The human platypus

"THEY'RE CALIFORNIA grapes," said my friend in a small voice. "I got them this morning, only quarter kilo." The subtext was: "It is an unpardonable act of treachery for which I deserve to be hit over the head." I obligingly hit him over the head, metaphorically speaking — how could you, shame on you, and so on and so forth. Then I popped a couple of grapes into my mouth. Guiltlessly. I hadn't bought them, after all.

The scene I've just described might make no sense to some of you. That's because you do not belong to the species of urban animal I'm about to paint a picture of. It is the platypus of the human race. If you think a duck-billed, aquatic, egg-laying mammal is Nature's prime weirdo, wait till you meet its human counterpart. It defies the laws of normal behaviour. It has a built-in resistance to accepted opinion. When the herd makes a beeline for the good things in life, it heads off resolutely in the opposite direction. It can never celebrate the present without brooding about the future. A strange beast, indeed.

How do you know you're a platypus? You can find out by answering a series of simple questions. Do you believe that buying imported fruit and bottled water is nothing short of an outrage? Are you against cruelty to human beings? Do riots, bigots, and the state of the planet weigh heavily upon you? Do you take a dim view of cell-phones, credit cards, and designer brands? Do you eschew stores and restaurants that are part of a global chain? When you fall ill do you fall back on grandma's home remedies? Would you rather celebrate No Shopping Day than Valentine's Day? Do you buy handlooms and handicrafts to encourage weavers and artisans? Did you deliberately stay away from Devdas just because everyone and their mother were rushing off to see it for the tenth time?

If the answer is "Yes" you're a platypus. And you'd probably have approved of the fact that the test had nine questions, not 10, for you dislike convention. Unmoved by fads and marketing spiels, you turn up your nose at anything that is wildly popular — a song, a style, a word, a way of life. There's a fair chance that you feed your baby ragi gruel instead of tinned formula, and wash cabbage in salt water to remove invisible pesticides. "Be Indian, buy Indian" is your secret aim, although you wouldn't dream of attending the flag-hoisting ceremony in your neighbourhood on Independence Day. You do your bit for conservation by saving the plastic dabbas that once contained mysore pak or takeout food. You turn off dripping taps and switch off needless fans and lights, both at home and in public places.

At this point the junta cries out: "Aha! What you describe is nothing but an eco-freak in platypus's clothing." I'm sorry, I cannot let you get away with loose allegations. Swear words like socialist, intellectual, neo-Gandhian, ageing hippie, inverse snob or non-conformist do not fit the bill, either. The animal wears no label. In fact, it has an identity problem: am I a duck or a seal or what? Its principles, you see, are not founded on rock. Wishy-washy is the word I'm looking for. Classic example: it buys only Indian butter and cheese but goes weak in the knees when it sees foreign chocolates.

The platypus is well-meaning but inconsistent. It tries to fight the System tooth and claw but gets sucked in eventually. This means that it is usually the last to fall in line, which makes it appear dreadfully antediluvian. (I got a telephone only in '97, prompting a young friend to sarcastically observe that I seemed to have finally given up using tom-toms and smoke signals.) By the time it decides that a former luxury is now a necessity, the rest of the world has moved on.

For all its progressive views, its attitudes can seem surprisingly traditional: the aversion to extravagance, the suspicion of modern medicine and technology — we've had granduncles who felt that way. But unlike our granduncles this animal's driving emotion is guilt. When provoked it can wax almost evangelical about consumerism and unequal distribution of wealth. A party-pooper if there ever was one. But ask it to join a group, a procession, or a signature campaign, and it dives out of sight. It derives a certain gloomy enjoyment from chewing on tough questions and picking holes in solutions, for that gives it an excuse not to act.

Some questions really have no answers. Once, at a basement bookshop on M.G. Road, I asked for a brown-paper cover when the owner gave me plastic and he countered: "But using paper means cutting more trees." You just can't win, can you?


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