Saturday, September 17, 2016

Row, row, row your boat

Because the crew isn’t going to

(Published today in Business Standard)

Do you sometimes get the feeling that the country is like a passenger boat on the open water, in a huge storm, and the power is gone, and all hell has broken loose on board? Massive swells tossing the sea, thunder and lightning, helm spinning wildly? Passengers running around waving their arms and screaming, the crew reeling about drunk and giggly with their hair on fire, the captain hiding in a cupboard in his cabin, sobbing into his hands?

That’s what it feels like somedays, when you read the papers. Kashmir is festering like a wound. Actual people are actually marching around, actually trying to detect beef in biryani. Tamilians and Kannadigas are killing each other over Cauvery River water. Women continue to suffer sexual terrorism. Dalits continue to suffer caste atrocities. The Aam Aadmi Party is steadily losing its MPs and its marbles. Everyone is crawling around on hands and knees from chikungunya and dengue. Officials keep treating dead poor people like a public nuisance.   

So it’s very reassuring to get out of the hothouse, drive up to the hills, and realise, afresh, that besides the staggeringly stupid beef thing—which really does put a dent in many people’s dinners and livelihoods—most of India is just going about its business, whether that’s trying to put food on the table, raise kids, beat the traffic, sell something, or make something to sell. Turns out that our boat is going to weather the storm despite the incompetent crew, because of the hundreds of millions of individuals pulling at their individual oars, to move their individual patch of boat forward. It ends up saving the nation and it’s good exercise.

Speaking of going about one’s own business and good exercise, have you been reading about the Paralympics? Back when the Olympics were all over the news, I got back to exercising regularly, in solidarity with our Olympian athletes who have to fight poverty, lack of infrastructure, official neglect, and organisational disaster. But it turns out that those guys have it really good: they have all their limbs and physical faculties.

You know what’s even more inspiring? The Paralympics in Rio in 2016. The world’s disabled athletes are setting world records that outclass Olympians by some distance, despite the lack of an arm, or a foot, or vision, despite mental disability, despite shamefully little press coverage. None of this has stopped them from doing their own thing, and doing it blazingly well. Here’s the fact that slays: The guy who won gold at the Olympics 1500m run would have made fourth place at the Paralympics 1500m. Our own Paralympians have won several medals—Devendra Jhajharia struck gold by breaking his own world record in the men’s javelin throw. He used the derision he faced for his disability, to light the fire in his belly that turned him into a champion.

All of this makes you feel like lightning should strike you dead the next time you complain about anything, but of course, if you aren’t the kind of champion who can use adversity to build character,  complaining is vital to maintaining your mental health. That’s my line, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.


Anyway, I did get out of the hothouse and drove up to the hills, and realised, afresh, that besides the staggeringly stupid beef thing, most of us can really just go about our business and get on with our lives. And that might be the best thing about the newspapers: they remind you that, at the end of the day, despite the maelstrom and the frankly lousy boat personnel, we remain the captains of our own tiny shares of the ship.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The beat of your own drums

Or, why homeless musicians are a thing

(Published in Business Standard today)

When I was 7 years old, my mother found me at the kitchen table weeping with anxiety because I couldn’t see how I’d ever be able to pay rent. She laughed and said that everything would work out. But my dark foreboding came horribly true. At 44 I’m still at her kitchen table, and she isn’t laughing anymore.

We have lived happily together for years, in a compact that has called for only a little accommodation of each other and even less logistical dependence. We have survived all kinds of delicate interpersonal situations, including a steady chorus of people strongly encouraging her to throw me out—a suggestion that she put aside with some wistfulness. But we have finally reached an intractable place that requires a shakeup.

The problem is my drum set. It’s not going with her sofas.  

I know, right? I tucked the thing so far into a corner of the living room that you need to use an ouija board to catch as much as a glimpse of its softly glowing metal and the handsome shine of its black-painted wood. It’s completely silent as long as I don’t play it, which I don’t while she’s in the house. Not going with her sofas—pfffft! She can be so unreasonable—especially since she is responsible for my buying the thing. That’s right, she’s the one who forwarded me the email from someone who was selling an old but excellent kit, in pristine condition, for the price of three or four posh martinis. Her accompanying message read: ‘In case someone in your music circle is interested.’

How was I supposed to know that that person would be me? Fate is a wondrous, numinous thingyjig that we should trust and respect.

So anyway, I’m house hunting. Turns out nobody wants to rent a flat to an Indian. “Don’t worry, uncle,” the broker told one landlord on the phone, “she’s Indian, but she’s like a foreigner only.” This admirably acute and very annoying statement is what got us in the front door everywhere we went.

One rheumy-eyed nonagenarian landlord smiled and smiled and said I could have the flat for whatever I wanted to pay for it, and he would fix it up any which way, and please when was I moving in. I was about to hand him Rs 10,000 and fetch my suitcase, when the broker murmured, “You’ll have to speak to aunty also.”

Aunty turned out to have a much more investigative streak. 

You will live alone? Yes. You have friends? Yes. Girl friends? Friends of both kinds. They will visit? Yes. They will spend the night? Yes, sometimes.

Her smile faded—and we hadn’t even gotten to the drums. That elderly couple would have been dreamy landlords in that they would never have detected the sound of the drums. I mentally bid farewell to that utterly charming, breezy, leafy flat. 

The broker was apologetic. “These days,” he said, “boys go to girls’ houses and girls go to boys’ houses, but what to do, she is from another time.” Listen, I replied, I’m not going to lie, and I won’t be questioned after I move in, so don’t bother showing me anyplace where the proprietor will have a problem.

I’m a single Indian woman, I have unpredictable hours and overnight guests, I’m stubborn as a mule, and I like practicing the drums. How hard can this be?

So far, the only person who desperately wants to house me on my terms is the broker, but I’m having fun looking. I figure there’s nothing like having your own kitchen table at which to sit and weep over paying the rent.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Five rings to bind them all

The Olympics have inspired me to start exercising again.

(Published in Business Standard today)


In boarding school, a friend of mine sneered that the most active thing he’d ever seen me do was sneeze. It’s true that I spent most of our games periods hiding behind a curtain in my dorm, drinking tea and reading, but I bet he was just jealous of my washboard abs and .001% body fat, which I’d achieved from years of being a teenager.

But that was a long time ago. Since then, I have been a more or less regular exerciser, though I go through phases. At the moment I’m in what you could call my ‘resting bitch phase’. In it, I have gone from being in the best shape of my life eight months ago, to being in the worst. I have grown roots in the sofa, let my muscle run to fat, and lost the will to do anything more active than breathe between morsels of fried food. My blood pressure is suddenly a thing. The horizon of my health has shrunk to the ungentle curve of my belly.

Or it had, until the Olympics began. I have finally kicked myself into brisk walks in the park again, in solidarity with the Games, because, frankly, nothing inspires me to get off my butt as much as watching the incredible performance of our Indian officials in Rio.

I assume you saw that Scoopwhoop story about how Vijay Goel, Sports Minister, misspelled gymnast Dipa Karmakar’s name in a tweet, and almost got his accreditation revoked, and how officials flew business to Rio while athletes went economy, and how the team doctor isn’t a sports doctor but a radiologist, and how they first said it would be wasteful to fly Karmakar’s physiotherapist to Rio, and how officials hung out on beaches and went sightseeing during Olympic events? Did you see the Quartz story on how the sports ministry organised a grand reception for the athletes at the Olympian Reunion Centre on Independence Day, at which they pulled out all the stops and served…wait for it…peanuts?

Thinking about all that really gets my blood up, so I’ve been using the momentum to heave my thunder thighs around the park.

The other thing that creates enough adrenaline to propel me out the door is reading all the sanctimonious tweets referring to Sakshi Malik, the women’s wrestling bronze medallist, as ‘India’s daughter’. It’s always irritating that we can’t relate to a woman normally unless she’s part of the family—daughter, mother, sister, wife—and therefore officially has no lady parts. But in this case it’s particularly nauseating because we wouldn’t know sports culture if it ran up to us and did 500 pull-ups while spitting in our eye. We don’t encourage or nurture sports, and we treat our athletes like dirt, completely ignoring them before and after any medal-winning—so Sakshi Malik, like most Indian sportspeople, got to where she is despite official India. Our athletes have genuine fans across the country, but for the Indian state to suddenly try to clasp medal-winners to its miserly bosom and appropriate their success is a joke. Sakshi Malik’s medal is her individual and singular accomplishment. So is P.V. Sindhu’s badminton medal. So is Dipa Karmakar’s loss-by-a-whisker. So is the surprise that is 18-year-old golfer Aditi Ashok.

Have you noticed that the Indians who have made us proudest at Rio are all women? This is the first Olympics at which so many people have called out the revolting sexism of sports reporting, so #JustSaying.


Maybe I don’t have to walk today—I must have burned 300 calories just feeling my feelings.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Dear John letter to the USA

It was nice knowing you

(Published on August 6, 2016 in Business Standard)


Dear America,

I keep close tabs on you, and you don’t know that I exist. That’s okay. I have loved you quietly—your beautiful constitution, your can-do spirit, your great lovely wild spaces, your music and your movies, especially Ice Age even though the new one sucks, your ability to think big, and your willingness to respect excellence and imagination.

But it’s true love, not blind love. I know you neck with the Saudis. I know you hold hands with Pakistan. I know you are an unequal society. I know that for every liberty you defend, you quietly abrogate another. I know you’re insular, greedy, spoiled, and you keep getting into brawls and making doody on other people’s carpets. Still, I love your team spirit and your protection of individual rights, and the fact that you appreciate the creative possibilities of challenge and disruption.

But even from my disempowered position, even though I’m the one with the feelings, I’m biting the bullet to say two things: 1) It’s over between us, and 2) It’s not me, it’s you.

Because, frankly, you’ve become mad as a bag of frogs.

You’re the richest country in the world, the mightiest, with the best incubators of innovation, technology, research, and intellectual progress. You gave us modern aviation. You gave us the Internet. You put the first man on the moon, for god’s sake. You currently have, in office, a man who represents the best of America—a smart, inclusive, funny, liberal-minded, melting pot of a man who, in a world gone increasingly bonkers, makes the US look really good, and sings beautifully to boot. No matter whether the rest of us love you or hate you, we take you seriously.

So far.

Look, I get the fooling around with the Saudis thing—you’re addicted to oil, you have double standards on human rights, you can’t help yourself. I get the necking with Pakistan thing—you don’t understand the region, or the mind-set of non-state combatants, you need local backup. I get the consumerist obsession—you have built your country on the belief that creating ever more desire for ever more consumption is the purpose of life.

But I cannot forgive you for your flirtation with The Donald. That just displays a degree of self-destructiveness that is going to wreck your life, and all your relationships.

It might be entertaining for us in the rest of the world to watch your slo-mo train wreck of an election, but it also makes our blood run cold. Thanks to our own recent experience here in India, we’re in a position to appreciate all the dramatic irony. Here, too, we elected an exclusivist, paranoid demagogue who talked development and walked the worst, basest instincts in people. We, too, had a large section of people who simply did not believe that he could actually possibly get elected. Everyone was going to come to their senses before voting day. Right? They were going to watch the tenor of the campaign—strong appeals to Hindu supremacist instincts, disturbingly vague promises of ‘development’. Right? Except they didn’t—or worse, they did, and they liked it. What we’ve got to show for it is massive unrest, violent vigilantism, ugly jingoism, and social regression—and lots of voters moaning that they made a huge mistake.

I can’t watch you go through that, so I’m breaking up with you for now. You’ll show your true colours in November, at which point I’ll reconsider. I may never mean anything to you; but I would love for you to continue to mean something to me.

With love for old times’ sake, but also some hollow laughter,


Mitali