their cell phones. Finally, my turn arrives. I face the sun and start to pray. But halfway through my deep conversation, I am rudely interrupted by a man. He looks at me and as he touches the feet of each statue hurriedly, he says, “You don’t mind if I just do this quickly? I don’t want to disturb you”. And before I know it, I blurt out the line that catapults from head to tongue: “You already did!!!”

Dammit. Here I go again. So I quickly close my eyes and apologise to the Lord for my impatient little rant. I ring the bell and quietly leave.

I wonder whether I am an awkard Hindu or just awkward. Surely my parents taught me well?

They did, indeed. They taught me that my temple can reside in my heart along with my God. They also taught me that the clothes on my back matter not and that awareness and genuine intent certainly does.

Why do I do this Navagraha? I think it’s because I like the symbolism and inherent power of the mantras. I like the physical space of the temple and the peaceful vibrations that emanate from within its walls. Perhaps what I’m slightly less enthused about are the subtle judgements and the parochial human encounters.

I’ve also been thinking about why I make these spiritual faux pas. Apart from my obvious clumsy nature, I think it’s because I’ve always had an informal relationship with my God. He is omniscient, right? So, it’s no point me polishing up my thoughts or my dress sense when I’m in His earthly house. The attempt to ‘stand on ceremony’ would be somewhat hypocritical, especially when I tend to shoot the breeze with Him every now and then.

My God knows me. And I like to think He likes me and my woolly hoodie just the way we are.

 

 

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Jam. And Bruce Lee

Jam Bruce Lee

Oh, the politics of choice.

Every time the waiter lingers around our table, we keep saying, “5 more minutes please.” This is why I love being vegetarian. Restaurants that serve vegetarian food often mark their vegetarian meals on the menu with a green leaf or a big ‘V’ and even though my choices are limited, I’m happy because I don’t have to sift through 999 decisions to fill my tummy.

I once dated a guy who was always unhappy with what he ordered and always preferred what was on my plate. Soon, he learnt to say, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Until he spotted the all-you-can-eat buffet.

We live in the generation of expanded choice. We live in a perpetual ‘Baskin & Robbins’ framework where everything is about endless flavors, colours and toppings. Shopping aisles are longer, clothing racks go higher, experience lists trail to the floor and we can download a new app every second.

In the UK, “Tesco stocks 91 different shampoos, 93 varieties of toothpaste and 115 of household cleaner.”*  In California, an experiment was conducted in a supermarket. Researchers set up two promotional stands. The first offered taste tests of 24 different jams and the other offered just 6. Shoppers who sampled were given discount vouchers to buy that same brand of jam. More people stopped at the stand with 24 jams. But when it came to buying, 30% of those who stopped at the table with 6 jam options ended up purchasing, while only 3% of those who sampled at the 24-option table, ended up buying.*

My problem with all this choice? My heart is not jam.

I think this libertarian concept of choice makes us perpetual shoppers and restaurant visitors. While it’s great to know that we have 101 craft beers to generate a beer burp, why should we have order envy when it comes to matters of the heart?

When we are in the love trance, induced by the release in our body of all the ‘ines’ – dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine – every other jam on the shelf disappears. But the moment one has sampled three quarters of the jar and the ‘use by’ date looms, one is in search of something else – it might not even be jam. It might be Bovril. Or worse still, fish paste. But we’ll know the right thing when we see it. Or will we?

Choice is proof of liberation. Choice is a sign of evolution and innovation. But the ability to make a life decision and not have FOMO is a mark of character. The ability to know one’s heart, to trust one’s gut and to see the long-term benefit of a good call is the mark of maturity.

I’m not saying that people aren’t allowed to change their minds. Or that what was offered on the menu doesn’t always look the same on the plate. Or that you can be a taste-tester for life without ever picking a favourite. But I am saying that when you utter those three big words, you should have thought about it for quite some time. Even if it means the waiter has to come back in an hour.

Admittedly, I have now taken the supermarket and menu analogy a little too far. Enter the Martial Arts analogy. Remember that classic Bruce Lee moment from “Enter the Dragon?” Even if you do, watch it again here:

Ahh, I love it. Bruce Lee was wiser than his roundhouse kick. He knew that nothing in life can be executed beautifully without the right intent. I believe that the choice warehouse makes us less human. It removes emotional content, the concept of consequence and the ability to enjoy the glory of what is with us right now.

My heart is on the shelf again. And that’s okay. But this time, it ain’t hopping off willingly into just anyone’s trolley – especially if there are one too many jam jars in that trolley.

 

 

*Source: The Economist “The Tyranny of Choice: You choose.” Dec 16, 2010 http://www.economist.com/node/17723028

 

 

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In defense of a completed sentence.

fullstophoriz_noart

Remember that evening of September 13th 2009, when Kanye West said to Taylor Swift: “Ima let ya finish but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!” Remember that? I think that was the day Kanye stood up and loudly gave everybody permission to interrupt.

These days I find myself to be a woman of incomplete sentences. My sentences get snuffed out by pompous, persistent retorts and then from sheer exhaustion, they take leave to go and die a quiet death somewhere.

I have always thought that being a good listener was a good trait. But now it seems that in order to let your sentences live to a ripe old age, you need to be a good interrupter.

I barely get through slide three on most presentations before some client belts out: “I’m just gonna stop you there.” Lifetimes go by before I get to slide four, where lo and behold – I’ve addressed client’s very very important concern.

Sure, interruption is an art. And a good conversation relies on syncopated words – pleasant twists and turns, surprising revelations and precise comic timing but the line between art and a jelly-and-custard trifle is a fine one.

Sadly, the people with the least salient or insightful points to add are often the ones who blast through your sense pause or enjambed lines like a runaway train. Everyone can forgive wit and wisdom but no one should have to endure hot air.

I’m tired of The Interrupters. I’m nauseated by The Interjectors. I want to explain to them that pauses exist to add meaning or drama and are not open invitations to invade. I want to tell them that the trajectory of time allows for all to be revealed. I want to tell the quiet people in the room to displace cacophony  – to clear their throats and to hoist their voices like billowing flags. I want to say, “May I finish, please?” instead of “C- Ca- Can I just fin-”

I want to let The Interrupters know that everything in this life is fast enough. Everything exists in bite-sized chunks and manic blurts. We trip over everything and tumble over polite words because we need to “drill down” and “unpack” at dizzying speeds. We are reckless and impatient and fast becoming buffoons.

Now I may very well be channeling the voice of Sister Lily, the Sri Lankan nun from my Catholic Primary School, St Anthony’s, but I have to say that I miss quiet decorum, calm debate, refined mannerisms and just plain old respect.

Next time an unworthy Bowling Ball rams through my carefully selected arrangement of words, I’m going to have to pluck up some very feminine balls and learn to say: “NO. You may NOT stop me right now. Hell, I’m just getting started.”

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Without Fear of Vertigo

ImageI was once part of a dance piece called Without Fear of Vertigo. In the piece, the girls wore long, golden dresses and each of us had a pair of wings that slipped over our arms through iron rings. These wings were hard and heavy but read on stage as soft and beautiful. Without Fear of Vertigo was about Icarus who flew too close to the sun. It was about rising like a phoenix out of fear and into illumination and freedom.

I have flown too close to the sun. And I have landed with a thud, leaving a pile of broken feathers. But I have also learnt to lift my feet off the ground and spread my arms again and again. And again.

There are men in this life that teach you to be untrusting. There are men in this life that have mastered the art of taking while ignoring that of giving. There are men in this life who will cut your wings because you threaten to fly. When you have flown with this flock of men, it takes a while to unlearn the ways they have burnt into your navigation system.

At some point the unlearning is aided by the company of the good flock of men. I have known these ones too. And they are so powerful that when you fly with them your wings receive an extra push of air.

There is much to be fearful of. There is much that invites you to keep your wings tucked in. In this life there are no certainties and even the great ball of fire that tempted Icarus might explode one day and save us all the trip. But what can we do if we do not explore and trust and abandon fear? Some days I think Icarus was a fool and some days I think he was a magnificent genius.

The biggest gift we all have is resilience. Vertigo is learnt behaviour – much like distrust and doubt. In this dance piece, I remember being carried across the long back of a man with just my ankles and feet across his shoulders. We were meant to be dead Icarus angels – our wings spread out behind us. It hurt my shoulder blades and my young back like hell but it looked absolutely mesmerizing on stage. Each night, as we danced without fear of vertigo, I remember wondering if he would ever drop me. He never did.

 

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What would David Ogilvy do?

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Two things happened in the ad industry in the last few months that would have made David Ogilvy cringe in his grave. First, an ad agency was stripped of its honours and shamed for entering fake work into an awards show. Second, after an 8-year long relationship, a certain agency was informed – over email – of the client’s intention to put the business out to pitch.

David Ogilvy was born in 1911. At the time, the advertising souls of this era were still floating around in a cosmic bubble, contemplating making a grand entrance a couple of decades later. So of what importance then, is the opinion of this old-world gentleman?

I believe that in a time when our industry is consumed with the challenges and wonders of the digital age, doing good for humanity and fulfilling our rock-star dreams, we should also be consumed with the fact that while nobody was looking, respect, trust and good old common sense started walking out the door.

As someone from the agency side, I have always feared that the very nature of the agency-client relationship is flawed – a relationship that has set us on unequal footing and built master-slave mentalities and battered-wife syndromes. While no relationship is a one-way street, I worry that ours is more strained than it has ever been. Now would be a good time to summon the spirit of the Father of Advertising. Here are five things Ogilvy said that I would like to share with all clients:

“Be candid, and encourage candor.”

David Ogilvy would want us to stop hiding behind debriefs and emails and start having more honest conversations. Tell us what works for you, what doesn’t and before your eyes start roaming, talk to us and give us the chance to show you that we actually care about your business as much as you do. If it still doesn’t work out, don’t break up with us over email.

“Why keep a dog and bark yourself?”

Ogilvy recommended that clients should not compete with their agencies in the creative area. Trust that most of us went to ad school. Trust us to do creativity, to write copy and to design. No one wants their copy dictated to them. We should ban tracked changes on word documents and scribbling on layouts. Give us your opinion, criticise and interrogate the work but allow us to do what we love doing.

“Don’t haggle with your agency.”

Sometimes ad agencies behave like a kid who has a hundred bucks and finds himself in front of a slot machine. But sometimes we feel like the kid who has to score goals in Bata Toughees. Maybe it’s time to loosen the iron-grip on the purses. Spend the right money at the right time with the right people and you will see the results.

“Clients get the advertising they deserve.”

A great idea is chosen by you. When you are brave you get brave work. No doubt, every great idea travels a scary journey accompanied by a manic, feverish sweat. We should not be afraid of this fever because it subsides once the work survives intact. If you set your standards high, you allow us to improve your bottom line and to do great work for you.

“Loosen their tongues.”

I think that Ogilvy meant that we should drink Tequila. We should also have lunch some time.  Maybe play a round of golf too. We compress time so drastically these days that we forget that relationships are built alongside the work, the briefs and the meetings. Get to know the people that work on your business and let us get to know you so that we might each catch a glimpse of the passion and commitment we share.

As 2013 draws to a close and the last brief gets jammed under the door, I hope that we can wake up in 2014 with a more evolved approach to the agency-client relationship. On both sides, I hope that we can behave with more integrity, build trust again and pat each other on the backs without the simultaneous urge to stab each other. I hope that we can find new meaning in our roles. If the face of advertising has changed and now resembles a bearded, plaid-wearing guy with an enormous heart, doesn’t it make sense that we both rock up to work as partners, rather than as ‘Agency’ and ‘Client’? Let us make 2014 the year that all others are compared to and let us make David Ogilvy, that old bastard, bloody proud.

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6 December 2013

 

12:14am.
A phone call.
Put on the news.
President Zuma.
Amazing Grace.
Nelson Mandela has died.