A Tale of Two Bags

I could begin this post with some florid prose replete with the superlative degree of comparison – e.g., It was the best of flights, it was the worst of flights – but won’t. Not because I lack the talent of my favorite novelist, but because my tale is not as lofty as his. It is about two bags that traveled from Mumbai to Los Angeles recently. Since neither bag is as handsome as Carton and Darnay, and neither city as romantic as London and Paris, my opening paragraph must be less orotund.

When I checked the titular bags at Mumbai airport on the last day of February, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t see them at LAX on the first day of March. But I was so happy to get rid of them that I didn’t give their onward journey a second thought. They were the airline’s responsibility now. (Actually, that should be airlines’, since one leg was on Delta and the other on KLM.) All I had to do was to get myself and my three carry-ons through the security rigmarole and on board. And of the four of us, I cared most for myself.

Yes, dear reader, you may call me selfish. But I’d advise you against it because I’m about to make a confession in your interest. I am generally averse to making confessions, but if it will help you in your travels then the ignominy is worth it.

'Your best bet is reincarnation.'

My confession is that in my carry-on I always carry one empty bag so that once I am past the check-in counter, I can make my hand luggage lighter by making it more numerous. The security folks don’t care how many carry-ons you have. They only care that your carry-ons don’t have bombs, weapons (actual or potential), liquids in excess of 3 fl. oz. per bottle, and water in excess of one drop of saliva.

I only had the saliva, and in vast quantities, but I kept swallowing it down. I’m glad no one searched my insides (though they searched my outside thoroughly). Otherwise, with all that saliva, I’d be inside by now, if you will pardon the pun. (I hope you will, because it’s the first time I’ve asked you to pardon a pun this year.)

I’ll spare you the details of the two legs straddling the layover in Amsterdam, during which my legs got their exercise running from gates E to F (which aren’t as close as they sound). That exercise kept me from contracting deep vein thrombosis on the LA leg, so I thank the Amsterdam Schiphol authorities for keeping my planes as far apart as possible.

Eleven hours later I entered Tom Bradley International for the first time since its renovation. Instead of the usual lines, I was shocked that I was the only one. In the entire terminal! An attendant directed me to the self-service kiosks at which I could go through the entry process. I answered every question honestly, except the last. But it was an honest mistake. Being jet-lagged, I selected “No” in response to the final question (“Is all the information correct?”), which resulted in my having to exchange pleasantries with an Immigration officer.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind exchanging pleasantries with Immigration officers, but they want you to be chirpy, and it’s hard to be chirpy after a sleepless day-long journey from the other side of the globe. And perhaps I haven’t yet got over what I went through the first time I entered LAX sixteen years ago. I remember each detail vividly, down to the names of the three officers who grilled me. And although I’m generally bad with faces, I remember theirs clearly.

Naturalization has erased the sting of that initial welcome (such as it was), and having “Los Angeles” on the cover of my book has been redemptive, but I’ll never forget the events of that evening in March 1999. Sometimes I wish my memory were worser.

Romeo and Juliet, III, ii

I reached Baggage Claim hoping that someone had mistakenly taken my bags off the carousel (so I wouldn’t have to), but the carousel was empty. It wasn’t even revolving, which meant that all the bags that had to come had come. (And gone.) The truth was just sinking in when an airline rep approached me. My name was on the list in his hand and, the rep said cheerily, my bags would be delivered to my door the next day. He made it sound like the airline was doing me a favor.

I tend to be gullible when I am tired, so I smiled gratefully and let him tell me about his one-eighth-Indian heritage. As I was writing my address on his list, another passenger appeared to claim his baggage. I don’t think my fellow passenger can expect the same favor from the airline, and not on the basis of our looks. He was by far the handsomer. It’s just that he said he was on his way to Guatemala but didn’t have an address or phone number to offer. And he didn’t know the name of the friend he was to visit.

He was either one of the few who travel through the US knowing nothing about their final destination, or one of the many who travel through the US with every intention of making it their final destination. I’ve said this on my Facebook page (facebook.com/consonantbooks) so I can do so here: I can’t help wondering whether my fellow passenger made it to Guatemala, or if he ended up wherever they take “undocumented persons.”

Illegals working

Since returning from India, I have decided to limit my posts to 1,000 words or less. This, dear reader, is for the sake of your eyes. (That would be “for your eyes only” in Indian English.) The word counter is giving me dirty looks by way of warning, so I’ll stop here and resume my tale next time. As you know, A Tale of Two Cities was also first published in serial form.


We’ll Always Have Paris

The reason for this title will (or should) become clear by the end of this post, but I might as well say upfront that I didn’t understand Casablanca when I first saw it. At nineteen I didn’t know enough about love or French, and someone’s head was blocking the English subtitles. The movie was being screened by the French department at Fergusson College, that august institution of postsecondary learning at which I spent six years of my life a lifetime ago.

Fergusson College Stamp

My fellow Americans will be surprised to learn that these six years were not four undergrad and two graduate, but two of JC (aka junior college, as they call grades XI and XII in India), three of BA, and one of my first MA. I did the second year of my first MA at Pune University, that august institution of postgraduate learning that was recently renamed Savitribai Phule Pune University. It doesn’t have quite the same ring, but I’m glad the name-changers chose someone to whom I, as an educated Indian woman, owe a debt of gratitude. Savitribai Phule (1831-1897) and her husband and fellow reformer, Jyotirao (1827-1890), were pioneers of women’s education in India, opening the country’s first school for girls in what was then called Poona.

Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule

You will have noticed, dear reader, that I wrote eleven and twelve in Roman numerals in the foregoing para. That’s not because that’s how we referred to those grades back when I was collecting thoughts on art from the Arts. I did it because I wanted the chance to repeat something I read in the Sunday Times of India this week. In the “Pastforward” year-end special section, the “Oops” of 2014 went to a news anchor’s referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping as “Eleven Jinping.”

I don’t think the Chinese as a whole will mind, though. They’ve been claiming kinship with the Romans for centuries, saying that spaghetti was copied from noodles post-Marco Polo. “Xi” asserts China’s Italian connection as much as it asserts its non-English connection. I mean, if the Chinese had wanted to assert their ties with the language of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, they’d have spelt it She Jinping… Either way, I’m glad that when my hometown became Pune two decades post-Independence, no one thought of spelling the word phonetically. It’s more fun with the pun.

Xi Jinping

But this post is not about Chinese connections or about puns. It’s about my nine-hour layover in Paris en route to India. I booked my trip on Air France because it had the best price and the most convenient arrival and departure timings. The nine-hour layover in the city I’ve wanted to visit since I started learning French all those years ago in grade XI was a bonus. A francophone friend advised me to brush up my French because the French don’t like speaking English in France, so I began to do the needful at the earliest (since I was also brushing up my Indian English).

My efforts (at least as regards French) paid off – and even before I boarded the flight out of LA. At the Air France counter at LAX, I spoke to the agent in French, saying “Je n’ai pas compris” (“No comprendo”) whenever he responded in his native tongue. I’m convinced it was my bad French and not my bad back that motivated him to take the payment for my second bag, though he should really have sent me to another line for that.

Excess baggage

When we touched down in Paris, my broken French did more than an MA in English could have done. Immigration officers, airport officials, and other passengers would smile whenever I spoke in French, and they all helped – or pointed me to someone who could. And knowing French helped me acquire a fellow Paris Pioneer.

He was poring over a map near Les Baggages du Monde, the luggage locker at CDG, as I was on my way to store my hand baggage for a few hours. I recognized him from my flight and asked if he was going to Paris. It was my lucky day because he was from LA and yes, he was planning to visit the famous monument during his ten-hour layover in Paris. Soon we were making our way to Les Baggages, where he paid to store his baggage and mine.

Now I’m not in the habit of asking strangers to pay my way, but I realized at the counter that I’d forgotten my UK ATM card in LA, and my credit card was declined because I hadn’t told them I might be using it in Paris. “I can’t believe I’d be so dumb,” I lamented as he paid the fourteen euros for my two bags. (Actually, I could believe I’d be so dumb, but it seemed better to say I couldn’t in front of a stranger.) Forgetting my UK ATM card in LA might have been among my dumbest mistakes, but read on.


I told Zev (for that’s what my companion’s parents had named him twenty-some years ago) that I’d pay him as soon as we found an exchange bureau. To reassure him that I was as good as my word, I took out a copy of Pioneer Boulevard from my purse and said, “I am this person. If I don’t pay, you can write something negative about me.” I don’t usually tell strangers that I have written a book, but I owed this guy money. What’s more, I was planning to ask him to take a photo of me with Pioneer Boulevard when we reached the Eiffel Tower, so he might as well know sooner rather than later.

His reaction caught me by surprise. I thought he’d be casually interested, saying something American like “Cool” or “Wow,” but he was genuinely interested. He asked what the book was about, why I had written it, and a few other questions that I’ve only had from other writers . . . And he is a writer! He’s enrolled in an MA in creative writing somewhere on the Continent. To protect his identity, I won’t mention any further details except that he said his parents have visited India and his mother enjoys reading books by Indian writers!

Pioneer blvd FINAL front cover

Even on a cold, drizzly Monday afternoon, Paris was as lovely as I had imagined it to be. The Champs-Élysées was disappointing because of the traffic, and because I was desperate to reach the famous monument before dark. As we were waiting to cross the fabled street, I asked a man standing to my left, “Savez-vous où es la Tour Eiffel?” He stared at me apologetically and replied, “Hablas español?”

I laughed out loud. I had come all the way to Paris only to hear the question I hear constantly in LA! Then Zev (who does speak Spanish) explained that we’re from LA, and the man also laughed. He didn’t know how to get to the Eiffel Tower and wished us luck as he disappeared into the crowd. In the end, it was not my faltering French but Zev’s unerring in-built GPS that got us to our destination.

Eiffel Tower

When the famous monument was within sight, I realized my second mistake: I had left my camera in my hand baggage, and my phone battery was low. Very low. We clicked away regardless (I was taking photos of Zev too, because something was wrong with his phone), but none of the Eiffel Tower photos appeared in my photo gallery. A clown man dressed as a clown barged into the picture as we each posed with the tower in the background, and then demanded that we pay him. I hadn’t wanted him in my picture in the first place, so I showed him my camera and said, in a French accent (since my French deserted me at this critical moment), that there were no photos to pay for. An angry scowl appeared beneath the clown’s smile painted on his face.

After this not-so-comic relief, I remembered the matter of my debt. The exchange bureau was too far and it was nearing time for me to head back, so I asked Zev if he’d accept US dollars instead. He graciously said yes. And then, as I opened my purse to find my wallet, I asked if he would accept a copy of my book as part of the $21 I owed him. I never expected him to graciously say yes a second time, so I took out the money. But he took the book from my hand.

“What the heck,” he said. “I can give it to my mom when I’m done.”

And that’s how, dear reader, I sold the first copy of my book outside the US – right in front of the Eiffel Tower, too! You’ll have to take my word for it, because my phone was dead by then so we didn’t even attempt to capture the moment on camera. But I have my memories, Zev has Pioneer Boulevard, you have this post and, as Bogart tells Bergman in Casablanca, we’ll always have Paris.


As time goes by . . . No matter what the future brings . . . 

Pardonnez Mon Français (or, The Benefits of Haldi)

Non, cher reader, je ne vous ai pas oublié. J’ai de très bonnes raisons pour ce long silence.

But first, my apologies to the francophone reader who knows I should have used excuser and not pardonner in the title. My French dictionary is right now louring upon me like the clouds upon a Shakespearean king’s House, but I’m not apologizing to it. It’s a Webster, not a Larousse. It has no right to lour upon me. Au contraire, it should be beaming gratefully at me for picking it up a Staples or Office Depot store closing sale and giving it a home almost ten years ago. It might have been pulped or donated to a thrift store otherwise. Instead, it has a seat on my Reference shelf, with prospects of seeing a certain French monument in the near future.

Eiffel Tower

Perhaps I should apologize to the anglophone, lusophone, hispanophone, or any other-phone reader who, understanding a little French, clicked on this post hoping to find some four-letter words that count as “French” in English. I’m sorry to disappoint you – unless you consider the four-lettered word 75% similar to the word word as a four-letter word.

Since I am kindly disposed towards you – don’t I often insert a four-lettered term of endearment before reader? – let me give you a clue. The four-lettered word in question has a five-lettered synonym, which has six letters in British English, thanks to u.

For the reader who is still scratching his head, let me give a clue about the clue. The five-lettered Am. Eng. version has a national holiday named for it (clue: first Monday in September). The six-lettered Brit. Eng. version has a political party named for it (clue: not that of Britain’s only female PM, who was in labor once but delivered twice).

Margaret Thatcher and her kids

As I was searching for images of Margaret Thatcher and her twins, I came across this tribute Meryl Streep, who played Thatcher in The Iron Lady, sent out when Thatcher died in April 2013. Naturally, Streep’s first adjective caught my attention.

“Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics. I was honored to try to imagine her late life journey, after power; but I have only a glancing understanding of what her many struggles were, and how she managed to sail through to the other side.”

Playing Thatcher was work for Streep, and I wish the work that kept me from you these many weeks had been as glamorous. Alas, it was a prosaic matter of coming up with descriptions for products with ingredients like methylchloroisothiazolinone. If you want to know more about that 27-lettered word, it has its own Wikipedia entry. Just for fun I searched for “methylchloroisothiazolinone images,” and you won’t believe— No, actually I believe you will believe. You’ve searched for images of 27-lettered words yourself. You know what’s out there.

No MethylchloroisothiazolinoneI had not intended to mention methylchloroisothiazolinone when I turned on my computer to write this post. You must forgive me, reader. I have been laid up with a cold and fever since the day after Thanksgiving, alternating between shots of NyQuil and DayQuil, and that’s bound to have affected my ability to think coherently. Perhaps the reason I have come this far is because I have also been drinking haldi milk.

For those who don’t know, haldi in milk is an Indian remedy for colds – haldi being Hindi for turmeric, that yellow spice that gives curry its color. The Wikipedia entry for turmeric begins with the sentence below. (The sentence has six hyperlinks, including one for the phonetic transcription. All of these, dear reader, bearing your sanity in mind, I have removed.)

“Turmeric (Curcuma longa) / ‘tɜrmərɪk/ is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae.” 

What I knew of turmeric before writing this post was that it has anti-inflammatory properties, it is rich in antioxidants, it helps prevents cancer, and it’s considered an antiaging agent because it combats free radicals. To make sure I was not omitting any of its many benefits, I searched for “benefits of turmeric” and found this gem from a book titled Indian Spices and Condiments as Natural Healers by Dr. H.K. Bhakru:

“Turmeric is aromatic, stimulant and tonic. It corrects disordered process of nutrition and restores the normal function of the system. It is a carminative, antiseptic, a great anti-flatulent, blood purifier and expectorant.”

Through that same article I learnt that the benefits of haldi include:
(i) Lowering cholesterol;
(ii) Controlling diabetes;
(iii) Preventing liver disease; and
(iv) Preventing Alzheimer’s (either I didn’t know that, or else I’d forgotten).

Please don’t rush off to your favorite Indian restaurant just yet. I have a story to tell you. I’ll tell it, you read it, and then we can part ways until my next post, which will most likely be written in the land of haldi (and other spices).

India spices

When I started writing this post, I had intended to share the ten Shakespearean plays I like best and why. You might have been surprised why some make my list and others don’t, but I’d have reminded you of what the 17th-century French mathematician-physicist-philosopher, Blaise Pascal, had said (“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point”), and I’d have begged your pardon for not including one of the four great tragedies. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, there’ll be no prizes for guessing which of the four great tragedies would top my list.

NyQuil and DayQuil are doing their number on me, dear reader, and my position has been getting steadily more horizontal with each successive paragraph. But I promised to tell you a story and you know I like keeping my word. In “Keeping My Word,” I had told you that I was keeping my word to a couple librarians to promote my events at their libraries. One of the ways I did this was by posting the flyer I had created (in Word) all over the cities of Pasadena and Sierra Madre. Well, all is hyperbole, but I certainly put in many flyer miles. My story takes place on one of those frequent flyer trips, outside a coffee shop in Pasadena.

Sharon Edwards ArtNight

I was walking to my car after posting my flyer at the back of the coffee shop (the only place they allow flyers to be posted). I’d had to get the barista’s permission because the manager was “at lunch,” and since they don’t serve lunch at the coffee shop, she was not on site (and therefore out of sight). But my story is not about the barista or her manager. It’s about a cute guy I found seated at a table, reading a book, outside the coffee shop.

Now I have a personal rule not to approach cute guys outside coffee shops, though I don’t mind bending this rule if they happen to be reading a book. I didn’t ask this cute guy what he was reading, which would come across as your standard pickup cliché. I merely asked him if he had read my book.

He looked up with a slightly bemused expression and I quickly showed him the book. He blinked, looked at it, and said he’d never heard of it. That’s no way to flatter a famous author, but I’m not a famous author so it didn’t bother me. Instead, I took it as an opportunity to give him the thirty-second promo spiel. He seemed to find it interesting, so I gave him another thirty seconds. And another. And perhaps another. By which time he had the book in his hands and was reading the back cover.

I invited him to ArtNight Pasadena and he said he’d try to make it. Then, out of curiosity, I asked him what he was reading. I’m passing this information on to you, dear reader, because I know how much you like puns. He was reading Just My Type: A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield.

Just My Type

As we were saying goodbye, I asked him his name. I know I should have done that when we said hello, but we never actually said hello. Our conversation had begun in medias res, like epics do.

Reader, it was an epic moment when he told me that his name is Hamlet. Here’s a picture to prove I am telling the truth. The camera never lies.

Sharon Edwards and Hamlet

Got Mill?

If you are among the millions out there who noticed that I missed two weekly posts this month, and who missed those two weekly posts, I congratulate you on your powers of observation and your impeccable taste. If you are not among the millions, I can only commiserate with you. It must be hard to be lacking in both powers of observation and impeccable taste. What’s more, I feel sorry for you because you are not like me: I missed two weekly posts but you did not. But cheer up. You’re not alone. There are billions out there like you.

I searched for images of our not-so-lonely planet’s teeming billions, to show you that you are not alone. I also wanted to keep you happy. I’m not naïve, reader. I know you like my images, and some of you like them more than my text. Well, I must inform you that instead of finding moving or humorous images to keep you happy, I only found millions of typos to keep me happy.

Billions of typos

I was exaggerating, of course. I didn’t find millions of typos. I only found these few, and maybe ten or twenty more. But I’m sure there are many millions in print, on the internet and off it. Why, my own book had some eight or nine. Apart from being mortifying, they were ironic because my book’s back cover says something about my having been a proufreeder. (It will be the ultimate irony if their our sum tie pose hear. Unintentional ones, I mean.)

The most mortifying of my typos was an incorrect end-of-line break that could have been avoided had Word been smart enough to know I meant “biolog-ical,” not “biology-ical,” and had I been smart enough to know how to turn off that feature. But I was not smart enough. Don’t be shocked, reader. If you’ve been reading the posts I churn out for your reading pleasure week after week (barring a couple weeks here and there), you will know what grade I’m mentally in. Turning off features in Word is for Indian techies, those teeming millions in whose august company I will never feature, in August or in any other month.

Pioneer Boulevard Back Cover

Most of the typos I came across as a proofreader at Warner Bros. weren’t funny, but I remember these because they were.

  1. Fathering Forces. The copy had gathering, but given the licentious lifestyle of the heroes in the movie, fathering would have been right too.
  2. Until then, ______ was the longest loving member of the Senate. Obviously the copy had said living. Even if the writer knew something about the senator’s love life, they wouldn’t have told.
  3. Standing on the shoulder of Stanley Kubrick. If you have as good an imagination as Stanley Kubrick, you’ll be able to picture what it would be like to stand on his shoulder. Especially because he’s been dead since 1999.

Apostrophe Intelligence

And now, let me tell you about the not-so-teeming millions. These are a million dollars, which my wallet has yet to teem with. (Please don’t stop reading. I have something very important to say on this.)

Some days ago I was in conversation with a man who visits India regularly in connection with some community development projects he raises funds for. At one point he stopped mid-sentence to ask, “What would you do if you were given a million dollars?”

Someone asked me this question when I first came to the US, and at the time my hopes rose. The speaker was an elderly woman, and I thought she was about to bequeath her estate to me. I’d heard that anything was possible in America, and I felt it was about to happen to me. So convinced was I that I almost gave her the answers I thought might win her (“Save the manta rays” being at the top of the list, this being Hawaii). I soon discovered that she had no intention of bequeathing anything to me. When I finished speaking, she began telling me what she would do if given a million, and that’s when I discovered she had nothing to bequeath to anyone.

It took another five or six people to ask me that question before I figured out that when someone asks that, they are only trying to eavesdrop on your thoughts. Because (if you answer honestly), what you would do if you were given a million dollars shows where your greatest passions and interests lie.

Note: Change that to a billion when speaking to a millionaire. And if you’re speaking to a billionaire, don’t ask them what they would do. Ask them what they are doing.

Who wants to be a millionaire

When I first came to the US, I also heard about a study that had been done a decade or so before among the Builders (people who had lived through both world wars), in which they had been asked this question: “If you had to live your live over, what would you do differently?”

This is another of those “million dollar” questions of the kind I was asked recently. It’s different in the sense that you could be given a million dollars whereas you cannot get to live your life over, but the Builders have not been called the greatest generation for nothing. They gamely responded, and these are the top three answers:

  1. I would watch more sunsets.
  2. I would spend more time with those I love.
  3. I would invest in things that will outlive my lifetime.

When my conversation with the man who regularly visits India began, I hadn’t been expecting the “million dollar” question, and I wasn’t thinking about the Builders when I replied, but I knew what he was getting at and I named the top three items on my wishlist. I responded honestly, but I’m not revealing my answer. If you’ve been eavesdropping on my Collected Thoughts for any length of time, you’ll be able to figure it out for yourself. I will say this, though: I believe my three points cover the three points on the Builders’ list. The first two things I’d do if someone gave me a million dollars will be an investment into something that outlives my lifetime, and the third will allow me to watch more sunsets and spend more time with those I love.

So here’s the very important thing I have to say to you: If you have a mill bill to spare, please pass the buck to me.

Million dollar bill

Sorry Brazil

Indian military band

I had national anthems on my mind on Friday, the Fourth of July, when Colombia met Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals. And since Messi wasn’t playing, for me it all boiled down to the national anthems, with more than a little help from Colombia’s only Nobel laureate.

Click here to read the full post. Sorry Brazil

Sorry Brazil

I had national anthems on my mind on Friday, the Fourth of July, when Colombia met Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals. And since Messi wasn’t playing, for me it all boiled down to the national anthems, with more than a little help from Colombia’s only Nobel laureate.

Garcia Marquez

I had discovered the Colombian anthem quite by chance, while writing an essay some months ago, and I liked it immediately – tune, words, et al. And on the Fourth of July I heard Brazil’s anthem for the first time. I hope all Brazilians love it, but there are three things I didn’t like about it. 

Disclaimer: I had posted these three things on Facebook on Friday, as the quarterfinal was in progress. They are a personal opinion, and this post is not intended to rub salt into semifinal wounds. I hope all Brazilians find my tweet of Saturday comforting: “Colombia’s greater loss was the passing of Gabriel García Márquez in April. The World Cup will be back in four years.”  Sadly, García Márquez never will.

(i) The Portuguese “O lábaro que ostentas estrelado” is sometimes translated “the star-spangled banner which you display.” Sorry Brazil, but there’s only one star-spangled banner for me, and Francis Scott Key wrote his poem in 1814, well before Francisco Manuel da Silva composed his lyrics in 1831. Perhaps Francisco hadn’t read what Francis had written, and the translation on Wikipedia calls it “the starred labarum,” but still.

(ii) I didn’t care for the tune – and not for want of trying. I don’t like not liking music so I listened to it at least six times, with and without vocals. Still this tune didn’t strike a chord with me.     

(iii) The phrase “idolized homeland” seemed ominous to me. Any human institution that’s idolized is bound to have feet of clay. Even if those feet can kick. I use the present tense because Brazil’s drubbing at the hands (by the feet) of Kroos and co. can’t touch Pelé’s greatness.


As I said, that was a personal opinion. I am expressing it on my own blog, and more politely than some people (hiding behind screen names) express their opinions on other people’s YouTube channels. For instance, one person has this to say about the Indian national anthem: “Most boring anthem only about rivers mountain and ocean” (quoted and punctuated as in original).

I don’t know whether this person was expecting India’s anthem to be as entertaining as a Bollywood number, but he clearly didn’t understand the song itself. Not only is it not only about geographic features, it is not about geographic features at all. The anthem is the opening stanza of a hymn composed by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s first Nobel laureate and the first non-European to win the Prize (Literature). The geographic features are only mentioned in the context of the prayer. India’s mountains and rivers and peoples, says the poet, all offer their worship to the One who holds the destiny of their land.

If the person who expressed that opinion on YouTube was reacting to that one rendition (which I must admit sounds most boring), he had confused the music with the lyrics. Hindustani classical singers (or Bollywood singers affecting a classical style) can make “Jana Gana Mana” sound like a dirge when they sing it slowly and mournfully. National anthems are not meant to evoke pathos; they are meant to rouse patriotic sentiments. Having been an Indian citizen for most of my life, I know that “Jana Gana Mana” can stir the finest patriotic sentiments when played by a brass band.

Indian military band

As a North Indian I’d have preferred Hindi or Urdu over Sanskritized Bengali – but Tagore won the Prize. I also like the idea of the anthem as a prayer instead of one that says, “Better than the entire world is our India.” That sort of thing is best said from a place with a view of the entire world. Like outer space.

In April 1984, when Indira Gandhi asked the first Indian cosmonaut how India looked from outer space, Rakesh Sharma replied, “Saare jahan se accha” (“Better than the entire world”). He was quoting from the opening line of a poem by Muhammad Iqbal, written in the early decades of the freedom movement.

I wonder if Sharma had thought up his reply before Mrs. Gandhi asked her question, or whether it was a spontaneous response, like Neil Armstrong’s words upon making that step/leap off Apollo 11. It doesn’t matter, of course. He said it – and saying it, won the hearts of Indians who were young in that Orwellian year.

Neil Armstrong

I started this blog with a reference to Colombia’s national anthem. When I discovered it back in February, I discovered that the singer Shakira is Colombian. All I knew about her until then was that she had sung “Waka Waka” at the last World Cup. And that I discovered only because a friend’s one-year-old daughter loved the song.

Don’t blame me, reader. I don’t get my kicks from soccer, and in July 2010 I was preparing for England. I didn’t have time for TV. I forced myself to watch the World Cup final only because a Dutch American friend was wearing an orange shirt that morning. He’d dressed his infant son the same, so I naturally asked what it was all about. After staring at me in amazement for several seconds, he told me what it was all about. So to remedy the gap in my education, I turned on the TV that afternoon. After the game was over, I sent him a one-word text: “Sorry.”

No doubt there have been other more beautiful goals in the history of soccer, but I was awestruck by Iniesta’s goal. Not because it won Spain the 2010 Cup (I was going Dutch that day), but because Iniesta kicked the ball, at an angle and past an aggressively positioned opponent, almost instinctively into the net. When I had recovered enough to think, it struck me that behind that two-second piece of action lay years and years of practice.

It was probably less than two seconds, but I like two-second for the wordplay. Having no soccer skills, I can only play on words. And I may not know much about any kind of football, but I know mastery when I see it. Iniesta’s goal was a demonstration of just that, because mastery is doing something so often until you can do it quickly, instinctively, and in less-than-perfect circumstances. And make it look effortless, to boot.

Iniesta goal 2010