Saturday, December 10, 2016

Closet economist

In which I demonetise my wardrobe

(Published today in Business Standard)

The end of the year always triggers my de-cluttering instincts, which are rare, but ruthless. If a baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, that’s fine—the place will be quiet, and I’ll get to eat all the Cerelac. So I spent a good portion of last week weeding out my closet. About 95% of it is rubbish, and of that, I decided to purge 86%. I don’t know if those percentages are exact, but they’re the ones I remember.

As I suspected, I had way, way too much clothing, which you would never know from what I actually wear. I found about 15 lakh crores of things I’m tired of. Things I’m too fat for. Things that I have multiple copies of. Hand me downs. Thirty year old t-shirts. New things that don’t work on me because I’m bad at shopping, which is also why I have so many things I never wear, and hand me downs, and thirty year old t-shirts of which I’m tired. I shoved them all into four enormous garbage bags, and handed them out. About 11 lakh crores of those things, maybe more, will end up in other people’s closets. I can’t remember where those figures come from, but I see them every time I close my eyelids—the point is, I threw out a huge amount, and felt mighty pleased.

But guess what? My closet is still full. First I thought it might be some kind of magical closet, in which I should also consider rooting around for loaves and fishes, and maybe Aslan the Lion. But then I remembered that I’ve done this de-cluttering exercise before, and my closet inevitably refilled with superfluous clothing, as if it has a congenital condition that is fated to assert itself relentlessly. Maybe, I thought, that condition is me.

Yes, I do like to have clothes to wear, should I suddenly choose to wear them. I often keep them around just for that eventuality. I like them to be in available in my closet, so that I can just retrieve them, because it turns out you that there are a lot of places you can’t go unless you have clothes on. I feel reassured that if I have to suddenly dash to the hospital in the middle of the night, or travel to a cold country, or just play dress-up in front of the mirror, I can do that. They’re right there, in my closet! They’re my clothes, after all. But god, they make a huge clutter.

This got me thinking. Could the answer be just to not have any personal clothes at home anymore? Maybe we could just all use a huge central store of clothes, and take what clothes we need for the day, or for an occasion, from there? The problem with that is that when I borrow a warm coat, the central store will know I’m going somewhere cold; and when I want to play sexy dress-up, it will watch me borrow the wig and the lacy panties. It’s not illegal to wear a wig and lingerie, but you may not want other people to know about it. Heck, maybe you don’t want anyone to know that you like yourself a pair of bellbottomed velvet corduroy pants. Would I enjoy my lack of privacy just because nobody else has any either?

That’s a lot of verbiage about something as obvious and necessary as clothes. But I’m merely sounding a friendly note of caution. The thing about closets is, you have to make sure that when you’re cleaning them, other people aren’t cleaning up, and that you aren’t being cleaned out.

Demonetisation PTSD

I dimly remember the days when my money was mine.

(Published on November 26, 2016 in Business Standard)

I have trouble flying—hate it, avoid it. But if your country is going through demonetisation hell, and you’re among the privileged, it’s your duty to not clog up ATM lines unnecessarily. It’s your duty not to stress small businesses by buying on credit (except cigarettes, because, hello). It’s your duty to damn well get on a plane and visit family in a foreign country that feels like home in that there, too, your money is useless.

It’s been 16 years since I was last in Hong Kong, and I’d forgotten how awesome it is. Mountains and sea! Public transport! Dumplings, beef, sesame oil! Gorgeous skyline! Roadworks with no dust or rubble! (This is how you know you’re from Delhi.) But what really blew my mind was the overwhelming banality of cash.

Strike me dead if I’m making this up: Everywhere I looked, people were just whipping money out of their pockets and spending it, as if they had some kind of reliable supply. They behaved as if their government couldn’t possibly say, “We take back the promise printed on the money, it’s all junk except for petrol stati—hospi—seeds for farmers, until November 24—29—December 31—oops, November 24, okay just watch this space and see if you can keep up, because we can’t, terrorism national interest surgical strike masterstroke.” Seeing cash brought up chaotic, disjointed memories of a previous life, and made me anxious and sweaty.

The Peak and harbour are beautiful, but the most spellbinding thing is that when Hong Kongers say, “I’m going to the bank/ATM, back in five”, they mean five minutes, not hours. They just leave home, without even packing water, biscuits, books and a tent. My sister told me that she enters her bank without queuing, wrestling an armed guard, and shouting at the manager while waving a fake wedding invitation card. She said to please not let my mouth hang open like that. Most amazingly, you can withdraw as much of your own money as you like. I’m told the government and reserve bank don’t impose an arbitrary, changeable withdrawal cap based on their favourite sun sign that day. People’s blithe, free access to their own money brought tears to my eyes, and gave me restless dreams.

Back in Delhi after these confusing few days, the PM was crying and laughing, not in a good way. He conducted a poll on public sentiment that made the public laugh and cry, also not in a good way. The Finance minister said both that a) demonetisation is going brilliantly, and b) it’s the Opposition’s fault. The changing rules no longer matter, because nobody can keep them straight, and discretion has taken over. Nobody can find the RBI governor, though my cousin spotted a haunted-looking man bearing an uncanny resemblance to him, dressed as wait staff in a restaurant. 

Trauma shrinks expectations. I pack my water, biscuits, books and tent, and take my place in the queues. Every time I get close, cash runs out. But deserted shops, the unnatural abundance of parking spots, my dry bank, the empty ATMs—this entire gigantic shitstorm is now more real and easier to process than Hong Kong’s rash trust in stability.

It’s important, when dealing with trauma, to come to terms with what happened to you, instead of repressing it. To relax, creep under the bed next to where everyone now keeps legal currency, take out your plastic, and stroke it by the light of your smartphone while gibbering openly.

Meanwhile, I now owe the cigarette guy and the kathi rolls guy. But I’m sure that, as patriots, they don’t care, and ticked ‘Brilliant’ on the PM’s poll.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The ugly American

Now make sure this never happens again.

(Published on November 12, 2016 in Business Standard)

I knew that the US election was going disastrously when I headed out to lunch. I only ate a reckless, hang-it-all tenderloin burger with extra cheddar and a fried egg on top, fries on the side, as I watched the US go from leading the free world to freeing itself of leadership. But when the ticker tape on the restaurant TV flashed that Clinton had called Trump to congratulate him, I burst into tears—and it’s not even my election.

One image on social media said it all: Lady Liberty with her face in her hands. Three days into Trump’s America, the Ku Klux Klan is planning a victory parade; African-Americans are finding hateful messages scrawled on their cars; schoolchildren are telling their non-white classmates to leave the country; Muslim women are urging each other not to leave their hijabs at home; Latinos are being told to go to the other side of The Wall; gay people are being threatened with rape and murder; men are spitting obscenities at women on the streets.

That’s the ugly America that Trump dry-humped in his campaign for the White House. That is the ugly America that he will not be able to control. Perhaps he won’t want to. India knows how this goes. In possibly the most frightening sign of the times, America’s legendary, brilliant comedians were struggling for jokes. But they will come into their own, because what is too horrible for jokes is ripe for devastating satire.

Liberals in India, and in other countries governed by right-wing majoritarians, are old hands at this horror, like combat veterans—torn clothes, open sores, dirty bandana, one eye hanging out, used to the shelling, snacking on live rats, always trying to score good boots. Democrats in the US are like the new lot of squeaky clean, fresh-faced, shell-shocked recruits that have just been shoved out of the plane into the trenches. It behoves us to remember that feeling, and to be gentle with them as they go through the five stages of grief and acclimatise to the rough new terrain.

And then to tell them: You’ll survive. Not all of you, sadly, and it won’t be pretty, and your sense of decency and humanity will be constantly assaulted and offended. You will discover that it is possible to look up at rock bottom. You will feel as if you’ve lost your country—and in a few ways you have—but moving to Canada is the best way to never get it back. Stick around and don’t be cowed. The faster you get over yourself, the faster you can get down to fixing this mess. And who knows, life under Trump might sensitise you to the plight of citizens in other hate-peddling majoritarian states.

We know from experience that, as apocalyptic as things feel, life goes on. Indians took comfort from the fact that the BJP won only a third of the vote share. In the US, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Grieving US liberals have a lot of allies, and not just in the US—people the world over will be throwing up a little in their mouths every time they have to say ‘President Trump’.

The orange abomination heading to the White House may not represent US liberals, but he is their president. If Democrats are to resist Trumpism, and stay true to their ideals, they’ll have to do it peacefully. Don’t you wish the joint wasn’t bristling with privately-owned guns? Try not to have a civil war. It would be a damn shame to know that the shining city on the hill is shining because it’s on fire.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The unicorns are dying

The earth is disappointing. It’s time to move to outer space

(Published on October 29, 2016 in Business Standard)

My eyes generally ricochet right off any business news, due to a condition in my frontal cortex known as liberalartsi majoritis. Business vocabulary puts me off. Over the years people have repeatedly explained terms like ‘futures’ or ‘shorting the market’ or ‘debentures’ to me; every time, I have one brief moment of comprehension before the concept sinks back into a swamp of shipwrecked words barnacled with numbers. I subscribe to a business newspaper at home only for the crossword. That I write in a business paper only proves the utter absurdity of the universe.

But these days even someone like me is reading business news, perforce, because every inch of print from the Business Standard to the back of cereal boxes is leading with who stabbed who at Tata Sons, and what they said to the media about it, and who besmirched whom, and whether they are lying. The Tata Group is the crown jewel of family businesses, today generating by far the highest number of really low puns ever seen in three-inch media headlines. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but I know that everyone is behaving as if they’ve just discovered that their favourite grandfather is a peeping tom. The revulsion! The betrayal. The realisation that you knew all along, but didn’t want to believe it. Our business unicorn has died.

Maybe we’re having a meltdown about it because we already feel let down by the Bollywood drama in Mumbai, where Raj Thackeray pointed his thumb-and-two-fingers gun at Bollywood and said ‘Stick ’em up’, and Bollywood handed over its wallet before he had finished speaking, and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis patted everyone on the head. So much for strong leadership—how is the man going to stand up to foreign terrorists when he can’t handle domestic terrorists? And so much for Bollywood, which preaches cross-border peace as loudly as it promises never to hire Pakistani actors again. Our liberal unicorn has died—a thousand deaths, actually, because the Karan Johar-Raj Thackeray fiasco is only the latest instance of liberalism failing to have the courage of its convictions. On the upside, we know how to increase the tax net—tax compliance is highest when it’s an illegal, unreasonable tax based on some nitwit’s anger management issues.

All in all, the news has been depressing, not that the news is watchable anymore. Competitive oafish nationalism has made an embarrassment of journalism, including our broadcast journalism unicorn, NDTV, which officially stated that it would not question the army on the Uri strikes. 

Since you can’t throw a pea without hitting a dead unicorn anymore, I’m considering becoming Asgardian. Asgardia, for those just tuning in, is a new satellite-based nation conceptualised by a chap who sounds like a made-up Russian villain but is actually a respectable scientist. Asgardia has a government, a charter, and a population currently over half a million. It is presently running contests to design its flag and anthem, and as soon as it is recognised by the United Nations, it will begin to issue passports to its citizens, assuming their own nations allow dual citizenship. It isn’t physically moving people to space yet, but it might! For the moment, it exists online, on websites and on social media. 

Oh you think that's daft? Let me tell you, as you pick your way between rotting unicorns, that it might sound ambitious, but if ever this unicorn starts to disappoint, you won’t have to live with the smell of its festering death-poop—you’ll just be able to log off. Hah, paying attention now, aren’t you.