Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A toast to freedom in the Blue Mountains

Welcome to the sanitised playpen that used to be the Republic of India

(Published on April 15, 2017 in Business Standard)

I spent this Thursday sitting on a hillside in the Nilgiri Mountains, worshipping a couple of coconuts. The Nilgiris stand like big blue teeth in the welcoming smile of the Deccan—or, as Tarun Vijay calls it, where the black people we live alongside, live. I was at a bhoomi pujan to bless new landowners and their land, throwing my godless good wishes into the mix. After two sweaty hours we buried two tiny silver snakes in the ground, and repaired to a humongous lunch—or, as Ram Vilas Paswan might put it, beyond the regulated restaurant portion.

The pundit and I had a brief chat. He seemed surprised that I wasn’t Australian, which was his first guess. 

Where is your child, madam? He asked. I don’t have a child, I said. He wiggled his eyebrows.

Your husband, madam? He asked. I’m not married, I said. No husband? he breathed.

Grey hair, no husband, no child, I confirmed. His face became very still. Then he stuck out his hand. 

Best, he said.

Best, I agreed, and we shook on it. I raised my fists and said ‘Freedom.’ 

Freedom, he nodded. Even I am not going to get married, madam. 

Best, I said.

It was so refreshing to be toasting freedom. Everywhere I look, people are obediently giving up autonomy, choice, and individual rights, without a whimper, law by law, rule by rule.

The BJP is rolling like a conquering juggernaut over India, on the promise of transformation, and living up to that promise—it is transforming hundreds of millions of fully grown, perfectly competent adult Indians, into helpless, gummy toddlers who must be soothed when they wail, fed regulated amounts of approved food on a predetermined schedule, and re-raised to achieve predetermined dreams.

Welcome to the sovereign socialist theistic majoritarian sanitised playpen that used to be the Republic of India—please deposit your brains and your gonads at the door. The BJP nanny state is relieving us of the stress of having to make our own choices and make up our own minds. If someone is upset, it will stop the whole playdate until someone says sorry. It makes everyone use our indoor voices. It wants us to progress together by finding the dumbest, most regressive toddlers, dragging everyone else down to their level, and proceeding backwards at their rate.

The nanny state is toddler-proofing the room, covering up anything complex or age-inappropriate. It censors words like ‘bra’, and ‘beef’ that allude to impure ideas, and any words with double meanings, and ‘Bombay’, and phrases that the Prime Minister has used. It decides the content and size of your tiffin. Meat is dodgy. Alcohol is bad for you. It tells you when to sit down and when to stand up, and how to love the nation.

It only allows good wholesome fun—no late nights, no premarital sex or romance, no subversive art. Fun is culturally scheduled and features bright primary colours, Bollywood tracks, and family outings for ice cream.

The nanny state will homeschool you, but only as much as you need to be a thriving toddler, including how not to question it. It will make sure it knows where you are and what you’re doing at all times, apparently for your own safety. 

Toddlers don’t need democracy; they need a firm nanny. This nanny will not hesitate to beat kids to death for disobedience. That makes all the other toddlers shut up and put their thumbs right back in their mouths. That’s how you build a strong, proud playpen.

I’m thrilled to report that around the Nilgiris, they still seem to like being adults.

Freedom. Best.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Laughter is the best resistance to political bullying

Jokes are kryptonite to authority.

(Published on April 1, 2017 in Business Standard)

Authority only really works on people who agree to consider it authoritative. Not authority like the police and the courts—obviously those guys have guns, and jails, and can physically impose their will upon you. I mean authority like the power to control people’s minds and lead them by the nose down whatever nasty little majoritarian alley they want. That kind of authority needs—nay, is absolutely at the mercy of—citizens’ individual cooperation in treating it like the big strong manly alpha dog that it wants to be. 

This is a shaky leg to stand on. And you know what sneaks up and nudges that leg in the back of the knee, making it wobble and look silly? Jokes! Jokes are kryptonite to authority. They are to pompous egos what needles are to soap bubbles. They make people laugh and point when they should be bowing and scraping. This is why politicians and godmen are such a thin-skinned, humourless lot, and make such free use of guns and jails. They hate being made fun of—it’s bad for their image as fearsome, wondrous people wielding fearsome, wondrous power over masses faint with admiration. The more they suspect people of mocking them, the more they fall back on guns and jails. This is also why their followers insist on respect for their leader, else their feelings will be hurt, and, you guessed it, we’re back to guns and jails.

In Myanmar in the late 1990s, people wouldn’t say a word about the military junta in public. But they whispered indignantly about a comedy trio, the Moustache Brothers. Two of them had been sentenced to seven years in a labour camp for an act criticising the government. Years later, in 2008, the famous Burmese satirist Zarganar was sentenced to 59 years in prison, though he was freed by amnesty in 2011. The whole editorial team of French magazine Charlie Hebdo suffered the most extreme review of their work when they were gunned down by Islamist fundamentalists who didn’t find them funny. The wildly popular Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef was arrested in 2013 for mocking President Morsi.

Closer to home, in January 2016, comedian Kiku Sharda was tossed in the clapper for a couple of weeks for mimicking Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and offending his followers’ sentiments. This month, a young man in Uttar Pradesh ended up in the clink for posting a morphed image of the new chief minister, Mr Adityanath; and another young man in Maharashtra was arrested for uploading a photo of a warrior-king with Mr Adityanath’s face stuck on it, after his friends ratted him out to a pro-Maratha reservations organisation.

In other words, politicians and god-botherers fully understand that humour is the pointiest, pokiest form of resistance. It is also, by nature, untameable. Turkish president Erdogan, who cracked down on hundreds of people who make fun of him, found this out the hard way: His crackdown only inspired even more jokesters and satirists.

For its creativity, for revealing uncomfortable truths, for its sturdy self-respect, and for its refusal of mind control, we should, this April Fool’s day, celebrate the many delicious forms of humour available to us—light comedy, wit, irony, sarcasm, satire, spoofery, parody, mockery, ridicule, and plain rudeness. 

Prime Minister Modi led by example, this January, when he called for more humour and satire in public life, saying that the power of laughter is greater than the power of weapons. He’s dead right. After I had recovered from the immense shock of finding myself in agreement with him, I actually clapped. 

Let it never be said that I have nothing nice to say about the man, okay?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Whose line is it anyway?

You mean this is your own stupid opinion?

(Published on March 18, 2017 in Business Standard)

Sometimes, after I return from a trip to social media, I have to take a moment to compose myself. Only when the whites of my eyes are no longer visible, and my blood pressure has stabilised, can I can sit down and calmly cuss the idiots out over dinner like a normal human being.

Just kidding. They’re not idiots, they just have views different from mine.

Just kidding! They totally are idiots. 

In this deeply polarised political climate, it’s becoming harder to talk to whoever constitutes the ‘other’ side on any issue—not because of their views per se, but because of their view of the origin of your views. The same Modi-backer who claims to have arrived at her choices via cool-headed independence, is quick to dismiss opposing views as motivated—by blind hatred, by slavish loyalty, by political puppetry or financial incentive, or (my personal favourite) by the desire to be ‘fashionable’.

I figure this last accusation arises out of the notion that power and success so obviously require compliance and deference, that critique can only be a form of attention-grabbing cockiness. The other accusations seem to arise from the belief that your views must be dictated by something suspect—by class, political allegiance, sour grapes, or payroll—anything but your own principles.

The Modi-backer, for her part, must resent her views being perceived as springing from bigotry, religious chauvinism, venality, insensitivity, jingoism—anything but her genuine desire to see a man of action stop corruption in its tracks and develop the hell out of the country. I feel her pain, and feel that I should make an effort to reassure her that I understand her.

So here’s the best case scenario: I have nothing against any economic good that the BJP can accomplish in terms of fighting corruption and raising incomes without trampling over rights and environmental regulations. But if she thinks that she can cherrypick economic roses out of a nasty bouquet of social hemlock, she is either unaware of the RSS’s agenda, or aware but certain of her own acceptability to the majority and uncaring of her fellow citizens, or deluded into thinking that Mr Modi does not represent the Sangh despite his tireless, lifelong service to it. There, does that make it clearer?

Seven years ago, when the world was merely horrible, rather than horrible and proud of it, I wrote a Stet column titled ‘Left brain-right brain’. It paraphrased a friendly conversation about Palestine. Re-reading how it degenerated into insults hurled across a deep, wide belief gap, I recognise that dynamic as today’s mainstream. The only difference is that now the conversation is about Indians and other Indians.

The BJP’s storming of U.P. has disheartened a lot of liberals, who are keenly feeling their political marginality. But the wonderful thing about being a liberal is that you can go ahead and be the very last one left standing. That’s the principle of the thing—individual rights, down to the last individual.

So go ahead and fling social media faeces at us, tell us how irrelevant we are, and accuse us of opposing Mr Modi to be cool. (Face-palm—glad you think it’s cool, but that’s not why we’re doing it.) Tell us about our ‘political masters’. Tell us how you felt put down by our superior tone, so you chose a religious supremacist. We’re still not going anywhere. 

And regardless of what you believe about the source of our respective stupid opinions, in the same way that mine reflect on me, know that yours reflect on you.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Nationalist baby steps

Intern here and you could be a big nationalist one day

(Published on March 4, 2017 in Business Standard)

Are you a passionate young person? Do you often feel inadequate, and are you beset by inchoate feelings of anger and fear and disempowerment? Do different people and different ideas create feelings of panic? Is your skin thinner than the thinnest argument you can muster? Are you happier running in a pack, following clear directions, than exploring things yourself? Are you willing to trust and venerate your leadership? Are you looking for like-minded people, and, more importantly, are you willing to never rest until there are only like-minded people to be found?

If this describes you, please take our multiple choice entrance exam.

Congratulations! A very warm welcome to you from all of us here at the Anti-Antinational Brainless Vigilantes Plague, or AABVP. We think you’ll be very happy here, because, as we like to say, ignorance is bliss.

First off, may we offer a pat on the back to prop up your fragile sense of self? You scored a brilliant 100% on your multiple choice entrance paper, choosing from the four interchangeable versions of the single possible answer we provided alongside each question. You’re a genius. There is little else to know, and if anyone tells you different, here’s a handy manual entitled ‘Making Weapons Out Of Whatever’s Available’. It’s not hard, mostly pictures, mug it up. It’s often going to be your first resort.

We teach you what to think, not how to think for yourself, so please don’t do anything dangerous like try to use your own brain, or indulge any stray feelings of self-doubt, guilt, compassion, or mutual respect for people unlike yourself. These uncomfortable feelings may arise, and we know how scary they can be, but be assured that they will pass. Stay strong.

Some people will tell you that there are other answers to the questions on our entrance exam. They will criticise ideas, and authority, and will not be afraid to do so. They will act as if it’s normal. These are the people who are destroying India. What do you mean, how? Have we taught you nothing? Questions that do not conform to the answers we have provided, are invalid. This gig runs on a need-to-know basis, and what you need to know is: These are the people we hunt. 

If you find one of these people, which you will, because they’re everywhere, this is your time to shine. Our standard operating procedure is pretty simple.

1. Get into their faces and yell the four interchangeable versions of the single valid answer you know.

2.If they argue, push them and threaten to rape them.

3. If, for the sake of form, you wish to come across as reasonable, agree with them fully, then say ‘But!’ and repeat the four interchangeable versions of the single answer.

4. If they keep talking, pick your favourite picture from the manual and do that.

5. If things aren’t going your way, appeal to the nearest policeman. The police will help you.

Remember that you won’t last a minute in a verbal debate, so if someone starts one, skip directly to intimidation. If that doesn’t work, go back to the manual. You’re so cute when you’re angry! We’re very proud.

By the way, please don’t confuse us with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, or ABVP—that’s the nationalist student organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who tirelessly protect our universities and communities from intellectual and cultural mayhem, showing the kind of extra-judicial entrepreneurship and dedication without which this country would shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. The ABVP is for the big boys.

Maybe if you do well here, in ultra-nationalism nursery, you could think of joining them one day.