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.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bringing India to book

(Published today in Business Standard)

It’s gratifying to wake up to a newspaper featuring writers on page one. Yes, those awkward people who hide out at home a lot, being quiet and weird by themselves. Front page. They’ve gone rogue. A growing number are chucking Sahitya Akademi and other national awards back in the government’s face to protest India’s growing climate of intolerance, and getting slammed for it.

You’d think that writing a letter, submitting it, and getting rejected is just time-honoured literary tradition, but no, it’s a showdown. Off the page, writers are fairly peaceable folk until you poke them in the eye. The Prime Minister’s shoddy failure to speak out against the murder of writers and people trying to have dinner constitutes a poke in the eye, so they are, to use the technical literary term, pissed.

The RSS called these writers “self-proclaimed contractors of intellect”, which makes it sound as if you’re supposed to float tenders for the job of thinking, and also as if the RSS would not qualify to bid. The Finance Minister called the protest “politics by other means” even though it is straight-up politics. Arnab accused the writers of having a bias, possibly because he mistrusts the process of reaching a considered conclusion with no screaming at all. The BJP said it was all politically motivated; they’ve already been screwed over by the RSS turning out to be a political wolf in social work fleece, so maybe mole-like writers turning out to be grizzlies feels like déjà vu all over again.

Lots of people said, “Why didn’t these writers return their awards to protest the issue of the Muzzafarpur riots/Babri Masjid/Kashmiri Pundits/Emergency/Jallianwalla Bagh/Mughal invasion/hominids leaving Africa?” I imagine these people are also angrily asking how come our independence movement didn’t bother becoming our independence movement until it became our independence movement. Whataboutery has a new playmate in wherewereyouery.

But if writers are such irrelevant, marginal opportunists, why are so many knickers in a twist? You would think that the government would just ignore the national awards piling up in the garbage and get on with the task of developing India into one giant app, right? Maybe they’ve suddenly realised there’s some inconvenient competition on their turf.

Making art is a progressive political act that expands freedom of thought and action. If you see a comfortable, pretty space, you’re either ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the middle of it, or looking at very forgettable art. The civilised world values art for just this reason—a smart country picks the best of its self-expression, holds it up high, and encourages more. There is a reason why the enduring image of barbarism is a smashed sculpture and a burning library. The GoI tends to make news more for banning than for nurturing art. Now confronting itself in the pages of The Guardian, The New York Times, the BBC, and the Washington Post, it is stung less by the indictment of our writers than by the disapproving stares from the world stage. Now it has to pick a direction.

We publicly overvalue the books that cause people to try to pluck each other’s eyes out, i.e. the religious ones. But there are millions of books and artworks that express India. Their multiplicity is kryptonite to thought control, and they will keep coming. Artists who find their voices can be very loud, and very inconvenient. It is their job.

Perhaps the stupidest response to the protest, so far, came from the BJP’s Vijay Goel, who said: “Writers should be concerned with their pen only, otherwise giving awards would be stopped.” It’s so dim that it’s kind of sweet, like threatening the ocean with a hairdryer.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

I’ll have the holy cow, medium-rare

(Published on October 3, 2015 in Business Standard)

I’ve been having this vision problem lately. I’ll be out in the world, among civilised smiling people, well-dressed, well-educated, well-spoken, going about their business sipping cocktails, or working diligently, or buying soap or whatever. Suddenly it’s as if the skin of the world slips a bit and all I see, underneath the pleasant smiles, is a bunch of savages with bloodstained lips and murderous intent. Then they’ll say something very normal, like ‘I just got promoted, so I’m donating lots of money for the welfare of the girl child,’ and the skin realigns.

Ha ha! Just kidding. Nobody says that.

Anyway, this is why I love watching toddlers at play. There’s no deceptive civilisational veneer in the way: what you see is what you get. They’re just nodes of primal emotion and instinct, nakedly violent and power-hungry. They gang up two against one to snatch a toy, then fight each other for the toy, then regroup in an entirely new configuration to repossess the toy. They howl, kiss, kick each other, and break stuff. They waddle off to tattle on each other with a highly doctored history of what happened. Then they make up by collaborating sweetly on pulling the wings off a fly or torturing a puppy.

Objectively speaking, we’re looking at instinctively manipulative, double-crossing opportunists with no principles. While they can be tender, they show almost exalted imagination and creativity when it comes to inflicting pain. The exalted part is that they don’t need a reason, let alone a good one. If kids weren’t designed to look unbearably cute, adults would exercise rationality and snuff them out. Rationality is moot, however: it turns out that adults are just taller toddlers in more expensive clothes. William Golding told us so, but who’s got time to read Lord of the Flies when you’re busy spreading lies about your neighbours and sticking knives into your friends’ backs?

Under the cologne and the small talk, we’re savages. There’s no better time to remember that than while savouring the creamy pink flesh of a medium-rare beefsteak. I ordered it for Mohammed Akhlaq, who was murdered by a mob because someone said there was beef in his fridge. But mostly I ordered it because I like beef. You are entitled to be upset by this, and I’m free to not give a flying cow’s carcass. That is how the Constitution works. (I regret that my steak was not actually cow, but then neither was the meat in Akhlaq’s fridge.)

So I chomped on my juicy and delicious steak, drank a few drinks, and listened to some music, and felt, well, tired. I hope very much that when the rest of the world looks at us, they too will see the skin of India slip a bit. We can brag all we like about our youth, our economy, and our rightful place on the Security Council, but when the digitally forward, commercially vibrant, Bollywood-obsessed, philosophically sophisticated, ancient, charming skin of India slips, it is a truly nasty sight.

So, world, come Make in India. You will make hills of money. The only thing is, you might actually have to live here. You should know that present-day India is the sort of ancient, proud, powerhouse society that could also decide to break down your door and kill you because it doesn’t like the sound of your dinner. Then the police and the politicians will say tut-tut, your mistake. That’s how they think the Constitution works.

While you’re deciding whether or not to come, please re-read Lord of the Flies, and evaluate your appetite for risk. But if you do come, I’ll take us both out to a fabulous steak dinner. It would be my absolute pleasure.

That’s Amore: the over-40s singles love life

(Published on September 19, 2015 in the Business Standard)

A friend of mine took me to lunch the other day to diagnose the train wreck that is my love life. “Why are you always getting your heart broken?” he asked. I pointed out that people my age are either in a committed relationship (most people) or irrevocably screwed up (me) and that therefore, purely circumstantially, it’s more likely that I’ll be the one scraping myself off the ground. He tried very hard to come up with a list of single, not-crazy people my age, and finally saw my point.

If you’re single and over forty, getting into a romance is very much like batting your eyelashes at an approaching SUV before throwing yourself under its wheels. It’s only weird in that you had no intention of throwing yourself in front of an SUV when you woke up earlier that morning, and it’s not like you didn’t see it coming. This is hardly the kind of effect you forget in a hurry, and you can only bring yourself to do it again if you become comfortable with the idea of repeatedly becoming roadkill. What’s not to love?

You’ve done the things people do. You feared marriage, or tried marriage, or are in a marriage, and decided it wasn’t for you. You went to bars with your friends, who knew when to gag you, when to intervene, when to talk you down, when to take your weapons away, and when to pull you off the scene gently but firmly. Come to think of it, this describes none of my friends, not one. Thanks, guys.

You were creeped out by arranged meetings; too old-fashioned for Tinder and the raft of other dating apps that are common currency with younger people (and several very conflicted married people). You successfully failed to die for so long, in the same town, that you already became fast friends with most of the people in the ambit of your life. How are you supposed to meet anyone worth feeling romantic about? If you do, how do you proceed? Here, let me direct your attention to this attractive SUV approaching at speed.

Sure, there’s the odd full-throated relationship, with insane love and (good) possessiveness, of which I have some experience. There’s the toxic one-way thing with the (bad) possessiveness and (brazen) double standards, of which I also have some experience. There’s the ships passing in the night thing, which is a double-edged sword. There is the set-up, which only one of my friends ever tried on me (I made a new friend). There are singles parties, but the only one I was ever invited to was on a Whatsapp chat, before the event, that robbed me of my will to live, let alone attend. There is the random meeting, which, if it didn’t seem disastrous today, will tomorrow. I will only say that if you want to be in any kind of relationship, do it before you turn forty, because after that you are likely to be your own worst enemy, and cranky to boot.

Don’t say something idiotic, like, ‘Don’t throw yourself in front of the SUV,’ or ‘Don’t give your heart’. Human culture is brimful of artistic tributes to horrible romantic decisions, because there’s absolutely no point in living pristine and unscathed and bored to tears. The friend who took me to lunch wanted to know whether the ups were worth the downs. The answer is yes—there’s nothing quite like that split second of flying through the air, before the wheels hit. Now please take me to the emergency room? Tell them it’s the usual.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Shooting for the moon

(Published on September 5, 2015 in Business Standard)

Early in my twenties, my father sat me down for the world’s shortest conversation.

“So,” he said, “what do you want to do with your life?”

“I think I want to be a good person,” I said.

He smiled. “How nice!” he said. “And what about your plans for the future?”

I fished about in the deeps of my soul and found that it was all shallows.

“Nah, that’s it, really,” I said.

His smile became briefly fixed, like that of a person who can see a hungry lion sneaking up behind you but doesn’t want to ruin your last moments by telling you so. Then his face slipped into frank panic, and he walked off, no doubt to strike my name from his will.

I think my father would much rather have been a freelance photographer, but he had to have a more stable job on account of having produced squadrons of children. He worked like a demon all his life, and liked being good at his work. My mother likes to be good at her work. My siblings like to be good at their work. I have to spend a lot of time keeping my inherent tendency to be a jerk in check.

Fact: I have no ambition. I am a viciously competitive Boggle player, and when I’m drunk I often challenge much larger people to arm-wrestling matches, but that’s about the size of it.

I’ve been thinking about ambition, because these days you cannot draw breath without choking on some image, or article, or television debate, or conversation, about the Sheena Bora alleged murder case, which seems to boil down to a discussion about the nature of ambition. The noise around this case has drowned out all other known sound in the universe. If there is life on Mars, it is sitting around arguing about whether Indrani Mukerjea is a ruthless gold-digging baby-killer, or a healthily ambitious baby-killer. Eveyone has an expert opinion. (By the way: I got a three-word email from Peter Mukerjea eight years ago, in response to a column, and this very week I was in the same room as a guy whose last name is Bora. So if anyone wants me on a TV panel, I’m available.)

I was sick when the story broke, and not just from the media treatment of the story. I had fever, a bodyache, and a wet cough. As I lay around trying not to die, my thoughts turned once more to my future. It’s good to be good, but it’s better to be able to pay one’s medical bills, which are only going to increase. I have no relevant skills, now that email, text, and social media have totally sidelined grammar and punctuation. I am unemployable, on account of consistently resisting employment. I won’t marry rich because, hello, I’m lazy, not stupid.

What to do?

I think I have finally hit upon a workable plan: I could be an Uber cab driver. I have a car, I love to drive, and I am an excellent driver, especially after a nip or two. I am not well dressed, but I can be courteous. I generally don’t smoke in the car. I am absolutely guaranteed not to rape any customers, though if Mark Ruffalo climbed into my cab I might drive more slowly and try to chat him up a bit. When I don’t feel like driving, I can just turn off the app. It seems win-win.

I finally feel I have something to work toward. But you never know, when you’re dreaming your tender dreams, how horribly wrong things can go. As Leonard Cohen said, “I’ve seen the future, baby: it is murder.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Political superbug

(Published on August 22, 2015 in Business Standard)

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

That’s television.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Same strokes for different folks

(Published today in Business Standard)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 01, 2015

On smoking (Part 591)

(Published on July 25, 2015 in Business Standard)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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