Saturday, July 23, 2016

Silver anniversary reunion

(Published on July 23, 2016 in Business Standard) 

Some years ago, an enterprising classmate from my boarding school, Rishi Valley, created a WhatsApp group for our class. It was a high-spirited space. After the first 200,000 messages, I put it on mute. 87,000 silent notifications later, I texted the group admin to say that I was exiting the group, though I still loved everyone. He sent me teary emoticons. I felt guilty.

The trouble is, I was only at this boarding school for two years, while many of my classmates grew up there together, share ionic bonds, and apparently all have Mensa-style memory. They kept reminiscing fondly about what x had said to y at 3.22pm on that Tuesday in Septemper 1986, behind z building, and then so-and-so teacher caught them—remember? I frequently can’t remember my own name, so I thought I’d slip off and do other stuff.

But this year marks 25 years since we graduated. One of our classmates took on the role of reunion architect, and set about persuading, cajoling, threatening, and browbeating everyone in an organised and timely fashion. He phoned me in March.

Hmm, I said, wow, lemme think about it, I’ll definitely try to m—

“I’ve emailed you your air ticket,” he said. “I don’t trust you.”

That’s how I found myself boarding a bus in Bangalore with a score of people who look exactly the same as they did a quarter century ago—perhaps a touch more tired, maybe because of staying up nights drinking babies’ blood.

But even the best preserved of us was a little slower. Between beer habits, lunch requirements, and weaker bladders, the three-hour journey from Bangalore somehow took seven hours. But finally we were there. Or were we? It looked as though it should look familiar, but if it hadn’t been for the signboards, I wouldn’t have recognised a thing.

And yet I remembered the feel. Rishi Valley is a looker, tucked between trees and ruddy Andhra earth and boulders and blossoms. What’s not to love about outdoor classes, on stone benches under shady trees? The valley is silent, which is to say, loud with birdsong, insects and the breeze in the trees. The air smells of sap and flowers. I went to school here? Lucky me.

I spent my weekend open-mouthed at all the beauty, trying to remember whether I remembered this walk to the dining hall, or that path to the junior school, or the fact that we had a juice break mid-morning. “Remember this?” people kept saying. “No,” I kept replying. The nice thing about a goldfish-like memory is that the world always seems new and fresh. I daydreamed about teaching here for a term, as so many alumni do. We rambled, chatted, wolfed the excellent cafeteria food and coffee, and capped the weekend with a mass bonding session—think the lovechild of Oprah and an AA meeting—in the middle of an operatic thunderstorm.

Reunions can happen anywhere—it’s the people that matter. But being on campus was very special. A quarter century later, it is much clearer how unusual a school it is, for better or worse. I’m suddenly glad, all over again, to have attended it, even though my lifestyle would make Jiddu Krishnamurti spin in his grave. I am not a sentimental person, but returning to Rishi Valley, with two-thirds of my class, revived a note of sweetness in a world energetically going to shit around us.

The whole thing was so good that I asked to be let back into the WhatsApp group. I’m not an idiot, though—it’s on mute for one year.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Gorillas in the mist

(Published on July 9, 2016 in Business Standard)

An hour into the climb in Volcanoes National Park, I begged for five minutes’ rest. “Sure,” said the guide, “we’ll stop just ahead at the bench.”

Twenty minutes later, I collapsed on the bench where Dian Fossey used to take a breather on her way up the mountain. Dian Fossey is the madly famous scientist who spent her life studying mountain gorillas, which are found only in the Virunga massif. She is best known for introducing the term ‘dung lobe’ to my vocabulary, as in “The animals simply shift their buttocks slightly to catch the dung lobe in one hand before it contacts the earth. They then bite into the lobe while chewing and smacking their lips with apparent relish.” She’s buried further up the trail, where I imagine she dropped dead after this observation. (I’m joking. She was murdered, totally not funny.)

Lungs straining, faces aflame, we looked out at the lush cool hills of Rwanda piled range upon range; and the little flat potato fields far, far below, which they put there at the start of your walk as a prank, to lull you into a false sense of security. Our porters, who helped us up the trickier bits, watched us with pity. We had no idea that we this had been the easy part of the trek.

A few minutes later we put on gloves and rain jackets and went off-trail, straight through a solid wall of nettles. Mountain gorillas are oddly unmoved by the fact that despite your advanced age you have crawled up to them on one arm and one leg, having given up the pairs to pay for the permit that allows you to spend one hour with them as part of one group of eight visitors each day. You’d think they might meet you halfway, but they just sit in the extremely poky bush, doing unspeakable things with dung lobes.

The trackers beat through the nettles with a machete, and we thrashed, skidded, and swore our way up, ever up, on highly unstable wet vines and vegetation. An eternity later, the tracker began to growl “Mmuh-mmmm,” which is gorilla for ‘I come in peace, everything is cool’. There, a few feet away, sat Giraneza, the silverback—the mature male that dominates the family group.

Silverbacks are romantic heroes—200kgs of solid muscle, and soft brown eyes. They can reputedly crush a coconut with one hand, but are very peaceable as long as you don’t challenge them or mess with their wives and babies. Giraneza’s tearjerker life story, however, features abandonment, social rejection, failed romances, and murdering other silverbacks. His happy home is hard won. He came towards us, speaking gorilla for ‘Know that I can crush you with one hand like a coconut’, and we all dropped to the ground with eyes averted, which is gorilla for ‘I am not worthy of your dung lobe, please don’t kill me’. Having made his point, he ignored us.

We slipped around the poky wet mountainside, tracking and watching the family as they groomed, fed, and slept. One lady-gorilla was cuddling a tiny infant. Baby gorillas look like demented gremlins—hair standing straight up and huge eyes reflecting the sky—and command instant adoration. I would have brought him home, except that his mother was built like a tank.

Too soon our hour was up, and it was time to destroy our knees walking down the mountain. It’s always very special to be allowed into the private space of a wild creature. But when you and that creature share almost all your DNA, looking into its eyes is like encountering a much better version of yourself.

Except for the dung lobe habit.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Packing up

(Published today in Business Standard)

My packing process has always been to stress out about it for two weeks beforehand while catching up on TV shows. At the eleventh hour I fling in clothes by the kilo rather than by usefulness, take the shoes I’m wearing, and tear around town buying supplies, finishing work, and saying goodbye to friends and family in the two hours before my cab leaves for the train station or the airport. It’s amazing how well one can get by at the beach with six sweaters and no underwear.

I’m getting better at organisation, but other issues have cropped up.

In 1999, I left home for three weeks carrying a small duffel bag and a knapsack. The bag contained t-shirts, a pair of jeans, a sweater, underwear, and a camera. The backpack contained my passport, tickets, wallet, and a book. I didn’t have a phone. I had never even heard of ‘travel insurance’. I just took off and had a great time. That’s how you travel at 27.

This week, as I surveyed my suitcase, I saw clothes for every climate known to man—even, possibly, for every man; and a vast sea of pills, interrupted only by the odd joint brace.

I have not been kind to my body recently. (For reasons of patient confidentiality I can’t get into the details, but I have this friend who drank too much, smoked too many cigarettes, had too many late nights, and stopped exercising completely for half a year.) I’m here—just barely—to tell you that in that dark alley of delinquency I ran into middle age, who turns out to be a violent, vindictive jerkface.

First, it broke my chest with an infection. Then it broke my tummy, both ways, so that first I was on stop-it-ups, and then on let-it-gos. Then it broke my eyes with a hat trick of styes that required three rounds of eyedrops, hot compresses and antibiotics, and one episode of corneal cell death. (“Relax,” said my ophthalmologist, “all I do all day is bring cells back.”) Somewhere in between came a vicious flu and a sprained ankle with crutches, crepe bandages, ice packs, and hot salted water.

As soon as I could walk, I began to heave myself around the park again, because my trip involves some trekking. So far, my fitness regimen has resulted in a sore back and an inflamed tendon. Then I bit down on a small stone in my food, and an ominous sensation shot all the way down through my jaw. A couple of days ago a seam in my track pants split during my morning walk, and the chafing created an angry, exquisitely painful welt on my inner thigh.

So packing isn’t what it used to be—it’s more like packing up. My bag includes anti-malaria pills, antacids and anti-emetics for the anti-malaria pills, mosquito repellent spray and patches, antihistamines, five kinds of antibiotic pills and creams, tummy meds, probiotics for the tummy meds, anti-spasmodic pills, muscular-skeletal painkillers, thyroid medication, muscle relaxant tablets and gel, fever meds, headache meds, antiseptic lotion, antibiotic eye drops, lubricating eye drops, crepe bandage, ankle sock, blister pads, band aids, gauze and surgical tape. Oh, and sunscreen. Ridiculous, right? On the other hand, I’m already using the gauze and surgical tape for the welt on my thigh. It was right there, amid my better-organised, already-bought packing items.

So this is how I’m going to the jungles of Rwanda—fat, wheezy, limping, swollen-eyed, raw-toothed, and sore all over, much like the UK after Brexit.

I can’t wait! The only thing that the thug in the alley hasn’t broken is my spirit. (Yet.)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Fly, the beloved country

(Published on June 11, 2016 in Business Standard)

When I was sixteen, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception convinced me that mind-altering substances were the way forward. I would know the colour of sound. I would see music! I would touch the most exalted parts of my brain, and the grottiest, and never be bored.

I took my first drag of marijuana in college, bright-eyed with expectation. Nothing happened, so I took three more quick ones. Suddenly I was boiling from the inside, skidded out of the door into a Pennsylvania winter storm, fainted into a snowdrift, and had to be dragged inside. After four head-spinning hours, when the panic attack subsided, I concluded that drugs were horrible, and left them the hell alone.

Twenty-five years later, a kindly felon chaperoned me through the right way to smoke the stuff, and I finally discovered why people go on about it. There I was, lifting through the inconsequential material roof of my skull, trying to float out clear to the stars, moored to the planet only because I was holding on to my chair. So that’s why people do drugs: unreality is much nicer.

It’s so appealing, in fact, that despite our strong Indian traditions of drug use typified by ascetics, Holi revellers, and Shiva, we also continually strive to achieve unreality without substances. It has become cultural second nature, probably because our realities are so nasty.

Thus the strange case of The-State-That-Must-Not-Be-Named in the movie Udta Punjab, which is currently giving everyone hives for completely opposite reasons. It’s a movie about the raging, tragic drug problem in Punjab. That seems like an important, necessary movie, right? But under the marijuana-like influence of the Central Board of Film Certification’s chief nitwit, Pahlaj Nihalani, Udta Punjab is being turned into a movie about someone, somewhere, doing something, beside a signboard that maybe threatens the sovereignty of India. The CBFC has removed bad words like ‘election’ and ‘MP’, and turned Udta Punjab into a movie floating up through our skulls, unmoored to any kind of reality. Nihalani’s imbecilic political and cultural instincts set off his alarms 89 times in that film, for reasons of swearing, for wanton use of the name ‘Punjab’ for the place ‘Punjab’, and for generally being offensively spot on. On Planet Nihalani, reality is defamation. The most unusual howls of protest from Bollywood have shown that even people known for party drugs draw the line somewhere.

The Shyam Benegal-led committee, set up this year to review the certification process, recommended a new category of certification, for which Udta Punjab may qualify: A/C, or ‘adult with caution’. A/C-certified films will be screened not at theatres near residential areas, but in, for example, red light areas. Puzzling, wot? Do cautious adults not live in residential areas? Are adults who take their kids out to the movies incapable of picking suitable movies? Are cautious adults only allowed to go to red light areas to demonstrate their caution? It’s all very confusing—or, in real, non-marijuana terms, barking mad. Benegal reportedly said that the Punjab government might be upset by the suggestion, in Udta Punjab, that parts of the government collude with the drug mafia, when, in fact, “the government is doing a great deal to curb this menace.” This suggests that Benegal and Nihalani both confuse the function of film certification with the function of keeping the state happy.

The point is, people, you can’t just go around confusing art with reality! You have to confuse it with political spin. That’s what it takes to pass anything in this joint—in which case, I’ll pass on that joint.

Kids: Just say no.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The unbearable niceness of TV

(Published on May 28, 2016 in Business Standard)

On Indian TV, any resemblance to real life is purely coincidental

If you’ve spent any time immobilised, lately—say, for example, because you’ve twisted your ankle, and been medically sentenced to two to three weeks of watching television while pretending to read—you will have noticed that TV has really changed in this country over the last few years. Specifically, it has been put into a playpen, wearing a corset and a veil, and tasked with safeguarding the national moral fibre.

In other words, it’s ruining television viewing. Dialogue now sounds like this: “If you had the *** you would have stood up to your ***. Now Get off your *** and get to work, you lazy ***.” It’s as if Vedic biochemists have discovered that our tender ears will burn to a crisp if they are exposed to the napalm of a salty colloquialism. It makes you want to throw the book you’re pretending to read, at the screen.

Indian television is self-regulated, and since the Broadcast Content Complaint Council was set up in 2011, TV has followed the Indian Broadcasting Foundation’s version of the Ministry of Information’s self-regulation guidelines. A quick look at these guidelines suggests that the Ministry suggests that Indian television protect Indian viewers from any resemblance to life. And asked to bend, broadcasters seem to have decided to crawl in order to avoid becoming judicial bait.

Watching a really great adult show like Orange is the New Black is, therefore, an incredibly annoying experience—not only do they keep cutting out same-sex kisses, as if those might cause Indian pelvises to go up in flames worse than heterosexual kisses, but every third word of dialogue is missing. Why air a show about inmates in a women’s prison if you’re only going to try to make it sound like a grown-ups day care centre? Are we supposed to believe that jailed criminals do drugs, run smuggling rackets, whack each other with locks in socks, and bonk each other constantly, but would never, never utter the word ‘boob’?

But—after noting that one show inexplicably replaced the word ‘shit’ with ‘jerk’—forget sex, drugs, violence, and swearing for a moment. Television shows are subtitled, to clarify difficult accents and compensate for hearing challenges. The subtitles take purification so seriously that they have become entirely uncoupled from rationality, replacing the word ‘breast’ with ‘chest’, ‘sexuality’ with ‘femininity’, ‘lesbian’ with ‘queer’, ‘horny’ with ‘in passion’.

Who amongst us has never said: “My queer friend said that chestfeeding can feel feminine, but maybe she was just generally in passion”?

Words like ‘vagina’ and ‘nipple’ can simply disappear into asterisks, so dangerous are they to society. So can ‘cocaine’. So can…wait for it…‘beef’. Yessir, beef. Not in a movie about Partition, but on an episode of the much-loved sitcom Friends.

Indian television airs shows like Orange is the New Black and Game of Thrones because younger Indians have the cultural bandwidth to appreciate them—they’re smart, sexy, and edgy. But it only airs them, as The National pointed out, after cutting out smarts, the sex, and the edge.

India is hauling itself into the future of entertainment with typically anaemic adherence to the most puritanical standards, not the most progressive. It’s amazing that a country filled with adult viewers hasn’t made a serious racket about increasingly being treated like infants. Or perhaps most adults just go and get the whole show off the Internet, without the mutilation.

It’s enough to make you say, ‘I’ve had it with this jerk,’ and go back to your book for real.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

So you think you can dance

(Published on May 14, 2016 in Business Standard)

I find myself at that point in life when people at parties are largely younger than me. Not just at parties, actually; people all over the place—serious people, like policemen and doctors and pilots and stuff. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to let these people out and give them uniforms and tell them to go run the world, but I feel they must be closely watched, even though I have no idea what to watch for. It has given me a whole new insight into why really old people wear a permanent look of rank suspicion.

About those parties, though, I really cannot work out where all the other older people (my age) went. I have a hunch that somewhere out there, older people are throwing parties filled with older people, to which I’m not invited, either because a) older people have higher standards and better judgement, or b) see a).

Either way, I seem to spend a lot of time with appallingly shiny-eyed, endlessly energetic young people, firm of bosom and bright of future, who have an amazing capacity to remember things, including from the week before. To watch them drink all night and bounce off to work the next day; to watch them shine at each other with natural flair; to hear them articulate three clever paragraphs in the time it takes me to place my tongue in the correct position to make an ‘L’ sound; well, I see it all as a test of acceptance sent to me by my Creator. In a questionable display of humour, my Creator giveth me these tests right around the time s/he taketh from me the ability to drink a lot.

You know the phrase ‘middle-aged exuberance’? That’s right, you don’t, because nobody says that, because it’s not a thing. It costs too much. I proved this to myself last weekend when, at the tail end of a party co-hosted by three young people, I decided to jump through an open doorway from the living room to the terrace.

There was no need to jump since the door was open. Post-facto, everyone wanted to know if I was drunk, but no—I was only full of the happy beans of dancing, and whimsy. This was the exuberance part. I jumped with both feet from a standing position, in sandals that were flat as a pancake, on an even surface. I fully intended to arrive in the same position, but somehow my left ankle turned as I landed, and I kept landing for ages, finally coming to rest on my butt, eye level with a table, seeing stars from the pain in my foot. This was the middle-aged part.

See why they don’t go together?

The young people around the table made big shiny eyes and ‘o’ shaped mouths. ‘Tell me this is an ashtray,’ I said, stubbing my cigarette out on the table and really hoping it wasn’t wooden, because this was also a housewarming. Once blood flow to my head was restored, I dragged myself down three flights of stairs, limped to my car a block away, drove myself home, limped up three flights of stairs, and went to sleep still cursing. Talk about ignominious.

So it was that I found myself in the doctor’s office the next morning, getting myself x-rayed and bandaged and told to stay off my feet for three weeks.

It’s easy to forget middle age when you hang with the grotesquely hale. But middle age will find a way to remind you. So, no doubt, will the young people.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

I’m with stupid

(Published on April 30, 2016 in Business Standard)

It became clear, the other day, that age is stupidifying me even more than nature already has. I woke up and realised that the feminine hygiene product introduced into my lady bits the previous evening had now been there for fourteen hours. I tend to be on the psychotic side of careful about removing those things, because of the risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), so this was an emergency. Bolted to the bathroom. Scrabble for string, no string. Manual probe, can’t reach. Anxiety levels, Defcon 1.

I screeched into the emergency room. My panicked gabbling got me waved through reception, billing, and the nurses’ station, to the emergency intern, who made me wait ten life-threatening minutes for the gynaecologist. ‘If I die of TSS it’ll be your fault,’ I snarled.

In the doctor’s office I tore off my clothes and leapt upon the table. ‘Calm down, dear,’ said the doctor. She examined me. She frowned. ‘You put it in at 6pm, dear?’ she asked. (Gynaecs think that saying ‘dear’ a lot makes the speculum less speculumy.) ‘Yes, yes, it’s been 14.5 hours and I’m going to die of TSS, take it OUT!’ I shouted. ‘Nothing there, dear,’ she said. I made her look again, now worried that maybe my hoohoo had eaten it. She probed with wiggling fingers (though not in a good way). ‘See? There’s nothing, dear.’ Sweet relief, I was not going to die of TSS. I skipped home and inspected the trash, and there it was, neatly wrapped up. Boy, did I feel stupid.

But I’m not alone—it feels like the whole country is getting stupider every day.

For example, the Gujarat government wants PhD students to reach for the stars by picking their research topics from a list of research topics provided by the government, consisting of state and central government schemes and projects. Students will monitor and evaluate these, and voila, PhD. Cool, huh? The government outsources its work for free, keeps scholarship relevant, and ensures that students develop nationalist chops by getting their data and conclusions right if they want their degrees.

But who needs degrees in the republic of stupid? We have already shown, via a secret dossier at Jawaharlal Nehru University, that scholarship is measured only by moral virtue. Some patriotic teachers backed by the administration spied on empty bottles and used condoms and concluded, among other things, that the place is a huge sex racket, that students drink, and that the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment is in fact promoting sex work.

Even the Prime Minister’s MA degree from Gujarat University has been wiped off his website. Was it retrospectively revoked because he didn’t survey the right project? Has it just been misplaced? Is it being withheld for national security reasons? Nobody’s getting back to the RTI activist who requested to see it.

But honestly, that’s just a storm in a very small teacup, because we’ve decided that education is overrated—except MBAs. The only thing the nation needs is MBAs and a hailstorm of other acronyms, godmen, ancient texts, and flagpoles that can be seen from Beijing and Kabul. Especially ancient texts. HRD minister Smriti Irani wants the Indian Institute of Technology to offer Sanskrit, so that students can research all the rich science available in Sanskrit texts. That seems like a reasonable allocation of resources if you think about it while drinking cow urine.

So really, let’s stop banging on about education, when what we really do well is stupidity—it’s better to set an achievable goal. At least in that world, I know I’ve made it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Song sangh blue

(Published today in Business Standard)

Doesn’t it seem like we’re having an overdose of disaster? Drought in Maharashtra, temple fire in Kerala, flyover collapse in Kolkata, earthquake in Myanmar, tax evasion in Panama, the Congress nowhere, the BJP and the RSS everywhere—it’s all too depressing. It often feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

In times of trouble, they say, make art. Beauty makes things better.

So, a few weeks ago, I started taking singing lessons. Why not, right? It’s not like I’m a middle-aged, squeaky-voiced smoker or anything. It’s not like that ship has sailed, in the fleet of ships that would have made me a zoologist, or an astronaut, or taller. It’s not like I need to save money for when all my teeth have fallen out, along with my nieces and nephews after they figure out how many columns I got out of their childhoods. Why save to pay someone to change my nappies then, when I can spend it now trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

That is how we liberal arts majors think about financial priorities, and let that be a lesson to you.

But it can’t be helped. I’m a singing junkie. I sing all the time, as long as nobody can hear me—that is to say, in my head, in the shower, while driving, and out loud. Yes, out loud. If I think anyone can hear me, my voice curls up into a foetal position in the back of my throat and pulls the blankets up over its eyes. Only when inebriated do I really let it rip and sing at the top of my lungs for my friends, who start out with supportive anticipation, then discreetly begin to lean in, and end up with ears cocked and eyes narrowed, as if they’re trying to detect gamma rays using nothing but goodwill. At the end they say, “That was lovely! Couldn’t hear you, but woohoo.” So I decided that it’s really not on to be so shamefully inaudible when there are alternatives, like getting the old farts hearing aids.

That was Plan A at any rate, but it turned out to be much more expensive than getting lessons. (I’m not factoring in a one-time expense versus the years of lessons it’s going to take me, on account of being so financially canny). So now I have this dead cool, super-talented, and seriously inspiring singing teacher who makes me do voice exercises and practice songs. The idea is to open up your voice and increase your range, and breathe at the right place, and control your diaphragm, and learn to project. It’s like juggling five balls at once, which is frustrating but insanely fun for me; and the fact that she gets through an hour of my braying, barking, and squeaking without ripping my throat out, is a testament to her extraordinary forbearance. Or maybe she just turns her hearing aid off.

Singing seems like the simplest thing in the world, right? It is! But singing well, believe me, is not. So I siphon off a portion of my booze budget towards weekly lessons, which is a counterintuitive move if you think about it, since booze is a foolproof shortcut to sounding like Tina Turner. Some killjoy type people claim that alcohol impairs one’s judgement, but if nobody can hear you anyway, who cares?

Just kidding. It’s a public service to learn to sing better. One will never be Mark Knopfler (sob) but one hopes, in the future, to sing beautifully as one changes one’s own nappies.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The power of the raspberry

(Published in Business Standard on April 2, 2016)

My five-year-old niece is visiting from overseas, along with her Californian-English-via-Mandarin accent. The second she wakes up, shortly before sunrise, she demands to step outside to look at the parrots, which she calls ‘toh-daaz’. They’re fast asleep with their beaks tucked under their wings, like the rest of us, but anyone who has spent any time around a five-year-old knows that the gentlest whisper from such a creature is like being shot into wakefulness. The parrots bolt straight off the trees, eyes wide and hearts hammering, pooping with fear. She likes this a lot. It puts a smile on her face that would gladden your heart if it were actually daylight and you could actually see it.

Her relationship with insects, chronicled in a previous edition of this column, has been rather more fraught, but it is developing. From initial terrified disbelief when she first encountered flies, mosquitoes, ants and other creepy-crawlies (she thought they ate people), she has grown more cynical. The pests are still her enemies, but her distaste is tempered by the fact that she is more secure about her military advantage. She has evolved a sort of long-haul siege mentality, with the option of counterattack. She launches the occasional sortie, windmilling her arms and yelling ‘Makkhimakkhimakkhi!’ like a kamikaze pilot descending into Pearl Harbor, as if each iteration strikes a couple of bugs dead. It’s bigotry and bravery and last-ditch mission, all wrapped up in one conflicted package.

The other morning we had breakfast on the porch, successfully waking up several neighbourhoods in the National Capital Region in the process. Since the weather has changed in Delhi and we’ve gone from cool spring straight to mosquito- and fly-infested summer, she had a lot of competition for her egg and toast from a cloud of insects. There were so many that she realised that shouting makkhimakkhimakkhi was not going to accomplish anything. She retreated and reconsidered, and then came back with a new tactic: instead of trying to fight them, she just walked into the middle of them and blew a mighty, saliva-laced raspberry. It said all kinds of things at once—that she was unimpressed by their fearsome numbers, that their pomposity was just so much rubbish, and that while they had the floor for the moment, they could never have her respect.

And I realised that this simple device is what I’ve been searching for, without knowing that I was searching for it, to perfectly communicate the precise shade of my feelings these days. Sticking out your tongue and making a flatulent noise remains relevant whether you’re 5, or almost 45. It conveys a derision that neutralises your de facto impotence; you can’t do anything about the country, but the act of expression itself is deeply satisfying.

The BJP tries to impose President’s rule on Uttarakhand without waiting for a floor test. *Raspberry*

The Congress decides to compete for most nationalist idiot in Maharashtra. *Raspberry*

The contractor in Kolkata calls the horrendous collapse of its flyover “an act of God”. *Raspberry*

People on social media believe that India is going great guns and that the world respects us madly. *Raspberry*

Torrents of abuse, ranging from the assumption that you’re trying to get free tickets to international conferences, to the assumption that you’re actually being paid by “political masters” for your opinion. *Raspb--*--no, actually that’s just extremely funny and makes me giggle.

Anyway, I highly recommend the raspberry. It has a deeply cathartic effect, and while you inexorably age with every passing day, making a farty noise with your mouth just never gets old.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The long and the shorts of it

The RSS finally does some social good by dropping its knickers.

(Published on March 19, 2016 in Business Standard)

My mother is an incredibly beautiful, stylish woman. My whole life, therefore, I’ve had to listen to people exclaim, with great pity, that I don’t look like her at all, and had to mumble weakly that I take after my father—weakly, because his looks worked a lot better on him than on me. I bet nobody told him that he had “a sort of, well, robust something”.

One of the results of being the underwhelming offspring of two smashers is that you give up on the looks department early on. While my friends were busy experimenting with hair and clothes and makeup, I went to school with my hair pulled back in a greasy ponytail and a pair of bottle-thick spectacles. I wore ill-fitting hand-me-down t-shirts and shorts or jeans, and resisted all attempts to spruce me up. At some point, in desperation, my mother got me a ‘Cleopatra cut’, a bob with bangs cut dead across the eyebrows. It was supposed to be chic, but I retreated behind this hairy curtain for so many years, trimming the fringe to nose level with my Swiss army knife, that she finally regretted it. Perhaps out of self-preservation, I avoided looking in the mirror.

All of this is to say that I was never socialised to get with fashion, and am therefore hardly in a position to make style judgements. People are forever saying incomprehensible things about how blue brings out their shoulders or whatever, and I just nod along. But while I still wear jeans and t-shirts, now I can at least tell when some item of clothing is an out and out disaster.

It is impossible, in the electronic age, to have missed that photograph of union minister Nitin Gadkari, clad in his Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh outfit, sitting legs crossed in a chair. The Internet immediately paired this retina-destroying image with one of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, neatly capturing everything that is wrong with his clothes, and everything that is right with the Internet.

There are many, many reasons to make fun of the RSS. The poor lads have all kinds of complexes related to power, domination, and all the sex they’re not having. They inspire repeated references to robots and nazis. But the worst—the very worst—is the uniform.

Just think about it compassionately for a second. To be obsessed with cows and cow pee-pee; to fetishize flagpoles (wink, wink) even as you object to the flag; to be frantic about India even as you oppress Indians; to see a sinister conspiracy behind every pimply grad student; to jump up and down because someone didn’t say ‘Bharat mata ki jai’; to admire the Manusmriti; to rely on the lizard bits of your brain; to do all of this, and to do it while wearing flared shorts cinched at the waist, even though you are a full-grown, unfit, hairy dude—well, it’s all just so awful that you have to admire the courage it takes to walk around the world looking like that.

But it seems that its own lack of coolness has finally gotten to the RSS, or maybe they’re tired of pretending to be celibate out of choice. After a brief ten-year think about it, the organisation has decided to replace the shorts with trousers. This is a body blow to the convenient terms ‘knickerwallah’ and ‘chaddiwallah’, and we can never unsee Nitin Gadkari, but the move might help save millions of innocent retinas in the future. That’s what I call working for the good of society—who knew they would do it by dropping their knickers? Ladies and gentlemen, a big hand for the RSS.

Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

A meditation on medication

The cure depends on the diagnosis

(Published on March 05, 2016 in Business Standard)

There you are in the prime of youth, skipping along barefoot, revelling in health and curiosity—taking in the odd bit of Marx, the odd pint of beer, using the odd condom, spitting out the odd bit of chicken bone—when suddenly you step on a thorny issue.

When you’re done hopping around on one foot and swearing, you prise out the thorn and wipe up the blood. Generally, it’s enough to treat the foot tenderly, swab the wound, and leave well enough alone. The antibodies in your system will gallop up to the site and do what they do best, which is to whack any bacteria senseless.

That’s all it usually takes: a short tussle between illness and the body’s natural self-help system. It’s a quiet, no-cost, natural process. Life is all about stepping on a thorny issue and getting over it without a big fuss. Most physical afflictions turn out to be minor, self-limiting and self-healing.

Sometimes a bit of bacteria enters the wound, and it gets infected. Then you have to really go at it with that swab, maybe take antibiotics. Think of it as sending the bacteria to jail and making it do some introspection, or beating it to a pulp, whichever makes it feel less cocky.

But sometimes, antibiotics aren’t enough; sometimes the bacteria are those superbug things doctors are always warning about in hospitals. Those critters are hard to beat down. Think of it like this: you keep sending the bacteria to jail, but it keeps breaking out. It’s like being infected with an idea—very very easily communicated, almost impossible to stamp out. Then you might have to confine the patient in a controlled environment, put him or her on different kinds of very strong treatment, and hope for the best.

If you bungle it—if, for example, you prescribe an insufficient dose of medication, or the wrong kind of medication—then the bacteria grow stronger than ever, and now you’ve seriously messed up, because either the body develops antibiotic resistance, or has no help at all. Then you enter dangerous territory—what if you get gangrene, necrosis, the death of tissue, threat to the whole body? Now you’re looking at life and death, people, and maybe a medical malpractice lawsuit. That’s when you call in the cavalry and bite the bullet and consider amputation. Best to cut off a foot, or a leg, to save the body. That’s the course of action any doctor would recommend, if it would save the patient’s life.

But diagnosing these things correctly to start with is tricky business. Sometimes, what looks like an infection is actually your antibodies already at work, getting rid of the really dangerous stuff; that nasty swelling is actually a healing in process. Amputation would mean chopping off perfectly healthy body parts and destroying the body in the process. Medicating it would be like putting the antibodies in jail and letting the real problem run riot—you’d be turning off the immune system, shutting down the body’s defences, and sentencing it to a raft of illnesses.

The worst of those is when the body turns against itself. Cells can suffer a mutation that makes them out-of-control aggressive, and in their monstrous zeal they engulf healthy cells, turning everything in the body into a morbid version of themselves.

The line between having a thorn in the foot and getting cancer is not a fine one; it takes a doctor of monumental incompetence to steer a patient from the former to the latter. But relax. A lot of our doctors have suspect degrees, but, as it turns out, our antibodies are superstars.

PS: This piece has nothing to do with anything.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

#MakeInIndia week

It’s been an exciting week for Indian business

(Published today in Business Standard)

Dear World, aka non-Indian Hindus,

As everyone knows, India is business heaven. We don’t rest on piffling perfection, however, and invite you to invest your money in the many more booming opportunities we are determined to think up. Do stop mumbling about Vodafone and check out this very cool lion!

Look, we’ve had a bad few months in the anti-national paid media. There was a bit of bad business with beef. We tanked in Bihar. The Delhi Chief Minister took our raid badly. There was a slight national security cockup at an air base. Then a student called Rohith Vemula offed himself in Hyderabad, and everyone jumped down our throat. The stock market has been feeling poorly, and the rupee… Look, please just give us your money? Just promise to, so that we can put a bit of good news in the papers. Thank you!

We just concluded our huge investment-attracting #MakeInIndia week in Mumbai, and boy, was it a big impressive jamboree. Here’s how it went.

February 13: Inaugural day! The newspapers were filled with Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s tweet from the previous day, saying that we wouldn’t tolerate anyone who chants anti India slogans and challenges the nation’s sovereignty and integrity. This was after some Jawaharlal Nehru University students held a meeting to discuss capital punishment, and a student leader called Kanhaiya Kumar made a heinous speech calling for freedom. Go, Rajnath.

February 14: Day two! Worship Your Parents day was celebrated all over India in the traditional way, with couples dodging policemen to feed each other chocolate and kiss behind bushes, and patriots dragging them out and trying to frogmarch them to the altar. In the evening a huge embarrassing fire broke out on a #MakeInIndia stage. Funny coincidence (funny peculiar, not funny ha ha), a huge embarrassing fire also broke out in Delhi over how we charged Kanhaiya Kumar with sedition, on the basis of… we’ll get back to you on that, still working on it. Also Rajnath Singh said that Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed was behind the JNU meeting. It sounded good at the time.

February 15: Sigh, day three. Turned out the Hafiz Saeed tweet about JNU was from a fake account. How was Commissioner of Police Bassi to know? Still, the anti-national-if-not-terrorist Kanhaiya Kumar, was taken to court, where some patriotic lawyers beat up JNU students and staff, and pro-Porkistan media. Our MLA, OP Sharma, also beat up someone, good for him. What about Hanamanthappa? The media went bananas—the selfish libtards always make everything about them. God, loving your country is politically exhausting.

February 16: Noisy, noisy television debates. Bassi reminded everyone that we can’t just toss OP Sharma in jail just because of a camera lens, we have to look at it from a legal lens. Amazing that we have to point these things out. We’re passing a hat around the office to gift Bassi a spa coupon after he retires.

February 17: Um, so the journos got beaten up again today, and the Supreme Court is pissed off, and we’ve managed to get Rs 5,000 lakh crore investment in articles, editorials, petitions, and televised screaming matches about JNU and it turns out the videos were doctored and everyone is marching everywhere and everything is a mess and nobody’s paying attention to #MakeInIndia. Now we’re thinking Go, Rajnath, but in a different way.

February 18: Concluding day! We’ve fixed everything—we’re making all central universities put a giant flag on their campuses. That’s Phase 1. In Phase 2, we will make it mandatory for all Indians to surgically implant a Tricolour on the top of their heads.

Jai Hind.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Sleeping with the frenemy

(Published on February 6, 2016 in Business Standard)

You know what they say about friends: Lock up the good booze before they come over. Or maybe it’s “Don’t work with them”, but locking up the good booze is not a bad idea either—unless one of your friends is turning a greyish shade of fifty. In that case you pack all the best booze you can muster, and take her out of town for a few days.

But first you start a Whatsapp group conversation three weeks beforehand, to figure out how to mark the occasion. One of five of us was in a different country, and we all had differing budgets, available time, and activity preferences. Whatsapp is really helpful in a situation like that, when you need to cheaply and efficiently communicate old internet jokes, non sequiturs, pictures of lunch, and potty quality updates for nineteen days before someone realises there’s still no holiday plan, at which point there is international panic, and the birthday girl threatens to fly off to freaking Goa or something by her freaking self, since we can’t get our freaking act together for her freaking milestone birthday. A lot of emoticons are necessary. Whatsapp rocks.

Anyway we managed to cobble together a road trip to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve with—let’s call them—Mooey, birthday girl Fanny, and myself. We were going to leave at 6am, because it’s traditional to be unrealistic about everything. At 5.30am Mooey dropped out with a personal crisis, and since he owned the transport, Fanny and I went back to sleep. At 9am the personal crisis was resolved. At 11.15 we rolled up at Fanny’s, where we all briefly discussed an attractive alternative plan to just unload the car and spend the weekend right there, watching movies in our pyjamas and exchanging Whatsapp emoticons. At 12.02pm we were finally on the road. At 12.32 we were on exactly the same road, in the gridlock just outside her house.

When traffic began to flow, we fondly remembered all the things we had forgotten: sunglasses, the other vodka, the Scrabble board, the binoculars, the hat with a brim. The sun got hotter, the traffic was dense, nobody had slept much. Fanny shouted at Mooey for not letting her bring her coffee press. I shouted at Fanny for not being packed on time. We both shouted at Mooey for having a non-functional car CD player. They both shouted at me for picking up the wrong stack of CDs. I muttered that I had had it with them, given them the best years of my life, and I was taking the children and moving to my mother’s. We all muttered darkly that it was going to be a long four days.

And it was—long and delightful, despite the fact that we all shared one room and one bathroom. Despite Mooey’s traumatic habit of waking like a jack-in-the-box before dawn and yelling tender good mornings in our ears. Despite Fanny keeping up a constant rumble of complaint about the quality of the coffee. Despite my conversation being one hundred per cent about the state of my potty.

But that’s what travelling with friends is all about: loving them despite their compulsive behaviours. It’s exactly like being married, but without the monogamy, children, and joint bank account. There’s the one who rubs one foot against the other all night. The one who picks goop out of her eyes. The neat freak. The one who’s grumpy in the morning; the one who’s grumpy at night. The glutton, the exercise freak, the clotheshorse, the cigarette bummer. The Bollywood music addict.

If you survive travelling with them, it’s true love.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The porn star and the TV w…anchor

You know it’s been a difficult January when the epitome of Indian manliness, the Prime Minister, discovers that his much-vaunted 56-inch chest has shrunk to 50 inches. The reduced perimeter is probably easier for Ajit Doval to safeguard, but it’s also probably less impressive-looking from the Indo-Pak border.

Speaking of unimpressive Indian men, CNN-IBN interviewed actress Sunny Leone. Everyone has talked about it for three days already, but I won’t sleep easy until I’ve deposited my two bits.

The last time I noticed anchor Bhupendra Chaubey, he was knocking it out of the park during the Bihar elections while NDTV was circling the drain, so if anything I was predisposed to like him—or at worst, to be neutral. But Chaubey struck dissonant notes before he even got to the set, setting up Sunny Leone as “completely antithetical to what we perceive is the idea of an Indian woman”. That smug generalisation set the tone for the rest of this train wreck.

The interview itself was a one-note samba centring on his own inability to believe that a former porn star could possibly go about her life without being, at all times, hyperaware that she used to be a porn star, and cling-wrapped in shame about it. This is because he obviously cannot stop being hyperaware that she used to be a porn star.

Aided by twitching eyebrows and smirks, he tried his damndest to get her to admit that Sunny the porn star was a tragic mistake made by Karanjit the beautiful family girl, going astray; but Sunny didn’t think so. In reply to a question about her biggest regret, she said she couldn’t get home fast enough when her mother passed away. When she said “I’ve made mistakes”, he begged for specifics, and she said that Bollywood was like culture shock because it’s really chaotic.

In other words, she wasn’t playing shameball with him.

He loaded and reloaded the same question multiple times, in vain. He framed Sunny Leone as a scarlet woman who, though she is now in Bollywood, won’t get to work with big names like Aamir Khan, on account of her “past”, which “haunts” her and “holds [her] back”. He made a big point of the fact that people say nasty things about her.

Sunny uncooperatively pointed out that she didn’t feel in the least bit either haunted or held back, and that people are entitled to their opinions. Chaubey gave her 7,431 chances to take back that twaddle and admit, already, that it’s her own fault that now he can’t stop visualising her lady parts, which somehow makes her disreputable. (I’m paraphrasing to include his tone.) She said that if the clock were turned back, she would do it all again. Chaubey let her know that she has been accused of corrupting Indian morality; but Sunny cleaves to the free speech, live-and-let-live end of things, which can be summed up as “So?”

In the single question about her upcoming film, Chaubey asked if it was about love, or sex and lust. He sneeringly asked if she thought of herself as an actor, and whether it was her body—raking said body with his eyes—that would take her to whatever low, commercial places his tone implied her career may reach.

Really, you should watch it yourself. Never mind undeserved TRPs: it is an object lesson in how even the most progressive men can see an openly sexual woman as shameful—and think she should see herself that way too.

And it’s an object lesson in what a sorry figure such a man cuts.