29 July 2012


I am not much of a cook; in fact, the culinary achievement of which I am most obscenely proud does not happen, really, to be particularly impressive. It was Rogan josh, made not from natural ingredients but from a lone sachet of curry paste I had rescued from a random grocery aisle. This, of course, remained unbeknownst to my guests—a lovely South African couple who have since moved to Dublin—until after dinner, by which time the kind compliments and several bottles of wine had relaxed me well enough to finally confess to my cheating ways. 

I share this only because lately I have once again been pretending to know Indian stuff—all sorts of it, and not just food. First I read Bharati Mukherjee's Miss New India, with its portrait of a small-town girl drawn toward the promise of increasingly metropolitan Bangalore. This came after (but not shortly after) my having read Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. Then I watched John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which you probably already know is infinitely more English than Indian. (I did laugh out loud at Penelope Wilton giving new meaning to BLT, and at Dame Maggie Smith attempting to smuggle Branston pickles to sustain herself throughout her stay in Jaipur.) The next night, wondering if someone else's India could be as light-hearted and colorful as Mr. Madden's, I downloaded Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, which I think is an okay film, expectedly eccentric, but not quite as good as I'd hoped it would be, although of course I am under no authority to speak of films, and even less qualified to speak of India. Unlike in books, I can't say I have had an introduction to any sort of homegrown talent in film (Slumdog Millionaire is only slightly less English than Marigold), but I guess what intrigued me the most about both Marigold and Darjeeling was not how authentic both films were supposed to be, but how familiar they looked, at least to me, with their tales of the comedies and sorrows of migrant Westerners in the East. This is to say that if Mr. Madden's film is about the English, and Mr. Anderson's about the Americans, then both may as well have been about the English and the Americans in the Philippines.

Even if I don't recommend either, there is a golden one-liner in each of the films. "We haven't located us yet," blurts out a character in The Darjeeling Limited; meanwhile, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Ms. Wilton had the fortune of being given the line, "When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you." You've got to watch out for it!

Up next for me: Jerry Pinto's Em and the Big Hoom, recommended by an Indian friend whom I absolutely trust knows her stuff. I shall take notes as usual and write out what I think of the book. But first I have to find it.

16 July 2012


"The smudge pot they stood upright on the ground near the chute and Harold bent over stiffly and held a match to it. When it ignited he adjusted the flue so it gave off the heat, and its smoke rose black and smelling of kerosene into the wintry air, mixing with the cattle dust."

Kent Haruf's Plainsong is so beautiful. I love everything about how it is written: the prose is so simple, so unadorned, that I couldn't help but be taken in, even though I'd already read it previously, the first time about four or five years ago, and never remembered a thing about it, except for the part of the story about a pregnant teenage girl (Victoria Roubideaux). When I went to get my NBI clearance (a criminal record certificate) at Robinsons Otis and had to line up at six in the morning to secure my place in the queue (one has to sit on the floor, too!), my nose was in the book for three or four straight hours, making the wait very bearable.

One of the nicest things about Plainsong is that it's set in a small Colorado community, somewhere in the high plains called Holt, which means that the language used by Mr. Haruf is the language of this community's people. In 2009, Laura Miller wrote in Salon that American literature favors books about "men in boats" (over "women in houses")—Melville, anyone? Well, to me, books about men and women in a small town are just as charming, and the language just as lovely.

Take the passage above. It doesn't matter that I don't at all know a thing about what one does with cattle: as long as the farmers—here named Harold and Raymond McPheron, the old, unmarried brothers—know what they're doing with their cattle, I'm happy to read descriptions of them going about doing it. Thanks to Mr. Haruf, these happen to be rich, beautiful descriptions, too.

I'm also happy to be let in on a number of Americanisms—the kind that never annoys—which pepper the cuttings of talk in Plainsong. Here's an example: "Well, he might of went to Denver, Raymond said. Then he might of went back to the Rosebud in South Dakota. I doubt anybody knows. He's been gone a long time." "Might of went," of course, should be "might have gone," but who cares? Not me. When I read it, I heard it, too. It sounded like country music without the notes.

07 July 2012

Anthony's Entourage

Anthony still plucks his guitar the way he did in high school: brilliantly. Only, he's better now—much. He's got real fans, too. Been jamming, recording, singing. Professionally, I mean, like in fashion shows, school dances, homecomings, praise communities, and events organized by Filipino student groups in America—well, Illinois. He'd moved from Minnesota to Chicago with Voltaire, the other half of the Roxas Brothers. "Ma was like, it's all right, at least it's not suburbia," Anthony said. "But I know she got a bit sad, with the two of us going."

Anthony is an accountant by day. He told me that sometimes after the nine-to-five he goes dancing with FIA Modern. Some sort of group, I didn't catch what the acronym stood for, but F probably means "Filipino". I can picture him now in something like a Wade Robson dance practice: a studio, mirrored walls, bubblegum sounds from an iPod dock, snappy movement, young urban hip hop attire ("threads"), baseball cap worn crisply at an angle, such that the golden authenticity sticker, left unpeeled under the brim, flashes whenever the head cocks like this and like that. 

I was more interested in Anthony's music—how he got gigs, for example. "Word of mouth," he told me, although Word of Web is what he probably meant. I've seen some of the stuff on his YouTube channel—two-hundred-thousand-plus views, six-hundred-something subscribers. In reply to the Label Type question, he wrote, "Unsigned"; his influences included God, Jesus Christ, Mama Mary, all the saints, and John Mayer.

I still remember Anthony at a more hazardous age: when we were in high school together, before he went to America. He went by Dennis then, because Dennis Von Anthony sounded a bit too grand. His hair was curly, but not like mine, which was shy-makingly curly, and the shoes he wore weren't made of black leather. They looked like it, though, and the teachers never noticed. The soles were, in fact, made of rubber, giving its wearer the slightest athletic advantage whenever slight athletic advantages could be taken. He wasn't as bad as I was at billiards, and he liked cafeteria dumplings. After class we walked to either McDonald's on Retiro Street—to gawk at girls from nearby Saint Theresa’s College (well, I might have merely pretended to gawk)—or our house, about eight to ten blocks away from the Lourdes School campus in Quezon City. Anthony, myself, Dann, Triggy, and Miko. That was our entourage right there.

A typical Lourdesian entourage, too, which means that we made fun of each other all the time, always boisterously. Lose your temper, take the name-calling and the game-playing too seriously, and you'd make a complete fool of yourself. Yet on a deeper, somewhat more implicit level, we also envied each other. Each one was laughed at and envied: me (pre-tonsillectomy) for singing the national anthem and the school hymn every morning; Dann for shooting off his mouth with details of his first sexual encounter ("she bled, man, and we brushed our teeth every hour"); Triggy for playfully dismissing the magnetic effects of his charm, which attracted boys in school who wanted to do his music class homework in exchange for who knew what; Miko for owning, in the era of Linkin Park's global domination, a Dance Dance Revolution pad (a pink-and-blue disco controller thing which lit up like neon litmus) for our regular Playstation afternoons; and Anthony, with his acoustic stylings and hoarse, pubescent countertenor, for unwittingly imposing pop into our brotherhood. He used to mispronounce words, particularly those containing the letter 's'. He couldn't properly say "fist" or "gas", so instead we heard "fished" and "gash". But when he sang the impediment inexplicably went away, so that 'N Sync's "Selfish" was never about clams and oysters. 

As a prophylactic, we kept to ourselves, unassumingly ambling along school corridors with a kind of conforming hush. Part of conforming meant playing basketball, which we did, and our given class numbers became our default jersey numbers; we liked to think we were all vital cogs in our intramural teams. Of course, none of the other guys at school ever suspected that we represented a boy band, and that we all wanted to be Justin Timberlake, even though no one really fit the bill. Girls just loved Justin back then, but can you imagine? It would have been disastrous for us. We might as well have hidden in a corner to eat our mommy-packed lunches. It would have been even more disastrous had we been the Backstreet Boys, because the Backstreet Boys sort of overdid it with those silly astronaut costumes and chest-baring wet shirts. We had these classmates—a come-hither group of five zingingly perfumed boys with cosmetic cases and glittery peacock fans—who were basically known as the Spice Girls; Posh, Scary, Baby, Sporty, and Ginger, each one of them a peach. Everyone knew who was who. The Spice Girls kept to themselves, too, but almost never by choice. But at least they knew themselves far better than we did—than I did—at the time. They were so much surer.

I saw Anthony when he came back to the Philippines for a two-week visit, at least nine or ten years since he first left. He brought chocolates and Gummi Worms at the informal reunion at another old classmate's house, somewhere in Santa Mesa Heights. Sweets: as if we were all still classmates. Not everyone was in attendance, though. Dann was reportedly working somewhere in Malaysia, and Miko was reportedly working somewhere in Paris. Triggy showed up, if only for Texas hold 'em. We sat al fresco in plastic chairs at a plastic table, amidst beers, brandy, cigarettes, poker chips. "I don't think I can take any more alcohol," Anthony said later that night. We weren't surprised. Every time a familiar face showed up and walked in through the front gate, he or she was offered a shot, two shots, three shots of Emperador. Like in the old days, there were consequences for refusal: not only did you remain inhibited; you also instantly became peculiar. I thus must have been swimming in drink when we did the slip-me-some-skin handshake, said our goodbyes, and drove away—none of us, I bet, more concerned about what we'd become than about how we used to be.