Monday, October 17, 2016

Birdiness, birditude, and birdicity

Turns out ornithology isn’t for the birds.

(Published on October 15, 2016 in Business Standard)

I love nature, but never had much time for birds. They’re skittish, they poop all over the place, and they’re fiddly to eat. Plus they conduct jihad from across the the LoC and have to be locked up, x-rayed, and put on suicide watch, and we really don’t need more than one kind of bipedal anti-national. Anyway, my birdwatching experience has been minimal, and I have spent one hundred percent of it going ‘Where? Where?’ because I never remember to carry binoculars. As far as birdiness is concerned, I’d rather watch paint dry.

This week I lived out one of my worst nightmares, which is that I am travelling to a place where there is nothing to do but birdwatch, with eleven family members including six children, and only one bottle of whisky.

It was trying. Everywhere I went, there were six little demons shrieking and running around, and shrieking, and leaving the doors open at mosquito time, and spreading sugar all over the bathroom floor and, oh yes, shrieking. I kept trying to wake up.

No, seriously—I really kept trying to wake up. Birdwatching is a crack-of-dawn activity. The only creatures that rise even earlier are small children, who don’t like to sleep when they could be screeching. But the kids were dressed and lined up by the hotel door while the adults were still stumbling around with one shoe on, stalling for another sip of tea. It turned out that their enthusiasm had nothing to do with birds, it was all about cycle rickshaws. Kids are weird like that. My niece who still can’t write in joined-up letters was carrying a knapsack containing night vision goggles.

In Keoladeo National Park, internationally famous for its birditude, you glide silently around the wetlands in a cycle rickshaw manned by a guide with visual superpowers and bewildering enthusiasm, who can spot and name a bird from half a kilometre away. You spend ten minutes fantasising about applying a chloroform-soaked napkin to this person’s nose, but then the clouds pink up in a sky threaded with gold, and you take out the binoculars you finally remembered to bring, and suddenly everything is better.

The blue startle of an Indian roller. This grey heron doing a solitary slo-mo tango in a tree-filled pond. A cormorant drying its netted wings in the sun. A darter scything snake-like through water; a spoonbill stork with its spatula beak. A whole nursery of painted storks with pink-splashed rumps, feeding their noisy chicks and sheltering them against the sun.

We contemplated this scene of parental tenderness while munching on our boxed breakfasts, which wasn’t macabre at all until my sister-in-law said, “Is it bothering anyone that we’re sitting here eating eggs?”

We saw drongos, tailor birds, purple moor hens; even an elusive nightjar that rolled one sleepy eye at us. We saw a mighty crested serpent eagle, and forty other kinds of beautiful creatures.

It was all unexpectedly enjoyable, especially since I had my own room, which remained a calm and quiet oasis after I announced, without raising my voice, that any child who came in would be put to death. They amused themselves outside, shrieking and swimming and smearing food into their eyebrows, while we drained the whisky bottle.

I think I’ll go back to Keoladeo for some more birdicity, minus kids—though I admit that even the kids were entertaining; I can totally relate to their logic. I asked my littlest niece which bird she liked best. ‘The cuckoo,’ she said. I asked why. ‘Because,’ she said, ‘it’s a silly name.’

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Another boring, muggy weekend

What if they gave a nuclear war and nobody came?

(Published in Business Standard today)

It’s another boring, muggy weekend. Traffic, paperwork, household chores, the drone of routine.

The only distraction, really, is the two nuclear powers poking each other in the eye. If you don’t already have plans to renew your insurance, you can remain glued to the news, mouth open and fingers crossed, or beating your naked chest painted with chicken’s blood, depending on how you feel about nuclear powers poking each other in the eye. Either way, it’s not just the weather that’s bringing sweatiness to an armpit near you.

I’m a peaceable realist—slow to physical aggression, but with a firm sense of justice. If a man keeps smacking me across the face without provocation, I’ll first try to discover his problem; then talk to him about it; then try to put a barrier between us; and then, at some point, I’ll get fed up and just smack him back. Escalation, if any, must be gradual. Smacking an aggressor back right away gives you no time to prepare, and lowers you to his sociopathic level. Still, after you’ve said ‘Wtf?’ a number of times increasingly loudly, without result, you may need to respond in kind.

At this level, I’m okay with India’s recent attack on PoK-based terror launch pads. The Indian government took measured steps and used its diplomatic clout, and came out looking mature and responsible and righteous and unwilling to be taken for granted. But honestly, this whole thing is more about us than about Pakistan, because they’re not going to stop being a pest. We now have to pray that Pakistan won’t escalate things into full-scale war. How did we get here?

Manmohan Singh: No war with Pakistan, strategic restraint.

BJP and supporters: Weak coward! Gnashing of teeth.

Narendra Modi: No war with Pakistan, strategic restraint.

BJP and supporters: Total masterstroke, sir, you really showed them.

Indian Army: We have conducted surgical strikes in PoK. Not our first time—but it’s the first time that a government is talking about it, because public sentiment.

BJP and supporters: The complete opposite of what you said before is also a total masterstroke, sir, you really showed them.

News: #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes *faints dead away from patriotic fervour*

Internet: #UnseemlyGlee #Revenge #NoQuestionsYouPorkistaniAntinational. *smears naked chest with chicken’s blood*

Nation: That’s for Uri and Pathankot, you dastardly, er, dastards.

Nation: Wait, can we keep Fawad Khan?

News: #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes.

Pakistan: What strikes? There were no strikes. You people are delusionary. We should know, we based our whole state on an imaginary friend.

USA: Oh you two think you’re in trouble? Are you watching our election?

BJP: Well at least we’ve delivered on one electoral promise. That should get our damn base off our backs, and maybe get some patriotic support in UP and Punjab where, incidentally, elections are coming up.

Everyone: Ohhhhh right.

Analysts: Having denied India’s strikes, Pakistan can’t retaliate.

Pakistan: *Immediately violates LoC ceasefire in J&K*

Indian film people: We’re banning all Pakistani actors!

Pakistani cinema people: Oh yeah? Well we’re not screening YOUR stupid films anymore!

World: Okay now you’re making us nervous.

2,00,000 Punjab residents: Let’s spend this weekend evacuating our villages as a precautionary measure, for an indeterminate length of time. Ah, border life.

Optional ending 1: Everyone calms down and goes back to poking each other in the eye, but covertly.

Nation: Welcome back, Fawad Khan.

Optional ending 2: Nuclear apocalypse, 21 million dead, nuclear winter.

Nation: Has anyone seen Fawad Khan?

I say we raise our glasses to a long series of boring, muggy weekends filled only with traffic, paperwork, and household chores.

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.