It is a law of nature that when you spray insect repellent in a room that has an overhead fan switched on, your eyes will burn in agony every four to six seconds for a period of minutes, depending on the velocity of the fan. Despite the fact that I am aware of this law I transgress it with alarming frequency. I’ve never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer.
I’ve been irritable for the past few days. It probably has to do with the fact that I’ve been in solid tourist territory ever since arriving in Kerala. I’m fed up with the merchants trying to get you into their shops. ‘Yes. Come in. Looking my shop. Very good price.’ What I don’t understand is that Indians are supposedly some of the most savvy salespeople in the world and yet they can’t figure out that Europeans hate the hard sell. As soon as I’m approached by an over-eager merchant I want to run away, even if I might have been interested in buying something in the first place. I sympathize with their need to make money, and I guess the culture is geared more toward service – – they would be horrified if you actually wanted something and they weren’t at your side to give it you — but the ironic thing is that I don’t see them doing it to other Indians, and I don’t see it in non-tourist towns.
My irritability is also caused in part by the fact that I’ll turn 34 in a week. 34 is no longer early-thirties; it’s solidly in the mid-thirties spinster camp, headed for a life of drinking wine by myself at home and eventually being eaten by my pack of dogs when I die. I don’t want to be in my mid-thirties and be single and unemployed. Some of my friends have said that they’re jealous of my freedom, but the grass is always greener on the other side. Having sowed a lot of wild oats in 34 years, I would give it up easily to be happily married and certain of a career path. But then again I wouldn’t give it up for a mediocre relationship and a job that sucked the life out of me, so I count my blessings: a functioning brain, some charm, a generally positive outlook on life, lots of good friends and a supportive family, and a sense that my tendency to be a late-bloomer means that the best is still to come.
Today I’m reading Freya Stark’s Dust In the Lion’s Paw, an account of her doings in the Middle East during World War II. As far as I can make out she was an impressive woman — a product of upper-class Edwardian England, so a bit of a snob and a name-dropper — but highly intelligent and accomplished and more to the point a very engaging writer. She spoke a number of languages, among them Arabic, and as she had traveled all over the Middle East she seemed a natural to work in the British propaganda office wining and dining foreign officials (in an effort to make them well-disposed toward the Allies).
She wrote of her efforts:
“…political laws are combated in a lukewarm way merely because most people – and Anglo-Saxons in particular – are unwilling to admit that thoughts can matter; and as these clothe themselves in language it follows that the importance of words is underestimated too… The nature of words is that none of them express a meaning exactly and when we speak or translate in a foreign country a far greater divergence is brought in than we think: for in our language, being aware of the shortcomings of words, we supply a thousand lights and shadows to correct them… The best we can do is to inspire a limited number of people not with our words but with the ideas behind them, and cause these to grow as if it were all over again from the beginning in their own way, in whatever the climate of their transplanting may be.”
“Since we were not trying to convince our enemies, but were intent on encouraging our friends, we avoided any repetition of the enemy’s arguments (which gives them an advertisement free gratis and for nothing and which every publication I read during the war seemed to being by doing). We built up our own story, on the fundamental assumption that there is not room for more than one idea at a time in the average head. What the other side says matters scarcely at all if one’s own message is sufficiently interesting.”
These words struck a loud chord for me. I’ve never been all that competetive with other people (except with a weapon in my hand, but that’s long behind me) so any situation where I’ve had to strive to overcome others has appeared not worth the energy. I’m more interested in whether what I’m doing is worthwhile to me, disappointed only when it’s clear that I haven’t met my own expectations. This has not stood me particularly well in the world of big-firm architecture, where you have to fight to have your ideas heard or spend your life toiling under someone else’s vision; when the men (and it is overwhelmingly men) start shouting away in the conference room about whether the diagram is simple enough, I start to yawn.
So I guess the next task is for me to figure out a way of being independent, of telling my own story from the outset and seeing whether anyone wants to buy it, rather than attempting to force myself up a ladder that I really don’t care about. I have ideas, but I’m not ready to share them yet.