Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Political superbug


(Published on August 22, 2015 in Business Standard)


As a kid, I was obsessed with an animated TV show about a team of vigilantes, to the extent that I insisted the family dog be called after one of the characters. The family agreed, probably because everyone secretly loves superhero tropes: righteous masked crusaders swooping down to dispense justice with a cool look and excellent equipment and everything. They’ve always got signature moves and awesome calling cards, as they go about smiting evil and scouring the land clean of wickedness.

That’s television.

Reality being what it is, all you get here in real life is the perversion thereof.

I refer to that band of sociopaths known as ISIS. Okay that’s not fair, maybe they’re not all sociopaths, some may be psychopaths. Widely not known for their charm and laid-back nature, these guys don’t sleep well until they have thought up a way of killing infidels and subjugating women that is newer, fresher, and more grotesque than before. Maybe they see it as excelling in their field. Women getting too big for their boots? Institutionalise sexual slavery. Beheadings? That worked for a bit, got a lot of people all worked up. Stick infidel in cage, set fire to it, watch him try to escape flames? That was a new benchmark. Stick infidel in cage and drown slowly? There’s a creative variation on a rocking theme.

These sweethearts recently beheaded a man, known as Mr Palmyra in tribute to his lifetime study of the culture and art of his Syrian hometown, apparently because he wouldn’t lead them to the city’s cultural treasures so that they could be destroyed or sold. ISIS strung him up in a public square and placed his head, glasses still on, on the ground between his dangling feet. Take that, culture and history! Take that, intellect and emotion! Take that, humanity.

Pretty repulsive, huh? Thank god that we in India are safe from that kind of scary rampaging brutality. Right?

A few days ago, in Shahjahanpur, a couple of teenaged brothers hacked off their sister’s head, because she was keen on someone they didn’t approve of, and reportedly ran through the village carrying it as a warning to people about how women should behave. This is very much not the first time that someone has been beheaded in India for falling in love with the wrong person. That person’s own parents might even engineer the beheading.

The other day a teenaged Dalit girl in Fatiyapur village stepped out to buy medicine for her father. She was found raped and murdered in a field. Not just raped and murdered, but with stab wounds in her eyes and private parts. Stab. Wounds. Indian women are raped, murdered, and brutalised on a very regular basis. It’s very, very common.

Religious and political groups in India regularly vandalise art exhibitions and burn books they don’t agree with, and threaten, maim or kill academics and journalists whose work is inconvenient to their agenda.

A newspaper analysis of communal incidents over time in India shows a surge in the run-up to elections that implicates political parties (in case you didn’t already know that). Communal incidents are boringly common.

Oh, look at that—beheadings, murders, people and property burnt to the ground, a mix of sexual prudery and sexual savagery, religious violence, cultural vigilantism.

The only thing worse than ISIS doing its thing in India, is not-ISIS doing the same thing in India. If the former is like a vicious infection, the latter is an autoimmune disease. ISIS calls it the will of God. We call it social values and patriotism.

This being the light-hearted weekend space, I will just add—have a lovely monsoon weekend.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Same strokes for different folks


(Published today in Business Standard)

Once upon a time, an editor asked me to write a porny story for an anthology of porny stories. She used the polite word ‘erotica’, but I feel that trying to be polite and porny at the same time is like chasing your own tail, which is also the only tail you’ll end up getting. I was 25 at the time, and had even less experience of sex or porny stories than I do now. I obediently went off and wrote something that was a little polite despite itself—portica, if you will, or eroticorn—and therefore sucked, and she never got back to me, so that was the end of that. All I can tell you is that it is not easy to write good porny stories, although it is very nice to read or watch them.

I don’t know if ‘porny’ is one of those words that could cause a website to get blocked by the recent porn ban. Online, where it applies, it’s known as #PornBan, but its official name is the ‘Complete-partial-repealed-sorta Porn-just-child-porn-revenge-porn-and-er-collegehumour.com Ban-oh-don’t-be-dramatic-we-have-or-maybe-haven’t-taken-it-back-are-you-happy-now Controlled Sex Act 2015’.

I’m all for wiping out child porn. I’m all for breaking the repulsive nexus of human trafficking, which feeds the porn industry. I’m all for cleaning up exploitation wherever it exists in the production chain of porn. When you start banning porn itself, however, you are messing not just with the wrong single, bored woman, but also—it turns out—with the wrong morally sanctimonious country. This time it wasn’t just liberals yelling the house down over #PornBan; the socially conservative right wing on Twitter rose as one great quivering shaft of indignation, going wtf? I can imagine the Modi government lying awake at night, crying softly and hiccupping, “It’s like I don’t even recognise my own base anymore.” It has been pointed out that after being viciously divided on beef eating, love jihad, and the hanging of Yakub Memon, online India has united as one pissed-off monolith, against the assault on our porny URLs.

No democracy likes a government supervising its dinner plate, or vetting its wardrobe, or demanding its travel documents. And it positively hates a government peering into its bedroom or down its pants. This is something that this administration, possibly high on its own parliamentary majority, is having trouble grasping. It is too busy implementing its dreary socio-cultural project—religious revivalism, jingoism, paternalism and a bunch of other unpleasant isms—to notice that significant numbers of people don’t like the project, and really really love their porn. (Gratuitous aside: It is also very busy pretending that it didn’t make all the little messes it is making on the drawing room carpet. Letting us all get hot and bothered about our porn, for better or worse, certainly takes the focus off those smelly little patches called Lalitgate and Vyapam.)

It’s odd that a government so hell-bent on national pride also appears so hell-bent on looking stupid. Isn’t this the tech-savvy bunch that took the country by social media storm? Haven’t they heard that the Internet is not about to roll over and die because somebody made a list of 857 websites to block, based on a set of completely opaque parameters? The only impact of #PornBan is that the Internet is now pointing at the government and weeping and shaking with laughter. This is what happens when you leave things to policy wanks. Wonks! Policy wonks.

In an odd coincidence, someone else recently asked if I would write a porny story, nearly twenty years since the last one. I have some reservations—what if I’m even politer today, and can’t turn anyone on?—but in the spirit of #PornBan, I think I’ll give it a go.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

On smoking (Part 591)


(Published on July 25, 2015 in Business Standard)


Last week, on a day scheduled like a highway pileup, I got home in the wee hours. My mother had returned from her holiday just moments before, and she opened the door for me with a big smile. My mother’s smile can light up the far corners of a coalmine. I felt very sorry to have to do this.

‘Hello!’ she said, lighting up the far corners of a coal mine.

‘I smoke again now!’ I said, just lighting up.

Her face fell like a brick off a cliff. I felt really, really bad, but only for four seconds, because the weight of five weeks of guilt had simultaneously also just fallen away from me. Confession=absolution=liberation. After five weeks of tucking my obscene horns, hideous pointy tail and misshapen hump under hat, trousers and coat, I could finally just be me again, stop trying to fit amongst the normal, just walk tall and disgusting and free—a person with smelly flaws, yes; but a person who is okay with your stares of revulsion because she can focus on the important stuff, which is to remap the city according to where the best paanwallahs are and how late they’re open, because it’s been nearly two years, and things change.

So yes, I have fallen off the wagon. I’m not proud of it, but I am enjoying it greatly. (Statutory warning: Smoking rots your mouth, gives you cancer, destroys your lungs, and makes your mommy sad.)

I blame the extreme abroadiness of my summer holiday: cool temperatures; lots of walking; feelings of invincibility and immortality, etc. For a while I only bummed smokes, but that’s very bad manners when one cigarette costs Rs 17,943. So one day, walking alone and anonymous, I bought my own pack of ten. I felt positively dirty asking for it, as if I were trying to buy a child slave; but it was really easy to get over as I sat at an al fresco table with my book, glass of wine, and cigarette.

So I had smoked during my holiday, but it was when I returned to Delhi that everything really fell apart. The first thing I saw in my room was the book Reasons to Smoke that came out in 2007 when smoking bans began to kick in. I hadn’t come across it in years, especially since it measures 3 X 3 inches—but the chaos of house painting, also known as God, had placed it on my desk. It’s not a particularly funny book, but it did its evil work.

For a few days I bought one cigarette at a time. People walked up to me with their mouths making perfectly round ‘o’s, their eyes perfect twin ‘o’s above that. ‘But you quit smoking!’ they said—I think, because what came out was ‘oooooooo’. And I said, ‘I still don’t smoke smoke, I’m just having some cigarettes.’

But that line wore pretty thin when I bought a proper 20-pack of my old brand, and a lighter. In smoker terms, that’s like calling up your old flame and getting engaged. Suddenly I was on my fourth packet, and other people who claimed to have quit were bumming cigarettes off me. Just as I could not fathom, when I quit, why I ever smoked, now I cannot fathom why I ever quit. Just as the smell of smoke was so recently repellent, it is now a cuddly, comforting stench.

Standing at the bottom of the habit hill all over again, I’m aghast at how far I have to climb. It may take a while.

In my defence, though, I’d like to point out that Sisyphus never quit.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Period piece


(Published in Business Standard today.)

The other day I walked into my local chemist shop to buy supplies. A salesperson materialised instantly at my elbow and tried to rip the toothpaste out of my hand. As you know, India is a great mighty country that is very powerful and mighty, and our proud youth are a mighty powerhouse of proudy might. This means that if you reach for a tube of toothpaste, a salesperson will teleport to your side, snatch it from you and carry it to the counter so that you don’t have to strain yourself, while at the same time nobody can seem to find any good people to hire. This is known as the ‘demographic dividend’, or ‘Vyapam degree, ah?’

“Can I help you with anything else, ma’am?” said the salesperson, tugging at my toothpaste.

“Yes,” I said, maintaining a death grip on my end, “do you have a menstrual cup?”

She dropped the tube and looked at me as if I was trying to eat her face.

“The thing you’re saying,” she said furtively, “You ask at the counter.”

As someone with a vagina, I have struggled with periods all my adult life. I don’t get nasty cramps, nor am I grossed out by blood and gore. But in thousands of years of human history, all of it chock-a-block full of bleeding women, nobody has yet come up with a good product to protect clothing from expired endometrial lining. Sanitary pads are bulky and leaky, and create unlovely aromas. Tampons are less obtrusive, but if they aren’t put in right you end up walking like an orc, and you could always be the one statistic who dies of toxic shock syndrome. Someone recently invented some kind of menstrual panty, but it sounds like an inadequate diaper.

Enter, some years ago, the menstrual cup. This is a flexible bell-shaped cup that fits against the vaginal walls and can collect a larger amount of blood than either pad or tampon. I’ve heard very good things about menstrual cups: they’re comfortable, easy to maintain, re-usable, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, and I’ve been meaning to try one for the longest time. You can order them online, but I thought they might be available at the local market.

It’s a different matter that that my menstrual cycle has suddenly gotten very erratic, which means that I’m either dying of a horrible disease, or entering that glorious stage of life technically known as ‘who needs birth control’. It takes a special kind of lazy procrastinator to only get around to trying a menstrual product when she hits peri-menopause (or the brink of death, as the case may be), but better late than never.

I went to the counter and asked the man if they sold menstrual cups. Ashen-faced, he body-blocked himself behind a female colleague. I addressed myself to her. Did they sell menstrual cups?

“Menthol capsules?” she said uncertainly.

“No: menstrual cups,” I said, enunciating. She appealed to another colleague, who pretended he couldn’t see her.

“Sorry, ma’am,” she said, “What do you want?”

“A menstrual cup,” I said loudly.

She scurried backstage, pretended to rummage around, and returned.

“What did you say it was?”

“A menstrual cup,” I bawled.

The whole shop froze. Time stopped; the laws of the universe reversed; god fainted. In the dread vacuum of the un-possible the salesgirl said, in a small desperate whisper,

“We don’t have those capsules.”

Maybe, sometime in the twelve long years that I’m told it can take to complete menopause, my chemist will start to stock menstrual cups. But it might still be easier to order them online.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

In the event of an Emergency


(Stet was on a summer break on the Saturdays of May 30 and June 13. It resumed with this, published in Business Standard on June 27, 2015.)

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard. In command is Captain Fantastic. Exciting new guy, strong, silent type, only thing is he won’t let anyone onto the flight deck, so this is a flunky speaking and I’m just guessing. Our flight away from the past and into the future will basically follow a little-interrogated model of development, avoid awkward conversations about who’s actually welcome, and take a dim view of dissent. Our journey will take—well, if you give us ten years then it’ll take ten years, but we assure you that we could get you there faster if you gave us fifteen. Think about it?

We should be ready for take-off shortly. I realise we’ve been in line forever, behind China Air at the head of the queue (it kills us to say this), and—will you look at that, a Biman Bangladesh has just cheekily nipped in in front of us. We apologise for the delay, but if we’re going nowhere fast, it’s because you insist on flying us only five years at a time.

Ladies and gentlemen, we ask you to kindly direct your attention to the front of the cabin, where the crew will now demonstrate a few important safety features of this NOMO-1975 statecraft. Even if you have been a citizen before, we ask you to pay attention for a few minutes to ensure a relaxed and pleasant political climate.

This is your seat belt. We’re doing everything we can, but keep it on and stay put. It’s not just in case of turbulence; you have been seated according to a delicate algorithm based on religion, community, gender, and age hierarchies that took us many millennia to perfect, so please try not to pollute it with your rootless, patronising Western ideas. Just because we’re all going to the future together doesn’t mean that we don’t take the proud traditions of our past along.

If there is a drop in cabin pressure, oxygen masks should ideally drop from the panel above your head, but we had to remove the oxygen masks to find the budget for the prayer rooms installed at the front, rear and over the wings. Please feel free to use these rooms to pray that there is no drop in cabin pressure.

Your life vest used to be in a pouch beneath your seat. You will notice that we have done away with seats in favour of yoga mats. You’re welcome. We also replaced the life vests with copies of the Gita, which you will find under the lump in your yoga mat. Enjoy. By the way, we’re totally trimming costs with these moves. You can’t say we aren’t rocking this economy thing, right! Right?

In the unlikely event of an Emergency, do not panic. We had one, and we learned from it. One of the things we learned is that the captain shouldn’t necessarily declare an Emergency—studies have shown that it only upsets people, when in fact we have every intention of giving you a pleasant ride. All we’ll say is that we really, really, really recommend that you follow our directions, stop whining about how YOU really don’t want to wear your seat belt or do your yoga, and understand that asking annoying questions is anti-national. The point is that this statecraft is more important than your individual liberties. The more time you spend in the prayer rooms, the better you will understand this.

At any rate, we will do our best to distract you from any Emergency procedures we may initiate. We assure you that our crew will carry out their duties quietly and efficiently and take care of it. You just sit back, relax, and have a pleasant flight.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Footnote


(Published in Business Standard today)

I woke up the other morning to find that I couldn’t step on my left foot without pain. It was so unexpected and so painful that I thought I might have broken a bone, except that there hadn’t been any tripping or bumping during the previous day, nor, in fact, during the previous year, when I might have occasioned a sprain or a broken bone. A bit of poking and prodding narrowed it down to my left big toe.

I mentioned it to my mother at breakfast. She said, with no pause—nor, I’d like to point out, medical qualification, “Probably gout. Rich man’s disease. From drinking too much and eating too much rich food.” She proceeded to smirk into her newspaper. She often makes up things to fit her darkest theories about me, so I went to the internet, which knows its stuff, and looked up my symptoms.

Here’s what I got: Gout. Ever heard of gout? Rich man’s disease. From drinking too much and eating too much rich food.

I hate the internet.

My aunt dropped in for tea and the two of them had a lovely time laughing at me. They particularly enjoyed the fact that the classic image of the gout sufferer is an elderly earl in a nightcap, suffocating in rolls of his own fat, aching toe propped up on a footstool, paying for a lifetime of frivolous overindulgence with joint pain that sends his howls of agony echoing through his draughty castle. Some people have no empathy.

I went back to the internet and decided to go with other possibilities, like sesamoiditis (an inflammation of the little bones around the big toe) which I can attribute to tango dancing and an insanely healthy exercise regimen; or to osteoarthritis, for which I can blame genetics, aka my mother. I like that one. I will apply an ice pack and refuse to go to the doctor and if that ends with my foot being sawed off in an operating theatre, so be it. The alternative, which is to acknowledge that frivolous overindulgence might have played its part, is simply too shaming to contemplate, and anyway, I don’t have a castle to howl into.

However, if it is gout, that’s both ironic and really bad news, because I’m about to travel a great distance to two places, one to watch a couple of music concerts, which covers frivolity, and the other to patiently observe and mimic the habits of the locals, who are known for their enthusiastic drinking, which covers overindulgence. There is no length to which I will not go to be culturally sensitive (when in Rome, etc etc), and if that involves imbibing a lot of ale and spirits, well, my big toe can just lump it. An added wrinkle is that I’m going to be driving a rental car around the second place, so sure, it would be nice to have two working feet, but I feel I can get away with one.

The best way to deal with inexplicable physical ailments is to go with the theory that most are self-limiting and can be ignored away. I have places to go and things to do, so if I have to drag a gouty foot along with me, I will. Anyway, what does the Internet know? Getting online is the best way to conclude that your cold is a symptom of a brain tumour. And what does my mother know? If all goes according to plan she will have a gouty foot of her own at the end of this frivolous, overindulgent holiday, because she’s coming with me.

Diary of a traditional Indian wife


(Published in Business Standard on May 2, 2015)


Wednesday, April 30, 5.30pm.


Woke as usual, giving thanks—before I’m even fully conscious, that’s how thankful I am—that I have a husband, and therefore a place in Indian society. Turned over and looked at the hairy back I’ve woken up next to for four years. Sometimes, waking up to this view makes me want to stick a knife between his shoulder blades, but when that happens I quickly do some pranayama, as our ancient culture counsels, and the feeling passes. (Don’t understand it. Indian marriage is a sacrament. Maybe I have a vitamin deficiency?) What would I do without Hairy? I’d have no kids, I’d be a shell of a being, a waste of social space. My spirit, my mind, my friends, my interests, my job—all meaningless. Feeling thankful all over again.

Checked FB and Twitter very quietly. The minute Hairy wakes up, he expects me to be kneeling by his bedside with tea and biscuits, so if I want a few minutes’ peace I have to be as quiet as a mouse. Saw some hoo-hah in the headlines about something called marital rape. Hairy and I have talked a lot about rape, he’s very progressive and totally outraged by it as I am. He’s never mentioned marital rape, so it’s probably not even a thing, so I ignored it. He says the pseudo-sickular western atheist gay West is always making stuff up to try and make India look bad.

Eventually the kid started wailing. That woke Hairy, who wanted to get busy straight away. I said no, have to feed the kid. These days he wants to get busy a lot because the kid is a girl and he wants a boy. He’s not as responsible as I am about feeding her when she’s hungry. I tried to get out of bed and he wouldn’t let me. I said stop it, but he didn’t, and it turned into what we call a ‘marital scrape’. I hate when that happens. I could hear the kid wailing throughout, which made me very distressed, in addition to being in pain and furious and humiliated. Hairy did say ‘Sorry, but’ afterwards. He always does, and I always want to kill him, except that he’s my god and my sun. I wrote down “Indian marriage is a sacrament” fifty times on a piece of paper and then ate it, so that he won’t know that I have to practice when doubt creeps in.

Dropped the kid off at the in-laws’ place. Pa-in-law still winking annoyingly at me about a second baby. Pran Chacha was also there, who once tried to kiss me in the corridor. Obviously I told Ma. She told me to never mention it again. I gather that there was some funny business between Pa-in-law and Pran's daughter once too, nobody talks about that either. Bottom line, it’s understood that nobody is in a position to point fingers or get judgmental.

Went off to work, editing copy. Opinion pieces filled with rape statistics. Very odd thing: Parliament says this marital rape thing doesn’t apply in India, but official reports say that 97% of women are raped by people they know and intimate partners. Hmm. But that means…Hang on just one goddamn second. That means... Can it be true? Oh god.

Indian marriage is a sacrament. Indian marriage is a sacrament. Indian marriage is a sacrament. Indian marriage is a sacrament.

It’s not working.

Hairy and I need to have a conversation.

Hell, Parliament and I need to have a conversation.

Hands off my Internet



(Published in Business Standard on April 18, 2015)



Back in the olden days, my family got a word processor. It was a horrible, clunky machine with a bulbous screen, a rectangular flashing cursor, and zit-sized pixels. The sharpest image on the screen was your reflection. I learned to touch type on it, and played Mario Brothers like a zombie. The thing wasn’t good for much else—my mother did use it to work on her book, which my father deleted one day while trying to be helpful, even as I stood behind him loudly saying ‘Don’t press that, you’re going to delete her book,’ in my best don’t-come-crying-to-me adolescent tone. What happened next would shock you if I could remember it, but it was the kind of drama that adolescent brains block out so that they can concentrate on improving their Mario Brothers score.

I didn’t handle a computer again until college, where we were expected to hand in typed papers. I could only think in longhand, so I wrote everything by hand first and then typed it up. But that just took way too much time away from playing Trivial Pursuits, so eventually I switched to a computer. Suddenly I could only think if I typed, and to this day my handwriting looks as if it’s having seizures.

Somewhere in the middle of college life, email and the internet appeared. I’d just gotten the hang of it when I found myself back in India, using VSNL dialup services, which consisted mostly of soaring blood pressure caused by that infernal warbling whistle trying, trying, and trying again, mostly without success, to get online. It was around then that a friend told me about a cool new search engine thing called Google, and I got a mobile phone. The world changed.

I’m one of the ever-diminishing numbers of fossils whose formative years were on an internet-free, smartphone-free planet. Somehow we took off on road trips without digital maps at our fingertips. We made plans on landlines and then stuck to them, because there was no good way of changing them on the fly. We bought tickets at—you won’t believe this—ticket counters. We had to find a physical person or book or periodical for any sort of reference. Your views remained within your own tiny circle of friends and family. Information was the preserve of specialists. It was ancient. I was there. Let’s not get caught up in syllogisms.

I’m not here to tell you how much better it all was. Here we are twenty years later, with the whole mind-boggling galaxy of human thinking and learning at our fingertips—a magnificent and powerful tool for democracy, social justice, and stupid cat photos—and I no longer know how the hell we lived without free movement around the internet. How much time was spent on the littlest thing! What a curated set of views we had! The things that greedy, powerful and criminal people got away with, without anybody knowing! Information was the preserve of specialists. Access to information looked, in fact, a lot like that old computer of ours.

Today, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been updated, with only a little irony, to rest on a base of battery and wifi; the Internet is increasingly regarded as a basic human right. Should it be tweaked, like most things, to favour large corporations, by charging more for access to certain sites? If you like your Internet the way it is now—equal access to all sites—take a look at the Save the Internet campaign. You get to weigh in on the net neutrality debate until April 24.
Meanwhile I’m off to surf, just because I can. Have a nice weekend

No smoke without study


(Published in Business Standard on April 4, 2015)


I’m feeling very stupid for having quit smoking. A certain kind of pedant would point out that I had five cigarettes on my birthday, four on another random night, and one each on two other evenings; I would point out that that kind of repellent nitpicking personality is just dead weight that nobody wants on a Pictionary team. As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t smoked in about two years.

There’s no doubt that quitting has multiple benefits. I can smell things, though this is a double-edged sword when you live in Delhi. I’m carrying some amount of extra weight, but you can’t really tell it apart from all the other extra weight I was already carrying. My complexion, nurtured on Delhi air, has been upgraded from grey to sallow. My fitness levels are higher. I have more money to spend on booze. But, if BJP MP Dilip Gandhi is to be believed, I totally jumped the gun by not waiting for a properly Indian study on the perils of smoking. Or at least one of which he was aware.

Gandhi is reluctant to plaster graphic warnings all over tobacco products. Packaging cigarettes with grotesque tumours instead of hot cowboys is becoming an international standard because it has been shown to be the most effective deterrent to smoking. But Gandhi says that while everyone knows that smoking is bad for you, there have been no Indian studies confirming the evil link between tobacco and dying, and he needs more time to think about it. We should cut the guy some slack. He’s a patriot, and like all patriots of that kind, probably needs time to use Google, or researchers, or certain virginal tracts of brain.

Actually I don’t feel all that strongly about his dragging his heels on this, only because those warnings never had the slightest impact on me. I have cheerily smoked truckfuls of such packets adorned with any number of gangrenous feet, tumorous faces, or black and shrivelled lungs. I ripped open those packets, god help me, and smoked the lot.

No; obstinate people such as myself will not accept anything other than evidence provided by truly patriotic Indians such as myself. I read reams of material detailing what cigarette smoking does to your body, and merely copyedited them in my head. I watched little signs pop up during movies telling us that smoking is bad for your health, and merely felt annoyed at the intrusion on the screen. I watched ads showing thick black tar being squeezed out of a sponge to illustrate what’s going into your lungs, and that grossed me out a bit.

But what really made me chuck the stuff was a very regular flu, which for some reason felt much worse than any other I’ve ever had, and made me believe that I was on the verge of death. I felt so sick that I didn’t even want to smoke through it; and by the time the illness passed I was already past the discomfort of initial withdrawal. In other words, the self-destructiveness of smoking stops being enjoyable when you actually feel the self-destruction.

Turns out that in the face of many studies (though apparently not enough Indian ones), lots of public service ads and announcements, and an entire Internet filled with revolting pictures of terminal smoking-related illnesses, smoking rates are actually climbing. As far as I can tell, the only foolproof way of getting someone to quit is to let them smoke their lungs out until they feel the cold breath of mortality on the backs of their necks. That’s always robust incentive for a lifestyle change.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Diving Miss Daisy


(Published in Business Standard on March 21, 2015)


Before last Saturday I hadn’t boarded an airplane in over a year, because I love flying like I love being dragged through rusty nails and then rubbed down with salt. This time it was a Dreamliner, and it took off into the blackest, angriest skies I’d ever seen. Why create a fabulous aircraft, I fretted, only to give it to a nitwit who points it into the jaws of death? After a spot of hypocritical praying I looked out again, and got goose pimples: we were floating through a dim ocean, the sun a fuzzy pale spot beyond the surface far above. Eventually I realised that the shutter-free windows were photochromatic—after dialling down the shading, the skies turned out to be sunny and calm, the airplane far above the clouds, and the nitwit not in the cockpit but quivering in seat 34A.

The twilight zone sense of being underwater, though, was apt. I was going to the Maldives for a long overdue catch-up with my college pal Denise, with whom I last shared a room 24 years ago. Denise is the kind of unspeakably cool person who is not only nice enough to invite people to the Maldives, but also a diver. I’ve wanted to dive since childhood, having seen the wonders of the ocean reef via snorkel, but I’m on the lily-livered side of things. But Denise passed on the following salty sea saying: If snorkelling is like kissing, diving is like going all the way. So, after days of snorkelling in aquamarine waters, wiggling my toes in white sands, and staring at the Milky Way over cocktails, I finally decided it was time for an introductory dive. In hindsight I blame the gin and tonic, as is traditional.

Here’s how it’s done: You sign up, and immediately regret it. You sleep poorly the previous night. You make yourself walk to the dive centre despite a powerful recurring temptation to conceal yourself behind a bush instead. You let them strap you into the equipment, horribly aware of being a land animal. You wade into shallow water to practice breathing and clearing your mask, and kick yourself for putting your stupid name on a stupid list and now you’re going to die, and you haven’t even had dinner with Hugh Laurie yet. You resolve to rip off your mask and tank, hit the instructor on the head with chunks of coral and passing crabs, and run away in your flippers.

But then suddenly I was in a blessed silence broken only by my own breath, in a kaleidoscopic ballet of form and colour lit by lacy bars of sunlight. There were tiny orange-and-blue fish, big bright yellow ones, black-and-white clownfish, flamboyant parrotfish. There were little red starfish, and breathing corals. There were microscopic plankton, and enormous fish with faces like unhappy tax inspectors. Eels yawned toothily. There was even a little black-tipped reef shark, but I was too busy biting practically through my regulator to worry about it biting me.

It wasn’t all perfect. The air made my throat dry, and fear surged through me whenever saltwater entered my nostrils. I confused the signs for ‘Okay’ and ‘Want to go up’. My ears hurt, so I couldn’t go too deep. All through, I maintained a vice-like grip on the hand of my instructor, a longhaired Maldivian whose superpower was to make his eyes large and hypnotically persuasive, like that cat in Shrek, and thus keep me calm.

But it was fantastic. I was down for 43 minutes, or 42.5 more than I expected. For at least 35 of those minutes, I was able to enjoy watching the extraordinary, mind-boggling diversity of Creation go about its business underwater.

So I’m here to tell you this: if you haven’t had a fish poop in your face, you haven’t lived. And I’d like to dive again, but if I never do, I’ll always have the Maldives.

Union Budget analysis, 2015


(Published in Business Standard on March 7, 2015)


Before you say, “Wait, didn’t everyone do this already?” let me remind you that this is a business newspaper, okay? I might not be your typical business writer, but I too lie awake at night, worrying about job creation, manufacturing, the GST deficit and whether import fiscals will reform the Big Bang, when infra sentiment looks taxing and 16% of the Rs 6,000 lakh crore allocation could subsidise the short-term implements. I fear our youth might rollout on their fundamentals and go GAAR—it certainly makes me want to. And if you think I’m dodgy, consider that yoga is now a charitable activity, so the likes of Baba Ramdev are suddenly all tax-free.

Despite my strong grasp of the subject I know I have a long way to go, so I try to watch the budget speech every year, just in case it suddenly starts to make sense. Not to be grandiose or anything, but think Luke with his light sabre, in a rain of ungrammatical taunts, trying to get with the Force; or Neo, training in a virtual martial arts room, trying to see the Matrix. So far no luck; all wet I am, and bruised. But nobody achieved anything great by giving up.

Meanwhile, whenever budget time rolls around I feel I must make one for myself, but am always defeated by economic instincts hardwired by decades of evolution. Here’s how they work.

I have the dim sense that there should be some money in the bank because I distinctly remember doing some work. I know that it was not much work, and not high-paying work, so it follows that it’s not much money. A sort of inchoate foreboding takes root in my soul, and my hand, unbidden, picks up the phone, and my mouth, unbidden, invites some people out on the town for dinner. And drinks. And maybe some more drinks.

On my way to dinner I will pop into a shop, without the slightest need or provocation, to buy a ring or a book or a boiled sweet or something. I do it just to prove that I still have purchasing power. Acts of defiance in the face of fiduciary peril fill me with joie de vivre. Surely if I were really broke, I think, this wouldn’t feel so good. So off I go, frontal cortex charred beyond recognition by the blistering heat of confidence, suddenly feeling like a squillion bucks, to some fancy-ass joint where I announce that dinner is on me.

Somewhere in the front of my head a tiny homunculus of an accountant pops up, innocent of facts and figures but wearing a panicky expression; and immediately the back of my head, which looks like a T-Rex in a singlet and stolen jewellery, pounces on him, gags him, and locks him up in my super-max limbic closet.

Dinner proceeds apace, interspersed with drinks, and is followed by desert, followed by coffee, followed by more drinks.

“This round is on me!” I shout, drunk on financial power.

The next day it is much clearer to me that ruin is nigh, at which point I pop into a shop to buy a ring or a book or a boiled sweet or something, and the whole thing starts again.

So it goes. The closer I get to the cliff, which I can’t actually see because of all the arithmetical mist, the faster I drive. Not to be grandiose or anything, but think Thelma and Lousie, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some people go skydiving without checking their parachutes; I fail to make a budget. It’s just the way it is. So anyone want to grab drinks, and dinner, and maybe more drinks, lemme know.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Whatever floats your flaming boat


(Published in Business Standard today)


As 2014 turned into 2015, a Pakistani fishing boat suddenly went up in flames off the coast of Gujarat and sank, and the Government of India put it about that the Pakistani crew had set themselves on fire, either because they were terrorists, or because they were very unhappy. Who can be sure? I mean, people are always going up in flames in Gujarat, and nobody ever has a clue who did it. Maybe it’s spontaneous combustion.

Then the DIG Coast Guard was shown on video fondly reminiscing about ordering people to blow up the boat. The government said that the DIG had misspoken, and went looking for him with a steely glint in its eye. The DIG immediately denied saying it, refusing to let audiovisual evidence derail his narrative arc. The upshot is that nobody knows how exactly a Pakistani boat burst into flames and sank after we chased it for an hour and surrounded it.

In some countries, that would count as a fairly newsworthy bit of intrigue.

In this country, however, it is only as newsworthy as a situation involving another bunch of jokers, which also blew up, but differently.

People have been up all night yelling at each other and writing anguished op-eds about All-India Bakchod (AIB), the comedy collective that you hadn’t heard of until a couple of weeks ago and now cannot get away from. AIB recently held a roast of two Bollywood actors that featured swear words and sex jokes, as roasts do, and as soon as it was put online, invited a rash of complaints and First Information Reports.

One of the FIRs points out that AIB used swear words and made references to sex in an audience that included women. These women, in their simple, innocent way, brought their ears with them to the show. How could they have been prepared, by the word ‘roast’, for ribald humour? In mixed company! Do these AIB people think they’re too good for women’s safety? Ladies are so pea-brained--though of course a highly respected national asset--that they don’t understand how unsafe they are in the presence of swear words. They bought tickets to the show, and laughed their highly respected posteriors off. Never mind, we’re all here at the police station to clean up this mess.

As for the famously in-the-closet Bollywood personality who MC’d the show--pardon my French--his mother was in the audience. She had to sit there, in public, and listen to jokes about her son’s allegedly gay sex life—and he even mentioned what position he likes! First off, Indian mothers, having had their fun, are no longer aware that anyone in the country is having sex. When they daydream about their sons, as Indian mothers are supposed to, they see them only torso up. If the son has children, then his torso is forced to float upon a cloud composed entirely of euphemisms. Mothers, never, never, ever, associate children with sex.

Thank god there are people out there who care for our morality far, far more than we do ourselves. Without them, we’d just be some regular, grown-up nation with a sense of humour, or at least one that can live and let live.

The AIB episode should reassure us that we will steadfastly continue to address the long and scary list of India’s problems--from infant mortality to casteism to gender violence to corruption--by trying to prosecute people who make jokes we don’t find funny, and by trying to protect people who aren’t offended. Way to go, fellow patriots!

Meanwhile, I hope someone is working on a roast of the Coast Guard and the Defence Ministry.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How an electorate is like a safety kayaker


(Published in Business Standard on February 7, 2015)


About 200 years or so ago, I went on a five-day rafting expedition on the Alaknanda River, in a ducky. A ducky is an inflatable kayak, kind of like a two-person mini-raft. It is chiefly designed to pitch you without warning into shrieking torrents of glacial melt, and make you cry by the campfire every night, praying that you’ll pass away in your sleep so that you don’t have to do it all again the next day.

Anyway, one of the things they do on a rafting expedition is to carefully explain safety kayaking. Safety kayakers, in their one-man hard-shell kayaks, are fast, daring, insanely skilled river jockeys. These people surf and play in the maw of vicious rapids just for fun. Their job is to roll their eyes as they snatch you from the jaws of death after you fall into the river like the fat old loser you are.

Here’s how the safety kayaker briefing goes:

“Hi! I’m [insert cool Top Gun-type name]. When you fall into the river like a fat old loser, I will race to your side but then stop just out of your reach, and evaluate whether you are able to follow my directions. If I don’t think you can, I’ll wait until I think you can. I will direct you to calmly reach for this metal ring on my kayak and hold it, so that I can tow you to safety while rolling my eyes. If you panic and go for either me, or my kayak, in a manner that I determine endangers my own safety, I will whack you in the nose with my paddle and back off until you settle the hell down. I’m serious, I will hurt you. Don’t panic or thrash about or lunge, and we’ll be fine.”

I paraphrase, but that’s roughly it.

I duly fell into the Alaknanda and panicked and thrashed about and lunged at the safety kayaker who had materialised in two seconds. Sure enough, he bobbed around just out of my reach, observing me beadily and repeating “Calm down.” At first I was very angry that here I was, drowning—so young, so full of dreams—and there he was, obsessing about my tone rather than what I was saying. It was only after I’d mastered my emotions (i.e. realised that I had a life jacket on and wasn’t being dragged into the green depths) that the dude let me cling to his kayak while he rolled his eyes.

What does this have to do with elections in Delhi?

Well, in the last few weeks, as the pace and pitch of the campaign for Delhi has risen, the BJP has suddenly woken to find itself wet, cold and in trouble. Its last-minute chief ministerial candidate is not even from its own ranks. Its thugs have attacked churches; its police has cracked down on protesters; it has taken to smear campaigns; the PM called the media ‘bazaaru’ (sluttish); a critical news channel was allegedly mysteriously blocked in parts of Delhi. Complacency shattered, the roaring lion of the 2014 general elections is behaving exactly like a panicking rafter.

Electorates, like safety kayakers, are implacably committed to their own interests first. They will take a good hard look at the people freaking out in the water, and decide whether they’re likely to cooperate or to drag them down. They don’t like desperate, dangerous dirty tricks. There are other, less panicky swimmers in the fray, like the Aam Aadmi Party, and, it is rumoured, the Indian National Congress. So, as Delhi goes to the polls today, it will be interesting to see whether the BJP has earned itself a rescue, or a humiliating whack in the nose.

Either way, the electorate will be rolling its eyes.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Doing one’s bit for the country


(Published today in Business Standard)

I’m terribly confused. In a couple of weeks I have to go and vote in a new government for the city-state of Delhi. Not only did I JUST DO THIS a mere thirteen months ago, but it also made more sense at the time. Since then, the whole political cast has run around the stage switching places and personalities.

As I understand it, the vote-catching face of Narendra Modi, who turned secular left-liberals into sobbing alcoholics by sweeping the BJP to power all over the country, has been ditched and replaced by ex-cop Kiran Bedi, who used to be with India Against Corruption and said she would never join politics, but now thinks that Modi is Helen of Troy and she a little star buzzing around his sun, which makes her sound almost more bonkers than she sounds when she complains that people go on about small-small rapes when there’s so much corruption, which makes you wonder why she left India Against Corruption.

Arvind Kejriwal, who first said he wanted nothing to do with politics and then formed the Aam Aadmi party, massively won an election, and packed up his government in an almighty sulk after 49 days, has now said he is very sorry about that, and is running again under the Twitter hashtag #Mufflerman. The only constant thing about him is his cough.

The TV spokespeople are no better. Shazia Ilmi, who first joined the Aam Aadmi Party and had not one nice thing to say about either the Congress or the BJP, has now joined the BJP, where she says she is very happy, and now has not one nice thing to say about Arvind Kejriwal.

Meanwhile the Congress party’s Ajay Maken…zzzzzzzz…where was I?

Another way to understand Delhi’s political fortunes: First the AAP took a big bite out of the Congress. Amazement! Then the BJP was set to take a big bite out of everybody. Sob. Suddenly the AAP looked like it might come back from behind—cheers!—and take a big bite out of the BJP, but then the BJP craftily bit back—burrrrrrn—and then everyone began to bite the AAP—fight, fight!—which then really got into the mood and started backbiting itself—lol. Nobody can figure out what the Bhushans, père et fils, are up to. Everyone is ignoring the Congress, because you have to have teeth to play, but who knows how many canines that lot will grow between now and February?

Nobody in this nightmare has mentioned a single substantive issue I can remember.

I hope somebody will explain all this to poor Barack Obama while he sits captive at this year’s extra-long, extra-show-offy Republic Day Parade. It seems we will have more floats, which is only a tiny bit better than making the same old set of floats go slower. If we’re going to spend the equivalent of some riffraff country’s GDP on security, we might as well extract the maximum bang for our buck.

Speaking of bangs, I don't even know if I'll have time to be an upright citizen and vote, because apparently the growth in India's Muslim population has left us Hindus at a vanishing 80 per cent, so the Vishva Hindu Parishad wants me to be a horizontal citizen and lie with men. It just goes to show that you can eventually find common ground with the unlikeliest people. I look forward to winking at men with trishuls in bars and saying, "Hey baby, wanna take ten for the team?" I might be atheist, secular, childless and on the brink of menopause, but I do find working on having children to be lots of fun, especially if there's no risk of actually having children as a result.

Maybe they’ll give me that new national honour, the Padma Shri Shri Baba Maharaj Award, for effort.