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.

Six gods walk into a bar


(Published in Business Standard on January 10, 2015)


Q: Where do Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, and Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva go to try to forget about their stupidest followers?

A: Buddha-Bar.

The above is an increasingly endangered form of speech known as “a joke”, which is based on pricking some kind of balloon with an element of subversion. I made it up, so it’s kind of lame, but still. The sad epilogue to this joke is that the only thing the gods are going to achieve is a horrible hangover, because no amount of ambrosia can obliterate the tragic embarrassment of having followers who kill other people in the name of imaginary friends.

Jokes are based on varying degrees of offence, and in order to find them funny, you have to be aware of what is being sent up, and agree that it’s worthy of ridicule. This is often premised on the ability to laugh at oneself. But you don’t have to find jokes or satire funny for them to be perfectly valid ways of expressing opinion.

I’m explaining all this at tedious length because people keep complaining about ‘unnecessarily provocative’ humour, which suggests that they either don’t know or have forgotten that humour is based on irreverence, offence, and provocation.

I don’t think my joke is particularly offensive, but someone, somewhere might, because the number of people who roam the world with a cork up their arse is really just mind-boggling. But that’s okay. One of the great misconceptions about free speech is that the needlessly provocative jerks practicing it think they shouldn’t be criticised. This is, to use a technical term, balls. Those needlessly provocative jerks know that the right to criticise and offend is the basis of free speech, humorous or not, and cuts both ways. Any spoken or written criticism and rebuttal is fine. Peaceful protest is fine. If you really, really have a problem, you can take each other to court, or attempt to expand—or contract, depending on your views—the laws that regulate free speech in your country.

At no point does physical violence enter the picture.

Satire is only one form of provocative free speech. There’s also straight up provocative, artistically provocative, and crudely provocative. This is where people typically ask the question: Why be unnecessarily provocative? What’s the need?

Here is why provocation, and peaceful tolerance of it, is not just needless, but necessary: anything that lies outside a society’s comfort zone—rudeness, irreverence, provocation, heresy, blasphemy, all considered needless and dangerous—is a point of potential social and intellectual innovation and progress. Not all of it bears out that potential—some of it really is stupid, we decide, and move quickly on; but to borrow a scientific analogy, medical breakthroughs come out of a lot of wasteful experimental duds. We don’t scrap the whole endeavour because some of it sucked.

It was once considered ‘needlessly provocative’ to say that the earth moves around the sun, or that human evolved from apes. It was once considered needlessly provocative for women to demand the vote. It was once needlessly provocative to reject caste, or to show a kiss on film. It is only by risking offence, by risking discomfort, hostility, and dismissal, that ideas evolve and generate other ideas.

Social consensus in India, supported by laws like 295A, encourages an attitude of infantile docility when it comes to religious sentiment, placing a premium on coddling personal belief even at the cost of other individual and human rights and social progress. We do ourselves a social and intellectual disservice with this attitude, because all we have accomplished is to say: comply, or accept violent reprisal.

The Charlie Hebdo journalists who were murdered this week poked at every social taboo they could think of. If that is needlessly provocative, then we desperately need some needless provocation in this country.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Neeeeext!


(Published in Business Standard on December 27, 2014)

It is ever thus that the years come to a close: with the strong sense of having undergone a beating, and having survived.

My 2014 was an anarchic orchestra led by a wild-eyed conductor who bears a striking resemblance to me, and who has spent twelve months stumbling around the stage, sometimes dancing and sometimes on her knees, trying, with only limited success, to control her instruments. It’s been fun, but it hasn’t all been easy. At some point the pianist went off to take a leak and never came back, the drummer sometimes used his sticks to beat the crap out of the violinist, and one of the horns malfunctioned and played the same one note no matter what the musician did. Everyone has been drinking heavily to get through it all. Yet, one recognises the result as music, some of it okay.

As December 31 draws near, the maestro, now totally shit-faced, gets ready to trim her frenzied baton into one last hysterical wiggle and then a final great, exhausted down-stroke. Then she will turn to the audience and take her bow—dripping sweat, clothes torn, with a red nose, a black eye, and a huge grin.

And as she does, a giant trapdoor on stage will open and the whole act will fall into its maw, un-mourned by the audience of herself (it’s all too meta for words), who will already be transfixed by the entrance of the fresh new musicians and shiny new instruments of 2015, prancing on from the wings, all hopeful and excited.

It is ever thus that the years begin.

My expectations are rather tempered—though keep in mind that my big takeaway from 2014 was that cleaning your laptop screen once in a while makes a huge difference, so it’s not like I’m some kind of intellectual racehorse.

Here’s all I want from 2015: Just stop beating up the world so hard, okay? I don’t care if not one new gadget comes into being, as long as we start managing our resources better. I don’t care how many Indians are on a list of the wealthiest people and biggest corporations in the world, as long as increasing numbers of the poorest and sickest get food and healthcare. I don’t care whose book or film or play is better, as long as they all come out and are all received peacefully.

I don’t care which school the kids go to, as long as they get to come home and do their homework without blood on their uniforms. I don’t care who anyone sleeps with, as long it is based on consent freely given, and I definitely don’t care which god anyone worships as long as they don’t try to make anyone else worship the same one, the same way.

I don’t care if you want to call Christmas ‘Good Governance Day’, as long as you don’t expect everyone else to take it seriously. I don’t care if you protest for or against things, as long as you are allowed to protest peacefully. I don’t care if you live in sin or by yourself or in a huge joint family, as long as you have love in your life. I don’t care how much we yell and scream at each other, as long as nobody picks up a weapon or assaults anyone with their bare hands.

So all I really want for Christmas—like any other red-nosed, black-eyed, grinning orchestra conductor, I suppose—is world peace. Is that so much to ask for?

I can see 2015 peering out, fresh-faced, from the wings, itching to get on stage. It hasn’t the faintest idea, the poor little sod.

By which I mean, happy new year!

Helicopter daughter


(Published in Business Standard on December 13, 2014)

“The Sundarbans mangroves were amazing, and we saw a fresh tiger pugmark one hour old. Now I’m at the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland. We had to stop at the liquor shops at the Assam border—Nagaland is dry!! I’ll text you when I get to Dimapur. What’s your news?”

“I told U. to use the clothespins on the laundry line, and asked L. to dust the tops of all the cupboards, bookcases and air conditioners. Now I have a tea appointment with M. Are you warm enough? Expect the temperatures to drop sharply at night. If you don’t send me your itinerary I’m going to cry. Can you please tell me that you’re warm enough and you’re going to survive, so I can stop chewing my fingernails!”

“Stop worrying, you silly old goat! I’m having a blast.”

This exchange between my mother and myself should tell you what it told me: our role reversal is now fully and horribly complete. She’s tracking man-eating tigers and hanging with tribes in the remotest corners of the country; I’m overseeing the housekeeping and worrying myself sick over her health and safety.

It took her three days to send me her itinerary, and I spent them grinding my teeth. How cavalier she was being—what if something happened to her? How would I know where she was, how would I reach her? I fretted until I knew she had left Bengal without getting eaten by a tiger. I was all nerves until I knew she had landed safely in Jorhat and gotten the hell off that plane they make out of tin and scotch tape and fans.

I was anxious about her remembering to take her mask and jacket to the Hornbill Festival because the dust and cold is bad for her asthma. I reminded her to take the jacket even if it didn’t feel cold when she was setting out for the day. I texted her to ask how it was going, and was nearly out of my mind by the time little miss independent finally deigned to reply, a day later. She was so distracted by her friends that she “just forgot!” I was so stressed that all my heart bits curled up into little shrimpy knots and are plotting some kind of insurrection.

And when she finally got back home—I couldn’t rest until I knew she was getting a ride back from the airport with one of her friends—she announced that she is leaving again in a few days, for a couple of weeks, this time to Pune.

My heart sank. We get so little time together—they grow so fast—and all I want is to have her around for the holiday season; but of course she would rather be with her friends. I do understand, I’m sure it’s boring for her to hang out with someone my age, but I still can’t help feeling a little hurt. Couldn’t she just bear up with it occasionally, for my sake? It’s so hard to let go.

I’m dealing with my empty nest syndrome by taking on extra work. One of my meetings ended before the bottle did, so we stood outside the office for a bit, finishing up (waste not, want not).

When my mother heard about that, she said: “You stood in the street, under a streetlight, drinking rum! Like some kind of hoodlum!”

I swear, sometimes I do not understand the woman. But that’s the comforting thing about family: the life cycle may include slowly and awfully turning into your own parents; but some things, at least, do not change.

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!