I Sing the Body Electric

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Where there are no emotions, just extreme luxury

The orgasm, if and when it arrives, is still the gold standard for all human pleasures. To achieve it, the brain starts to shut down and ignore all anxieties, fears and joys, until during that short stretch of turbulence—usually longer for women (if it is genuinely experienced) than it is for impossible-to-fudge-it men—it is drained of all emotions. Until, of course, emotions start filling up again with Archimedean inevitability once the job at hand, or otherwise, is done.

Everyone’s favourite experience is measured against this brief and total shutdown of emotions. Whether it is sipping an 18-year-old Oban single malt whisky in a perfect setting, or listening to Bismillah Khan’s 1987 Paris recording of Raag Guri Todi with your feet up (with or without an 18-year-old Oban within one’s reach), or driving full-throttle a Ferrari F40 at the crack of dawn up and down Marine Drive, or biting a piping hot jalebi from your favourite childhood shop… diving into such pleasures is seeking to temporarily obliterate one’s emotional self by overloading it with emotions triggered by the senses.

I have never been much of a connoisseur of such life-affirming devices. Happy participant, yes. Expert, no. This isn’t because of a lack of trying or some complex class-hostility towards luxury as some of my friends may suspect me of harbouring—although the cult of the single malt whisky continues to puzzle and bemuse me. On the contrary, I have always been a worshipper of the luxurious experience, in the sense of its original meaning derived from the Latin luxuriosus, or having the quality of excess.

Which is why for me the ultimate luxurious material experience is lying on my electric blanket and being semi-toasted to sleep.

I can see that the needle’s just skated off the vinyl like a scampering crab at the mention of an electric blanket as my most LME (luxurious material experience). Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, I hear you mutter, you choose to walk into this one? Is this what makes me go, to quote Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally: “Oh, oh, oh, God, oh God, ah, oh God, oh….oh God, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!”

Am I setting up this celebration of my relationship with the humble electric blanket as a cute, contrarian argument against expensive luxuries that are plastered all over the glossies like sirens in full-song? Not at all. I certainly believe that an overwhelming number of human experiences that deserve to be swooned over cannot and do not come cheap. Money is still the least silly way of objectively measuring the value of anything, objects and phenomena providing pleasure included. Much thought, talent, craft, effort, pride and love is put into the many things that people have had the good fortune and/or means to enjoy.

Even as I write this, I can still feel some of the old luxuries I have experienced…

…eating a Kobe beef steak at a wonderful London restaurant; spotting whales in choppy South African waters; managing to read a page or two under dazzling starlight at the Cloud End Forest Reserve above Mussoorie; grinning the night away without any apparent reason after popping an ecstasy pill with friends in Mumbai; wearing my heavy black Doc Martens boots that magically keep my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds at the same time; guzzling copious amounts of my favourite Irish whisky alone with my favourite music bouncing about in my living room with no smoking restrictions; staring at a landscape that contains the Himalayas, the Karakorams and the Hindu Kush in one frame from a pass near Chilas in Pakistan as the skylight dims; and lying down on my electric blanket-covered bed on Delhi winter nights.

Current writing and reading tastes dictate that experiences—good, bad or banal—are recounted and given value by describing then in hyper-detail and pegging them to a particular time and place. But my most LME is neither a tent in a field to be pegged down nor one of those ‘Remember the first time?’ anecdotes that can expand accordian-like into a novel. I not only remember the tactile pleasure and slow-simmering joy of my body in contact with the heat of the blanket beneath me for hours every night, but I also look forward to it like a child looks forward to torrential rain. I value this seasonal luxury over the singularly freakish.

The electric blanket—actually a mattress, considering it’s tucked under the bedsheet—came into my life some seven years ago when a friend of my wife gifted it to us as a house-warming (sic) present.

Being summer when it entered our home folded inside an oversized transparent plastic bag with handles, it would take months before the blanket could actually show me that it was not just another household gadget—an article of home furnishing that was a cross between a hot water bottle and a bedsheet. The first winter, it would show me that the electric blanket is to the experience of lying down in the cold what the MiG-29 is to that of flying faster than sound.

My electric blanket is made in South Korea and it is not lying when it proclaims that it is ‘Good Night: Luxury Electric Blanket’. The rectangular 135 cm by 180 cm patch of deftly stitched thick cloth contains heavily insulated carbon fibre wires which you can’t feel even if you were the hypersensitive princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea story. It doesn’t cover the whole expanse of the bed, but negotiating the geographical edges of the blanket is part of the experience. Once this bed of lava is switched on, the world is flat. Maximising the body’s surface area to soak up the heat from below is a strategic art. Limbs straying outside the blanket’s satrapi truly fall off the edge of the world into the icy hell ‘below’.

But the nerve centre of this engineering-cum-design treasure invented by an American doctor named Sidney Russell in 1912 is a white box the size of a TV remote handset. This is the temperature regulator that goes from the initial on-off click to the soundless 1 to 7. I have never had to cross the 2 mark. It is I who have controlled this regulator of two-dimensional micro-climate every winter since 2006 by turning the orange-glowing knob that rests on my side of the bed. It is I who am in control of this comfort. The hum of the regulator is the hum of my pleasure outsourced.

If its function and price (it was Rs 4,000 in 2006) suggests banality, then it stands to reason that lying on a humming electric blanket in winters being my favourite luxurious material experience exposes my banal taste. But it is sprawled on my electric blanket that I am, for about four months every year, transformed each night from a banal man with a brainful of anxieties, fears and joys into a dead chieftain set adrift on a burning boat into the sea like in those old Norse sea burials, one of which the 10th century Arab traveller-writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan had described: ‘…the relatives of the dead chieftain arrived with a burning torch and set the ship aflame. It is said that the fire facilitates the voyage to the realm of the dead, but unfortunately, the account does not tell to which realm the deceased was to go.’

And it is here that I have an advantage over those old Vikings. On my electric blanket, which feeds and is fed on 110-220 volts of steady low fire, I know my destination: a realm where there are no emotions. And here, it lasts not for seconds but for hours.