Monday, June 26, 2017

Enlightenment in the hills

Fireflies in Kangra, teachers in Shimla

(Published on June 24, 2017 in Business Standard)

So there I was, sitting on a lightless porch in blackness thickened by the garden beyond. All around me was Lucifer, the shining one—but only in the shape of luciferin and luciferase, two of the chemicals in the chemical-rich posteriors of fireflies. Their reaction with oxygen creates those tiny winking lights that bejewel summer nights.

Except when the bugs are upset. A friend gently trapped some fireflies in a jar, and they began to rapidly flash their bottoms. (Not like that—don’t be so juvenile.) It’s a strobe-like distress signal. A bunch of other fireflies showed up and made uncertain flybys past the jar, now pulsing like a tiny disco. I’m not sure what they were planning to do for their fallen comrades—flash them some solidarity? break them out of jail? Maybe some were just rubbernecking.

The inner thoughts and feelings of fireflies are important questions when you’re out of the large flashy posterior we call Delhi. I’ve been roaming around in the hills, in cloud and rain and shine, under cedar and oak and starlight. I haven’t clapped eyes on a newspaper in eleven days, and it has improved my health. The other day I spent my day observing classes in a school in Shimla, and that considerably improved my mood—plus, I had an epiphany.

I always maintain that not always, but often, the difference between a free citizen and a bag of meat shuffling along behind a guy with a purse/totem/whip, is teachers. The classroom is a madly exciting space in which young people discover the potential and value of their own minds. Probably even the tiny fellow who spent the whole class staring at me with his mouth open. I wouldn’t bet the house on him, but still.

Madly exciting, that is, for the teacher. Imagine being able to introduce someone to the idea of thinking for herself, without immediately being accused of being a paid Italian slave! This is a strange but pleasant new idea. As I went from class to class, enjoying the delicious soup of student vibes—eagerness, intelligence, timidity, uncertainty, relish, rowdiness, shy affection, and the inevitable bouquet of bodies fresh from the soccer field—I found myself contemplating the never-before thought that perhaps it might be fun to teach.

It’s a never-before thought because I have horrible stage fright. My heart starts hammering, my voice gets squeaky. And yet this time, in class, I had no trouble talking—in fact, I may have had trouble shutting up. That’s new. Maybe it’s because I no longer experience kids only as annoying little frights. All I see is dramatic irony with aromatic armpits. For all their freshness and brilliance and creativity, they seem like innocent little accidents waiting to happen, and thank god somebody takes the trouble to help install, in their brains, the equivalent of a seat belt and an airbag. Maybe also a sick bag. And a bullshit detector. And a critical alarm light. And a toolbox and manual to maintain and repair their own engines… You get the drift. 

Shaping an open, curious and compassionate mind that is also fortified against manipulation is no easy task. I have no idea why they imagine that 12 years of schooling is enough. I’m thinking that 30 should do it. That’s probably why my schoolteacher career is dead in the water.


Anyway, I’m back in the boiling summer plains now, fireflies and shawls and moist forests just a wistful memory, so if you need me, just look for a woman zig-zagging around the place, rapidly flashing her bottom. (Not like that, don’t be so juvenile.)

Friday, June 16, 2017

The connection between drinking and horrible news

Never have I wanted a stiff drink more.

(Published on June 10, 2017, in Business Standard)

Timing is everything, and mine is awful. I can only ever think of a question to ask after the discussion panel has disbanded. I wear a boot cut when everyone is wearing skinny jeans. I decided to start drinking like a troubled teenager just when my peers had begun to buy houses and stay up late doing their kids’ homework.

But worst of all, I decided to stop drinking like a troubled teenager for a couple of months, just before news came in of children getting blown up at a concert in  The news then went on to behave like a faulty firecracker, shooting all over the room sparking crazily, as if it had short-circuited from all the weird bad stuff it had to report.

For example, the government said it cared deeply about cruelty to animals, and banned across India, except in places that like to eat beef and are about to vote. (It is probably upset with Kerala, which told it to take a running jump between mouthfuls of beef curry.)

A Rajasthan High Court judge said, Dear god, Indian people, can you believe I’m a High Court judge? The actual words he used were about how peahens get pregnant by drinking peacocks’ tears, but same thing.

A woman in Haryana was gang-raped, and rode home on the metro clutching the corpse of her baby, which her attackers had thrown into the road because it was crying. Also in Haryana, two men raped a woman and then bashed her skull in with a brick.

In Madhya Pradesh, police shot and killed five farmers who were protesting, in a creative interpretation of the government’s #JaiKisan hashtag.

In Delhi, the CBI raided the properties of the promoters of NDTV, which is arguably the only news channel still critical of the government. In the aftermath, published a column urging Indian media not to be so craven, and urging Indians to take to the streets to protest creeping authoritarianism and defend our liberties. You know things are bad when a Pakistani newspaper is irritated by our cowed media and our sheeplike acceptance of ‘religious fascism’.

member of the legislative council in Jammu started a campaign against momos, because while they might look like wildly popular little lumps of snacky deliciousness, the legislator knows that they are wicked addictive drugs that will corrupt and sicken our youth.

To top it all, there was a hideous story from the UK of a four-year-old autistic little boy whose mother died suddenly at home of an epileptic fit, and who himself starved to death in their flat, clinging to her decomposing body.

Now you tell me if the world cannot stand a little biochemical softening of the edges. There’s a reason grownups are allowed to drink. Here I am, having swapped psychic haleness for physical health, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not that great a deal. One is trying to be an upright citizen with a fresh-faced liver, in full possession of her faculties, but if ever one has needed a stiff drink, it has been in the last sixteen days, fifteen hours and twelve minutes at the time of writing, not that I’m counting.

A troublesome neighbour, who is directly responsible for my temporary abstinence, keeps trying to lure me back into temptation by offering gateway drugs like soft drinks. I’m staying strong, but I suspect this will be more possible if I make the odd exception. So I won’t really be drinking until July, or until tomorrow, whichever seems more reasonable in the moment.


This teetotaling thing is a breeze.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why so serious? Lessons in laughter from the Dalai Lama

Loosen up

(Published on May 27, 2017 in Business Standard)

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is a fabulous old egg. People of consequence tend to be a bit buttoned up, but he wears his eminence—wise learned monk, political firebrand, spiritual leader—like the lightest of cloaks. Everything he says comes with a gleeful ‘khi-khi-khi’, or a hearty guffaw. At almost 82, he jokes that after this life he might wind up downstairs rather than upstairs, khi-khi-khi! He takes the most infectious delight in everything. His ability to see the funny side of things is what makes him a truly enlightened chap, at least to my atheist eyes.

His Holiness could easily play up the gravitas. I mean, hello, he is revered as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara, the embodiment of compassion, who sticks around in this vale of tears to serve those who are suffering when he could perfectly well be relaxing in Nirvana. Of all spiritual leaders on earth, of all the godmen and sadhus and cardinals and imams and rabbis and shamans, he is arguably the most loved. From exile in India, he keeps the Tibetan cause blazing on the world radar. He could take himself very seriously indeed—hundreds of millions of people do, after all.

Instead, he is a joyous, laughing beacon of dissent, both political and spiritual. Like the Buddha—that most fabulous of all old eggs—he speaks of the vital importance of not deifying people or teachings, of not following mindlessly; of the importance of engaging in critique, questioning, independent examination, and independent practice. He’s interested in testing the old scriptures against science, and in updating them where necessary. In other words, he’s loving, humble, rational, secure, intellectually and spiritually adventurous, and he’s got a wicked sense of humour. No wonder he’s so loved.

It’s enough to make you want to leap into his lap and hug him forever, while making side-eyes at the dreary gargoyles who are currently celebrating three years of buttoning up India so tightly that nobody can breathe.

All that these gargoyles seem to know how to do is bow and scrape before gods and men and scripture and each other, all the while speaking of pride; tom-tom each other’s manliness and strength, all the while being too frightened to utter a word of dissent. All they do is impose with violence, what they cannot achieve with argument.

And, my god—and please read this in a very shouty voice—they have no sense of humour, like, none! Everything is just so terribly sacred and pompous and self-important and fearsome and worshipful! If they weren’t such stuffed shirts, they might admit how ridiculous they are, achieving the opposite of everything they aim for. 

Newsflash: You can’t love your country by oppressing your countrymen. It’s stupid to be proud of made-up ‘facts’. Stamping out questions is the opposite of education. Having a huge digital surveillance system isn’t the same as being modern. You can’t respect women by calling them goddesses and treating them like chattel. You can’t terrorise and kill people over cows and expect the world to admire your traditions. You can’t be pious by being hateful. You can’t enforce respect, it has to be earned. 

The problem with being too serious is that you can’t see when you’ve tipped over into absurdity. It’s just silly to puff up your chest quite so much when we’re all going to end up as small piles of ashes and dust.


But you can expect everyone else to laugh until their sides hurt, because laughter is a natural response to absurdity. I’ll probably still be laughing well into the alleged afterlife—probably downstairs, khi-khi-khi.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

RSS and the art of manufacturing super-babies

Is it a short baby? Is it a dark baby? No, it's an RSS super-baby!

(Published on May 13, 2017 in Business Standard)

Canadian singer is visiting India just as India is talking about babies, though not as many babies as in Justin’s superhit ‘Baby’. Nothing reflects the zeitgeist like horrible teenage pop.

I’m no baby lover. I have had none myself, despite some close shaves. I have been a useless aunt in terms of babysitting, and in all the other terms in which one can be an aunt. I can’t wait to get to life’s reproductive checkout counter and exchange my fertility for a small beard.

The reason for my sluggish maternal instinct was precisely put by American writer Jean Kerr: “Now the thing about having a baby—and I can’t be the first person to have noticed this—is that thereafter you have it.”

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate children. They’re cute as buttons, and nothing is as interesting as a child before its native genius is schooled out of it. But let’s face it: I don’t like the short, dark, dumb ones. Who does? Certainly no self-respecting Ary—I mean Ayurvedic, people. This is why I am so delighted, as a patriot, that those amongst us who are most dedicated to social work and nation-building have taken on the challenge of turning short, dark, skinny, dumb Indians into taller, fairer, better-built, smarter…Germans, I guess? Or Norwegians? No matter—they’re all Hindus anyway.

If you’re a short, dark, skinny dumbo who had a hard time finding someone to marry, you can give your children a leg up on the marriage market and in life by turning to the Garbh Vigyan Sanskar (Uterus Science Culture) project, the brainchild of the Arogya Bharati, the health wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). They will help you have not just babies, but better babies. If you have already had the great misfortune of birthing a short, dark, skinny, dim replica of yourself, you will have to keep him/her—hello, we’re not barbarians—but then you can try to have a better baby, and who’s to know which one you take better care of? We’ve been doing this with boys versus girls for ages.

Members of the have, in the past, demonstrated their scientific temper by covering their cell phones in cowdung; saying that cows both inhale and exhale oxygen; and warning that girls who study past 10pm are immoral. I’m no doctor, but the science behind manufacturing super-babies sounds similar: have sex when the right planets are lined up; stop having sex after you get pregnant (according to Arogya Bharati’s Dr Ashok Kumar Varshney, a PhD in biochemistry, it’s “suicidal for the mother and the baby”); and have the pregnant mother chant shlokas and mantras. All of this apparently repairs faulty genes, making Jatin look more like Justin. Western science can engineer genes in petri dishes; India can engineer racist pride right in the womb.  

Arogya Bharati has tried to help Indians manufacture proper fair babies ever since they got the idea from Germany in the 1940s. You can’t really tell this from casting your eye over the Indian population, but these things take time. Luckily the will be around for a while.

Speaking for myself, I’m glad to be off the baby-making hook—or, as Shashi Tharoor might have said, exultant to have eternally recused myself from viviparously nurturing minuscule iterations of Homo sapiens despite my biologically enhanced capacity to perform the function of distaff ancestor.

I don’t know why people make fun of the guy. If my didn’t come with a super vocabulary, I’d want my money back.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Our guys, their gais

Waiter, there’s a cow in my everything.

(Published on April 29, 2017 in Business Standard)


If I unexpectedly had five minutes of the government’s undivided attention—thoo, thoo, thoo—I would tell it just this one thing: Guys (if you will pardon the expression), the cow thing has gotten completely out of hand.

I don’t mean out of hand as in, how people are killing other people over cows. Nobody in the government cares about that. Nor do I mean how every cow is getting an Aadhaar number, though even lots of humans don’t want one—the government thinks that’s a good use of time and money. I don’t mean how killing a cow can get you life imprisonment in various states. Those state governments like the idea. It’s not about how people are checking other people’s tiffins for beef, since nobody is more into monitoring tiffins than the government. Forget that we’re going to open a retirement home for elderly cows in every district. The government really wants to. And I certainly don’t mean how, despite all this, people in the northeast can go ahead and slaughter and eat beef to their hearts’ content—the BJP is eyeing elections there next year, so cows can take a hike, which tells you a lot about the relationship between cows and votes.

No, what I mean, guys, is that the cow thing, and by ‘thing’ I mean all the stuff mentioned above—the cow thing makes you look straight-up ridiculous.

Ignore, for a moment, the insignificant outrage of your own citizens, and look at India through the eyes of the world. The world sees a giant nation with giant potential, bedevilled by hideous poverty and suffering, in desperate need of healthcare, education, jobs, and infrastructure, looking to the government to deliver development.

And what does the world see the giant nation doing about it? Putting cows front and centre. Cows on the street, cows in the newspapers, cows in television studios, cows in election campaigns, cows in the law. Cows everywhere except on our plates.

If I were the world, I’d back away quietly, being careful not to make any sudden moves.

Not that the world is going to come out and say that. The world will rock back on its heels and stroke its chin and keep up a polite rumble about markets and investment and potential and so forth. But later, over drinks by itself, it will say: That India—interesting country, big market, but my god, talk about loony tunes.

Guys, you’re going to say, Who cares what the world thinks? We’re the best, it is our destiny to lead the world, look, everyone’s doing yoga, everything the world has was originally ours.

But let’s get real—you care deeply what the world thinks, because you have a massive insecurity problem. You suspect that maybe you aren’t the best, and you suspect people of sneering at you. Even some of your own people, who see this whole thing as cowboys versus Indians. You hate being sneered at—it makes you crazy. The crazier it makes you, the crazier you act, and then the more people sneer at you. It’s a problem.

The world will probably just hold its nose and take crazy in its stride, as it always has, dealing with all kinds of shady people as long as it can make money off them. It’s possible that you won’t care that it is holding its nose—but I doubt it.

So you might want to course correct the whole cow thing. It makes you look as if you can’t lead us, let alone the world.


That’s what I would say. But it would probably be a total waste of five minutes.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A toast to freedom in the Blue Mountains

Welcome to the sanitised playpen that used to be the Republic of India

(Published on April 15, 2017 in Business Standard)

I spent this Thursday sitting on a hillside in the Nilgiri Mountains, worshipping a couple of coconuts. The Nilgiris stand like big blue teeth in the welcoming smile of the Deccan—or, as Tarun Vijay calls it, where the black people we live alongside, live. I was at a bhoomi pujan to bless new landowners and their land, throwing my godless good wishes into the mix. After two sweaty hours we buried two tiny silver snakes in the ground, and repaired to a humongous lunch—or, as Ram Vilas Paswan might put it, beyond the regulated restaurant portion.

The pundit and I had a brief chat. He seemed surprised that I wasn’t Australian, which was his first guess. 

Where is your child, madam? He asked. I don’t have a child, I said. He wiggled his eyebrows.

Your husband, madam? He asked. I’m not married, I said. No husband? he breathed.

Grey hair, no husband, no child, I confirmed. His face became very still. Then he stuck out his hand. 

Best, he said.

Best, I agreed, and we shook on it. I raised my fists and said ‘Freedom.’ 

Freedom, he nodded. Even I am not going to get married, madam. 

Best, I said.

It was so refreshing to be toasting freedom. Everywhere I look, people are obediently giving up autonomy, choice, and individual rights, without a whimper, law by law, rule by rule.

The BJP is rolling like a conquering juggernaut over India, on the promise of transformation, and living up to that promise—it is transforming hundreds of millions of fully grown, perfectly competent adult Indians, into helpless, gummy toddlers who must be soothed when they wail, fed regulated amounts of approved food on a predetermined schedule, and re-raised to achieve predetermined dreams.

Welcome to the sovereign socialist theistic majoritarian sanitised playpen that used to be the Republic of India—please deposit your brains and your gonads at the door. The BJP nanny state is relieving us of the stress of having to make our own choices and make up our own minds. If someone is upset, it will stop the whole playdate until someone says sorry. It makes everyone use our indoor voices. It wants us to progress together by finding the dumbest, most regressive toddlers, dragging everyone else down to their level, and proceeding backwards at their rate.

The nanny state is toddler-proofing the room, covering up anything complex or age-inappropriate. It censors words like ‘bra’, and ‘beef’ that allude to impure ideas, and any words with double meanings, and ‘Bombay’, and phrases that the Prime Minister has used. It decides the content and size of your tiffin. Meat is dodgy. Alcohol is bad for you. It tells you when to sit down and when to stand up, and how to love the nation.

It only allows good wholesome fun—no late nights, no premarital sex or romance, no subversive art. Fun is culturally scheduled and features bright primary colours, Bollywood tracks, and family outings for ice cream.

The nanny state will homeschool you, but only as much as you need to be a thriving toddler, including how not to question it. It will make sure it knows where you are and what you’re doing at all times, apparently for your own safety. 

Toddlers don’t need democracy; they need a firm nanny. This nanny will not hesitate to beat kids to death for disobedience. That makes all the other toddlers shut up and put their thumbs right back in their mouths. That’s how you build a strong, proud playpen.

I’m thrilled to report that around the Nilgiris, they still seem to like being adults.

Freedom. Best.


Thursday, April 06, 2017

Laughter is the best resistance to political bullying


Jokes are kryptonite to authority.

(Published on April 1, 2017 in Business Standard)

Authority only really works on people who agree to consider it authoritative. Not authority like the police and the courts—obviously those guys have guns, and jails, and can physically impose their will upon you. I mean authority like the power to control people’s minds and lead them by the nose down whatever nasty little majoritarian alley they want. That kind of authority needs—nay, is absolutely at the mercy of—citizens’ individual cooperation in treating it like the big strong manly alpha dog that it wants to be. 

This is a shaky leg to stand on. And you know what sneaks up and nudges that leg in the back of the knee, making it wobble and look silly? Jokes! Jokes are kryptonite to authority. They are to pompous egos what needles are to soap bubbles. They make people laugh and point when they should be bowing and scraping. This is why politicians and godmen are such a thin-skinned, humourless lot, and make such free use of guns and jails. They hate being made fun of—it’s bad for their image as fearsome, wondrous people wielding fearsome, wondrous power over masses faint with admiration. The more they suspect people of mocking them, the more they fall back on guns and jails. This is also why their followers insist on respect for their leader, else their feelings will be hurt, and, you guessed it, we’re back to guns and jails.

In Myanmar in the late 1990s, people wouldn’t say a word about the military junta in public. But they whispered indignantly about a comedy trio, the Moustache Brothers. Two of them had been sentenced to seven years in a labour camp for an act criticising the government. Years later, in 2008, the famous Burmese satirist Zarganar was sentenced to 59 years in prison, though he was freed by amnesty in 2011. The whole editorial team of French magazine Charlie Hebdo suffered the most extreme review of their work when they were gunned down by Islamist fundamentalists who didn’t find them funny. The wildly popular Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef was arrested in 2013 for mocking President Morsi.

Closer to home, in January 2016, comedian Kiku Sharda was tossed in the clapper for a couple of weeks for mimicking Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and offending his followers’ sentiments. This month, a young man in Uttar Pradesh ended up in the clink for posting a morphed image of the new chief minister, Mr Adityanath; and another young man in Maharashtra was arrested for uploading a photo of a warrior-king with Mr Adityanath’s face stuck on it, after his friends ratted him out to a pro-Maratha reservations organisation.

In other words, politicians and god-botherers fully understand that humour is the pointiest, pokiest form of resistance. It is also, by nature, untameable. Turkish president Erdogan, who cracked down on hundreds of people who make fun of him, found this out the hard way: His crackdown only inspired even more jokesters and satirists.

For its creativity, for revealing uncomfortable truths, for its sturdy self-respect, and for its refusal of mind control, we should, this April Fool’s day, celebrate the many delicious forms of humour available to us—light comedy, wit, irony, sarcasm, satire, spoofery, parody, mockery, ridicule, and plain rudeness. 

Prime Minister Modi led by example, this January, when he called for more humour and satire in public life, saying that the power of laughter is greater than the power of weapons. He’s dead right. After I had recovered from the immense shock of finding myself in agreement with him, I actually clapped. 

Let it never be said that I have nothing nice to say about the man, okay?


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Whose line is it anyway?

You mean this is your own stupid opinion?

(Published on March 18, 2017 in Business Standard)


Sometimes, after I return from a trip to social media, I have to take a moment to compose myself. Only when the whites of my eyes are no longer visible, and my blood pressure has stabilised, can I can sit down and calmly cuss the idiots out over dinner like a normal human being.

Just kidding. They’re not idiots, they just have views different from mine.

Just kidding! They totally are idiots. 

In this deeply polarised political climate, it’s becoming harder to talk to whoever constitutes the ‘other’ side on any issue—not because of their views per se, but because of their view of the origin of your views. The same Modi-backer who claims to have arrived at her choices via cool-headed independence, is quick to dismiss opposing views as motivated—by blind hatred, by slavish loyalty, by political puppetry or financial incentive, or (my personal favourite) by the desire to be ‘fashionable’.

I figure this last accusation arises out of the notion that power and success so obviously require compliance and deference, that critique can only be a form of attention-grabbing cockiness. The other accusations seem to arise from the belief that your views must be dictated by something suspect—by class, political allegiance, sour grapes, or payroll—anything but your own principles.

The Modi-backer, for her part, must resent her views being perceived as springing from bigotry, religious chauvinism, venality, insensitivity, jingoism—anything but her genuine desire to see a man of action stop corruption in its tracks and develop the hell out of the country. I feel her pain, and feel that I should make an effort to reassure her that I understand her.

So here’s the best case scenario: I have nothing against any economic good that the BJP can accomplish in terms of fighting corruption and raising incomes without trampling over rights and environmental regulations. But if she thinks that she can cherrypick economic roses out of a nasty bouquet of social hemlock, she is either unaware of the RSS’s agenda, or aware but certain of her own acceptability to the majority and uncaring of her fellow citizens, or deluded into thinking that Mr Modi does not represent the Sangh despite his tireless, lifelong service to it. There, does that make it clearer?

Seven years ago, when the world was merely horrible, rather than horrible and proud of it, I wrote a Stet column titled ‘Left brain-right brain’. It paraphrased a friendly conversation about Palestine. Re-reading how it degenerated into insults hurled across a deep, wide belief gap, I recognise that dynamic as today’s mainstream. The only difference is that now the conversation is about Indians and other Indians.

The BJP’s storming of U.P. has disheartened a lot of liberals, who are keenly feeling their political marginality. But the wonderful thing about being a liberal is that you can go ahead and be the very last one left standing. That’s the principle of the thing—individual rights, down to the last individual.

So go ahead and fling social media faeces at us, tell us how irrelevant we are, and accuse us of opposing Mr Modi to be cool. (Face-palm—glad you think it’s cool, but that’s not why we’re doing it.) Tell us about our ‘political masters’. Tell us how you felt put down by our superior tone, so you chose a religious supremacist. We’re still not going anywhere. 


And regardless of what you believe about the source of our respective stupid opinions, in the same way that mine reflect on me, know that yours reflect on you.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Nationalist baby steps

Intern here and you could be a big nationalist one day

(Published on March 4, 2017 in Business Standard)

Are you a passionate young person? Do you often feel inadequate, and are you beset by inchoate feelings of anger and fear and disempowerment? Do different people and different ideas create feelings of panic? Is your skin thinner than the thinnest argument you can muster? Are you happier running in a pack, following clear directions, than exploring things yourself? Are you willing to trust and venerate your leadership? Are you looking for like-minded people, and, more importantly, are you willing to never rest until there are only like-minded people to be found?

If this describes you, please take our multiple choice entrance exam.

Congratulations! A very warm welcome to you from all of us here at the Anti-Antinational Brainless Vigilantes Plague, or AABVP. We think you’ll be very happy here, because, as we like to say, ignorance is bliss.

First off, may we offer a pat on the back to prop up your fragile sense of self? You scored a brilliant 100% on your multiple choice entrance paper, choosing from the four interchangeable versions of the single possible answer we provided alongside each question. You’re a genius. There is little else to know, and if anyone tells you different, here’s a handy manual entitled ‘Making Weapons Out Of Whatever’s Available’. It’s not hard, mostly pictures, mug it up. It’s often going to be your first resort.

We teach you what to think, not how to think for yourself, so please don’t do anything dangerous like try to use your own brain, or indulge any stray feelings of self-doubt, guilt, compassion, or mutual respect for people unlike yourself. These uncomfortable feelings may arise, and we know how scary they can be, but be assured that they will pass. Stay strong.

Some people will tell you that there are other answers to the questions on our entrance exam. They will criticise ideas, and authority, and will not be afraid to do so. They will act as if it’s normal. These are the people who are destroying India. What do you mean, how? Have we taught you nothing? Questions that do not conform to the answers we have provided, are invalid. This gig runs on a need-to-know basis, and what you need to know is: These are the people we hunt. 

If you find one of these people, which you will, because they’re everywhere, this is your time to shine. Our standard operating procedure is pretty simple.

1. Get into their faces and yell the four interchangeable versions of the single valid answer you know.

2.If they argue, push them and threaten to rape them.

3. If, for the sake of form, you wish to come across as reasonable, agree with them fully, then say ‘But!’ and repeat the four interchangeable versions of the single answer.

4. If they keep talking, pick your favourite picture from the manual and do that.

5. If things aren’t going your way, appeal to the nearest policeman. The police will help you.

Remember that you won’t last a minute in a verbal debate, so if someone starts one, skip directly to intimidation. If that doesn’t work, go back to the manual. You’re so cute when you’re angry! We’re very proud.

By the way, please don’t confuse us with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, or ABVP—that’s the nationalist student organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who tirelessly protect our universities and communities from intellectual and cultural mayhem, showing the kind of extra-judicial entrepreneurship and dedication without which this country would shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. The ABVP is for the big boys.

Maybe if you do well here, in ultra-nationalism nursery, you could think of joining them one day.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Health is wealth

And health is wealth. Repetition is key.

(Published on February 18, 2017 in Business Standard)

My eldest niece, who just last week was sixteen inches long and did nothing but poop and sleep, this week turned 12 years old, and has kind of a cool haircut. If that’s not weird enough, a couple of days ago I heard an aunt tell my mother, “It was a nice day, and we didn’t have anything to do, so we said, chalo, let’s go get a bone density test.”

In other words, gentle reader, time passeth. I have not been paying attention, so now it leapeth up and biteth me in the butt. I haven’t yet begun to think of bone density tests as a leisure activity, but I am now open to saying never say never.

I last had a top-to-toe health check about fifteen years ago, back when excess was only an occasional thing. Since I thought of myself as ageing at the time, my clean bill of health made me pretty smug. Today it is obvious to me that I had nothing whatsoever to do with the test results—I was just young and hale. Fifteen years on, occasional delinquency has slipped into hardened habit, and physical discipline has pulled its blankie over its eyes and gone back to sleep. What used to be an invigorating run in the park is now a sedate walk that feels like hard work. In other words I have grown bibulous, portly, lazy, and mutinous about it all.

In my twenties, I would observe all the weird old people walking around the world with their paunches and double chins and their cottony lack of muscle tone, and I would say to myself, Not me. That will never be me. Since I know it can get there, I simply won’t let it. Forewarned is forearmed. Why are they smirking? I will always exercise. I will never overeat. I will never drink too m—okay, I didn’t say that last thing, but you get the picture.

Dear weird old people, please accept my sincerest apologies. I kneel before you, eating crow and also humble pie, since I always have one portion too many of everything. Smirk all you want. I deserve it.

To the judgy young people I used to be: I could just smirk quietly to myself, but I am instead going to do you a solid, and pass on some valuable wisdom that nobody told me. Here it comes:

It’s going to happen to you too, suckers. Mwahahaha.

What will happen to you is that you haven’t the faintest idea of the power of one simple thing: repetition. You know those mind-numbing canyons of sculpted stone, created by wind and water? They aren’t made by typhoons and tsunamis. They’re made by perfectly ordinary breezes and little lapping waves that simply keep gently breezing and waving, over a period of time. Repetition can erode, and it can build. Mine, needless to say, have built—around all the areas I was going to keep forewarned and forearmed.

Since my emotions cannot keep up with what I’ve done to myself, I have decided that actually this is all happening because of a dreadful medical condition which will be revealed by a full medical check. Except that I’m too frightened to go by myself, so I’ve made a date with a friend who is also too frightened to go by himself. (I can just hear my niece: “And then my aunt and her friend said, it’s a nice day, let’s go see the doctor.”)

So, judgy young people, you are now forewarned and forearmed. You either need to understand the power of repetition, or start practicing your best smirk. You’re welcome.




Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Boots on the ground

Resist now! Or, you know, in a bit.

(Published on February 4, 2017 in Business Standard)


You know how, when you’re feeling a little bit superior, and it’s a strange new feeling that you’re enjoying and haven’t had your fill of yet, and then suddenly something happens to make you feel inadequate all over again? It’s so annoying.

When the US elected Donald Trump in a shock election that left the world shaking its head to try to get rid of the roaring sound in its ears, a large number of Indians said to themselves, ‘Hah! We thought we had it bad in India. At least our Prime Minister comes from a known political position, from a structured, if disagreeable, cultural supremacist organisation. At least he’s predictable. At least he’s making the right noises, even if his creatures are nasty violent chauvinists whom he doesn’t chastise publicly, and whom he follows online, meets, and felicitates. At least our Prime Minister isn’t some loose orange cannon.’ Trump is so much worse.

Boy, did that feel good. 

And then ordinary Americans went and screwed up our smugness by being all inspirational. 

Look at them, vowing hyper-vigilant media scrutiny. Look at them, marching in droves, calling their senators relentlessly, and using social media to organise rather than whine. Look at them, setting up rogue twitter accounts from inside the White House and governmental organisations, to make sure that their fellow citizens keep getting information that isn’t Trumped up. Look at them, losing their jobs for refusing to defend his executive order barring entry to Muslims from seven countries. Watch them savaging Trump on comedy shows.

Look at the CEOs issuing calls to hire more immigrants, and the consumers boycotting businesses that support Trump. Look at the lawyers, suing the government on behalf of people stranded by the Muslim ban—on the weekend! for free! lawyers, dude! Check them out, standing at airports across the country with banners saying ‘No ban’ and ‘Let them in’. Look at them standing by rows of Muslims praying in public at an airport, and cheering them on. As The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, pointed out: Muslims praying in public at an American airport, and hundreds of people cheering them on—just think about that for a minute.

In other words, Americans who identify a threat to their core values have painted or printed up signs, put on their boots and coats, closed the social media tab on their laptops (because what are mobile phones for?), emerged from their houses, and taken their bodies out onto the streets in solidarity, yelling at the top of their lungs. They are resisting the hell out of the daily horror show put on by their new government—making us, who specialise in keeling over like ninepins before authority, look really lazy and weak. Turns out Americans are so much better at citizenship.

Boy, does that feel bad. 

Speaking for myself, while I’ve walked the streets now and again, I have also skipped marches because I was really busy having lunch. I’ve protested by tapping a button on social media. I’ve possibly slept through some urgent things. Look, the weather in Delhi sucks—it’s always either boiling or freezing. Sometimes you just have to know what’s happening next on a TV show. Marching is hard on the back and feet. Life gets in the way, and so does your expanding waistline.

Blah blah, excuses, excuses. Watching American protesters get their act together so quickly and so forcefully only reminds me of all the resisting that Indians should have been doing for the last three years. Thanks for nothing, ordinary Americans!

Now if I’m to hold on to my dignity, all I can do is hope that, somehow, writing counts. 


Thursday, January 26, 2017

A bridge too far

Or at least very late

(Published on January 21, 2017 in Business Standard)


Everyone will tell you: It’s important to make a good impression. The world treats you better if you dress well, speak well, don’t smell, are punctual and reliable, and don’t make a spectacle of yourself. Boy, has that ship sailed. I once made a half-hearted attempt to catch up with it by buying new jeans, but some doors never reopen. The only good impression I make is on the putty that dentists use to make dental moulds.
In a December 2006 instalment of this column, I promised not to write any more columns about my teeth. But that was ten years ago, and maybe I lied; plus, there’s been a development. 

To recap, so to speak: Ten years ago, both my front teeth were yanked out as the grand finale of a long comet tail of dental events—caps, pins, bridges and really gross gum surgery—rooted, if you will, in a childhood accident that was totally not my cousin’s fault, though I’m always open to receiving nice presents from her. Long story short, I ended up with a temporary denture. My dentist told me to come back a few weeks later for a permanent bridge, but I’m lazy, and was traumatised, and, really, ten years fly by.

I don’t mind the denture; I enjoy dropping my teeth at kiddy parties, and select adult parties, and listening to the screaming. It’s probably genetic—it seems that my grandfather also dropped his dentures at passing children, and when the parents turned to see what made their kid cry, there was only a sweet old gentleman, reading his newspaper and minding his own business. It’s practically family tradition. 

But all good things must come to an end. It turns out that when there is space in the jaw, teeth begin to roam, like the ruthless white colonisers of North America. Mine (teeth, not ruthless white colonisers of North America) are striking out. So this week I decided that it was time to arrest the joyful pirouetting of my lateral incisors, and get some permanent teeth.

Here’s how they make a bridge for your front teeth. The dentist sticks a needle into a seriously tender part of your face while you twitch like a pinioned insect. When you’re numb from your eyebrows to about the middle of your chest, he drills your lateral incisors for half an hour, whittling them down to thin little sticks. These are so hilarious that you want to post them on Facebook. But your only job is to cry, moo piteously, and flail because your throat is filled with water, and your nostrils are numb, and you can’t breathe. This last move draws censure from the dental team, who tell dark tales of drills nicking lips and hands caught in wires. Then they fashion temporary caps and cement them onto the hilarious little sticks, put the denture back in, and tell you to come back in a week to fit a permanent bridge.

So now I’m walking around the world with two fake caps gleaming out of my face like rakshas tusks or, as I like to think of them, beacons of hope that it won’t be another ten years before I go back. Until then, I have to eat softish foods, because if these puppies fall off, we’re back to hilarious little sticks. 

But I’m not really worried about looking ridiculous, because ridiculous just raised the bar a lot higher by swearing in Donald Trump as POTUS this Friday. Who can beat that? We should all brace ourselves, as they say. Because there’s a man, if ever there was one, who’s got a bridge to sell you. 




Thursday, January 12, 2017

Ten percent human

There’s a reason we talk about having ‘a gut feel’.

(Published on January 7, 2017 in Business Standard)


On a recent flight, the man next to me drank six glasses of wine and then asked if he could read my book. I was watching a movie when he asked, so there wasn’t a good reason to say no. Books broaden one’s horizons, even if one is already seeing multiple horizons. It would have been mean-spirited to refuse. But I couldn’t help being irritated, and the trouble with lending a book resentfully is that one is plagued with trust issues. I spent ten minutes spying on him while he thumbed repeatedly and exclusively through the contents, sometimes pursing his lips, sometimes holding his head and blowing out of his nostrils like a horse. Then his meal arrived, and he plunged his right hand into daal while continuing to paw my book with his left hand. This was the last straw.

I popped the headphones out of my ears. “What are you doing?” I said coldly. He looked up through his eyelashes, a la Princess Di. “This is a very surprising book,” he said, and then leaned across the empty seat between us and bellowed, “Who ARE you?” into my face. That’s irrelevant, I snapped. “Well I think this book is irrelevant,” he said, as if this was a brilliant comeback. I reached across and snatched it back. “Read your own book,” I said, as if this was a brilliant comeback. Thus our acquaintance took root, flared briefly, and passed away, unmourned.

The larger point, here, is that I advise you to throw on some clothes, lace up your shoes, and grab your phone to order this book at once. It’s called Gut, by Giulia Enders, and it features chapters like ‘How does pooing work?’ and illustrations of bacteria with smiley faces and capes. If you, like me, are irresistibly drawn to accessibly written books about science, you will thank me, as I thank my friend Martin who pointed me to this one.

I have written about bowel movements in the op-ed pages of this long-suffering newspaper, so it’s not as if my interest in potty is a secret. What is truly baffling to me is why so many other people, barring Bengalis, aren’t as interested, considering that it’s a daily affair that can make you miserable when it goes wrong. But whatever—life is short, miss out if you want to. At any rate, poop is only one angle of that thrilling young field of research, the human microbiome.

For those unfamiliar with the term, the microbiome refers to the unimaginably large numbers of bacteria that have co-evolved to live all over the human body to, mostly, preserve and defend it. If that creeps you out, you might want to digest this: In the womb, you are composed of 100 percent human cells; by the time your microbiome stabilises around the age of three, only about 10 percent of your cells are human. The other 90  percent are bacteria. They began to colonise you the moment you exited your amniotic sac. In the normal course of events you emerge into the world with a protective coating of your mother’s vaginal flora, and go from there, picking up and breeding billions of bugs a minute. About 2-3 kilos of bacteria, or about 99 percent of all your critters, live in your gut, and comprise a large part of your immune system, and what scientists are calling your second brain.


It’s all completely fascinating, and Giulia Enders makes you laugh even as she blows your mind. Do yourself a favour and read it. Just please don’t read it with your hands dipped in daal.

First Christmas

And thankfully the last

(Published on December 24, 2016 in Business Standard)

The first and only time my family celebrated Christmas, I was seven or eight. It was early in our stint in Switzerland, and my mother thought that she would do the whole thing with the tree and the presents and so on, to broaden our cultural horizons. She duly went out ten days beforehand and bought a tree—a teenage sized fir, as firs go, in a pot. Glossy green, not too big, not too small; quiet personality, but with a presence; just right for pre-pubescents to decorate without injury. She placed it in a festive corner behind the television (it was a small apartment, and one needs to be able to see the television), and we awaited the big day with excitement. In our Christmas, we were all the virgin.

Some days later, the tree began to look a bit peaky. A day or two after that, it turned brown from head to foot. Shortly after that it heaved a deep sigh, dropped four-fifths of its needles onto the floor in one whoosh, and expired. Consternation. It turned out that we were supposed to have watered it. But this was our first Christmas, and we weren’t going to give up on our tree just because it had died. What if they’d given up on Jesus just because he had died? 

A couple of days before Christmas, therefore, we dressed up the poky brown stem with shiny balls and gold stars and angels and whatnot. We dressed ourselves up too—I had my hair in a bun, for some reason, and wore an old lady’s grey sweater, and a skirt. It’s amazing that I didn’t develop arthritis. We arranged our presents around the dead tree and settled in for some Christmas cheer.

The whole thing was a fiasco. I broke my mother’s pearl necklace, and when she assumed it was my little brother’s fault, I let her yell at him in an act of cowardice that makes me cringe to this day. I didn’t give anyone presents—though, in my defence, the narrative  suggested that children only rightfully get presents. My father was in a bad mood—though, in his defence, he’d had three children before the age of 30, and the bad mood predated and postdated that Christmas. My mother’s smile careened between chirpy and psycho—though, in her defence, she’d had three children before the age of 26, no experience of Christmas trees, and was stressed out by her sulking husband, her yowling five-year-old, and her eldest daughter who, in my memory, remained barricaded in her room. As her middle child I was largely inconsequential, but when I entered her field of vision, glamorously bunned and skirted up, she managed to remark that I would certainly always have to make my eyes up, “later”.

It was a perfectly dreadful evening, bad feelings fogging around our dead tree, a tinselled skeleton mired in a pot of guilt and regret. It was sort of redeemed by the presents we opened the next day, but very soon thereafter we reached an unspoken family consensus that we should just never attempt to do stylised celebrations ever again—and we didn’t. When it comes to Christmas, much like weddings, other people’s are more fun to go to than one’s own.

The tail end of this year feels much like that evening, to me, and so I feel we’re all about due for a spot of redemption. I have forsworn all religious greetings, but I predict that you’re going to spend Saturday and Sunday eating and drinking, so here’s wishing you a happy weekend.


Tip: If you’re not having fun, you need to start watering your plant ten days ago.