Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Boots on the ground

Resist now! Or, you know, in a bit.

(Published on February 4, 2017 in Business Standard)

You know how, when you’re feeling a little bit superior, and it’s a strange new feeling that you’re enjoying and haven’t had your fill of yet, and then suddenly something happens to make you feel inadequate all over again? It’s so annoying.

When the US elected Donald Trump in a shock election that left the world shaking its head to try to get rid of the roaring sound in its ears, a large number of Indians said to themselves, ‘Hah! We thought we had it bad in India. At least our Prime Minister comes from a known political position, from a structured, if disagreeable, cultural supremacist organisation. At least he’s predictable. At least he’s making the right noises, even if his creatures are nasty violent chauvinists whom he doesn’t chastise publicly, and whom he follows online, meets, and felicitates. At least our Prime Minister isn’t some loose orange cannon.’ Trump is so much worse.

Boy, did that feel good. 

And then ordinary Americans went and screwed up our smugness by being all inspirational. 

Look at them, vowing hyper-vigilant media scrutiny. Look at them, marching in droves, calling their senators relentlessly, and using social media to organise rather than whine. Look at them, setting up rogue twitter accounts from inside the White House and governmental organisations, to make sure that their fellow citizens keep getting information that isn’t Trumped up. Look at them, losing their jobs for refusing to defend his executive order barring entry to Muslims from seven countries. Watch them savaging Trump on comedy shows.

Look at the CEOs issuing calls to hire more immigrants, and the consumers boycotting businesses that support Trump. Look at the lawyers, suing the government on behalf of people stranded by the Muslim ban—on the weekend! for free! lawyers, dude! Check them out, standing at airports across the country with banners saying ‘No ban’ and ‘Let them in’. Look at them standing by rows of Muslims praying in public at an airport, and cheering them on. As The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, pointed out: Muslims praying in public at an American airport, and hundreds of people cheering them on—just think about that for a minute.

In other words, Americans who identify a threat to their core values have painted or printed up signs, put on their boots and coats, closed the social media tab on their laptops (because what are mobile phones for?), emerged from their houses, and taken their bodies out onto the streets in solidarity, yelling at the top of their lungs. They are resisting the hell out of the daily horror show put on by their new government—making us, who specialise in keeling over like ninepins before authority, look really lazy and weak. Turns out Americans are so much better at citizenship.

Boy, does that feel bad. 

Speaking for myself, while I’ve walked the streets now and again, I have also skipped marches because I was really busy having lunch. I’ve protested by tapping a button on social media. I’ve possibly slept through some urgent things. Look, the weather in Delhi sucks—it’s always either boiling or freezing. Sometimes you just have to know what’s happening next on a TV show. Marching is hard on the back and feet. Life gets in the way, and so does your expanding waistline.

Blah blah, excuses, excuses. Watching American protesters get their act together so quickly and so forcefully only reminds me of all the resisting that Indians should have been doing for the last three years. Thanks for nothing, ordinary Americans!

Now if I’m to hold on to my dignity, all I can do is hope that, somehow, writing counts. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A bridge too far

Or at least very late

(Published on January 21, 2017 in Business Standard)

Everyone will tell you: It’s important to make a good impression. The world treats you better if you dress well, speak well, don’t smell, are punctual and reliable, and don’t make a spectacle of yourself. Boy, has that ship sailed. I once made a half-hearted attempt to catch up with it by buying new jeans, but some doors never reopen. The only good impression I make is on the putty that dentists use to make dental moulds.
In a December 2006 instalment of this column, I promised not to write any more columns about my teeth. But that was ten years ago, and maybe I lied; plus, there’s been a development. 

To recap, so to speak: Ten years ago, both my front teeth were yanked out as the grand finale of a long comet tail of dental events—caps, pins, bridges and really gross gum surgery—rooted, if you will, in a childhood accident that was totally not my cousin’s fault, though I’m always open to receiving nice presents from her. Long story short, I ended up with a temporary denture. My dentist told me to come back a few weeks later for a permanent bridge, but I’m lazy, and was traumatised, and, really, ten years fly by.

I don’t mind the denture; I enjoy dropping my teeth at kiddy parties, and select adult parties, and listening to the screaming. It’s probably genetic—it seems that my grandfather also dropped his dentures at passing children, and when the parents turned to see what made their kid cry, there was only a sweet old gentleman, reading his newspaper and minding his own business. It’s practically family tradition. 

But all good things must come to an end. It turns out that when there is space in the jaw, teeth begin to roam, like the ruthless white colonisers of North America. Mine (teeth, not ruthless white colonisers of North America) are striking out. So this week I decided that it was time to arrest the joyful pirouetting of my lateral incisors, and get some permanent teeth.

Here’s how they make a bridge for your front teeth. The dentist sticks a needle into a seriously tender part of your face while you twitch like a pinioned insect. When you’re numb from your eyebrows to about the middle of your chest, he drills your lateral incisors for half an hour, whittling them down to thin little sticks. These are so hilarious that you want to post them on Facebook. But your only job is to cry, moo piteously, and flail because your throat is filled with water, and your nostrils are numb, and you can’t breathe. This last move draws censure from the dental team, who tell dark tales of drills nicking lips and hands caught in wires. Then they fashion temporary caps and cement them onto the hilarious little sticks, put the denture back in, and tell you to come back in a week to fit a permanent bridge.

So now I’m walking around the world with two fake caps gleaming out of my face like rakshas tusks or, as I like to think of them, beacons of hope that it won’t be another ten years before I go back. Until then, I have to eat softish foods, because if these puppies fall off, we’re back to hilarious little sticks. 

But I’m not really worried about looking ridiculous, because ridiculous just raised the bar a lot higher by swearing in Donald Trump as POTUS this Friday. Who can beat that? We should all brace ourselves, as they say. Because there’s a man, if ever there was one, who’s got a bridge to sell you. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Ten percent human

There’s a reason we talk about having ‘a gut feel’.

(Published on January 7, 2017 in Business Standard)

On a recent flight, the man next to me drank six glasses of wine and then asked if he could read my book. I was watching a movie when he asked, so there wasn’t a good reason to say no. Books broaden one’s horizons, even if one is already seeing multiple horizons. It would have been mean-spirited to refuse. But I couldn’t help being irritated, and the trouble with lending a book resentfully is that one is plagued with trust issues. I spent ten minutes spying on him while he thumbed repeatedly and exclusively through the contents, sometimes pursing his lips, sometimes holding his head and blowing out of his nostrils like a horse. Then his meal arrived, and he plunged his right hand into daal while continuing to paw my book with his left hand. This was the last straw.

I popped the headphones out of my ears. “What are you doing?” I said coldly. He looked up through his eyelashes, a la Princess Di. “This is a very surprising book,” he said, and then leaned across the empty seat between us and bellowed, “Who ARE you?” into my face. That’s irrelevant, I snapped. “Well I think this book is irrelevant,” he said, as if this was a brilliant comeback. I reached across and snatched it back. “Read your own book,” I said, as if this was a brilliant comeback. Thus our acquaintance took root, flared briefly, and passed away, unmourned.

The larger point, here, is that I advise you to throw on some clothes, lace up your shoes, and grab your phone to order this book at once. It’s called Gut, by Giulia Enders, and it features chapters like ‘How does pooing work?’ and illustrations of bacteria with smiley faces and capes. If you, like me, are irresistibly drawn to accessibly written books about science, you will thank me, as I thank my friend Martin who pointed me to this one.

I have written about bowel movements in the op-ed pages of this long-suffering newspaper, so it’s not as if my interest in potty is a secret. What is truly baffling to me is why so many other people, barring Bengalis, aren’t as interested, considering that it’s a daily affair that can make you miserable when it goes wrong. But whatever—life is short, miss out if you want to. At any rate, poop is only one angle of that thrilling young field of research, the human microbiome.

For those unfamiliar with the term, the microbiome refers to the unimaginably large numbers of bacteria that have co-evolved to live all over the human body to, mostly, preserve and defend it. If that creeps you out, you might want to digest this: In the womb, you are composed of 100 percent human cells; by the time your microbiome stabilises around the age of three, only about 10 percent of your cells are human. The other 90  percent are bacteria. They began to colonise you the moment you exited your amniotic sac. In the normal course of events you emerge into the world with a protective coating of your mother’s vaginal flora, and go from there, picking up and breeding billions of bugs a minute. About 2-3 kilos of bacteria, or about 99 percent of all your critters, live in your gut, and comprise a large part of your immune system, and what scientists are calling your second brain.

It’s all completely fascinating, and Giulia Enders makes you laugh even as she blows your mind. Do yourself a favour and read it. Just please don’t read it with your hands dipped in daal.

First Christmas

And thankfully the last

(Published on December 24, 2016 in Business Standard)

The first and only time my family celebrated Christmas, I was seven or eight. It was early in our stint in Switzerland, and my mother thought that she would do the whole thing with the tree and the presents and so on, to broaden our cultural horizons. She duly went out ten days beforehand and bought a tree—a teenage sized fir, as firs go, in a pot. Glossy green, not too big, not too small; quiet personality, but with a presence; just right for pre-pubescents to decorate without injury. She placed it in a festive corner behind the television (it was a small apartment, and one needs to be able to see the television), and we awaited the big day with excitement. In our Christmas, we were all the virgin.

Some days later, the tree began to look a bit peaky. A day or two after that, it turned brown from head to foot. Shortly after that it heaved a deep sigh, dropped four-fifths of its needles onto the floor in one whoosh, and expired. Consternation. It turned out that we were supposed to have watered it. But this was our first Christmas, and we weren’t going to give up on our tree just because it had died. What if they’d given up on Jesus just because he had died? 

A couple of days before Christmas, therefore, we dressed up the poky brown stem with shiny balls and gold stars and angels and whatnot. We dressed ourselves up too—I had my hair in a bun, for some reason, and wore an old lady’s grey sweater, and a skirt. It’s amazing that I didn’t develop arthritis. We arranged our presents around the dead tree and settled in for some Christmas cheer.

The whole thing was a fiasco. I broke my mother’s pearl necklace, and when she assumed it was my little brother’s fault, I let her yell at him in an act of cowardice that makes me cringe to this day. I didn’t give anyone presents—though, in my defence, the narrative  suggested that children only rightfully get presents. My father was in a bad mood—though, in his defence, he’d had three children before the age of 30, and the bad mood predated and postdated that Christmas. My mother’s smile careened between chirpy and psycho—though, in her defence, she’d had three children before the age of 26, no experience of Christmas trees, and was stressed out by her sulking husband, her yowling five-year-old, and her eldest daughter who, in my memory, remained barricaded in her room. As her middle child I was largely inconsequential, but when I entered her field of vision, glamorously bunned and skirted up, she managed to remark that I would certainly always have to make my eyes up, “later”.

It was a perfectly dreadful evening, bad feelings fogging around our dead tree, a tinselled skeleton mired in a pot of guilt and regret. It was sort of redeemed by the presents we opened the next day, but very soon thereafter we reached an unspoken family consensus that we should just never attempt to do stylised celebrations ever again—and we didn’t. When it comes to Christmas, much like weddings, other people’s are more fun to go to than one’s own.

The tail end of this year feels much like that evening, to me, and so I feel we’re all about due for a spot of redemption. I have forsworn all religious greetings, but I predict that you’re going to spend Saturday and Sunday eating and drinking, so here’s wishing you a happy weekend.

Tip: If you’re not having fun, you need to start watering your plant ten days ago.