On the contrary: Rajni & Shibumi

One wonders why politicians, assorted bureaucrats and BBMP officials sentence themselves to "study tours"in Europe; there is neither pleasure nor profit to be gained for us or them. When public spending on jaunts is as profligate as that of a vote-seeking Reddy in Ballari, a visit to Japan is far superior in terms of bang for our buck, as Salman Khan may have said. The similarities are superficial: we are both a motley collection of districts, we love our by-two coffee while they stand on tea ceremony, we're both fascinated by silly sports, IPL and sumo, we were both ruled by emperors, well ok, sultans in our case, we share an abiding mistrust of outsiders and are as passionate about Lalbagh as they are about the Shinjuku Gyoen gardens. We have caste while they have class, we both drive on the left, even if in our case we make an exception for one-way streets and we're both fearfully repressed, althoughthe release valve on our pressure cooker is a dance bar while the Japanese favour manga and nymphets. But sadly, let's face it, underneath it all, we're idlis and tofu.

One doesn't have to go all the way there torealise that the Japanese are not like the rest of us or that certain aspects of life in Japan are from another planet, to put it charitably. To paraphrase the Bard, breathes there a man with a soul so dead who has not looked at a four-course Keiseki meal and said, "Banzai, meals ready?" But here's the weird part:  they make the most exquisite, aesthetically-plated food in the world and then display its thermoplastic equivalent in restaurant windows. How could any evolved gourmet look at a plate of naptha-propylene sushi and say: 'Yummy, I'll have that?'

Mug-wielding Indians allergic to toilet-paper will love their loos. Ok, the heated seats are slightly disconcerting the first time, but once you've warmed up they're a brilliant idea especially in winter; in Ephesus, slaves were used to perform the same function. There are as many mystifying buttons in a Tokyo toilet as in an F15 cockpit: for jets of warm water, one for bottom, one for front, one if you've been clumsy, all with helpful illustrations and finally, a blast of hot air to dry you off. As A.A Gill memorably observed, "All of which is strangely addictive and makes you question your sexual orientation, or at least wish for diarrhoea."

But how has Japan with 66% of its landmass uninhabitable and almost no natural resources to speak of become an economic superpower while boasting of a truly amazing support system for the handicapped, the elderly and the dispossessed? Even their cheerleaders are useful: they clear out the trash on bullet trains rather than shake their booty when some pyjama-clad oaf hits a six. There is perhaps no other nation on earth with such a deeply ingrained sense of the greater common good. This is dinned into their heads from the cradle to the grave with the single-minded intensity of a cuckoo clock which, by the by, is Muzak played at every pedestrian crossing. 

This is not to imply that Japan is an ideal society: there exists what critics decry as a dangerous obsession with perfection: the flawless cherry blossom, the harmonious haiku, the compelling need to conform all of which leads to a morbid fear of failure. Some say Japan has followed a magpie approach by taking the worst of the West (MacDonald's) whilediscarding the best (individualism) and that it merely produces and consumes without creating. Some go so far as to claim that the Japanese have emotion without love. Here in India we have oodles of emotion but very little practicality and an abysmal sense of cooperation; it's almost as if we are clingingobstinately to non-cooperation 70 years after the British have left. This could probably explain why our roads are cacophonous killing fields, our public toilets non-existent or filthy, our public-spiritedness an alien concept and why we lack basic efficiency or pride in our work?

Given the present political imbroglio where there is more swearing at than swearing in, one hopes that someday we move towards what is perhaps Japan's noblest quality: Shibumi. The term is complex and hard to define but basically implies understated beauty, understanding rather than knowledge, refinement without pretension and an inner peace that evolves gradually, rather than one wrested by hard struggle. In return, we can give them by-two coffee, tons of individuality, chaos, drama and confusion. 

Actually we don't need to since we've already given them Rajnikanth.

Ajit Saldanha has a finger in the pie, and another on the political pulse. And when he writes, he cooks up a storm.


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