Thursday, May 12, 2016

I’m with stupid

(Published on April 30, 2016 in Business Standard)

It became clear, the other day, that age is stupidifying me even more than nature already has. I woke up and realised that the feminine hygiene product introduced into my lady bits the previous evening had now been there for fourteen hours. I tend to be on the psychotic side of careful about removing those things, because of the risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), so this was an emergency. Bolted to the bathroom. Scrabble for string, no string. Manual probe, can’t reach. Anxiety levels, Defcon 1.

I screeched into the emergency room. My panicked gabbling got me waved through reception, billing, and the nurses’ station, to the emergency intern, who made me wait ten life-threatening minutes for the gynaecologist. ‘If I die of TSS it’ll be your fault,’ I snarled.

In the doctor’s office I tore off my clothes and leapt upon the table. ‘Calm down, dear,’ said the doctor. She examined me. She frowned. ‘You put it in at 6pm, dear?’ she asked. (Gynaecs think that saying ‘dear’ a lot makes the speculum less speculumy.) ‘Yes, yes, it’s been 14.5 hours and I’m going to die of TSS, take it OUT!’ I shouted. ‘Nothing there, dear,’ she said. I made her look again, now worried that maybe my hoohoo had eaten it. She probed with wiggling fingers (though not in a good way). ‘See? There’s nothing, dear.’ Sweet relief, I was not going to die of TSS. I skipped home and inspected the trash, and there it was, neatly wrapped up. Boy, did I feel stupid.

But I’m not alone—it feels like the whole country is getting stupider every day.

For example, the Gujarat government wants PhD students to reach for the stars by picking their research topics from a list of research topics provided by the government, consisting of state and central government schemes and projects. Students will monitor and evaluate these, and voila, PhD. Cool, huh? The government outsources its work for free, keeps scholarship relevant, and ensures that students develop nationalist chops by getting their data and conclusions right if they want their degrees.

But who needs degrees in the republic of stupid? We have already shown, via a secret dossier at Jawaharlal Nehru University, that scholarship is measured only by moral virtue. Some patriotic teachers backed by the administration spied on empty bottles and used condoms and concluded, among other things, that the place is a huge sex racket, that students drink, and that the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment is in fact promoting sex work.

Even the Prime Minister’s MA degree from Gujarat University has been wiped off his website. Was it retrospectively revoked because he didn’t survey the right project? Has it just been misplaced? Is it being withheld for national security reasons? Nobody’s getting back to the RTI activist who requested to see it.

But honestly, that’s just a storm in a very small teacup, because we’ve decided that education is overrated—except MBAs. The only thing the nation needs is MBAs and a hailstorm of other acronyms, godmen, ancient texts, and flagpoles that can be seen from Beijing and Kabul. Especially ancient texts. HRD minister Smriti Irani wants the Indian Institute of Technology to offer Sanskrit, so that students can research all the rich science available in Sanskrit texts. That seems like a reasonable allocation of resources if you think about it while drinking cow urine.

So really, let’s stop banging on about education, when what we really do well is stupidity—it’s better to set an achievable goal. At least in that world, I know I’ve made it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Song sangh blue

(Published today in Business Standard)

Doesn’t it seem like we’re having an overdose of disaster? Drought in Maharashtra, temple fire in Kerala, flyover collapse in Kolkata, earthquake in Myanmar, tax evasion in Panama, the Congress nowhere, the BJP and the RSS everywhere—it’s all too depressing. It often feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

In times of trouble, they say, make art. Beauty makes things better.

So, a few weeks ago, I started taking singing lessons. Why not, right? It’s not like I’m a middle-aged, squeaky-voiced smoker or anything. It’s not like that ship has sailed, in the fleet of ships that would have made me a zoologist, or an astronaut, or taller. It’s not like I need to save money for when all my teeth have fallen out, along with my nieces and nephews after they figure out how many columns I got out of their childhoods. Why save to pay someone to change my nappies then, when I can spend it now trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

That is how we liberal arts majors think about financial priorities, and let that be a lesson to you.

But it can’t be helped. I’m a singing junkie. I sing all the time, as long as nobody can hear me—that is to say, in my head, in the shower, while driving, and out loud. Yes, out loud. If I think anyone can hear me, my voice curls up into a foetal position in the back of my throat and pulls the blankets up over its eyes. Only when inebriated do I really let it rip and sing at the top of my lungs for my friends, who start out with supportive anticipation, then discreetly begin to lean in, and end up with ears cocked and eyes narrowed, as if they’re trying to detect gamma rays using nothing but goodwill. At the end they say, “That was lovely! Couldn’t hear you, but woohoo.” So I decided that it’s really not on to be so shamefully inaudible when there are alternatives, like getting the old farts hearing aids.

That was Plan A at any rate, but it turned out to be much more expensive than getting lessons. (I’m not factoring in a one-time expense versus the years of lessons it’s going to take me, on account of being so financially canny). So now I have this dead cool, super-talented, and seriously inspiring singing teacher who makes me do voice exercises and practice songs. The idea is to open up your voice and increase your range, and breathe at the right place, and control your diaphragm, and learn to project. It’s like juggling five balls at once, which is frustrating but insanely fun for me; and the fact that she gets through an hour of my braying, barking, and squeaking without ripping my throat out, is a testament to her extraordinary forbearance. Or maybe she just turns her hearing aid off.

Singing seems like the simplest thing in the world, right? It is! But singing well, believe me, is not. So I siphon off a portion of my booze budget towards weekly lessons, which is a counterintuitive move if you think about it, since booze is a foolproof shortcut to sounding like Tina Turner. Some killjoy type people claim that alcohol impairs one’s judgement, but if nobody can hear you anyway, who cares?

Just kidding. It’s a public service to learn to sing better. One will never be Mark Knopfler (sob) but one hopes, in the future, to sing beautifully as one changes one’s own nappies.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The power of the raspberry

(Published in Business Standard on April 2, 2016)

My five-year-old niece is visiting from overseas, along with her Californian-English-via-Mandarin accent. The second she wakes up, shortly before sunrise, she demands to step outside to look at the parrots, which she calls ‘toh-daaz’. They’re fast asleep with their beaks tucked under their wings, like the rest of us, but anyone who has spent any time around a five-year-old knows that the gentlest whisper from such a creature is like being shot into wakefulness. The parrots bolt straight off the trees, eyes wide and hearts hammering, pooping with fear. She likes this a lot. It puts a smile on her face that would gladden your heart if it were actually daylight and you could actually see it.

Her relationship with insects, chronicled in a previous edition of this column, has been rather more fraught, but it is developing. From initial terrified disbelief when she first encountered flies, mosquitoes, ants and other creepy-crawlies (she thought they ate people), she has grown more cynical. The pests are still her enemies, but her distaste is tempered by the fact that she is more secure about her military advantage. She has evolved a sort of long-haul siege mentality, with the option of counterattack. She launches the occasional sortie, windmilling her arms and yelling ‘Makkhimakkhimakkhi!’ like a kamikaze pilot descending into Pearl Harbor, as if each iteration strikes a couple of bugs dead. It’s bigotry and bravery and last-ditch mission, all wrapped up in one conflicted package.

The other morning we had breakfast on the porch, successfully waking up several neighbourhoods in the National Capital Region in the process. Since the weather has changed in Delhi and we’ve gone from cool spring straight to mosquito- and fly-infested summer, she had a lot of competition for her egg and toast from a cloud of insects. There were so many that she realised that shouting makkhimakkhimakkhi was not going to accomplish anything. She retreated and reconsidered, and then came back with a new tactic: instead of trying to fight them, she just walked into the middle of them and blew a mighty, saliva-laced raspberry. It said all kinds of things at once—that she was unimpressed by their fearsome numbers, that their pomposity was just so much rubbish, and that while they had the floor for the moment, they could never have her respect.

And I realised that this simple device is what I’ve been searching for, without knowing that I was searching for it, to perfectly communicate the precise shade of my feelings these days. Sticking out your tongue and making a flatulent noise remains relevant whether you’re 5, or almost 45. It conveys a derision that neutralises your de facto impotence; you can’t do anything about the country, but the act of expression itself is deeply satisfying.

The BJP tries to impose President’s rule on Uttarakhand without waiting for a floor test. *Raspberry*

The Congress decides to compete for most nationalist idiot in Maharashtra. *Raspberry*

The contractor in Kolkata calls the horrendous collapse of its flyover “an act of God”. *Raspberry*

People on social media believe that India is going great guns and that the world respects us madly. *Raspberry*

Torrents of abuse, ranging from the assumption that you’re trying to get free tickets to international conferences, to the assumption that you’re actually being paid by “political masters” for your opinion. *Raspb--*--no, actually that’s just extremely funny and makes me giggle.

Anyway, I highly recommend the raspberry. It has a deeply cathartic effect, and while you inexorably age with every passing day, making a farty noise with your mouth just never gets old.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The long and the shorts of it

The RSS finally does some social good by dropping its knickers.

(Published on March 19, 2016 in Business Standard)

My mother is an incredibly beautiful, stylish woman. My whole life, therefore, I’ve had to listen to people exclaim, with great pity, that I don’t look like her at all, and had to mumble weakly that I take after my father—weakly, because his looks worked a lot better on him than on me. I bet nobody told him that he had “a sort of, well, robust something”.

One of the results of being the underwhelming offspring of two smashers is that you give up on the looks department early on. While my friends were busy experimenting with hair and clothes and makeup, I went to school with my hair pulled back in a greasy ponytail and a pair of bottle-thick spectacles. I wore ill-fitting hand-me-down t-shirts and shorts or jeans, and resisted all attempts to spruce me up. At some point, in desperation, my mother got me a ‘Cleopatra cut’, a bob with bangs cut dead across the eyebrows. It was supposed to be chic, but I retreated behind this hairy curtain for so many years, trimming the fringe to nose level with my Swiss army knife, that she finally regretted it. Perhaps out of self-preservation, I avoided looking in the mirror.

All of this is to say that I was never socialised to get with fashion, and am therefore hardly in a position to make style judgements. People are forever saying incomprehensible things about how blue brings out their shoulders or whatever, and I just nod along. But while I still wear jeans and t-shirts, now I can at least tell when some item of clothing is an out and out disaster.

It is impossible, in the electronic age, to have missed that photograph of union minister Nitin Gadkari, clad in his Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh outfit, sitting legs crossed in a chair. The Internet immediately paired this retina-destroying image with one of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, neatly capturing everything that is wrong with his clothes, and everything that is right with the Internet.

There are many, many reasons to make fun of the RSS. The poor lads have all kinds of complexes related to power, domination, and all the sex they’re not having. They inspire repeated references to robots and nazis. But the worst—the very worst—is the uniform.

Just think about it compassionately for a second. To be obsessed with cows and cow pee-pee; to fetishize flagpoles (wink, wink) even as you object to the flag; to be frantic about India even as you oppress Indians; to see a sinister conspiracy behind every pimply grad student; to jump up and down because someone didn’t say ‘Bharat mata ki jai’; to admire the Manusmriti; to rely on the lizard bits of your brain; to do all of this, and to do it while wearing flared shorts cinched at the waist, even though you are a full-grown, unfit, hairy dude—well, it’s all just so awful that you have to admire the courage it takes to walk around the world looking like that.

But it seems that its own lack of coolness has finally gotten to the RSS, or maybe they’re tired of pretending to be celibate out of choice. After a brief ten-year think about it, the organisation has decided to replace the shorts with trousers. This is a body blow to the convenient terms ‘knickerwallah’ and ‘chaddiwallah’, and we can never unsee Nitin Gadkari, but the move might help save millions of innocent retinas in the future. That’s what I call working for the good of society—who knew they would do it by dropping their knickers? Ladies and gentlemen, a big hand for the RSS.

Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

A meditation on medication

The cure depends on the diagnosis

(Published on March 05, 2016 in Business Standard)

There you are in the prime of youth, skipping along barefoot, revelling in health and curiosity—taking in the odd bit of Marx, the odd pint of beer, using the odd condom, spitting out the odd bit of chicken bone—when suddenly you step on a thorny issue.

When you’re done hopping around on one foot and swearing, you prise out the thorn and wipe up the blood. Generally, it’s enough to treat the foot tenderly, swab the wound, and leave well enough alone. The antibodies in your system will gallop up to the site and do what they do best, which is to whack any bacteria senseless.

That’s all it usually takes: a short tussle between illness and the body’s natural self-help system. It’s a quiet, no-cost, natural process. Life is all about stepping on a thorny issue and getting over it without a big fuss. Most physical afflictions turn out to be minor, self-limiting and self-healing.

Sometimes a bit of bacteria enters the wound, and it gets infected. Then you have to really go at it with that swab, maybe take antibiotics. Think of it as sending the bacteria to jail and making it do some introspection, or beating it to a pulp, whichever makes it feel less cocky.

But sometimes, antibiotics aren’t enough; sometimes the bacteria are those superbug things doctors are always warning about in hospitals. Those critters are hard to beat down. Think of it like this: you keep sending the bacteria to jail, but it keeps breaking out. It’s like being infected with an idea—very very easily communicated, almost impossible to stamp out. Then you might have to confine the patient in a controlled environment, put him or her on different kinds of very strong treatment, and hope for the best.

If you bungle it—if, for example, you prescribe an insufficient dose of medication, or the wrong kind of medication—then the bacteria grow stronger than ever, and now you’ve seriously messed up, because either the body develops antibiotic resistance, or has no help at all. Then you enter dangerous territory—what if you get gangrene, necrosis, the death of tissue, threat to the whole body? Now you’re looking at life and death, people, and maybe a medical malpractice lawsuit. That’s when you call in the cavalry and bite the bullet and consider amputation. Best to cut off a foot, or a leg, to save the body. That’s the course of action any doctor would recommend, if it would save the patient’s life.

But diagnosing these things correctly to start with is tricky business. Sometimes, what looks like an infection is actually your antibodies already at work, getting rid of the really dangerous stuff; that nasty swelling is actually a healing in process. Amputation would mean chopping off perfectly healthy body parts and destroying the body in the process. Medicating it would be like putting the antibodies in jail and letting the real problem run riot—you’d be turning off the immune system, shutting down the body’s defences, and sentencing it to a raft of illnesses.

The worst of those is when the body turns against itself. Cells can suffer a mutation that makes them out-of-control aggressive, and in their monstrous zeal they engulf healthy cells, turning everything in the body into a morbid version of themselves.

The line between having a thorn in the foot and getting cancer is not a fine one; it takes a doctor of monumental incompetence to steer a patient from the former to the latter. But relax. A lot of our doctors have suspect degrees, but, as it turns out, our antibodies are superstars.

PS: This piece has nothing to do with anything.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

#MakeInIndia week

It’s been an exciting week for Indian business

(Published today in Business Standard)

Dear World, aka non-Indian Hindus,

As everyone knows, India is business heaven. We don’t rest on piffling perfection, however, and invite you to invest your money in the many more booming opportunities we are determined to think up. Do stop mumbling about Vodafone and check out this very cool lion!

Look, we’ve had a bad few months in the anti-national paid media. There was a bit of bad business with beef. We tanked in Bihar. The Delhi Chief Minister took our raid badly. There was a slight national security cockup at an air base. Then a student called Rohith Vemula offed himself in Hyderabad, and everyone jumped down our throat. The stock market has been feeling poorly, and the rupee… Look, please just give us your money? Just promise to, so that we can put a bit of good news in the papers. Thank you!

We just concluded our huge investment-attracting #MakeInIndia week in Mumbai, and boy, was it a big impressive jamboree. Here’s how it went.

February 13: Inaugural day! The newspapers were filled with Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s tweet from the previous day, saying that we wouldn’t tolerate anyone who chants anti India slogans and challenges the nation’s sovereignty and integrity. This was after some Jawaharlal Nehru University students held a meeting to discuss capital punishment, and a student leader called Kanhaiya Kumar made a heinous speech calling for freedom. Go, Rajnath.

February 14: Day two! Worship Your Parents day was celebrated all over India in the traditional way, with couples dodging policemen to feed each other chocolate and kiss behind bushes, and patriots dragging them out and trying to frogmarch them to the altar. In the evening a huge embarrassing fire broke out on a #MakeInIndia stage. Funny coincidence (funny peculiar, not funny ha ha), a huge embarrassing fire also broke out in Delhi over how we charged Kanhaiya Kumar with sedition, on the basis of… we’ll get back to you on that, still working on it. Also Rajnath Singh said that Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed was behind the JNU meeting. It sounded good at the time.

February 15: Sigh, day three. Turned out the Hafiz Saeed tweet about JNU was from a fake account. How was Commissioner of Police Bassi to know? Still, the anti-national-if-not-terrorist Kanhaiya Kumar, was taken to court, where some patriotic lawyers beat up JNU students and staff, and pro-Porkistan media. Our MLA, OP Sharma, also beat up someone, good for him. What about Hanamanthappa? The media went bananas—the selfish libtards always make everything about them. God, loving your country is politically exhausting.

February 16: Noisy, noisy television debates. Bassi reminded everyone that we can’t just toss OP Sharma in jail just because of a camera lens, we have to look at it from a legal lens. Amazing that we have to point these things out. We’re passing a hat around the office to gift Bassi a spa coupon after he retires.

February 17: Um, so the journos got beaten up again today, and the Supreme Court is pissed off, and we’ve managed to get Rs 5,000 lakh crore investment in articles, editorials, petitions, and televised screaming matches about JNU and it turns out the videos were doctored and everyone is marching everywhere and everything is a mess and nobody’s paying attention to #MakeInIndia. Now we’re thinking Go, Rajnath, but in a different way.

February 18: Concluding day! We’ve fixed everything—we’re making all central universities put a giant flag on their campuses. That’s Phase 1. In Phase 2, we will make it mandatory for all Indians to surgically implant a Tricolour on the top of their heads.

Jai Hind.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Sleeping with the frenemy

(Published on February 6, 2016 in Business Standard)

You know what they say about friends: Lock up the good booze before they come over. Or maybe it’s “Don’t work with them”, but locking up the good booze is not a bad idea either—unless one of your friends is turning a greyish shade of fifty. In that case you pack all the best booze you can muster, and take her out of town for a few days.

But first you start a Whatsapp group conversation three weeks beforehand, to figure out how to mark the occasion. One of five of us was in a different country, and we all had differing budgets, available time, and activity preferences. Whatsapp is really helpful in a situation like that, when you need to cheaply and efficiently communicate old internet jokes, non sequiturs, pictures of lunch, and potty quality updates for nineteen days before someone realises there’s still no holiday plan, at which point there is international panic, and the birthday girl threatens to fly off to freaking Goa or something by her freaking self, since we can’t get our freaking act together for her freaking milestone birthday. A lot of emoticons are necessary. Whatsapp rocks.

Anyway we managed to cobble together a road trip to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve with—let’s call them—Mooey, birthday girl Fanny, and myself. We were going to leave at 6am, because it’s traditional to be unrealistic about everything. At 5.30am Mooey dropped out with a personal crisis, and since he owned the transport, Fanny and I went back to sleep. At 9am the personal crisis was resolved. At 11.15 we rolled up at Fanny’s, where we all briefly discussed an attractive alternative plan to just unload the car and spend the weekend right there, watching movies in our pyjamas and exchanging Whatsapp emoticons. At 12.02pm we were finally on the road. At 12.32 we were on exactly the same road, in the gridlock just outside her house.

When traffic began to flow, we fondly remembered all the things we had forgotten: sunglasses, the other vodka, the Scrabble board, the binoculars, the hat with a brim. The sun got hotter, the traffic was dense, nobody had slept much. Fanny shouted at Mooey for not letting her bring her coffee press. I shouted at Fanny for not being packed on time. We both shouted at Mooey for having a non-functional car CD player. They both shouted at me for picking up the wrong stack of CDs. I muttered that I had had it with them, given them the best years of my life, and I was taking the children and moving to my mother’s. We all muttered darkly that it was going to be a long four days.

And it was—long and delightful, despite the fact that we all shared one room and one bathroom. Despite Mooey’s traumatic habit of waking like a jack-in-the-box before dawn and yelling tender good mornings in our ears. Despite Fanny keeping up a constant rumble of complaint about the quality of the coffee. Despite my conversation being one hundred per cent about the state of my potty.

But that’s what travelling with friends is all about: loving them despite their compulsive behaviours. It’s exactly like being married, but without the monogamy, children, and joint bank account. There’s the one who rubs one foot against the other all night. The one who picks goop out of her eyes. The neat freak. The one who’s grumpy in the morning; the one who’s grumpy at night. The glutton, the exercise freak, the clotheshorse, the cigarette bummer. The Bollywood music addict.

If you survive travelling with them, it’s true love.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The porn star and the TV w…anchor

You know it’s been a difficult January when the epitome of Indian manliness, the Prime Minister, discovers that his much-vaunted 56-inch chest has shrunk to 50 inches. The reduced perimeter is probably easier for Ajit Doval to safeguard, but it’s also probably less impressive-looking from the Indo-Pak border.

Speaking of unimpressive Indian men, CNN-IBN interviewed actress Sunny Leone. Everyone has talked about it for three days already, but I won’t sleep easy until I’ve deposited my two bits.

The last time I noticed anchor Bhupendra Chaubey, he was knocking it out of the park during the Bihar elections while NDTV was circling the drain, so if anything I was predisposed to like him—or at worst, to be neutral. But Chaubey struck dissonant notes before he even got to the set, setting up Sunny Leone as “completely antithetical to what we perceive is the idea of an Indian woman”. That smug generalisation set the tone for the rest of this train wreck.

The interview itself was a one-note samba centring on his own inability to believe that a former porn star could possibly go about her life without being, at all times, hyperaware that she used to be a porn star, and cling-wrapped in shame about it. This is because he obviously cannot stop being hyperaware that she used to be a porn star.

Aided by twitching eyebrows and smirks, he tried his damndest to get her to admit that Sunny the porn star was a tragic mistake made by Karanjit the beautiful family girl, going astray; but Sunny didn’t think so. In reply to a question about her biggest regret, she said she couldn’t get home fast enough when her mother passed away. When she said “I’ve made mistakes”, he begged for specifics, and she said that Bollywood was like culture shock because it’s really chaotic.

In other words, she wasn’t playing shameball with him.

He loaded and reloaded the same question multiple times, in vain. He framed Sunny Leone as a scarlet woman who, though she is now in Bollywood, won’t get to work with big names like Aamir Khan, on account of her “past”, which “haunts” her and “holds [her] back”. He made a big point of the fact that people say nasty things about her.

Sunny uncooperatively pointed out that she didn’t feel in the least bit either haunted or held back, and that people are entitled to their opinions. Chaubey gave her 7,431 chances to take back that twaddle and admit, already, that it’s her own fault that now he can’t stop visualising her lady parts, which somehow makes her disreputable. (I’m paraphrasing to include his tone.) She said that if the clock were turned back, she would do it all again. Chaubey let her know that she has been accused of corrupting Indian morality; but Sunny cleaves to the free speech, live-and-let-live end of things, which can be summed up as “So?”

In the single question about her upcoming film, Chaubey asked if it was about love, or sex and lust. He sneeringly asked if she thought of herself as an actor, and whether it was her body—raking said body with his eyes—that would take her to whatever low, commercial places his tone implied her career may reach.

Really, you should watch it yourself. Never mind undeserved TRPs: it is an object lesson in how even the most progressive men can see an openly sexual woman as shameful—and think she should see herself that way too.

And it’s an object lesson in what a sorry figure such a man cuts.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

“Pathankot: A short tragic play”

(Published today in Business Standard)

Pak handler to Terrorist: Look boys, this airbase area is so thick with Indian Army and Air Force moustaches that you’ll have to cut your way through with barbers’ shears, and the Indians know you’re coming. But don’t worry—the lights don’t work, the fence is holier than our book, the guards are retired and unfit, they don’t have the budget to patrol at night, and we’re already using their infrastructure.

Police SP, offstage: They took my car and phone! I have escaped and reported this to my colleagues after a suspicious three-hour gap.

Terrorist on phone: Mummy, I’ve sneaked into India, either through a border tunnel or from J&K, to bang a bunch of virg—become a martyr.

Mummy: Okay, eat something before you croak. Hello? I think we have a cross-connection with the Punjab Police, the Indian Air Force, and Indian Intelligence.

Pathankot airbase: We have hours and hours to defend this base. Who needs thousands of army personnel nearby to help lock it down? Everyone hang at the main gate, that’s where they’ll come from.

Nobody: How do we know that?

[Hours and hours later: Loud bangs, dead people]

PM Modi: On June 21 more than a million people in 192 countries came together to celebrate the first International Day of Yoga.

Indian press: Here are some Pakistani panelists to explain the terrorist attack on Pathankot airbase, while we keep looking for some Indian panelists who can explain it.

[More loud bangs]

Some of the Army: Which genius brought in the National Security Guard when we’re right here?

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval: I like the NSG. Why is everyone looking at me?

Delhi Police: Delhi is on red alert for terrorists visiting from Pathankot.

Delhi: Hey, you in the hijacked car, with the grenades. Here are some flowers and an awareness-raising pamphlet about odd-even. Next time it’ll be Rs 2,000.

[VVIP phone rings]

Pakistan PM Nawaz Shareef to PM Modi: When we were holding hands, was it as good for you as it was for me? Cos I think about it all the time.

PM Modi: Across the world there are moving stories of transformed lives and rekindled hopes due to Yoga.

[48 hours later]

Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance minister Arun Jaitly: It’s all over. We salute our martyrs who made the supreme sacrifice to annihilate the dastardly enemy.

Part of the Indian press: Doval, Doval, Doval!

Air Force officer: Hello, it’s totally not over.

The rest of the Indian press: Sources say nobody knows their elbow from their ass.

[Loud bangs]

BJP: Criticising the operations at Pathankot is anti-national.

India: Yawn.

PM Modi: Seriously, guys? Yoga is really very good for you.

Army General: All nonsense. Brilliant synergy between the army and the NSG, couldn’t have been better, got on like a house on fire.

Indian press: Er, that actually is a house on fire.

India: How come our super-duper airbase is so thick with Indian Army and Air Force moustaches that you have to cut your way through with barbers’ shears, and we knew they were coming, and six guys have still had the place upside down for longer than a French working week?

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar: A lot of this was bad luck.

[80 hours later]

BJP government: Please, can we never talk about this again?

World: ROTFL. Oops, live mike. We stand firmly by India in her fight against terrorism.

Terrorist on phone: Mummy, they’ve asked me to sneak into India and bang a bunch of virg—become a martyr. Yes, yes, I’ve eaten—a piece of cake.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ending 2015 on a good note

(Published on December 26, 2015 in Business Standard)

I’m usually thrilled to watch the taillights of a year disappear into the dustbin of history. But I’m smiling fondly at 2015, because of all the music.

I cannot live without music, and I wouldn’t want to. If it’s not playing around me, it’s playing in my head. I sing constantly, either out loud—a sound like a bee trapped behind a window, or an animal losing the will to live—or in my head, and I can put up with any amount of annoyance, inconvenience, or delay, as long as I can listen to music through it. Learning to play the guitar seemed like an obvious move.

But let’s face it: I’m an old dog, and playing music is an altogether new trick. It is deeply humbling to start from scratch, and have to learn to walk and speak all over again, in the early afternoon of your life when you’re supposed to be master of your ship, snoozing in the first class cabin while minions do the grunt work. But while one’s synapses are frayed, and one’s fingers clumsy, one can make slow, unsteady progress, even without a teacher. I really should have gotten a teacher.

I did at one point hire a random curly-haired youth who, in four lessons, made me realise that I was spending precious booze money on a chap whose musical ability was vastly outweighed by his ability to make me feel as old as the pyramids. I made a tough budgetary cut, and went back to learning from random curly-haired youths on the internet, who also make me feel as old as the pyramids, but for free. The result is that I haven’t gotten beyond the basic chord strum, nor been able to resist looking up chords rather than figuring them out by ear. I have written a bunch of horrible little dirges—which I have to be completely drunk to sing, and you need to be completely drunk to hear—and one fake-happy song. All in all, after three years of enthusiastic guitar playing, I still suck.

But I’m also still having the most fun I’ve had in my life. My guitar may well be a version of the midlife little red sports car, but my god, does it put a spring in my step and roses in my cheeks. Or maybe the roses come out of a bottle—whatever. The point is, it makes me feel the best a person can feel.

This last year I’ve also spent massive amounts of time sitting in bars listening to live music, and if there’s one thing I’ve discovered, it is that this city is filled with the most insanely gifted musicians. It’s a source of constant amazement to me that they walk amongst us, like normal people, without large signs around them declaring that they have magical powers in their fingers and lungs.

Also, and this is critical, musicians are the best people. Hanging around them can be exhilarating or exasperating, but it’s never boring. They’re all totally bonkers. My theory is that the bits of brain that allow people to make music are cannibalised from those bits of brain that allow people to match their socks. Some musicians you experience as a warm bath, some as a drive-by shooting, but they’re all mad fun.

So to all the people that I’ve been privileged to listen to, and to the hapless few with whom I play regularly, thank you for the music, you’re the best. Now I will sing a song for you. Wait, where’s everyone going?

Air today, gone tomorrow

(Published on December 12, 2015 in Business Standard)

It’s hard being a smoker who outrages over the quality of Delhi air. Once the hoots of derision die down, everyone looks at you as if your teeny tiny little cigarette is stealing their children’s future all by itself. Never mind that you’re already exiled to the lepers’ area outside, arm politely stretched over the edge of the planet, stealing the future of Martian children instead. Let me tell you something: Delhi air is so virulently poisonous that cigarette smoke is the clean stuff in it. Anyone will tell you that living in Delhi is the same thing as smoking a pack a day.

Not that I’m defending smoking. Smoking is very bad, children, don’t do it. There are all kinds of other really fun roads to self-destruc—I mean, may you live long and virtuous lives and eventually die in the natural way, of boredom, and have your children drive you to the cremation ground on whatever day works for their car number plate.

That is, if the Delhi Government’s number plate scheme—cars with odd number plates allowed to ply on odd dates, even number plates on even dates—lasts longer than the two-week trial scheduled for next January. I’m not even sure that we’ll last the full two weeks, because this is a country where people who can afford cars would rather choke on toxic air than give up the convenience of rolling out of their houses and into their cars for the thirty second ride to the market to buy books on how to get active and fit. I can’t see them standing around hailing autos or hoofing it to and from a metro, even in clement weather.

There’s been lots of talk about quick fixes, by which I mean outwitting pollution control rules, because creatively bypassing rules is the national forte. Rich? Buy two cars, one odd-plated and one even! Smart? Buy fake number plates! Morally flexible? Steal whichever car you need that day! Activist? Vote out the creeps who are trying to disrupt our lives! (Voters are widely known to be politically motivated.)

Many good arguments have been made for why the Aam Aadmi Party’s odd-even response is not the best solution, and they merit consideration. But listen people, we have to do something, because we care about our collective quality of life.

Hahahahaha! That’s hilarious.

Let’s face it: if we thought like that, we’d never have gotten to this point of emergency—we’d have cleaned up our air, water, and waste systems years ago. The fact is that widespread dying and astronomical health costs are probably less of a catalyst for action than global mortification. We’re more likely to get a move on because of really pressing issues, like the Chief Justice of India’s embarrassment about having to admit to Delhi’s pollution levels to the President of the International Court of Justice. The national image is at stake.

Admittedly I work from home, am fit enough to take public transport, and do the vast majority of my driving after 8pm, so the odd-even rule doesn’t freak me out. And frankly, pollution control was the one thing that I—and my asthmatic mother, whose doctor advised her to leave the city—wanted from the AAP, and they’re trying, so it’s a start.

The even better news for people like me, i.e. with ovaries, is that they’re thinking of exempting women from the odd-even rule, on grounds of safety. Who says that patronising patriarchy has no silver lining? I expect that other motorists will give us the evil eye, but that’s what sunglasses are for.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Incredible Indiahahaha

(Published on November 28 2015, in Business Standard)

Until recently, thinking of India made me smile fondly or bang my head against the wall, often at the same time. It was complicated, but one could recognise and process one’s feelings and describe them in words. Words were equal to the task. Words worked.

Now when I think of India, I smile fondly, bang my head against the wall, and then double over shrieking and yowling as I physically transform, Hulk-style. When I straighten up, my head has been replaced with a perfectly round, perfectly bald yellow laughing face, with two bright blue tears of mirth spouting from its laughing eyes.

This emoji is so much better than words that it was declared Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year 2015. They call it ‘Face with tears of joy’, but I call it ‘Hahahahaha I’m laughing so hard, I’m crying’.
This week my emoji head erupted when Bollywood superstar and Incredible India! brand ambassador Aamir Khan said that his wife Kiran was scared to read the papers, and she sometimes wondered whether they should continue to live in India, at which point the social media patriot monkeys began to hurl social media patriot monkey faeces at him. The lazier of them uninstalled the Snapdeal app that Khan represents.

My emoji head showed up when a real life lawyer filed a real life sedition charge against Khan in a real life court. I got emoji head when the Shiv Sena, the evil clown act in the right wing political circus, offered a Rs 1 lakh award to anyone who would slap Khan (prompting various wags to wonder whether they meant THE Aamir Khan, or just anyone named Aamir Khan, and whether only the first person to slap him got the dosh, and whether Kiran might pick up the award since she must want to slap him sometimes anyway on account of marriage being a difficult thing.) I got it again when the Shiv Sena’s Lucknow branch conducted a mock funeral for Khan. And again when BJP spokesman MJ Akbear said that Aamir Khan’s statement was ‘a moral offence’ and he was ‘dragging the whole country down’, thus ascribing magical powers to someone other than Baba Ramdev.

Waking up to suddenly find yourself transformed into a giant insect is positively humdrum compared to these levels of absurdity. Kafka’s ghost must be drinking itself into a stupor to numb its feelings of writerly inadequacy.

But then this is Incredible India!, where there is no such thing as ‘it can’t possibly get worse’. Shortly thereafter, Rajnath Singh got up on the floor of Parliament and said that Lord Ram was a true democrat because he addressed his subjects’ concern about Sita’s purity by making her undergo a trial by fire. Now listen, Rajnath Singh is not some gremlin on Twitter. He’s India’s Home Minister. He is among a limited number of people who really can drag the whole country down. When I was done doubling over and shrieking, I had not one but ten bald yellow laughing heads.

In the last many, many months, we have had more than enough demonstrations of how the BJP leadership and its most ardent supporters understand things like ‘democracy’, ‘patriotism’, ‘sedition’, ‘secularism’, ‘development’ and ‘progress’, to know that we really are being dragged down. It’s a form of poetic justice that a party that cravenly yearns for international validation under a pseudo-nationalist cloak is the party that is methodically turning India into the world’s laughing stock, statement by brainless statement. Imagine the whole world looking at India and developing emoji-head.

We should drag Kafka’s ghost away from its glass of spirits. It might be inspired to ghost-write something truly fantastic.

On second thoughts, perhaps that face means: Hahahahahaha I’m crying so hard, I’m laughing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Polls, trolls, and festival goals

(Published on November 14, 2015 in Business Standard)

That special heart-warming, all lit up, end-of-year thing is finally here. We really need it. For one thing, we almost had a national nervous breakdown last week as Bihar completed its state assembly poll. The election seemed vitally important—it was—even if it really wasn’t (it was). We had favourite teams. We staked our first-born babies on the result, especially those of us who don’t have babies. We lost a lot of national hair, from the national stress of waiting for the verdict on Sunday. Would Bihar tell the BJP where it can get off?

I woke up that Sunday, propped myself up in bed, and placed some essentials within an arm’s length orbit—tea, cigarettes, laptop, phone, water, and some alcohol just in case—to watch the results. The news channels were on some hideous Keystone Cops trip of misinformation, hubris, and backpedalling. First I was stressed out, then depressed, then confused, then lifted into a mood that I can best describe as yelling Neenee nana noonoo! while drinking single malt before noon. This is not a metaphor.

I felt as if a weight had lifted off my chest. And I fully plumbed the joys of Schadenfreude. I discovered my inner troll. I’m only just getting the hang of these Twitter terms, but I think it’s accurate to say that I spent much of the remaining day leaping out from under Twitter bridges—twidges?—and biting tweeple on the twankles as they paraded along into twitternity. (Now I know why the online Hindus do it: it’s deeply satisfying, especially following a long period of perceived oppression. If my alternative career as an Uber driver doesn’t work out, I might be able to find work on a troll farm.) Then, like countless others, I went out to celebrate. It’s no wonder that by Monday evening everyone was wiped out from the emotional roller coaster.

The other reason that we need that special heart-warming, all lit up, end-of year thing, is that if we don’t light stuff up, we’ll be bumping into the buildings. What’s with this yearly Diwali smog holocaust, people? My asthmatic mother, who is usually quite capable of emitting her own fire and brimstone, at this time of year lies around gasping like a fish on a marketplace slab. She watches PM 2.5 statistics the way other people watch the stock market (just so you know, this Diwali it peaked at 985 microns per cubic metre, when the WHO limit is 25, and the Indian government’s is 60). She’s maxed out on all her emergency asthma medication. If she has to step out, she wears a mask that would frighten Darth Vader. And she still struggles for breath.

She tries not to be in Delhi around Diwali, but that’s not always possible. This year she checked herself into a nearby hotel in the hope that their air conditioning system would filter out most of the crap in the air. You try explaining to hotel staff that you don’t need a car from the airport because actually you live across the road and this is an experiment in continuing to breathe.

I say ban crackers, rockets and bombs. Ban the sale and use of anything that makes noise, and/or produces more than minimal of smoke, and/or increases deadly particulate matter. Penalise non-cooperation with jail time and fines. The air we breathe is an emergency at the best of times; on and around Diwali, it’s anti-life. Oil lamps and sparklers are beautiful, so could you please consider that instead? All those messages that say ‘May the light of blah blah shine on your thingy’ mean less when you can’t read them through all the smoke.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Uma Bharti and the divine water isotopes

(Published on October 31, 2015 in Business Standard)

Did you imagine, o people of India, that the key to creating jobs, improving infrastructure, and lifting people out of poverty, would be to discuss cows until they come home? Now half the country is traumatised by the thought of cow-murder, and the other half is posting ‘Selfie With Beef’ to their Facebook profiles. Did you imagine, fellow citizens, that you would suddenly know this many authors, artists, academics and artistes, even though they aren’t helping to fix banking or sort out labour laws?

But that’s just the media, slavishly anti-Modi (#Presstitutes) even though it was quite recently slavishly pro-Modi (#FreedomOfExpression). Luckily, the country and its institutions carry on. Among other things, we retain the rigorous scientific temper to which we constitutionally aspire, according to our anti-Hindu Nehruvian western import of a constitution (#WakeUpHindus).

The minister for Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, Uma Bharti, has put scientists at the National Institute of Hydrology (NIH) in Roorkee on the job of figuring out where the river Ganga originates. We almost certainly know that the Ganga originates at Gaumukh, near Gangotri, if only because the NIH has an observatory nearby studying the river. There’s a ‘cow’ in ‘Gaumukh’. It all seems like a win. However, the minister thirsts to know if the river can be connected to the sacred lake Mansarovar in Tibet.

Mythology says that the great ascetic, Shiva, who lives there, broke Ganga’s furious descent to earth by catching her in his hair, and thus saved the earth from her raging floods. He held her in his matted locks, tamed her, and made her release her waters into seven streams, and if that’s not an ancient, proud Indian sex scene, I don’t know what is. In fact, I think there’s an exciting publishing opportunity in collating all the ancient proud Indian sex scenes from the scriptures and epics into a nicely designed little paperback series titled Spills & Boons, or Fills & Spoons or something.

At any rate, the minister isn’t going to take mythology’s word for it like some unscientific yob. Like all Taureans, she’s very determined. So the scientists are going to use water isotopes tracer technology to see if the Ganga can in any way be connected, via drifting molecules or whatever, to Mansarovar. Would proving this connection not give mythology the fillip it needs to create jobs, improve infrastructure, and lift people out of poverty? One of the NIH’s experts acknowledged, with magnificent restraint, that: “The new task is a challenging one as we are heading into a completely different direction.”

I have no idea what water isotopes tracer technology is. I think maybe it’s when scientists assemble in a lab equipped with cutting-edge dart boards and beer, and sit around playing cards and telling sociologist jokes for the duration of a reasonable science experiment, before releasing a statement saying, “Our results show that this has been a total hoot, and we would now like to apply for government funding to investigate the turning radius of Kartikeya’s peacock if it had to get away from Brahma’s pillar of fire at speed. Your turn to deal.”

I will say, though, that Uma Bharti’s is not the stupidest scientific experiment I’ve heard of. That would have to be the experiment that showed that rats cannot differentiate between Dutch and Japanese sentences when a video is played backwards to them.

But I’m nitpicking. The truth is that I’ve always had a big thing for Shiva. He’s romantic perfection—passionate, powerful, unavailable, good dancer. It’s straight out of Thrills & Moon. I’m actually okay with the government throwing money at him; I’ll just pretend that I’m tucking it into his loincloth.