Saturday, November 29, 2014

Because I'm happy

Actual title: "Because I'm grumpy happy"
But I can't get a strikethrough in the title in this format. Probably my incompetence, but if not, what's up with that, Blogger?

(Published in Business Standard on November 29, 2014)

As I return kicking and screaming gratefully to the disgusting dustpan verdant oasis that is Delhi, I am struck yet again by how batshit crazy eccentric its murderously aggressive amusingly moody citizens can be. When I open the advertorials newspapers in the noxious fumes crisp winter morning, to the sound of the strangled croaking of the last few surviving sparrows birdsong, I am depressed beyond description heartened and invigorated by the great backward slides forward strides our country is making in claiming that everything originated in India progressive education, encouraging people to hate each other communal harmony, and bringing back black money stored in shady overseas accounts I don’t even know what you’re talking about.

I hope you can tell that I’m trying hard to be positive. You can’t possibly appreciate how impressive that is, seeing as how it involves stabbing my real self to death, hacking it to pieces, mailing them to different places, and then watching them inexorably re-converge to form the glass-half-empty depressive whiner that is my indestructible true self.

But I’m trying, because I went off to the mountains for a two-day recharge, and I always come back from there with goofy, unfocused eyes and tweety birds circling my head. The nine hours’ drive either way, six of which consist of boring highway and such choking pits thriving crucibles of life as Hapur and Rudrapur, are more than worth it. Speaking of which, it occurred to me that small town India—not Tier Two India, but unclassified, small town India, might be the very definition of hell a great challenge to live in without ripping out your own liver giving in to a certain ennui. Swachch Bharat is nowhere to be seen, and dug up earth plainly shows geological strata comprised entirely of blue plastic bags. But back to the mountains.

By end-November the freeze hasn’t yet set in, but you still want a fleece during the day and a fire in the evenings. I chose this time to go up because the cold, clear weather unveils the Himalayas, which are so ridiculously good-looking that if they were lonely they could never find a date, because all the other mountain ranges in the world would be too intimidated and tongue-tied to even say hello, let alone get serious, move in, and have a bunch of little foothills.

From where I was you could see them in a shining white string from the massive scalloped bulk of Trishul and the presiding goddess of Kumaon, Nanda Devi, to the five sharp canines of the Panchachuli range and the Api-Nampa peaks in Nepal. The whole thing looks like the EKG of a god with ventricular fibrillation. At sunset there’s a fifteen-minute period of magic when the whole snowy parade turns flaming pink—not baby pink, but the unapologetic piggy pink of cartoons—and you can contemplate a rack of strawberry ice cream cones before they fade gently into night. The night sky, by the way, is not a blackboard with stars prettily sequinned on it, but a 3D experience in which you can see the galaxy, see depth and varying distance, and feel the need to send down up silent thanks for having been a part of this mind-bending art installation.

But eventually I had to tear myself away from all this beauty and come back to the soul-throttling exciting city, which has perks of its own. I can’t think of any right now, but that’s probably because the tweety birds are obstructing my view.

Anyway, I think I am almost dead from could really get used to this being positive thing, and in that spirit, expect normal programming to resume next week would like to wish you a wonderful weekend.

Putting the air back in despair

(Published in Business Standard on November 15, 2014)

Those of us who live in Delhi should never have crawled out of the primordial swamp. That way we wouldn’t be up here on land, dying slowly from breathing the air.

Among the great levellers in life are the need to breathe, and the need to excrete as privately as possible. Here in Delhi, where men from every strata of income, education and sophistication whip out their penises and spray Eau D’Homme all over the streets in broad daylight, we may have gotten past the universal shame of pissing in public—but even those dudes need to keep breathing.

And breathing in Delhi is increasingly hazardous. How hazardous? Well, you know how bratty kids all over the world threaten to hold their breath when they don’t get what they want? In Delhi, bratty kids threaten to keep breathing.

Seriously, there is something awesome about our collective ability to pretend that the air quality in the capital does not qualify as a huge, massive, colossal, gigantic, titanic, gargantuan and also very very big health problem. On the one hand it gives me confidence that there is no problem so great that we cannot ignore it. On the other hand, perhaps it is being this brain dead that is affecting our ability to breathe? Either way, we are not screaming bloody murder about it. It seems inexplicable.

Then I look at my asthmatic mother, wheezing her way up and down the stairs, and I realise that some of the people worst affected by the poisoned air are too busy trying to keep breathing to even dream of wasting their precious breath on screaming bloody murder. She likes to save what she has for when she feels a lecture coming on. And then I remember my nieces as babies, their tiny faces hidden behind nebulizers, and I realise that some of the other people worst affected by the poisoned air don’t yet know how to spell the word ‘air’.

There was an article buried deep in the inside pages of a newspaper just the other day, about how vehicular pollution in Delhi is responsible for some proportion of congenital diseases and foetal malformation. Are the powers that be waiting for some sort of critical mass of two-headed babies to be born before they address the pollution problem? Forget the powers that be—are we, citizens and parents, waiting for said two-headed babies?

Two-headed babies are, in fact the problem: there aren’t enough of them. If there were, we might do more than tut-tut about the air (though the odds are high that we might also just take to bathing them in milk and worshipping them). Unfortunately, we’ve gone and internalised as normal the wildly high rates of respiratory distress, heart disease and allergic reaction occasioned by breathing the Delhi air. Ten million wheezing babies on nebulisers: union cabinet meeting on how to guard their Indian moral values. A hundred two-headed babies: union cabinet meeting on how to guard their Indian moral values, and parents rattled enough to start bathing them in milk and worshipping them.

In other words, these slow-release killers are never as sexy as immediate emergencies. When we think of health, our heroes are cardiothoracic surgeons, not nutritionists; when we think of fire, we admire firemen rather than building code writers.

Since the relatively healthy in Delhi go around blithely breathing for years without incident, we don’t register the fact that we are being irreversibly choked. But at some point, what is now a slow-release lifestyle disease will become an emergency. At that point, perhaps, some political or bureaucratic hero will emerge—but don’t hold your breath. Or, well, do.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Unity in diversity

(Published in Business Standard on November 1, 2014)

Twitter has been overrun by a weed-like proliferation of handles that include the word “Lutyens”. It began with @LutyensSpice, which claimed to be the “official” political gossip channel. It was shortly challenged by @LutyensMasala, which set off a bunch of satirical copycats. My favourite is the one that takes the pants off the whole idea. @BoringLutyensGossip has an exquisite deadpan flair for the absurd. (Viz: “One courier has come for Shipping Ministry. But Shipping Ministry was merged into Transport ministry in 2004. So courier has been forwarded.” Or: “Two journalists were seen entering Rajan’s office together. They left separately, because one journalist had a meeting somewhere else.” Or: “Toner has run out at Finance Ministry.”)

This is all happening because people are desperate for news from the Modi government, which, on the transparency scale, ranks slightly lower than lead. There are a few things we do know without resorting to gossip channels, though. One is that the central government is a BJP government. We know this because the orange-and-black paint on Delhi’s pavements and road dividers has been changed to green-and-stale ham. I think they were going for green-and-saffron. It’s a terrible move, aesthetically and in terms of road safety, but at least it offers a weak reminder that there’s a political party nominally in charge, not just the one chap who doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus. It’s a very weak reminder, however, which nobody is buying.

Speaking of bestriding the narrow world like a Rs 2,979 crore colossus, that Statue of Unity the prime minister is building in Gujarat is a disgraceful waste of resources that does nothing for India except add a big fat bill and promise to make our ugliest nationalists even uglier. Modi is trying his best to appropriate as many iconic historical Indian figures as possible—it’s only a matter of time before he builds a 200m tall Swachch Bharat Statue of Amitabh Bachchan sweeping, made out of brooms from every part of India. I approve heartily of his unexpected embrace of Mahatma Gandhi, among others, but he doesn’t need to build huge statues of everyone to prove his love.

He could better have used the statue money to pulp Dina Nath Batra’s textbooks that mention airplanes in ancient India, and to print some reasonable histories which he could have hired good teachers to teach in schools he could have built for kids who could have grown up with an education, rather than with a fixation on chest size and trying to out-patriot everyone else. Unity comes from teaching tolerance and inclusiveness in a diverse country, not from building giant statues. But then we’re talking about a leader who likes to believe that ancient India had plastic surgery and genetic technology, and who says nothing when communal riots break out and when policemen say that rape is a result of lack of entertainment options, so maybe education and inclusiveness aren’t really his thing.

Education seems headed for the toilet anyway now that the Human Resources Minister is taking earnest notes on the RSS version, which has several tedious chips on its shoulder. So is social progress. If the recent rioting in Delhi’s Trilokpuri neighbourhood demonstrated one thing, it is that the government can’t maintain peace in the capital under the Prime Minister’s nose, so why should we expect it to defend the borders?

Modi’s silence only amplifies the ugly symphony of misogyny, jingoism and communalism that is rising again. Who needs Halloween when you’ve got the newspapers? Silence can be a useful political tool, but it makes the electorate very grumpy. Just ask Manmohan Singh.

What to do if you meet a bear

Published in Business Standard on October 18, 2014

In June this year, I drove up to the Jalori Pass, in Himachal Pradesh. It’s absolutely gorgeous, but if you’d told me I’d be on those spine-shattering roads again less than four months later, I would have laughed very loudly, and tossed salt over my shoulder, and washed your mouth out with soap, and punched you in the nose, and maybe also thrown you off the balcony, just to be safe.

Imagine my surprise, then, at finding myself there again at the beginning of October. This time I had pepper spray. That’s because our Jalori Pass walk was a tiny, easy little warm-up walk before the next day’s longer, harder walk into the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), which is a spectacular wilderness bristling with black bears. Like many city slickers, my relationship with nature has an edge of paranoia, so I’d asked a biologist friend what one should do if one meets an aggressive bear, and the guidelines he’d sent me said: “If you have pepper spray, prepare to use it”. By pure coincidence I had recently bought a pepper spray to support a campaign against acid attacks, so I was all kitted out.

The walk from the pass wound through misty woods and past dozens of pimply adolescents, all of whom seemed to have found their way to Serolsar Lake. We never made it, in the time we had, because we got confused by a fork in the path, so instead we settled down on a grassy knoll to have a picnic of tuna sandwiches and coffee while keeping a sharp eye out for tuna-loving bears. It was a nice easy walk, and nobody got eaten, so we called it a success. One’s bar for success drops sharply in middle age.

Speaking of sharp drops, the entry to the GHNP from Goshaini village is a 6km walk through parkland to the main entry gate, and a couple more kilometres to the campsite called Bhalu Bangla. The impossible beauty of the place—the lush dense green, blossoms, birds, a narrow sun-dappled trail, and the pretty blue Tirthan River sparkling along the valley floor, leaves your mouth hanging open. This makes a convenient aperture for your lolling tongue, which is possibly dripping sweat like a dog as you climb the hill. The thundering chirp of the cicadas were drowned out by weeping cries of ‘Help me, kill me now, I’m too old for this!’ which I eventually realised were coming from me.

Just when I thought the end was nigh, we scampered down to a gorgeous waterfall where I lay slumped upon the rocks, just like a walrus, but with a bigger moustache. It was only a few more minutes from there up to the gate, where we hit survival rations that we had carefully packed in hipflasks, and congratulated each other on not having suffered cardiac arrest.

Later that evening, returning from a midnight, moonlit walk, and via a series of alleged events that I continue to contest, I managed to step off the trail, and ended up dangling from the edge by my hands (one of which, acting from atavistic instinct, retained a vice-like grip on my cell phone), with the river rushing below. I doubt that the fall would have killed me, but I’d certainly have suffered severe depreciation. Do your push-ups, kids, they will save you a spot of bother someday.

Anyway, I feel that if you haven’t almost drowned in a river and almost fallen off a mountain to an uncertain fate, you aren’t doing it right. Also, in hindsight, and now that I’ve finally caught my breath two weeks later, the walk up was really just bracing.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Oh what a circus, oh what a show

(Published in Business Standard on October 4, 2014)

There is at least one way in which India never disappoints: just when you think it can’t get any funnier, it does.

For example: Modi bhakts continue to call non-Modi supporters (whom they assume are all Congress supporters) ‘sycophants’. With zero irony! It was particularly comic therefore, to see the non-sycophantic, cool, tempered support for Modi on display at Madison Square Garden during Prime Minister Modi’s US visit, and on all the TV studios in India that covered the visit. Watching those channels, you wouldn’t necessarily have gathered that India was suffering floods in Assam and—oh, awkward—communal riots in Vadodara. Admit it, bhakts and broadcast people, that is the very definition of awkward. 16,000 wild-eyed NRIs called their American leaders up on stage so that they could hear the crowd try to outbleat each other pledging undying love to the mothership. It was also funny that many of those leaders are known as Congressmen, and that they just stood there, not seeming to know what to do about the fact that Modi was coming.

Speaking of undying love, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was finally convicted on corruption charges and sent to jail, or, as it is better known, hospital. The man she picked to replace her did so in floods of tears, as did his cabinet—grown men took the oath of office while bawling like babies. But they obviously weren’t all that upset. The ones who really were upset set themselves on fire, because nothing says ‘I care’ like self-immolation. One guy chopped off his little finger—you have to assume he’s a bit of a fence-sitter. What the hell is wrong with you, people? Will you just chill out?

Lest you think that emotional intemperance is a preserve of the star-struck South, remember that the entire Congress party wept in Delhi when Sonia Gandhi declined to be Prime Minister in 2004.

So on the evidence of North Indians, South Indians, and NRIs, we seem to be a nation of wailing, hero-worshipping, blindly loyalist, uncritical crybabies. We’ve got a national case of hitchyourwagonitis, a condition that causes people to believe that unless they shut down their brains and self-respect and concentrate on propping up some ascendant star by smacking down dissent, they’ll never get ahead.

Of course, it’s only funny up to a point. Our patriotism problem is not new, but it’s a lot bigger now, and a lot uglier.

In New York, a crowd of Modi supporters called an Indian TV anchor a ‘traitor’ for asking critical questions. There were gigabytes of opinion on who started the brief scuffle that ensued, but perhaps not enough discussion about the insane premise that asking critical questions is unpatriotic.

In Delhi, a crowd beat up some black African men to cries of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ at a Metro station because they had allegedly ‘misbehaved’ with a woman. Delhi Police just stood there, and the more proactive personnel left. None of it was about coming to the aid of a woman.

The internet jumped down the throat of The Economist magazine because an article about Modi’s visit referenced being “a pain in the ass”. Since the new patriotism obliterates nuance (the line was from the point of view of traffic cops about any head of state), the magazine had to clarify that it does not consider Modi to be a pain in the ass.

The real pains in the ass are those whose fevered screams of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ reflect nothing more than the need to drown out meaning and inconvenient dissent.

It fell to The Washington Post to wonder whether Modi’s economic agenda might not get derailed by nationalism.

Good question.

Friday, September 26, 2014

New Year resignations

(Published in Business Standard on January 11, 2014. And when I was posting it, I appear not to have gone beyond 'draft' to 'publish', so here it is, chronologically challenged in a welter of chronologically challenged posts.)

I was never gladder to be living in hot, stinky India than last week. That was when the internet became overrun by stills from the climate change disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, in which a monster funnel of arctic air brings US temperatures down so much that a giant frozen tsunami engulfs New York, and a paleoclimatologist has to trek on improvised snow shoes into a head wind to rescue his kid. When the sun finally comes back out, the surviving US population are refugees in Mexico. In the comity of nations the long-arrogant North suddenly depends on the large-heartedness of the South, and finally we’re all going to start taking nature seriously and biking rather than driving to work.

Then I discovered that the pictures were not stills from Hollywood, but the results of a real monster funnel of arctic air that pushed US temperatures so far down that a giant tsunami of real icicle photos engulfed the internet. It was so cold that people were tossing boiling water into the air to watch it turn into snow before it hit the ground, which is a great trick unless you’re one of the fifty people who accidentally tossed the water into the wind and got third degree burns.

One reporter said it was colder than Mars, which sounds like the kind of cold that will flay your skin in strips from your cheekbones. It’s the kind of cold that will kill you in five minutes unless you’re wearing a jacket made of polar bear skin padded with whale blubber, with an inner layer of electric blanket. It’s the kind of cold that makes my teeth hurt just to think about it; the kind of cold that makes you think, There but for the grace of god go I.

Which brings me to the meat of the matter: I’m so relieved to not be in cryogenic suspension that I’ve decided to cut myself some slack in the matter of New Year resolutions. I’d made several—robust, character-building stuff that might well have helped shape the course of history. But, looking at all the pictures of Niagara Falls frozen into a surreal sculpture, I decided that with mother nature already so cranky, there’s no point taking a chance on disappointing her further. Presenting, therefore, my own innovation: New Year resignations.

I hereby resign myself to overeating with abandon until at least mid-February. We may not have a polar vortex, but it’s pretty brisk in New Delhi, and why buy a coat when I can grow my own protective layer? I resign myself to not doing any more exercise than I bloody well feel like, because it isn’t making the blindest bit of difference anyway, especially with all the overeating. I resign myself to never doing today what I can put off until the day after tomorrow, because, well, okay, that’s just a lifelong habit. I resign myself to continuing to complain bitterly about the silly nothings in my life, even though I have nothing to complain about and have seen Lizzie Velasquez speak on YouTube. (If you haven’t, you should, just google her.) I resign myself to drinking enthusiastically when the mood takes me, just because the mood takes me. That’s mostly how it pans out, and I find it suits me very well. I resign myself to reading only if and when I’m in the mood. I resign myself to wriggling out of most family events, especially the ones where you’re expected to bring presents.

And that’s quite enough decision-making for one day. I’m off to look up details of the jet stream current, which scientists describe as ‘drunk’, and pictures of frozen lighthouses. Happy 2014!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yes, and no, and yes, and no…

(Published in Business Standard on September 20, 2014)

So Scotland held its referendum yesterday, and said ‘No thanks’ to kicking out the English. For a while it was very close but then the No thankses pulled ahead by a decisive margin.

I know, right? The English are so used to being kicked out of countries that this time they themselves turned their backs, lowered their trousers to display buttocks painted with the outline of boot soles for better targeting, and offered the Scots their turn. And the Scots said no—the Scots! Those famously aggressive drinkers with the blue Mel Gibson face! Worse, they didn’t even say No, they said Better Together, which is what you say when you’re too depressed about your decision to say No. But it still feels like a shame to waste all those boot outlines.

What do you mean, Who cares about Scotland? Oh, I see, you’ve been cut off from the world because you, like me, spent the last couple of days living, eating, sleeping and cursing in your car in one ginormous traffic jam the size of the Andromeda Galaxy, on account of the fact that Chinese president Xi Jinping was visiting? No, wait, I take that back—the Andromeda Galaxy is actually moving.

What’s that? You say it’s not that you were cut off from the world, seeing as there is no sentient life left on earth that does not have mobile data and a Twitter account, but just that you don’t give a flying galaxy what happens to Scotland as long as the whisky keeps flowing?

Well that’s typical of a former colony—you’re all done with getting your own independence, so you don’t care about anyone else. You probably care more that a bunch of Chinese soldiers were doing the salsa in Ladakh at the same time that Prime Minister Modi was nibbling lovingly on President Xi’s ear in central Delhi and the good people of Delhi were decomposing at the wheel. You probably care more, in your selfish local way, about the thousand wild-eyed people who were rustled up by the Rashtriya Lok Dal to do the merengue on the UP-Delhi border and threaten to cut off water supply to the capital unless party chief Ajit Singh can stay put in his ministerial bungalow even though he’s no longer a minister.

Well I’m very enthusiastic, though now I don’t know what to feel. There was almost a whole new nation born! Then they decided not to be born. Maybe they prefer the sound of a million Englishmen gloating? How depressing. Or maybe not—maybe they’ve secretly been running England all along and are having trouble giving up all the power. Oh well, a tiny bit over half of them probably know what’s best for… never mind.

Either way, I retain a soft spot for the Scots. Thanks to referendum hysteria I’ve been besieged with every memory of every fleeting association I’ve ever had with Scotland. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s ballad-poem, ‘Ticonderoga: a legend of the West Highlands’, which is about warring Stewart and Cameron clansmen and full of properly Scottish vengeance, and also delicious words like ‘pawkier’ and ‘scrog’ and ‘scaur’. I like red hair, and I love Mark Knopfler. I adore the heyland coos (which other people pronounce Highland cows). I like the rivers and heathery moors and the gritty national character, all of which go into producing Scotland’s best ever export, Scotch whisky.

And I confess that I like it a lot that Scottish men wear skirts and allegedly no panties, and yet manage to be lady-killers. (It’s the accent.)

You came so close, Scotland—almost an aye for a nae, you might say. Never mind, maybe in another few hundred years.

Bringing down the mouse

(Published in Business Standard on September 6, 2014)

Regular readers of this column, if you exist, may remember that a little over year ago I suddenly ran out into the summer sun and bought a guitar. I didn’t spend a lot on it, given the whimsicality of the moment, but contrary to expectations, I have sustained my interest in it.

My guitar is a cheapo black acoustic with a better sound than you would expect at the price, and I adore it. I thought about naming it, then felt that might be weird, then realised that it was already weird to buy a guitar with no clear idea of what to do with it or why, but anyway couldn’t think of a name that I would feel comfortable standing on the porch and calling out loud, which is the gold standard for a good name.

Physics says the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but nobody informed the bumblebee of that fact, so it flies on regardless. Thus was it with my guitar and me. Nobody said I couldn’t learn to play from the internet, so I did. (I’m going to write a song called ‘Fly By Wireless’.)

I therefore stared at a lot of websites, eyes crossed, tongue lolling, fingers twitching on the fretboard, and, barely a year later, I had learned six chords, give or take a few. It just goes to show that dedication can make a dilettante out of a no-hoper, and that there’s nothing you can’t do if you apply whatever’s left of your middle-aged brain. (I’m going to write a song called ‘Sixteen Synapses Standing’.) I wore my fingers down to stubs practicing those six chords, and am proud to say that while the strings still produce a tooth-hurting kind of buzz, I can now move fluidly between three of those six chords.

Armed with this technical virtuosity, I’ve taken to writing songs. It’s a lot like trying to build a house using nothing but a pack of chewing gum and a stork; and yet, nobody told me I couldn’t. I wrote four songs in the space of two weeks, which is more writing per day than I have voluntarily done in the last ten years. This tells me that either I missed my calling, or that, as Bob Dylan said about song writing in an interview, “Any idiot could do it.”

The great tragedy of my life, other than that my body seems averse to recreational drugs, is that I do not have a singing voice. I absolutely love to sing. I sing all the time—in the shower, in my head, in the car. Sadly, I emit only a kind of thin nasal wail that chokes and trembles and cracks, and occasionally lands foul of the note. Also, I have the lungpower of a smallish flea. (I’m going to write a song called 'Why, God, Why?')

I played and sang my first song in a great welter of nerves for the people I play with regularly, and at the end of it, though they clapped supportively, they confessed that while they thought the music was nice, they couldn’t actually hear a word that came out of my mouth. And that was when I was using a microphone. (I’m going to write a song called ‘What Is The Point Even, Stupid Microphone’.)

I’m trying to overcome my inner mouse and open up my voice. That may take a while, and may or may not yield results, but either way, I’ll keep writing songs, because it’s a ton of fun that any idiot can have.

Meanwhile, it has been suggested to me that I shouldn’t give up my day job. I won’t say who said so, but I’m not squeaking to them no more.

Four years later

(Published in Business Standard on August 23, 2014)

I recently reviewed a four-year-old book, on the grounds that I only just got around to reading it. These grounds might have a light whiff of wtf, but at the time four years didn’t seem like a big deal, though when I thought about it later I realised that it’s the entire lifespan of two of my nieces. In four years I would have been late for, like, their lives. However, the editor of the publication didn’t seem to mind, my lords and ladies, and I certainly didn’t, so then I just decided to go wild and do other things I’m four years late doing.

First, I stopped eating almost entirely, my lords and ladies. That was the easiest way to not have to take bathroom breaks. I shut off my phone, drew the blinds, and ignored the doorbell. Since it seemed as if I was either not home or dead, people went away. I’m going to figure out which of them thought I was dead, and unfriend them from Facebook.

I also gave up a number of forms of washing, my lords and ladies, and of exercise. I did nothing, in fact, for four straight days, except watch Game of Thrones, seasons one through four, one season a day. I’m not sure that I spoke to any real human beings in that time, which is probably a good thing. If I had, I probably would have addressed them as ‘my lord’ or ‘my lady’ and then tried to stab them.

GoT is fantasy—adult fantasy (think fornication and murder, but in a good way). I don’t know at what point it began to seem perfectly normal to me to worry about whether the dragons were getting enough to eat, or to decide that the incestuous Lannister twins actually make a nice couple, or that maybe I too can find love with an irresistibly charming blond dwarf with an alcohol problem.

For years—four years—I couldn’t understand why people kept going on about Game of Thrones. Stupid name suggesting annoying boys playing with annoying toys. What was everyone on about? Well, as they say in book reviewing circles, better four years late than never. Without giving away anything—though if you’re anal about it, skip the next couple of paragraphs—let me summarise the plotline of Game of Thrones: Everybody dies. Everybody. You think I’m joking? I’m not joking. You think, here’s a fantastic character, getting so much stage time, so central to the story, so clearly the main protagonist, no way would they invest so much in someone and then bump them off without a by your leave. Right? Gird your loins, my lords and ladies. Everybody keels over, and I mean everybody, usually in a scene straight out of some vicious ISIS-style nightmare, except that the person with the knife is likely to be your friend. It makes you question the whole notion of friendship very closely, like those friends who went away when they thought you were dead.

All I can say is, it’s my own loss for being so late. I haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s books yet, though I will, but I can tell you that HBO’s version of Game of Thrones is a riveting, amazingly accomplished piece of work. It takes a masterful touch to be able to present and round out characters so quickly and engagingly before tearing their throats out. If you haven’t seen it yet I encourage you to race out and get it—but get all four seasons at once, because once you start, you won’t want to stop.

If nothing else, my lords and ladies, it’s a great way to prune your Facebook friends list.

Trashing the house

(Published in Business Standard on August 9, 2014)

The excellent thing about a family reunion, when the youngest of you is middle-aged, is that when it’s over you can heave an audible sigh of relief, and nobody will be offended. They won’t actually hear you over their own audible sighs of relief. One loves one’s family madly, but after a point one is discreetly eager to get back to one’s own life before one gouges out one’s own eyeballs.

At the conclusion of our family reunion, therefore, all the family members in question shot off in different directions with loud screams of joy. My brother, who had understandably been complaining of nausea, immediately stopped vomiting and drove to Rajasthan; my sister was found clawing at the gates of her flight to Hong Kong four hours ahead of schedule; and my mother, traumatised afresh by the sheer number of children she has, fled to a German university to do a month-long course in Old Javanese. (She does unspeakable things in her study that require her to know Old Javanese, which is why I stay out of there.) She’s been sending heartrending emails about experiencing college life at 66.

Since I wasn’t going anywhere—in so, so, many ways—I decided to clean up. My mother has trouble throwing things away, and rains hellfire upon anyone who tries to. That creates clutter—think Augean Stables, but not as neat. I’m no Hercules, but on a cloudy night, if you close your eyes tightly, I can pass for Alexander, so I decided to cut the Gordian Knot, which is a mere trifle compared to the umbilical cord—and if you think my metaphors are messy, you should see my mother’s study.

I began there. I took a large garbage bag and placed it open-mawed in a small clearing at the centre of the room, and then walked around picking things up and sentencing them to death. Flat-out rubbish went. Maybe-rubbish went. Not rubbish, but unnecessary, went. Unidentifiable went. Spent went. Unused went. New, but useless to man or beast, went.

I trashed dozens of small decorative boxes. I uprooted a large number of inexplicable eggs—wooden eggs, marble eggs, ceramic eggs—of all sizes and colours, from nests of paper. (As I said, unspeakable things that I don’t want to know about.) I found my math homework from 1980. I performed ruthless triage on about eighteen thousand bottles of homeopathic pills, some of them older than homeopathy. I threw out countless used envelopes. I tossed broken gadgets, and noodles of wires fossilised in dust. I threw out dust.

I went rampaging through the house, pillaging and spreading fear. I shone bright lights into the eyes of a family of toothbrushes huddled in an unsanitary mug, nine of them living in squalor, wallowing in their own filth and probably stealing from the six hairbrushes next door to stay alive. I showed no mercy. A basket of potions and creams older than recorded history went. The mortal remains of shower caps that had long ago died from feelings of worthlessness, went. Dusty eye masks from countless airplane kits, went. Whole piles of paper I didn’t feel like reading, went. Drums rolled and cymbals clashed in my head. From time to time I adjusted my crown. It felt so good.

My sister warned me, on the phone, about how my mother would react to finding her cities sacked and her eggs plundered. I’m not worried, though. I can fight the old girl off—if you turn your back to me while wearing a blindfold, you can see my conqueror’s sword.

Plus, I happen to know that she has back pain from walking to class carrying a backpack filled with textbooks.

On finally growing up

(Published in Business Standard on July 25, 2014)

At the ripe old age of 42, I can finally say: I’m not even close yet! I have no desire to either, perhaps because I’m haven’t found the right incentive, but more probably because I still have no idea what growing up means.

It’s not the sort of thing that keeps me up at night, either. I’ve only been wondering because the other day I bumped into a cousin who asked what I’ve been up to. He may well have been asking the way an American asks ‘How are you’—a purely rhetorical device that is the opposite of an invitation to tell them how you are—but I got all literal and told him. He recoiled in horror and said: “What! Grow up. Aren’t you supposed to behave like that in your twenties, not your forties?” I looked at him with genuine puzzlement and said, “Why?” It appeared that neither he nor I had a good reason for why, but he muttered ‘Bad girl’ under his breath anyway.

Clearly, I don’t know what growing up is supposed to entail. So I did the responsible thing: I googled it. I got 183,000,000 results, one of which was a wikiHow page on ‘How to grow up: 22 steps (with pictures)’. I was very excited about finally having clear visual aids, but found that it just involved some cartoon people whose enormous manga eyes seem to say ‘I’m all grown up and calm, but I’m not going to tell you how or why, you immature loser’.

Lots of websites say the same old stuff about moderation—apparently adults must schedule feelings of fun—and a lot about saving money and not blowing off work to play Halo with your college friend. They all want to herd you into the matrix of settling down and starting a savings plan and a family and a mortgage, home, getting health insurance, and taking care of your body.

Well. What about that New York Times article by Pamela Druckerman that everyone was passing around the other day, ‘What You Learn In Your 40s’? It’s a great article. You should read it. The most insightful thing it has to say is:

“There are no grown-ups. We suspect this when we are younger, but can confirm it only once we are the ones writing books and attending parent-teacher conferences. Everyone is winging it, some just do it more confidently.”

I’m delighted to have this confirmation of a longstanding hunch. When we say the words “Grow up”, what we mean is “Recognise that your body isn’t what it used to be.” At least that’s what I have to assume from all the websites lecturing you about not drinking too much, or diversifying your sexual portfolio too much, or tossing too many jobs, or only doing what you like. It’s just weird: when you’re a child they tell you that you can do whatever you want when you grow up; and then, when you’re an adult doing whatever you want, they tell you to grow up.
If I were more paranoid, I would think that they just don’t want you to do these things.

The single certainty in life being death, I’d have thought that grownups are those who plan for dying by getting in a satisfactory amount of living. In my own humble opinion, that should involve work that you like, and kindness, and merry amounts of alcohol, and playing in an amateur band, and the kind of nightlife that makes your cousin back off muttering ‘Bad girl’.

But I have no idea. I’m just winging it.

Notes on faking it

(Published in Business Standard on July 12, 2014)

It’s that time of year when the wind blows hot, the skies get clouded, and there is crushing pressure to be interested in the FIFA World Cup. It’s enough to put a kink in your spine, and there’s no escaping it. You must have a favourite football team, you must idolise some one player, and you must make canny predictions of game outcomes based on data sets ranging from the strikers’ fitness level to the coach’s Zodiac sign. Do you much prefer watching tennis? Do you live for cricket? Would you rather gouge your own eyeballs out with a spoon than watch sports? Too bad. It’s the World Cup, and you will be mad for football. If not, you can plan on spending your evenings chatting with the potted plants.

For every genuine football fan who’s been living on Rio time and knows what each player had for breakfast, there are four fakers who get a solid night’s sleep and Google a couple of statistics in the morning just to stay in the conversation. I’m mostly a faker. In the football section of physical education in school I played fullback, on account of underwhelming athleticism, so I already associate football with long periods of solitude and boredom, but it turns out that if you fake it you can retain your social life.

You can only fake things up to a point, of course. I tend to ignore the World Cup for that period in which four thousand teams face off several times a day in some version of Burundi vs. Liechtenstein. That part lasts for what feels like seven months. I only get interested around the quarterfinals. This is when I realise how much eye candy I’ve been missing out on, and start to pay attention.

So far in this tournament, I’ve watched a grand total of four matches. The first was Argentina vs Iran, notable for the exquisite pasta dinner I’d ordered. The second was France vs Nigeria. That was quite exciting because an inebriated friend lurched off to chat up some French dude, so we sneaked away to another part of the bar and hid, so that when she returned she would think we’d left, and hopefully freak out. The new part of the bar had a good view of the game, but we spent most of the second half spying on her.

The third game was France vs Germany, in which I was captivated by the virtuosity of the guitarist in the live band that was playing at the bar. The band was putting its heart and soul into it even though no one was paying them the blindest bit of attention. It was very poignant.

The fourth game was Colombia vs. Brazil, which I spent trying to entice a tiny Colombian baby wearing a tiny Colombian jersey into my arms, but even though I leered at it as seductively as I could, it just looked at me with that cool, appraising look that is the baby equivalent of concertina wire.

I did try to watch a fifth game, the Netherlands vs Argentina match, the other night. That effort, however, was eclipsed by a number of beverages that caused me such suffering the next day that even my mother took pity on me and ditched the lecture, though I did hear the words “fat”, “old” and “drunkard” muttered in low tones.

I will be among the faithful, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, to watch my sixth game, the big final between Germany and Argentina, on Sunday night. So excuse me, I just have to go look up a few things to toss into the conversation. Go, Germany! Or Argentina!

Buy buy Delhi, hello Himachal

(Published in Business Standard on June 28, 2014)

So I’m back from a twelve-day road trip in Himachal Pradesh, one of those pradeshes that I don’t go to often enough. (Punjab, though, goes there so much that you’re hard-pressed to meet any actual Himachalis.) Going to Himachal is a lot like childbirth, in the sense of a simile stretched to breaking point. I’m trying to say that while eight-hour drives on rutted mountain roads aren’t easy, the trip is always more than worth the pain. Not all parents can unreservedly say that about parenting.

Everyone knows that Himachal Pradesh is stuffed to the gills with natural beauty—glorious gushing rivers, magical cedar and oak forests dappled with sunlight, resin-scented air, the mightiest peaks on earth strung up against the sky, hillsides dizzy with wildflowers, night skies engorged with stars, beautiful birds, blah-di-blah-di-blah.

But let me tell you a new thing I discovered: going to Himachal is financially ruinous because of the parking in South Extension market.

First, I had to buy a new phone, because the old one’s battery was like a deaf old dog in the sun, occasionally twitching and sighing but mostly just comatose. I thought I should have a reliable phone in the hills in case of, you know, some hilly emergency. Since every smartphone I’ve ever had has been a hand-me-down, I was shaken to discover that a new one costs the same as a small space shuttle. One doesn’t just pay for it, one pays for it while making piteous involuntary noises in the back of one’s throat.

Then I had to buy new sneakers, because to put the old ones on was to lace together a bunch of holes and pus-like eruptions of foam. They bore very little resemblance to the proud, cushioned young pups I had bought seven years ago. I was disturbed to find that since then, the price has risen to roughly as much as a private jet. Okay, I exaggerate—more like a second-hand private jet.

Nevertheless, this being a sports shop, I thought it a good time to replace my old track pants, which have a gaping hole in the leg and are so threadbare in the ass that I instinctively wear long t-shirts over them. Free association caused me to buy some new t-shirts as well. When the checkout clerk had prised my debit card from my hands with a pair of pliers and rung up my bill, I went straight to a sandal shop next door. My old sandals have so much thread coming out of them that they make my feet look bearded. The bill caused a certain wetness on my cheek, but when you’ve already bought a space shuttle and a second-hand private jet, what’s a couple more crores?

If you’ve been to South Extension, you’ll know that once you’re there, you feel you should just buy everything in sight so that you never, ever, ever, ever, ever (to abridge an Arnabism) have to park there again.

Thus equipped, I went to Himachal Pradesh, where I proceeded to buy five turquoise rings and a couple of shawls, because once you’ve bought a space shuttle, a second-hand private jet, and thrown a couple more crores at a pair of sandals, you might as well buy a couple of birthday presents and your regular souvenir ring, but multiply it by five just because you’re now acclimatised to excess. It’s a good thing I didn’t stay longer, I might have bid for a hillside or two.

Go to Himachal Pradesh, dear Dilliwallah, it will be a salve upon your tattered third world urban soul. But do your shopping by metro.

Heat and dust in Delhi

(Published in Business Standard on June 14, 2014)

Well it’s June in Delhi, and that can mean only one thing: All your friends have left town, and you’re the only loser left in the city. The weather report for the city is 47.8c, feels like the temperature at which the sun has nuclear hissy fits. It’s so hot that you have to beat the heat to exercise outdoors. You wake up earlier and earlier to hit the park before the temperature hits 35c, until one day your alarm is going off at 2am, but when you check your weather app it turns out you have to go back to bed because the mercury never once dipped below that.

The reason you’re the only loser left in town is that you didn’t make like the thrifty ant, you made like the devil-may-care grasshopper, and now the ants are partying in Roma and Brasilia and Sydney, and the grasshopper is having to sweep its melting hind legs along behind itself in Delhi as it drags itself to the nearest mango supplier, where it can only look at the mangoes, because it’s a bit allergic to mangoes, because God clearly hates it.

One friend sends me Whatsapp photos of herself in Spain, arm-in-arm with beautiful Basque families whose social customs include spending evenings kissing Indian visitors and telling them how beautiful they are, over indecent helpings of beer and jamon.

Another friend, who is hands-down the luckiest person I know, is spending her summer housesitting for a lady who lives on a Greek island. The lady in question runs an establishment—which, if I weren’t feeling so resentful, I would more accurately call a mansion—overlooking the Adriatic Sea. There’s a dog and a cat and a turtle to be watered and fed. They more or less walk themselves around the ginormous garden overlooking the sea. That’s it.

This friend sends me Whatsapp photos of her laptop open before the sea view from the garden, with a weather report for Delhi on the screen, because she has an exquisite sense of which buttons to push. Then she sends me photos of the same view four hours later, with the caption that she has managed, in that time, to shift a couple of inches to the left. When she really can’t take all the gorgeousness anymore, she walks down to the local bar and has interesting conversations with strangers over a pint or two or a dozen. She worries about turning into a lotus-eater. I hear her pain. This is the second year running she’s doing this gig.

It is some consolation that as a result of her being away on this demanding assignment, I have been housesitting her place in Delhi, but, as lovely an oasis as that is, it ain’t no Greek island. (I have checked and re-checked thoroughly.) So I, and a couple of other loser friends, have decided to heave ourselves off on a road trip to Himachal Pradesh, or those parts of it that stick out above the miasmic heat. In the spirit of all this musical housing, we’re going to stay with friends in Shimla, a friend in the Tirthan Valley, and then in some homestays in the lovely Lahaul and Spiti valley. We should be back just in time for the monsoon to fail to show up; apparently it has decided that things are nicer down south, so it should maybe just hang out there. That’s what the weatherman says, which probably means that you should get your gumboots out. It’s a sort of cosmic joke that on the eve of our departure, a rainshower in Delhi has brought the mercury plunging down into the high 20s.

Makes you really grumpy about a 6am departure.