Saturday, October 30, 2010

The case of the missing attribution*

*This week, for the first time since its inception in August 2006, Stet was not published in Business Standard's weekend edition (October 30, 2010) . You'll find the likely reason for that in the second-last paragraph of the spiked column, reproduced below.

Update November 2, 2010: Business Standard's view that the post below was too dated to run is utterly unpersuasive, and I'm afraid I don't believe it. They also say that since this post was put up on the blog, along with comments about BS, the question of carrying it in the paper does not arise. We shall have to agree to disagree on this whole thing, and I will write a post about that in a few days; but meanwhile, I have terminated my arrangement with them with immediate effect. As of this week, Stet will no longer appear in Business Standard.

Given my own recent battle with the effects of long-haul travel, I have great sympathy for Aroon Purie. Jet lag is the worst. Did you know that sleep deprivation can give you Type II diabetes, heart disease, and plagiarism? It’s a real tiger-nado of a bummer.

Aw, I’m being unfair. It wasn’t Aroon Purie himself who copy-pasted large bits of Grady Hendrix’s Slate article on Rajnikanth into the ‘Letter from the Editor’ in India Today’s infamous southern issue on Rajnikanth. It’s complicated. Somebody sent somebody something and somebody got confused and, well, oops.

Except that it was Aroon Purie: his name is right there at the end of the letter. Allegedly he rarely writes his own editor’s letter—it is generally either drafted or entirely written by someone else, and he makes changes ranging from the minor to the major. The problem is that, no matter who put those words together, the buck stops with the name at the end of the piece. You would think that an editor might therefore either stick to writing his own pieces or care about his credibility enough to check what he’s putting his name to. If he doesn’t, it’s his mistake.

It is therefore ungracious for him to try to publicly pass-the-buck-without-passing-the-buck. If he has seen fit to be credited for lots of editorial letters that don’t ever mention “inputs from Delhi”, he shouldn’t suddenly mention them to explain this one—which, unfortunately, is the one he’s likely to be remembered for.

His weaselly apology tried a breezy, jokey style (“Jet lag is clearly injurious to the health of journalism”) to lay out an excuse that effectively hollowed out the mea culpa. It would have been more worthy of respect if he had said “Dear readers, I have unfortunately lifted half my letter from the editor from Slate magazine, and I’m sorry, and it will never happen again.” If he were truly interested in integrity, he would add, “Also, I’ve been outsourcing my letter from the Editor—what kind of Editor does that?—and that will never happen again either.” As a journalist friend of mine put it, those weekly letters are ghostwritten as if they’re speeches from a CEO, not letters from the Editor.

The total lack of surprise or shock about all this in the journalist community is the best indicator that Indian media is in crisis as far as integrity is concerned. Amongst other crimes such as those listed in the Press Council of India report which nobody in the media wants to talk about, is rampant plagiarism. Nobody in the media wants to talk about that either. It’s not as if ours is the only media in the world with big problems. But when ours is confronted with its own scandals, you can hear the clang of a fraternity closing ranks, followed by the weird sound of thousands of furious back-scratchings, followed by the thunderous silence of stones not being thrown in glass houses.

Everyone is human, so screwups are going to happen. Nobody is infallible, nor is anyone expected to be infallible. There are genuine cases of faulty memory and communication gaps and plain sloppiness. Unequivocal apologies can and should be made. But we’re at the point where it has become so commonplace to plagiarise in small and big ways that to many journalists it’s no big deal, and that’s the point at which we’re in trouble. Getting caught is not embarrassing enough yet—the media still mostly chooses to tiptoe around the doo-doo on the carpet, trying to be polite to whoever put it there. When we become a profession that respects itself enough to hang plagiarists out to dry, we will be a profession we can be proud of.

Off the books*

All that the Shiv Sena had to do was to get one its youngest pups to bare his milk teeth and let out a couple of tentative yips, and Mumbai University fell to its knees, gibbering with fear. My chest is fairly swelling with pride in the efficiency of that institution: the Vice Chancellor took Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such A Long Journey, off the syllabus within twenty-four hours of being yipped at about how it is offensive to Marathis and the Shiv Sena.

Of course, the Shiv Sena is not to be trifled with, since its critical mass of brainless morons have always believed that the sword is mightier than the pen, and hold that vandalising property and beating up people is an attractive alternative to all that fussing about with democratic debate. The Sena is by no means the only collection of brainless morons (see the MNS, the Ram Sene, the Bajrang Dal and so forth), but it is one of the most tediously consistent bullies.

The case of Rohinton Mistry is not a call for a ban, merely a specific veiled threat directed at a university curriculum. The Sena’s lawyer says that the notion that the university acted under any kind of duress is merely an assumption. But it’s a fair assumption that if the Vice Chancellor was not under direct political pressure, the university has responded with what Rohinton Mistry calls the ugly notion of self-censorship. That says something horrifying about the effectiveness of intimidation, or the cravenness of our institutions, or both.

Lucky Rohinton Mistry, though. I bet the sales of his book will enjoy a bump on account of this, because there’s nothing as magnetic to most people as a thing that has been deemed inappropriate for their consumption—especially if it is so deemed after ten years of being deemed perfectly appropriate.

The lawyer for the Shiv Sena said, on a television debate earlier this week, that nobody “in the right frame of mind” could possibly tolerate certain passages in Such A Long Journey. This phrase, a brick wall of absolutism, disallows the possibililty of dissent other than on grounds of—what? Inebriation? A bout of melancholy? Childhood abuse? All-out madness?

On the other side, people opposed to the Sena’s stand point out that the “objectionable” critical views of the Shiv Sena in the book are espoused by a fictional character who cannot be equated with Rohinton Mistry. They point out that the book tears into not just the Sena but also the Congress and all kinds of Indians. These arguments are as short-sighted as those of the Sena—yes, the character happens to be fictional, and is not the same person as Mistry, but what if this had been a work of non-fiction by Mistry, presenting Mistry’s take on Maharashtrian politics? What if it had focused purely on one political organisation? Would the Sena then be justified? And would the University cave in?

If the answer to that is yes, then we are indeed the kind of tinpot nation that artists and dissenters of all kinds like to leave skidmarks in as they shoot over the border (though in this neighbourhood that would have to involve getting on a plane). The fact that the Congress chief minister of Maharashta has thrown his weight behind the Sena is disappointing at best, and confirms only that no political party will stand up to a bully and stand up for the freedom of speech.

So I suppose it will be left to the artists and dissenters to keep writing, from wherever they’re writing, and for everyone else to keep reading. One can only hope that the rate of production and consumption remains too high for the tiny-minded to keep pace with.

*Business Standard said that they were uncomfortable using the term "brainless morons" because (wouldn't you know it) the Shiv Sena "could cause trouble for the paper". I told them to black it out, a la censor's pen, to make it clear that they were self-censoring. Unfortunately they changed it to "@&*#$" instead, and did not run that change by me. I wouldn't have approved it because a) it's cowardly and b) it's meant to cover for an expletive, and 'brainless morons' is not an expletive, it's a descriptor.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ode to jet lag

They say a clear conscience ensures
That despite all that mankind endures
By the harsh light of day,
It will all go away
With those eight healing hours of snores.

That’s why I can’t help but feel cheated—
So much that I Facebook and tweet it
In the wee, wee hours,
As one more night sours—
This jet lag has got me defeated.

GMT plus, oh, five and a half
Is my home—at this point, what a laugh;
By my boggy old sinus,
My body’s in minus,
And the difference is making me barf.

Travellers throughout the long ages
Have known what a journey presages:
You sit on a flight
For what looks like one night
But is really three days in two stages.

The result is this vampiric state,
An endless, penumbra-filled wait
For the sun to emerge
And bring on the urge
To rise just to disintegrate.

More non-incidental effects
Of these intercontinental treks:
And some constipation,
And other stuff much more complex.

It depends on one’s cosmology,
But for me, in this vile symphony,
The most terrible fate
I can delineate
Is being doomed to my own company.

I’d gnaw off my right arm to know
Of a good way to get this to go.
They offer you cures,
From sun shades to scores
Of tablets and potions; but show

Me a man who can shake off this feeling
(Of slowly and painfully peeling
The skin from one’s eyes
As one rigidly lies
Peering up at the inky-dark ceiling)

Before his own body’s decided
That the day that his long flight elided
Is made up at last—
And I’ll show you a past
Master of guff who should be derided.

They say uppers like Red Bull or Pepsi
Might help you to keep you in step—see,
But I hate ’em. Each noon
I collapse in a swoon,
In the python hug of narcolepsy

Each day I try staying up later,
And sleep with my phone on vibrator.
3am on the nose
I shoot out of repose,
As if jolted by defibrillator.

They say alternate carbs and proteins,
Baked chicken one meal, then beans;
You can try melatonin
Or a medical phone-in—
But there just are no good enough means.

Hoping to outwit time lag
Is like waving a karmic red flag.
As much as I moan,
One day per time zone
Is the rate of circadian drag.

So the fact is, dear reader, it’s crazy
To think you can just take the lazy
Way out of this hole.
My much-wanted goal
Remains distant, and fragile, and hazy.

The only available option
Is to implement the adoption
Of patience and rest
And hope for the best
And meanwhile just brew a decoction.

I must live in this temporal band,
And my body sure could use a hand.
But I’ll just have to lump it,
And get out my trumpet,
And cheer on my pineal gland.

At least it’s not getting much worse,
My modern day jet-setting curse.
But sleep-deprived minds
Make bad moves of all kinds—
Like, who wants to read lousy verse?

The Big Apple

The other week I joked that I was tempted to run off and become an illegal immigrant in New York. This week I’m serious. [Note to immigration officers everywhere: This is also a joke, sort of.] Some things about this city have changed—it’s noticeably cleaner and the phone booths that used to stand on virtually every street corner are gone. But I’m sitting in Times Square, using free public wi-fi, and if it’s a little depressing that the capital of sleaze now looks much more like Disneyland, it’s still wonderful.

New York is my ideal metropolis. This is how a city should look and work. Mass public transport, including a fabulously intricate subway that is rarely more than a couple of blocks away and that, by the way, was built in the nineteenth century; street lights that take pedestrians into account; friendly cops who will give you recommendations for where you might find a nice little place to eat; people and food from all over the world; a throbbing night life; and incredibly tolerant people. And if all this means you get a few crazies thrown in for free, so what?

I walked around Ground Zero for a bit, since it’s the precise epicentre of the history of the decade between my last visit and this one, and the defining event of my generation. It’s now a big construction site. (Quite literally next door is St Paul’s Chapel, which famously didn’t suffer even a broken pane of glass, and where people volunteered their time after 9/11 to provide food and massages to rescue workers, festooned with testimonials.)

It’s all quite moving, in the way that these things can be, and yet, a couple of nights later I was in a great little bar called the Stoned Crow, chatting with a native New Yorker who thought that everyone should get over themselves and turn the damn place into a mall, and why was it taking so long to build the new tower and the memorial? It’s good to be in a city where people can separate the law of the land and its founding principles from what we in India are pleased to call our sentiments. (And speaking of great little bars, that’s the other vital component of an excellent metropolis. I wish Delhi would stop thinking that every bar should look like a Greek dwelling with candles in niches.)

Of course New York is the temple of consumerism, but the real pleasure of being here comes entirely for free: the great parade of people from every conceivable country (I crossed Central Park in a pedicab operated by a young Tajik who claimed—dubiously—that there are only a hundred Tajiks in New York, and also that his real job was teaching physics in a university) of every conceivable shape, size, colour and sexual orientation, wearing every conceivable kind of clothing, speaking every conceivable language and working at every conceivable kind of job. I could spend all day, every day, hanging out on the street, people-watching. Joy, thy name is diversity. And although people have tried to persuade me for years that New Yorkers are rude and aggressive, I’ve never found a single one that was anything but pleasant and helpful.

So much as I’ve tried to resist my impulses, I can’t. This is it. Wish me luck as I prepare to move into my hovel inhabited by twelve other illegals from Bangladesh and the Ukraine and start my life over, bussing tables at Dunkin Donuts and dodging the law until I’m able to start my own drycleaning business.

[Note to immigration officials everywhere: I’m kidding! Or not.]

New York state of mind

The drive into Boston, Massachussetts from Logan International Airport was notable for one feature: crappy roads. But any smugness I may have felt about that had already been cancelled by the enormous picture on the front page of The New York Times that morning, which showed a stadium in Delhi looking like a bomb site that could just maybe double up as the venue for the swimming competition, if you don’t mind competing in floodwater.

The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games 2010 will take place in Delhi tomorrow, and I do hope everything goes well, because the CWG needs another fiasco like it needs a hole in the… oh, wait. But really, I’m just saying that.

I remember feeling all het up about the CWG not that long ago, but then, on a wi-fi enabled bus barrelling from Boston to New York down a silky interstate highway, I realised that I now have only a vestigial sense that there was once something, somewhere in the world, that was bugging me for some reason. I’ve been reading occasionally about collapsing beds and fake bombs in stadia and unsightly people being booted out of town, and I’m trying to care, but the sight of fiery fall colours under an iron sky, of concrete canyons, and fifty nationalities in one metro car, is beating outrage hands down.

The closest I can get is a tepid consideration of the schisms that have sprung up between Indians over the whole thing. We were a perfectly integrated country before the CWG came along—and by country I mean, of course, set of Facebook friends—compared to what we have become: cleft into rival camps of Cynics and Patriots. Either you have to hate everything about the CWG, or you have to love it blindly. It’s like the Montagues and the Capulets: you’re either for us or against us. Sick-of-cynicism and sickened-by-jingoism would duel at dawn, except that they’re not talking for long enough to make the appointment.

Being a champion of moderation—if not in my own life then in everybody else’s—I’m going to gently suggest that it’s possible to be fair: cheer the good stuff and jeer the bad stuff. This may be confusing, because it will no longer be possible to think of each other as either unremittingly pessimistic or blindly loyal, but why not give it a shot? Black and white are classics, but grey is such a beautifully textured colour.

The pavements around some parts of Delhi look great, and in some cases when I say ‘look great’ I mean ‘now exist’; parts of the Commonwealth Village and some of the stadia look good at least in the photographs; and the airport is a darn sight nicer than it used to be, stupid carpet notwithstanding. Organisers’ rampantly misused and mismanaged public funds, there’s third-rate construction in several places, and the excuse that it’s been raining is contemptible because our super duper Indian wisdom and science has warned for five thousand years that during the monsoon, it could well rain, so it’s probably best to get stuff done before it arrives.

There, see how easy that was?

But maybe this wishy-washy middle ground is only a side effect of an enthusiasm deficit. Partly, that’s because it’s been an emotionally exhausting haul to Sunday, October 3, and when one is plumb out of time, resignation sets in.

But mostly, it’s because I’m in New York City, and everything in the world pales by comparison. Good luck to the CWG; I’m taking a break from caring.

Born again in the USA

It’s been ten years since I made a trip to the US. The last time, in 2000, I was happily bewildered when they gave me a ten-year multiple entry visa despite the fact that I hadn’t grovelled, foamed at the mouth, nor indeed even asked. Yay, I thought, now I can go over whenever I like, for ten years! No more providing years of income tax returns and months of bank statements! No more feeling, in front of the visa officer, like a waste of space with a shady past despite having a spotless record with no instances of being jailed! I blew a year’s worth of my pitiful salary on that holiday—and of course never went again, on account of never having any money.

By the time you read this, I will be a week into my three-week trip there—this time in the south of the country. The only other time I’ve been in the south was during junior year in college, when three friends and I fled a nightmarish winter in Pennsylvania to spend spring break in the crown jewel of Louisiana: New Orleans. The heart of the action was on Bourbon Street, which at night lights up like a nuclear explosion and leaves visitors looking much as anyone caught in a nuclear explosion might.

Speaking of bourbon, that’s what the first week of my trip is about: a visit to parts of the American Whiskey Trail, which is a tourism initiative of the Distilled Spirits Council of the US. It involves lurching from distillery to distillery in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Going on wine- or whiskey-tasting trips is always a bit of a balancing act—one tries to keep it professional, but one is not all that big-built, and one’s blood volume is easily overwhelmed, and so one cannot guarantee that one will not wind up staggering around like Tallulah Bankhead, who allegedly could go through a bottle of bourbon in half an hour. According to a snippet in The Guardian, her last words were apparently “Codeine, bourbon” before she succumbed to the pneumonia she got from walking around starkers.

The point, though, is that what with the epic civic mess leading up to the Commonwealth Games, and the dengue and swine flu and malaria, and Kashmir, and the fact that income tax officers expect a bribe to hand you your refund, America is suddenly looking like a shinier, happier prospect than it has in the last ten years.

It is, after all, the land of milk and oxytetracycline-free honey. (They do have salmonella problems with eggs, and penicillin in pigs, but nobody’s perfect.) Does it feel much different than pre-9/11? I can’t tell you yet, since I’m writing this before I get on the plane on account of copy deadlines that don’t go well with whiskey tasting. All I know is that it’s a place where people go to seek refuge from whatever hideous combination of civic meltdown, disease and conflict they call home. I can imagine the relief and elation they must feel, those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, as they sight the Statue of Liberty gifted to America by the cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

I feel a bit the same way myself. I’m seriously considering getting a false moustache and melting into the vast crowd of illegal aliens from south Asia who traditionally drive taxis in New York. I could change the name of the column and start over. Yes indeed; the bright promise of being all that I can be might prove to tough to resist, especially when blotto. Watch this space.

[Note to immigration officials everywhere: I’m kidding.]

How to save the planet?

Bad news comes in threes, they say. In the last few days a friend’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer, another friend has lost her father, and a family has tragically lost a child. If this sort of thing is not actually happening to you, there’s nothing quite like a personal connection to bring it home with the full force of fear, tragedy or loss. There you are, living a perfectly happy life, and suddenly your insides are liquefied by shock, your mouth is dry, and your heart physically hurts. Your throat and eyes fill with tears, your head with questions.

Similarly, you might hear news of a friend’s success and feel the wildest elation. Or, depending on the kind of person you are, the aforementioned shock and horror—but let’s not go there for now.

The point is, you feel for other people. It’s called empathy, and all but the most interesting sociopaths amongst us have it.
In one of the many excellent animated talks on the website of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), economist and political advisor Jeremy Rifkin touches on the emerging science surrounding empathy (his latest book is The Empathic Civilisation; watch the ten-minute video, and also all the other videos, if only for the wonderful art).

In the 1990s, Rifkin says, an Italian laboratory discovered what are called mirror neurons in the brain. In tests, these light up when the subject observes another’s experience, essentially recreating that experience in the subject. In Rifkin’s words, “we’re soft wired to experience another’s plight as if it were happening to us.” The first drive, he says, is not aggression or utilitarianism, but sociability and affection—the drive to belong.

He traces the expansion of that empathic drive through history as technology and other factors shrink time and space, thus enabling empathy across ever-larger communities from tribes to religious groups to nation states. “Empathy is grounded,” he says, “in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life and rooting for each other to flourish and be.” Is it possible, he asks, to extend our empathy to the whole of the human race, and to the biosphere? Could the ability to do this prove crucial to saving the human species and the planet?

Good question. Then why do we bleed emotionally when someone we know suffers, but are much less moved by the suffering of large, anonymous groups of people? Perhaps some of it has to do with certain kinds of experience being alien to ours. Could an American heiress living in a Manhattan penthouse possibly feel for an Indian living in a discarded sewer pipe—could she go beyond merely acknowledging the injustice, or thinking ‘there but for the grace of god go I’, to really feeling the horror of hunger, discomfort, and insecurity? Possibly not. But could she at least, in her own way, imagine herself into as proximate a situation as possible? As we used to say when I worked at the travel magazine, Let your mind travel; your body will follow.

I’m no scientist, but I’ll stick my neck out and offer the thesis that, too often, lack of empathy—for the daily tribulations of discomfort, deprivation, illness, trauma, and loss—is a failure of imagination. Sometimes it’s an honest-to-goodness lack of experience; for instance, it’s almost impossible to empathise with the pain of jealousy without having experienced it. But more often, it’s a lack of willingness to do the work of finding personal resonance. Perhaps it’s also about psychic limits: there’s nothing attractive about pain, and empathy can be bloodying and exhausting.

But maybe fellow-feeling is the only way to translate need into action. I’d say it’s worth the pain.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Trailing clouds of gory

Ever had somebody’s umbilical cord fall into your lap? This is the sort of thing they don’t tell you about when they’re extolling the joys of becoming a parent or grandparent. Economists have a technical term for this, and that is ‘hidden costs’. Have you ever had a kid tell you that you’re an ugly old woman/man and that you will shortly go blind? That’s what you can expect if you’re planning to have more than one kid. The technical term for that is ‘sibling rivalry’.

There’s a new baby in the family, and she looks like a fuzzy, plump little fruit you could bite into and have delicious pink juice run down your chin, assuming you’d recovered your appetite after the umbilical cord episode. Babies are tiny, beautiful miracles of nature, especially if they belong to other people and you just get to play with them moodily while you’re visiting for a couple of days. As the poet said, “trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home:/Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” His immortal poem goes on to skip over some other things that lie about us in our infancy, like the nuclear explosion of a bowel movement that can follow a baby’s two-week bout of constipation. For the uninitiated, do not assume that you could not possibly find fallout all the way up the back of the baby’s neck, and also possibly your own.

But there’s no doubt that having multiple children is a joy. They’ll be there to comfort you in your old age, to change your adult diapers and wipe up your drool and steer you in the right direction when you’re trying to walk into a wall, or a stranger’s house. You just have to get past the stage where you’ve brought them up, paid for their college education, and successfully kicked them out of your house.

There are, by the way, no guarantees these days that this will be a successful enterprise. As The New York Times recently wrote, at what I consider to be unnecessary length, kids just don’t seem to want to grow up and get their own place any more. I wouldn’t know anything about that, of course, but I do have this middle-aged friend who writes a weekly column that often features the mother whose house she still lives in.

Anyway, your children will ease you into old age and, when you’ve finally passed on to that great PTA meeting in the sky, they will have each other. They just have to get past the stage where the baby’s two-year-old brother tenderly murmurs “I like it the Baby Aadya” and then tries to poke out her eyes and yank her limbs from their sockets; which is also the stage when her six-year-old sister accuses you of negligence and says that you will become paralysed and your brains will fall out unless you play with her instead.

I’m going to visit my multifarious nieces and nephew at the end of the month. I love them to death, but it’s a good thing that these tender little blossoms grow in someone else’s garden. Some people are good at the endless hard work, selflessness and patience that come with gardening. I’m not saying I’m not one of them. It’s just that I’d rather gnaw off my own arm and slither over a bed of nails through sniper fire.

Plus, I figure that if I catch them young, I can brainwash them into believing that it’s only natural, after changing your parents’ diapers, to change your aunt’s.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Things fall apart

When it comes to Pakistan, it wouldn’t be correct to claim that I’m entirely a dove. This is not because I’m so on top of affairs in that country that I can rattle off good reasons for this wariness—I barely know what’s going on in my own head, let alone theirs—but because I have, through a combination of scanning the headlines and osmosis, developed the general impression that one should trust, but verify. Which is another way of saying that on no account should one believe a word spoken by those double-crossing so-and-sos.

These days, though, my stony little heart goes out to the place. Pakistan is having what you might call a bad hair day, if you were to think of ‘hair’ as ‘everything’ and ‘day’ as many long years, and especially if you were given to epic understatement. You know all those people in the Bible who wander the world being blighted beyond belief? That’s what Pakistan reminds me of these days. Dawn columnist Kamran Shafi put it best in a piece with the self-explanatory title ‘Disaster after ignominy after disaster’. That sort of sums it up nicely. Let me stress that I’m talking here about my stony little heart going out to Pakistan the people, not Pakistan the state.

As if it weren’t enough that the country is generally reviled around the world for nurturing and exporting terrorism, and for diverting war-on-terror money into nefarious alternative projects, and for double-crossing their own allies, and for Kargil, and for stonewalling India on the 26/11 attacks, and for political screwiness that makes us look good, they have now been dealt this monstrous flood, in which vast numbers of people who have nothing to do with the shenanigans of their lousy leaders have suffered death, destruction, and general all-out calamity. That, while one of their preeminent lousy leaders sips champagne in Europe.

And in a situation like that, when your world is falling apart, and your faith in the world is worn a little thin, might you not look to the Pakistani cricket team’s matches in England for a little pick-me-up, since cricket is the other religion you care about? Actually, when you’re burying your children and trying not to drown, you probably couldn’t care less about cricket. But assuming you and your family are on dry ground, saved by luck or circumstance, cricket might be one of the saving graces about being Pakistani.

Did someone say Pakistani cricket? Oh. Er.

It’s not the walloping that the team got in England that we’re talking about, of course, but the marrow-curdling shame of being caught spot-fixing (as opposed to just the fact of spot-fixing, which in this part of the world is perfectly acceptable if you don’t get caught).

If ever there was a country that didn’t need more bad press, this is it, this is it, this is it. If I were a Pakistani, I’d be thinking about last straws. In fact, I’m thinking about last straws even though I’m not a Pakistani. It’s not a case of schadenfreude. I really do think they deserve better than what they’re dealing with. When a country is on its knees, you figure it can’t get any worse, and then it does. It ends up prone on the floor, and you figure that now it can’t get any worse. And then it does. It’s tragic.

Maybe Pakistan’s stars are just temporarily out of whack. Maybe one can have a bad hair day that lasts a decade, and come out sunny side up. Whatever it is, I wish them the best of luck. They need it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bombay, meri jawani

Last weekend I made a visit to Bombay for the first time in two years, to attend a high school friend’s tenth wedding anniversary. A fair number of alumni from Rishi Valley School (which is in Andhra Pradesh) live in Bombay, and a few of us were coming from out of town to use the occasion as a sort of mini-reunion.

The first thing I’d like to say is that Bombay taxi drivers are great fun to chat with. Not one of them seems to be from Bombay, and they have a lot to say about Raj Thackeray, but they’re really much more interested in why you aren’t married.

“But what will you do in thirty years’ time?” one of them wanted to know.

“And you like being married, do you?” I asked. He conceded that it was a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea and dropped me off at the party at Churchgate.

The best thing about class reunions is the certain knowledge that no matter how much everyone has evolved, we will all immediately regress to our high school personas and express love as we used to, viz., “Eh! Bastard.”

The next best thing about a class reunion is that you can now drink and eat non-vegetarian food together without getting expelled—Rishi Valley was strictly vegetarian and teetotalling. We have travelled a great distance from sneaking a dried-out chicken leg, flat beer and cigarette on the hostel roof in the dead of night, to chucking flavoured martinis down our gullets while stuffing our faces with meat and dancing badly to ‘The Final Countdown’. You cannot possibly appreciate this distance if you didn’t go to a Krishnamurti Foundation India (KFI) school, but take my word for it.

Sadly, some of us have travelled an equal but opposite distance from staying up all night to hitting the sack at 10pm, and we’re all a lot fatter, but we’re not going to talk about that anymore.

There’s something Faustian about going to boarding school. No matter how much the paths of your lives have diverged, no matter how little you now have in common, no matter how much you wish so-and-so hadn’t ended up with such-and-such partner, you are bound for life to boarding school classmates in a way you aren’t to day school classmates. You might be a professor of atomic science, or the prince of a sesame seed empire, or a renowned theatre personality, or the founder of a world conquering design firm, or a partner at your own law firm, but your soul belongs to School and its atavistic call, in a way that it doesn’t to college or work.

Unless you went to The Doon School, in which case you never had a soul anyway, or The Lawrence School, Sanawar, in which case you’ve never heard the word ‘atavistic’. All this is because you ate chicken and drank while in school.

Anyway, the atavistic call of boarding school his means that when a critical number of people decide it’s time to get together, You Go. When someone is In Town, you All Meet. This is not a complaint. You cannot imagine how wonderful it is to greet people by saying “Eh! Bastard.”

So the reunion was great fun, and it was followed by further revelry at a pleasant joint called The Dome, and after that some lame people—who shall remain nameless—crawled home at 10pm, while everyone else partied on until 3am.

Now, back in my nineteen-years-on adult life, I’m back to reality. And that’s definitely the very best thing about school reunions: that they remind you of a time when everything you looked at was rose-tinted.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Physician, heal thyself

Hello, consumer of news, how goes? I was thinking that since you presumably pay for your morning newspapers in order to get an objective, unmotivated assessment of what’s going on in the world, it would be interesting to get your view on this whole storm about the Press Council of India’s sub-committee report on paid news. What do you think? Oh, you didn’t know anything about any storm about any Press Council of India report on paid news?

If that’s true, I beg you to research it. At the very least it will anger, dishearten and depress you, and who doesn’t look forward to that on a Saturday morning?

Recap: After a lot of pushing by some journalists who still care about this sort of thing, the PCI commissions a sub-committee report on the widely-recognised phenomenon called ‘paid news’, in which journalists, editors and media publishers accept, or demand, payment in cash and kind from corporate houses, politicians and other individuals, in return for certain kinds of coverage (most damagingly, though not exclusively, during elections). The sub-committee report produces a thorough report that doesn’t merely mutter darkly, but gives concrete examples, naming names.

Guess what the PCI does with the report? It forms a 12-member board to figure out whether or not to publish it. Guess what this board does? It shouts the idea down and decides instead to write a tiny little hand-wringing abstract of it, in which a tiny little hand-wringing footnote says that the report will remain ‘on record’. ‘On record’ doesn’t mean ‘appended to the tiny little hand-wringing abstract’, or ‘available on the website’. It means, ‘when people call looking for the report, let’s refer them to the tiny little hand-wringing abstract on the website, and if they don’t fall for that and insist on the actual sub-committee report, let’s make them apply in writing for a hard copy, which we’ll take a week to mail.’

Then journalist P. Sainath of The Hindu writes about how the PCI buried this report. Guess how many newspapers follow up this little scandal? You only get one guess. It’s as if a bunch of emperors suddenly realised that none of them had any clothes on and decided to stay home instead.

Luckily we live in notoriously leaky times, so you can read the full report online.

At the beginning of the week there was a Media Foundation of India discussion on the PCI report. The panel included Justice GN Ray, Chairman of the PCI, and Justice JS Verma, Chairman of the Independent Broadcast Regulatory Authority. Justice Ray refused to say why the 12-member drafting committee had to be constituted, or how it voted, and stuck to his sulky position that the PCI has accepted the truth of the report, so what’s all the complaining about? Justice Verma’s main agenda seemed to be to cover for his pal, saying that the footnote can legally be interpreted as “incorporated by reference”, so what’s all the complaining about?

Concerned journalists on the panel called the PCI a ‘toothless tiger’. They talked about how in the 1980s and 1990s regional newspapers didn’t pay their reporters a salary, but gave them a commission on any ads they brought in; how corporate management is increasingly sidelining editors; how journalists are given lists of subjects to cover in a target number of column inches.

The PCI sub-committee report, the burial of that report, and the media’s lack of interest in that burial points to a complicity so deep that nobody can afford to turn the lens on themselves. It takes the idea that there are always a few rotten apples in the barrel, and shows that the one you bite into every morning is ridden with maggots. There’s no better reason for you to care.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Home alone

The other day I was fondly remembering how my mother cooked endless meals for us when we were kids in Switzerland. She also spent a lot of time driving us to the doctor, cleaning the house, and picking up all our sheddings and messings; and while I have no recollection of her being bad-tempered about this with us, I do remember her listening repeatedly to a Bruce Springsteen song about getting shot at point blank range. I figure now that she must have been recalibrating the meaning of moving from the third world to the first-world nation.

Anyway, in a fit of gratitude, I took her out to dinner at a somewhat fancy restaurant. All that slaving for us has worn her poor body out to the point where a wild, splurgy dinner out means soup and a sandwich, followed by going to bed. I don’t know how anyone can drag out this latter process for an hour, but she has some shamanistic routine involving pots of cream, mysterious medicines, aromatic sleep aids, and an unbelievable amount of pottering around.

At any rate, at the end of the meal she announced her post-prandial plan, which was to go to bed. In the spirit of sharing, I announced my post-prandial plan, which was to go to my favourite neighbourhood bar and have a beer or two.
“How nice. With whom?” she asked.

“By myself,” I said.

Apparently this was the wrong answer. Her eyes developed the Hood of Anguish, which is what your mother’s eyes develop when she thinks that going to a bar by yourself is how alcoholism begins.

“Going to a bar by yourself is how alcoholism begins,” she said. I think I saw Ingmar Bergman giving her the thumbs up from behind a pillar; I definitely heard a ghostly violin playing just behind her left shoulder.

“I’m just going to have a beer, you know,” I said.

“By yourself,” she said, shaking her gory locks at me. “In a bar.”

Mother-daughter dynamics being what they are, if I’d had any doubts about the wisdom of my plan, which I didn’t, they would have vanished instantly. I smiled my steeliest smile, wished her a vigorous bout of putting herself to bed, and sauntered off to my bar, where I had a pleasant evening drinking my beer, listening to music and staring at the wind-blown trees. I was so irritated by her foreboding, though, that I had a couple more beers than I would otherwise—it was happy hour after all. In fact just thinking about the foreboding makes me need a cocktail…

No, but seriously, the fine art of going out for a reflective, solitary drink is dying. Even the waiter who attended my table kept looking around in befuddlement, saying, Ma’am is alone tonight? Yes, I said, ma’am is alone. Nice night, isn’t it? He looked deeply uncomfortable and scuttled off.

I sat there, nobody bothered me, I paid my bill like a responsible citizen, and buggered off home. It was great. I bet that if I’d had testicles instead of ovaries, none of this would have been anguishing, or befuddling, or uncomfortable-making; the Hood wouldn’t have appeared. How irritating can a parent be?

The worst thing about a nagging mother, though, is not having her around. I’m so fond of ignoring her ambient anxiety that a commentary-free life seems less luxury than chore. She’s gone off to visit others of her children (on the flimsy grounds that she loves them too) and while I should be out dancing on tables somewhere, all I’m doing is moping and missing her. In case she’s reading this: I may have to go and drown my sorrows.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Delhi 2010: The Commonwealth Shames

Journalist: How come the roof of the stadium is leaking?

Official: Due to heavy rains, due to which water collected on the floor.

That’s the level of response we’re getting to increasingly pissed off questions about why a CWG Organising Committee with an elephantiasis-afflicted budget is unable to construct a waterproof building. Our representatives and public servants are treating us the way they always do, which is like retarded children who will hopefully get so involved in the drama of the story (rain fell! water collected on the floor!) that we won’t be tempted to dwell on the whole philosophy behind the concept of roofing.

I’m not going to say, as ex-sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyer recently said, that I will be unhappy if the Commonwealth Games in Delhi this October are a success. But that’s only because I couldn’t care less whether the Games are a triumph or a dismal failure, or poor-to-middling, or pretty good. I couldn’t give a toss whether our stadia end up being dazzling 23rd-century marvels or large leaky shanties; whether the athletes have a fabulous time or faint mid-event due to insufficient nutrition; whether the press shames India or covers it in glory; whether we win any medals or not; in other words whether, at the end of the day, Delhi puts on a good show.

If, on October 4, Delhi wakes up to find world-class stadia all completed, the Games Village ready for occupation, and the roads and pavements of the city magically put back together in spruced up form, it won’t make a whit of a difference to me. As far as I’m concerned we’ve already lost, we’re already shamed, and we’ve already shown ourselves to be a contemptible bunch of losers. Because while, like everyone else, I’d love to see a decent result, I would much rather have had a decent process.

A decent process would be a display of integrity and efficiency by the leadership, organisers, and implementing agencies at every step—that means managing time, and not treating public funds like a lucky dip. Integrity would mean motivating everyone involved with organising and preparing for the Games to get on board with the shared goals of a) doing a first-rate job of hosting an international sporting event; b) being left with a first-rate set of sporting facilities for our young athletes to grow up with, and a much-upgraded city; and c) all this at minimal cost and inconvenience to the people of India during the process. It means best practices.

This we have already hopelessly failed to do. So if Delhi doesn’t collapse into a giant fiery crater in the earth, I won’t think phew, everything went off all right. I will think of the shady outfit called AM Films in London, engaged at a cost of £200,000 without so much as a scrap of written documentation. I will think of a budget swollen to eighteen times its original estimate. I will search for a good metaphor for taxpayer money going down the toilet and, upsettingly enough, find it in the alleged purchase of toilet paper at Rs 4,000 a roll.

Much like the roof issue, our officials want us to give them more money because they have no time left, and to ignore the fact that they have no time left because they didn’t do their jobs, which was to do things on time. They want us to help salvage our ‘national pride’, and ignore the fact that we don’t have any national pride because of them and the fact that we put up with them. And I’m terrified that we will cooperate.

Two questions. How stupid do they think we are? And: How stupid are we?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A good man is hard to find

The world being what it is, we cynics get little respite. Once in a while, though, something makes your heart soar. I felt that in April, when I saw a YouTube video called ‘Collateral Murder’. Now I’d like to find Julian Assange and give him a big hug and a kiss. And maybe a sandwich and a clean t-shirt. And maybe donate my life savings to his website, which this week was to Rolling Stone’s general-slaying report what a nuclear bomb is to a firecracker.

The big deal is not what the 92,000-document ‘Afghan War Diary’ reveals, which is, in sum, that Pakistan is a creepy double-dealer and that the United States prefers to be bitch-slapped than to risk a geostrategic alliance, even as it hushes up its own indiscretions on the battlefield. Everyone knew that. The big deal is that graphic official evidence of it could impact US public sentiment, thus far contained by the curt phrase ‘national security’, and maybe prompt policy change.

But the much bigger deal is that WikiLeaks itself, in concept and execution, has come to the world’s notice as a game-changer in journalism and the way information is accessed and processed. For the first time, whistleblowers across the world have a relatively safe, technologically sophisticated platform where they can anonymously expose secret documentation—military, political, corporate or any other kind. Information thus declassified and released to the public is potentially volcanic. Is it even legal? Assange’s response to that is a metaphorical middle finger, and several wins in court. That, I like to think, should make the abuse of power a little less easy, or at least a little less carefree.

Some of WikiLeaks’s techniques strike me as similar to those of terrorist networks: armies of anonymous volunteer workers; cells of activity, each of which has knowledge of only a limited part of the system so that any compromise is also limited; an individual, mobile, guerrilla style of operation. Hundreds of people work with Assange, but WikiLeaks is more or less synonymous with the 39-year-old Australian, and almost nobody knows where he is until he surfaces for a TED Talk here or a press conference there. The New Yorker magazine calls WikiLeaks “not quite an organisation; it is better described as a media insurgency”.

And indeed, Assange—a tall, baby-faced, low-voiced, steely-eyed mathematician, physicist and hacker—is an extremist, a crusader for the just individual against the dodgy institution. He despises the cosy mutual back-scratching between journalists and ‘official sources’ that so constrains mainstream reporting. And he takes the fall for the whistleblowers he protects, so, paradoxically, this champion of transparency is paranoid and slippery as an eel himself, living an almost impossibly transient life. In his youth he went through 37 schools as he travelled with his mother; spent days in the wild by himself, has slept in parks and on floors. Today he lives out of a knapsack, sleeps in the houses of friends of friends or in hotels, and constantly changes his phone number and email address. Home is any of four places where he holes up if he falls sick.

WikiLeaks could well be vulnerable to manipulation and abuse itself; but Assange is something of a modern-day hero in a world that has too few. If you hadn’t heard of him before, chances are you’ll hear of him again. I wish him ever-greater paranoia and elusiveness, because I can just see shadowy officials in dark corridors trying to figure out how to get rid of him.

WikiLeaks has an India page. May many more Indians use it, and may many more keep track of it. God knows we could use some help with transparency.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bieber blues

I’m really annoyed with my little brother. It turns out that when he was twelve he could have pulled our family out of the working middle class and into the platinum-dusted stratosphere of worldwide fame and fortune—and he blew it, just because there was no YouTube in 1986.

1986 was when my parents shipped him back to India, in the fond hope that he would stop swearing like a sailor, as one did as a fourth-grader at the international school in Jakarta, and grow some socio-cultural roots. (The success of this idea can be measured against the fact that he bolted the minute he could and has lived in the United States for the last ten years. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Anyway, in 1986 he was enrolled at a nice middle-class school in Delhi. When the teacher was vetting students for their preferred hobbies, my brother picked singing, and after other similarly-interested little boys and girls had sung the national anthem and gentle Hindi ballads, he auditioned with a pre-pubertal rendition of Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing. “I want my MTVeeee…money for nothing/and your chicks for free”, he squeaked, unable to understand why people were clutching their bosoms and dropping to the floor in a dead faint. Family lore has it that he was swiftly reassigned to pottery.

The point is that, back then, he had that regular twelve-year-old boy’s squeaky voice. And he could have gotten himself some guitar lessons and a strange, forward-sweeping helmet of a haircut and rapper friends and some platinum records and one billion screaming ten-year-old female fans and more money than he knew what to do with even after giving the rest of us lots; but he didn’t. He just continued to be my kid brother, studied philosophy, got married, had two and eight-ninths children, and left us all struggling to pay our bills like everyone else. Some people have no consideration.

All this bitterness has come welling up since a few days ago, when I was driving somewhere with the radio on and listening to a very silly song called Baby. I listened to the breathy little-girl voice singing just about on key, and thought yes, my brother could have been this phenomenon known as Justin Bieber. I would at least have had a gold radio.

What do you mean, you’ve never heard of Justin Bieber? Oh, perhaps you’re over fifteen. He’s a child from Canada—discovered when he was thirteen, and now sixteen—whose voice hasn’t broken and who sings squeaky songs of love to throngs of pre-pubertal girls who hold up forests of digital cameras to record his every move while swaying and shrieking. He’s now the most searched-for celebrity on Google, has to have a bodyguard to keep his lovelorn fans at bay, and has to be coached, by men whose voices have broken, on how to deal with outrageous fame attained before your own pair have dropped.

Bieber’s mother raised him by herself in Ontario. She put up a YouTube video of him singing in a local competition, followed up with more videos that swept various tiny, wired children off their feet, and pretty soon there the two of them were, drowning in cash up to his really very weird forward-sweeping haircut. A google search for the little whipper-snapper yields 110 million results, So what if a bunch of people hate him and his music and want him to disappear into the black hole known as North Korea? At least his family will never have to work again.

So If I’m sitting here having to earn my keep, it’s all my brother’s fault. I hope he’s sorry.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Here comes the sun

These days, when the Deepwater Horizon fiasco has the Gulf of Mexico looking almost as oily as the officials from BP, Transocean and Halliburton, it’s heartening to read about a Swiss gentleman by the name of Bertrand Piccard. Monsieur Piccard and his team of scientists and engineers spent six years building a solar-powered microlight plane, and last week this plane undertook its maiden all-night flight.

That’s right, a solar-powered plane, with a pilot—CEO Andre Borschberg—at the controls. A friend of mine actually asked how the damn thing can fly at night when the sun isn’t out, so let me just lay it out at the start: the solar power is stored in batteries. The kind of batteries you keep a sharp eye on, unlike at BP.

Piccard is a hypnotherapist and a balloonist who, in 1999, was first to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a gas balloon. He’s descended from a family of balloonists and inventors, and sounds, from his name, as if he should have big curly moustaches, jowls and a potbelly, and a retinue of manservants; but in fact he’s a very good-looking man with a wonderful smile. (His hotness is not relevant, but studies have shown that it helps.)

On his “patronage committee” are a number of famous people including Buzz Aldrin and Al Gore (also Paulo Coelho, but no committee is perfect); and descendents of famous explorers—Jean Verne, Jules Verne’s great grandson, and Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles. That’s fitting, because this little project could out-famous them all.

Piccard’s dream, called Solar Impulse, was announced six years ago; and on July 7 2010, after four years of design and modelling, simulations and test flights, the rather beautiful, dragonfly-shaped single-seater aircraft took to the skies for its first night flight. Its goal was to take off and attain maximum height as night fell, and fly until the next sunrise. Which, before that same friend asks, it did successfully, landing after 26 hours and 9 minutes, with power left over in the batteries.

Speaking at the TED conference last year, Piccard said that, just as in ballooning one has to toss ballast overboard to control trajectory by changing altitude, so in life one has to toss overboard the ballast of habit, certainties, convictions and dogmas in order to head in the right direction by changing paradigms. He talked about how his balloon had risen from Switzerland with 3.7 tons of liquid propane and landed in Egypt 20 days later with 40kgs; and when he saw that, he promised himself that the next time he flew around the world it would be with no fossil fuel, in order “not to be threatened by the fuel gauge”.
He saw his balloon capsule in the Air and Space Museum in Washington alongside other iconic flight vehicles such as Lindbergh’s and the Wright Brothers’ aircraft and Apollo 11, and realised that the lovely 20th century project of human flight is doomed if we stick with fossil fuel. How to perpetuate that pioneering spirit?

On July 8 2010, the Solar Impulse project celebrated its first truly exciting achievement. “The most renewable energy we have,” Piccard has said in his fabulously charming Swiss accent, “is our own potential and our own passion.” (His accent is not relevant, but studies have shown that it helps.)

Piccard and his project represent not just eco-warrior rhetoric, but an exciting first step towards making a real and significant departure from old dependencies. You can laugh at him, but only if you like sludgy pelicans, doomed fisheries, and the thought of having life come to a grinding halt when the fossil fuels run out.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The unfairer sex

Many years ago, in our youth, my sister and I spent some time moaning to my mother about man trouble. We enumerated the several flaws of the respective subjects with gathering speed and animation, growing increasingly purple-faced and sweaty. She listened with what I thought was an inexcusable degree of calm, until we ran out of steam and just sat like small wild-eyed dogs, tongues lolling with confusion and exhaustion.

She took a long, slow, deep breath. “You have to understand, my sweethearts,” she said kindly, “that men are retarded.”

We nodded expectantly, ready to be enlightened. But it turned out that that was it. She was done.

Now, I detest gender stereotypes. I have no problem with a man who loves building things out of wood, or a woman who loves to sew, but I thought it was truly obnoxious that, in second grade, as part of extra-curricular activities, all the boys had to go to woodshop and all the girls had to go to needlework. At the time I owned a small wooden toy loom, upon which I spent countless blissful hours weaving the most horrible little bits of misshapen cloth, but I did that because I liked it, not because I was expected to.

I also detest people who are impressed by behaviour that lies outside gender stereotypes. It makes my skin crawl when women gush about a man doing the dishes, as if this is kindness beyond the call of duty, or when men are awed by a woman who drives well, as if she has to overcome some awful mental health issue to do so.

At the same time I can’t stand the knee jerk rejection of any behaviour that happens to overlap with a gender stereotype, as when a woman will never ever allows somebody to buy her a meal, as if her very sense of self would be destroyed by it; or when a man won’t allow a woman to cook him a meal even though she wants to.

In other words, I’m not hugely keen on rote behaviour of any sort, or blanket statements that purport to apply to fifty percent of the world’s population. Plus, most of my best friends are men.

So, after a fair amount of living, I think back to what my mother said all those years ago, and, much as it pains me to have to correct an elder, I must disagree. And because I know how much I appreciated her bothering to share her pithy wisdom, I like to think that other people might benefit from my humble experience too. So hear this, all you exasperated, hurting women out there, but more particularly all you starry-eyed fillies in love: It’s not entirely true that men are retarded.

Oh, they’re infantile, intemperate, blind, have double standards, look for instant gratification and scapegoats, lack the ability to parse their emotions, have the most blatant double standards, are consumed by their own sense of injury, can’t get any perspective, sulk, throw tantrums, have double standards, suffer delusions of grandeur and several other sorts of delusion, don’t know how to listen, are smug know-it-alls, make kitchen tables look intuitive, have double standards, storm around like titans with egos as fragile as eggshells, are inconsistent, don’t know the value of friendship, have double standards, are weak, are terrified of what people will think, and haven’t the faintest idea what they themselves think. Oh, and they have double standards.

But no, men are not retarded; it would be more accurate to say that they are really, really retarded. I don’t know whether they’re from Mars or from Venus, but I wish they’d go home.

Voila! Forewarned is forearmed.

December 13, 2006

A black, black day.

Before that, my life was puttering along fairly smoothly. I had enough work, the house looked all right as long as your standards were flexible, and I read a fair number of books. I was happy.

Oh, I had my share of troubles—limited finances, doomed relationships, personal loss, a frustrating inability to smoke marijuana because it gives me panic attacks. But on balance I was doing all right, thanks to the wonderful people in my life who have stuck with me through thick and thin, because when they try to run I hunt them down and smoke ’em out. Field note: they stop screaming in your face when fatigue sets in, especially if you threaten their children.

Everything was just fine until that chilly winter day when I signed up on Facebook.

Today, pale and wan from lack of exposure to sunlight, obese from lack of movement, tissues wasted away except for remarkably muscular fingers, eyes evolved to lemur-like proportions, brain that on an MRI looks like a familiar blue toolbar, I am a mere shell of the woman I used to be and, frankly desperate. If this is life, I don’t want it.

My email records show that my descent into the agonies of addiction began when I got an invitation from a friend. (It later turned out that he had no idea that his profile was stepping out at night wearing a catsuit and a balaclava and inviting everyone in his address book.) I signed up but more or less ignored Facebook—oh, that innocent time!—until June 2007, when a trickle of friends and messages suddenly turned into a flood.

There were messages. There were photographs. There were minute-by-minute updates. There was Scrabble, and Scramble, and Lexulous. There was Honesty Box. There was voyeurism. Shallow intimacies—with people one didn’t necessarily even like—sprang up like weeds. Real-world ceased because everyone was staying home, logging onto Facebook to make sure they stayed in touch. What warm-blooded mammal could resist all this?

But then it became a problem. I thought I could control it; but soon enough, it had robbed me of my basic human rights, like the freedom to move beyond internet access, the freedom to not play my Scramble turn immediately just because someone nudged me electronically, the freedom to break for meals and, sometimes, a shower. It’s the nature of addiction.

I’m tired of meeting actual flesh-and-blood people and looking beside their face to find the button that will take me to their wall. More and more, these days, in the lonely darkness of 3am, wracked by repetitive stress injury and carpal tunnel syndrome and the unbearable agony of a) not knowing what my friends are doing at that exact moment, and b) knowing what perfect strangers look like and do and talk about, I contemplate taking what our newspapers call “the extreme step”.

I even put it up on my Facebook status a couple of times, the fact that I am sick of it all and sometimes—yes, it’s true—have thoughts of deleting my profile. But, instead of fearing the worst, people thought it was funny. This is how tragedies happen: people cry out for help, and other people just ‘like’ it.

I yearn for that sweet release. It would be for the best. But then I think of all the people I’d leave behind, reeling in shock and disbelief, clutching at each other’s pixels and trying to understand, to make sense of it all; and I bow my head, and I steel myself, and I carry on for their sake.

That’s what it means to be responsible.

Wet blankets

You know those people who walk around in 30-40°C temperatures with 80 percent humidity and never seem to perspire? The ones who live in Kolkata, or Kerala, or Jakarta, or Singapore or Mumbai and spend the day tramping around the streets but never have their shirts stick to their backs, or a single dainty droplet trickle from their temples? The ones who look fresh as a daisy no matter how long they’ve been in the sun? I hate those people. It’s people like me, who sweat like a tap at the slightest hint of heat, or humidity, or deadline, that take up the slack for people like them who don’t pull their weight in the sweat gland department.

Living in Delhi is an exercise in chronic urban misery at the best of times, with additional annoyances in the form of extremely hot and extremely cold temperatures, but in the last few days the weather has been, well, there’s no gentle way to spin it, unbelievably disgusting. A couple of weeks ago we had a day that was like Northern Europe in late spring—cloudy, cool, with a nippy breeze. Just when we’d been lulled into complacency, it has soared to 44°C, with humidity levels that feel as if you’re walking around with a freshly boiled towel wrapped around you, and wet-footed ants running around inside it.

I’ve finally understood something I grew up not understanding: the English propensity to talk about the weather all the time. In a website on learning English that teaches you how to speak about the weather, the first sample conversational exchange is:

Q: “What’s it like out?”

A: “It’s miserable out.”

This is a very useful sample sentence both in England and in Delhi in terms of accuracy, even though “out” is a dodgy Americanism, in the same way that “I just paid my electric” is. But it’s not really that English, because being English involves a natural propensity for staggering understatement. My roommate in college, who was half-English, nevertheless displayed this talent as if she were fully English. We would wake up to black skies and shrieking winds, driving snow and temperatures that would freeze your tongue to your palate, and when we stepped out, me bundled up like a polar bear and she in dazzlingly short skirts and stockings, the conversation went more like this:

Me: $%^&* [freezes and falls over, dead as a doorknob]

She: “Fresh, isn’t it?”

Anyway, when you’re young you don’t notice things like the weather, or food, or sleep, or anything much besides the fact that your parents are always wrong. As your body soldiers on through season after season, though, and you look about you for a place to rest your tiring bones, weather elbows its way up the priority list and ends up right up there beside decent bars and good quality health insurance.

The best place to live, weather-wise, is without a doubt in the Seychelles, where the temperature almost never goes below 21° or above 30°C all year long. This is the zone in which I do my best thinking about decent bars and good quality health insurance. A friend of mine who lived in this sort of constant (though more humid) weather in Southeast Asia moved countries in search of a place with four distinct seasons, but I think this is a mistake.

At any rate, I’m doing my damnest to organise things such that I can spend December through February, which are the nicest months in Delhi, in the Sahara desert instead. If it works out, I’ll have proven my hunch that while human beings have a strong sense of what’s best for their bodies, their brains remain weak.

The drink that cheers

I like playing football. I last played in middle school, when our physical education classes required us to have a stab at every kind of sport, and football was my favourite. I offered to play attacker (we called it centre forward), but the coach seemed to think of me as more of a defender; it isn’t perfectly clear to me why, but I’m nothing if not a cooperative team player type. And indeed, I remember getting some of my best thinking done next to the goalpost, possibly leaning on it, while some people ran around on the other end of the field, shouting.

No wonder, then, that every four years I wait with feverish devotion for the World Cup, which I believe is some kind of big tournament. Because the fact is, there is no better globally accepted justification for breaking out enormous quantities of beer. Four years ago, when Germany hosted the World Cup, I was backpacking around Europe and found myself in Sorrento, Italy on the night that the Italian team won the final. My ears are still ringing from that night, and my liver and I didn’t talk for a while.
But the excellent thing about football is that there’s so much goodwill and good cheer floating around that you can break out the beer at the drop of a hat, for just anything, at any time, without inviting censure. You could be drinking at breakfast, or while walking in a forest, and nobody would bat an eyelid—and you can blame it on football.

So this is what I did last weekend. Some friends and I drove up to Shimla after a long and intricately plotted night of defiance, recklessness, intrigue, violence, loss and suspense, the details of which I am not at liberty to share, but let’s just say that they make Stieg Larsson look like a little old lady. The car had seen better days—two windows were inoperable, the wipers were trailing rubbery ribbons, the stereo volume bore no relation to the direction in which one turned the knob, and every time we hit a bump the face of the stereo fell off—but we got there in time to watch South Africa vs. Mexico.

Pretty much everything from that point on involved some sort of alcohol, which, for any children who are reading this, is very bad for you but does help mitigate the maddening buzz of vuvuzelas. It’s true that we had beer with our breakfast eggs and slipped some whiskey into our breakfast coffee, but we weren’t completely off our faces, and still deeply connected to the spirit of sport: we fought like wildcats over the last half-bottle of wine, resorting to dealmaking and horsetrading like the most successful teams; and we played a sweaty, screaming, occasionally violent game of pitthu in the middle of a forest, with a rolled-up pair of socks for a ball, and a tiny patch of nettled slope for a field. My team came very close to winning, given my skills as a defender, but I had to send an sms just as something exciting happened on the field and the rules of pitthu weren’t that clear to me anyway. What are you supposed to do with two balls and two piles of stone anyway?

Now I’m back, more or less detoxed enough to start all over again, and fully into the swing of football. I’ve been reading carefully about the players, the history of the teams, the statistics and the cool side stories about ball technology, and have come to my own decision about whom to support. May the team with the best socks win.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pass the methyl isocyanate, please

We’re no banana republic, okay? We’re the world’s largest democracy and we have robust democratic institutions. Take the recently concluded case of the Really Trying, Whiny People of Bhopal vs. The Chaps Who Were Just Making Some Damn Pesticide. India should thank the district court in Bhopal for winding things up in a lightning twenty-six years, because frankly, nobody wants to go on listening to aforesaid really trying, whiny people say the same things witness after witness, year after year. Untold suffering is so out.

Hear ye, o people of India: don’t think you can get away with really bad stuff, because the long arm of the law will reach out and bring you to trial and give you what you deserve. In Bhopal the law heard 178 prosecution witnesses on the stand talk about the estimated 25,000 people who have died or suffered from methyl isocyanate poisoning and its after-effects since 1984; it heard eight defence witnesses mutter darkly about sabotage; it examined 3,000-odd documents; it fast-tracked the whole thing so that only one of the accused died in the process. The law weighed up the evidence, decided the accused were guilty, and then fearlessly sentenced them to the legal equivalent of a wedgie.

Do you really want a wedgie, o people of India?

Didn’t think so. Better wise up and keep your misdeeds on this side of horrific, else you may be asked to sit in prison for two years and pay a lakh of rupees. You’ll get bail in the evening, but the whole thing is an avoidable spot of bother. Do you really want inconvenience and fines to pay, o people of India? Didn’t think so.

The judge, Mohan P. Tiwari, summed up the Bhopal verdict by saying: “Surely justice has been done.” If this sounds strangely like a question to himself, it’s probably just the inherent ambiguity of language at work. Some people said things like “travesty of justice” and “too little, too late” but we must remember that they are not judges with a mandate to retain a sense of proportion and fairness, and dole out punishment commensurate with the goof-up. It’s as if, after twenty-six years of the court trying this case, people expected it to try harder.

Some of these tiresome people also wanted to know why Warren Anderson, big cheese of the Union Carbide Corporation, was arrested at the time of the disaster and then allowed to leave the country. The former Joint Director of the CBI, who on TV looked as if he hadn’t slept for twenty-six years, revealed that the Ministry of External Affairs directed that extradition attempts be dropped. He also said that asking for an extradition now simply “exposes us that why did we drop it?” Well said. Had everyone forgotten about our National Image?

I wish all these carping critics would focus on the good bits, the way that US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake did when he said, “We hope that this is going to help to bring closure to the victims and their families.” Positive thinking can change your life, you know.

Now that we have a benchmark, though, I really think it’s time for the judiciary to be similarly fair with Ajmal Kasab. He may be halfwit with a rage problem who waged war on India, but I mean, the guy only killed seven people and didn’t have a visa to enter India and that sort of thing. It seems awfully extreme to be talking about the death penalty when he’s so young and full of promise. I say let’s just wash his mouth out with soap and fly him home. For free.


The world responded with a single voice to Israel’s autistic behaviour earlier this week, when it applied the Bush Doctrine to a flotilla of Gaza-bound relief ships put together by its own allies and still sailing in international waters. “We have a right to defend ourselves,” said Israel. “Are you out of your paranoid minds?” yelled the world, outraged.

Totally understandable. But how come nobody in India was outraged by the insult to our own national pride, delivered a few days before that? I mean, it usually takes very little for people to start frothing at the mouth at the slightest slight—perceived, planted, or made up when none can be perceived or planted. But this time the whole country seemed to be blind, deaf and dumb to the facts. And the facts are that Pakistan just gave us the bird.

Did you follow that story? Of course not, you were too busy being outraged about Israel to notice the filthy treachery in your own backyard. About a week ago AFP reported that an alert Punjabi farmer in our border regions with You-Know-Who, found a white pigeon on his roof. It had a ring around its foot and a Pakistani phone number and address stamped in red ink on its body. The farmer’s antennae immediately sprang out from under his turban and he grabbed the bird and delivered it unto a police station near Amritsar.

Now there’s a real patriot. Because of him, and because some people are still bothered about national security while the rest of you are busy joining flotilla protest groups on Facebook, this feathery slur/threat to our national something or other was immediately put under armed guard. The law suspects it of being here on “a special mission of spying”. The note that they speculate was attached to the ring on its foot is gone, and the pigeon is not talking. Nor is it saying why exactly it allowed a large farmer to lumber up and grab it when, after all, it has wings, but we can probably just put that down to widely documented pigeon stupidity.

International conventions on animal cruelty forbid us from openly torturing the creature, but we have no lack of maverick Jack Bauer type operatives amongst our defence forces. These brave men and women, who take the rap so that you can sleep with a clear conscience, cleverly placed it in an air conditioned room, I’m guessing because a suddenly comfortable temperature will shock it into singing like a canary. It is not allowed to receive visitors—a cruel but legal tactic that has been known to break down the most hardened criminals.

PTI reports that senior officers are being updated on the situation three times a day. I was able to get copies of sixteen such reports, which are meticulously documented; when collated they provide a pretty good slice of jailbird life. “6am: Suspect woke up and strutted around arrogantly, showing no signs of fear. 6.01am: Suspect pooped. 10am: Suspect emitted message encrypted to sound like a pigeon coo. 10.41am: Suspect pooped. 2.55pm: Suspect pecked at one-way glass as if to defy captors. 2.56pm: Suspect pooped. 7.48pm: Suspect looked around suspiciously. 10pm: Suspect pooped.”

After a stipulated detention time, the bird—which, on the basis of behavioural trend analyses, is now being viewed as more of a stool pigeon—was, according to DNA newspaper, handed over to the Wildlife Department for further studies. That’s what our vigilant forces do for us while you’re busy being incensed about Israel.

Bet you won’t find any bleeding heart lefties putting together protest marches to free the bird. Nobody has any perspective.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The worm turns

When I’m being rational I know that just exceptionally bad luck. But really, it’s hard not to take it personally.

Last week was my second visit to Bhutan in six months. I was attending this three-day literary festival—on someone else’s dime, which always contributes a certain frisson to travel—and then I was going to do a week of travelling on my own. This was going to make up for the last time when, regular readers of this column may remember, I fell sick on my first night, coughed my lungs out all over Bumthang and Thimphu, and ended up being ordered back home by the Indian military hospital doctor. This time I was hale and hearty and raring to see everything I’d missed.

We took off from Delhi in 41°C heading up to 44°, and landed at the international airport in Paro at 22° in a blessed drizzle. We climbed into the bus and started the forty-five minute journey to Thimphu. I couldn’t stop smiling. There it was all around us, Bhutan, unspeakably lovely Bhutan: ethereal green clefts, scudding iron-grey clouds, pristine air, breezes that you’d sell your mother for. Everything was perfect.

About fifteen minutes into the bus ride I felt the first twinge, a painful spasm in the upper abdomen. Twenty minutes later it happened again, like a fist grabbing my insides and squeezing hard. My belly began to gurgle and twist in a dangerous sort of way. At the hotel I lunged into the bathroom expectantly but nothing happened. We had a bunch of speeches to sit through, so I popped a Digene. Things settled down, but the pain returned soon enough with such intensity that I found myself sweating in a cold evening.

I dragged myself through the festival with frequent doses of Digene, and two doses of antibiotics. On Thursday evening the worky part of the trip was over, the antibiotics seemed to be holding the fort, and I was looking forward to a week of skipping up and down mountainsides with an imaginary scarf billowing prettily in the wind. Everyone else was flying out early the next morning.

That’s when the pain got so bad that I began to beg for a doctor. I was hustled into my jacket and driven to the local hospital through the rain at 10pm with a hot water bottle pressed to my middle. I think I was walked from room to room in search of a bed and a doctor, and am dimly aware that someone had a minor altercation with a doctor who resented being pulled from a critically ill patient to tend to someone who seemed to have a mysterious case of cooped-up gas.

I do clearly remember ending up on an antibiotic drip and two injected painkillers. I reacted to this by involuntarily leaping around on my bed (convulsions, someone said), speaking in sentences that came out as ‘gaaah’ and ‘bleugh’ (incoherence, someone said) and throwing up at regular intervals (gross, someone said). I think my doctor cousin in Delhi was on the phone with various people all night, and I know that it was he who, discovering that a CT scan couldn’t be had where I was, ordered me back home, on an airplane seat that the Indian embassy was kind enough to arrange at the crack of dawn.

The CT scan in Delhi showed that I had—get this—roundworm. After five days of deworming meds and unusually ablutionary vigilance I haven’t yet had the pleasure of spotting the little creep, but the doctor assures me it’s dead as a doorknob, and I’m right as rain.

So, Bhutan. Feels like déjà vu all over again. I know it’s just bad luck, but it’s hard not to take it personally. Take your deworming tablets regularly, children.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The difficulty of being good

The other night I awoke in a cold sweat, clutching my copies of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, and 101 Ways to Make Every Second Count: Time Management Tips and Techniques for More Success With Less Stress. Then I realised that the waking up must have been part of the dream, since I don’t own copies of these books.

That’s when I woke up for real, and the sweating began in earnest. With the shriek dying on my lips, I looked out at the 4am darkness and asked the large, empty space where God should have been: Why? Why didn’t I buy those books? Why didn’t I read them? Why do I for the millionth time in my life find myself in a situation where I have ten days’ worth of things to do and one day in which to do them?

In a low grumble the large empty space replied: Because you didn’t do the ten days’ worth of stuff when you had the ten days. Burn, sucker.

There are people who grow and change and develop themselves throughout their lives with the help of other people, books, maybe some after-work classes in pottery or krav maga. They try to make up for what they perceive as their deficiencies, attempt to rein in their baser natures, work on improving imperfect relationships, put sweat, blood and tears into providing the best possible future for their (typically ungrateful) children, strive to narrow the gap between who they are and who they’d like to be, struggle to become better human beings.

Then there are the rest of us, who remain thoroughly unreconstructed. We’re still stubborn, still lazy, still prefer to lie on the sofa bed rather than smite the day with vigour. We would rather, in times of trouble, give up immediately and reach for the jar of Nutella or the carton of Cerelac (wheat flavour—the others are rubbish); and we’d certainly rather set ourselves on fire than take on any kind of responsibility. Simply put, we are constitutionally and chronically averse to putting up with that with which we would rather not put.

Happily, these failings come with a preternatural capacity to rationalise them away. Some people would call that another failing. I call it an indispensible life jacket in the boiling rapids of life. So I can say, without the slightest sense of dissimulation or sheepishness, that the reason I had that nightmare is that I am stressed by too much work and too little time. Baaaa.

The reason I’m overworked is that I’m off to Thimphu, Bhutan for the first edition of what is envisioned as an annual literary festival, and am therefore writing this column, inter alia in advance. Luckily, Bhutan is one of the happiest countries in the world, not to mention one of the prettiest. It and I have a short and stormy history dating from last October, when I drove in for what was supposed to be a three-week driving trip, and it drove me out prematurely with a hideous chest infection, but this time I come in peace with no plans of any sort except to take in great lungfuls of clean air.

The weather people have promised a rainy, windy few days. But since I’m from Delhi where the mercury, at 44C, is currently twice as high as in Thimpu, rain and wind are perfectly welcome. The delight of cool weather and green mountains and meals made entirely of chilli and cheese should more than make up for the stress and overwork of the festival. Baaaa.

Too close to home

Among the many questions that overhang married life in India, the one that most intrigued me for a while was on a government document. It asked whether my husband and I were “spindas” (sic). Being of the rootless heathen persuasion, we had no idea what the word meant but decided that it had what can only be called a droll ring. Why look it up and leach all the fun from it? So we closed our eyes, pinned the donkey’s tail on the answer ‘No’, and kept the word. We got a kick out of ambushing each other around a corner and hissing: “Are you or are you not my spindas?” so the other person could reply, for instance, “On Tuesday if it’s raining”; or we might say, as we left the house, “Keys, wallet, phone…oh hang on, I forgot to turn off the spindas.”

Well, perhaps you had to be there.

Anyway, over time I forgot about the spindas, until I came upon it the other day in a newspaper article related to the recent spate of reported honour killings in Haryana and elsewhere. Turns out that “sapinda” (‘spinda’ being, I assume, the pronunciation of whichever Punjabi wrote the form) is a blood relationship of a certain order: five generations of ascent on the paternal side, three on the maternal side. Turns out they were asking, on that government form, whether ours was an incestuous relationship, as defined by a very complicated set of Hindu social rules. It’s a good thing we ticked ‘No’, though until we start having Incest Pride parades I imagine that honest-to-goodness incestuous couples will also tick ‘No’, as will most people at airports when they’re asked if they are vicious international terrorists armed to the teeth and wanted by Interpol—but that’s government bureaucracy for you, imaginative as sofa stuffing.

The other word that popped up from time to time was “gotra”. The priest at our wedding asked us what our gotras were; neither of us knew, though I assume someone older and wiser on both sides dealt with that one. Some years later, when some maintenance men came to fix our inverter while I was alone at home in shorts, they asked me my gotra. I said it was none of their business but that as it happened I had no idea, which they clearly didn’t believe.

But that’s me, the rootless heathen who has done an abysmal job of integrating into India. If I were more in sync with our incomparable 5,000-year-old traditions, I’d know that not being my spouse’s sapinda, and being of compatible gotra, has kept the blood coursing through my veins as opposed to spouting across the floor. Thank you, khap panchayats.

A khap panchayat, for those of you other rootless heathens who may have been living under a rock, is a council of clan elders that governs the affairs of a group of several dozen villages. Among other things, they subtly or unsubtly encourage families to hack to death any of their offspring who might go and marry a gotra or sapinda non-compliant person. They also make life hell for any family that refuses to snuff the life out of their children. The khap panchayats submit that we have them to thank for the fact that we aren’t a nation of cross-eyed, drooling retards with terrible immunity (although a few here and there got away and now work in telemarketing). And some of our young parliamentarians agree.

MP Naveen Jindal is either a snivelling suck-up to his constituents, or a truly principled guy who would uncomplainingly submit his own children to this form of justice—who knows? What I do know is that when he tells them “You deserve praise for promoting Hindu values, culture, tradition and beliefs”, it makes me feel like emigrating instantly. Because those khap panchayats really get my gotra.


Ayatollah Kazem Sedighi should take responsibility for the 6.5-magnitude earthquake that hit Taiwan recently. Sedighi said that immodestly-dressed women set off men, who set off extramarital affairs, which set off earthquakes. This statement set off a young blogger in Indiana named Jennifer McCreight, who set off over 50,000 cleavages around the world in a mock-experiment called ‘Boobquake’ on April 26, which set off the Taiwanese earthquake that very day.

No, of course it didn’t. The Taiwanese earthquake was simply a cosmic reminder that no matter how good your joke is, there’s always a better one out there, the butt of which is you. But Sedighi believes it could have, so why shouldn’t Taiwan leverage his imbecility to pass on the bill for re-plastering their cracked walls?

Boobquake reminded me that time and again, around the world, people have partially or fully disrobed in protest. Lady Godiva is an early historical example, who rode naked through Coventry to protest against the excessive taxes her husband levied. Being an 11th-century aristocrat she ordered everyone to stay at home and shutter their windows while she did this, but she did it. (One unfortunate fellow who watched through a hole and was struck with blindness remains with us as ‘peeping Tom’.)

There’s something about a bit of skin that concentrates the human mind wonderfully on things it would rather ignore. Stripping is often a last-resort tactic to embarrass and shame the target into paying attention, and in recent times it has featured on a regular basis. There’s the Bare Witness movement, which began in the UK in 2003 with naked people spelling ‘peace’ with their naked bodies in freezing weather. Three years ago, 600 people without a stitch of clothing got together on the Aletsch glacier in the Swiss Alps to pose for a human art installation calling attention to global warming.

In 2007 an underground Burmese women’s organisation urged women to “post, deliver or fling your panties at the closest Burmese Embassy any day from today. Send early, send often!” to protest the junta’s repression and crimes against women. The so-called Panties for Peace movement encouraged soiled underwear since, culturally speaking, contact with such an item is about the most strength-sapping trauma a man can undergo.

Last year women wearing blood-soiled underwear marched through Johannesburg to protest the privatisation of water, which would limit access to a basic need. In Tel Aviv bicyclists and roller bladers wore next to nothing to demand safe bicycle lanes and protest a bicycle helmet law; semi-naked English pensioners demonstrated against their collapsed pension schemes (‘2009 and still stripped of our pensions’); activists from the Ukrainian women's movement FEMEN wore underwear made from hygienic masks to protest against the government’s manipulation of H1N1 fears ahead of the presidential election.

This year a bunch of flesh-baring Germans invaded Berlin-Tegel airport to protest calls for full-body scanners following the, er, Underwear Bomber’s Christmas Day attack. The Maldivian feminist movement Rehendhi sent panties to Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed on Valentine’s day with messages like ‘Undies for Fundies’, to protest a rather misogynistic speech he’d given. And every year PETA runs starkers through Pamplona to protest the famous bull run, under the slogan ‘Join the human race’.

In India we’ve had our own share of drama: the famous nude protest by Manipuri women in 2004 against alleged rape by the army; courageous Pooja Chauhan, who marched down the streets of Rajkot in 2007 in her bra and panties to protest ill-treatment in her marital home, and of course, the Consortiumn of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women who sent their frilliest knickers to Sri Ram Sena chief Pramod Mutalik to protest the beating up of women in a pub in Mangalore.

Who can blame anyone—there’s just so much in the world that will get your knickers in a twist.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Blood on the House floor

Earlier this week the Speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn, conducted the day’s voting from behind two or three ordinary large black umbrellas held open before him by his security. This was to prevent any further eggs from hitting him, though at least one of the many hurled by members of the house was in yellow bloom upon his quite sharp suit.

This was the genteel part of the episode, though it was somewhat incongruous. I mean, what kind of guard carries a big black umbrella inside a building? For that matter, what kind of parliamentarian brings eggs along to work in the morning? Then it all went to hell. The opposition accused the President of betraying the country’s interests, and an all-out brawl erupted. Honourable fists laid into honourable noses; someone threw a smoke bomb that all but obscured the voting board tally; lots of people bled profusely.

I almost wept with relief.

Then I went online and looked up more reassuring photos—of that time in July 2009, when the honourable members of the parliament of South Korea leapt upon the dais to prevent the passing of a controversial media bill, and attacked each other with screams of abuse, hair streaming with sweat in their efforts to deck rivals and almost tear off their clothes. It is something to watch a delicate, business-suited Korean woman emitting blood-curdling screams as she falls upon/is fallen upon by another with the aspect of a rogue pterodactyl. I checked out Taiwan’s legislators honouring a longstanding tradition of brawling like schoolchildren.

In other words, our elected representatives don’t make the only ugly scenes in the world—though, as a patriotic Indian, I root for ours being the ugliest. Remember the Uttar Pradesh Assembly back in 2006? MLAs stormed the well of the house and then, deciding that this kind of thing was for wallflowers, began to rip out microphones and either club their colleagues over the head or launch them at each other like javelins; they sent furniture flying through the august hall; and they candidly just beat each other to pulp with their bare fists.

Remember the cash-for-votes scandal of July 2008, when BJP MPs ran down to the well and began to throw wads of money around which they alleged served to buy the government votes to survive the no-confidence motion after the Left withdrew support over the Indo-US nuclear deal?

Of course, everyone knows that in that instance, while every party had issued a clarion call to all its MPs, appealing to them to come forth from their hospitals and prison cells, to vote, the man who really swung it for the UPA was the Samajwadi Party’s Kishore Samrite. This guy spent Rs 17 lakhs sacrificing over three hundred animals in a ten-day yagna at the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati. Animal rights activists led a delegation of outraged animals to the Speaker of the house in protest, but I’m not sure that that got anywhere.

Then there was the Maharashtra state Assembly that dissolved into fistfights and hardbound book-throwing in April 2008, apparently because of poor time management that left some people without the time to speak. It ended with cut and bleeding noses and six MLAs being suspended for a year.

There are endless examples, across our great land, of unparliamentary behaviour. All in all, the Ukrainians can keep their silly umbrellas. I’m reassured that if we’re not the only ones, at least we’re the worst. However, while I don’t really mind if our representatives knock each other’s brains out, I just wish they’d leave the furniture alone. We pay for that.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Keep your lid on

Let’s say it all together now: Eyjafjallajökull! Oh, do you not know how?

The volcano under the eponymous Icelandic glacier began to erupt at about the same time as the whole Shashi Tharoon-Lalit Modi-IPL thing, though with less intensity. From India, the 15,000ft-33,000ft ash plume was almost totally eclipsed by our own cash plume. But those of us who view the IPL as any other crooked business venture, and Shashi Tharoor as any other slippery politician, have been much more interested in the volcano.

And for us, the big question of the last many days has been: How do you even say that word? Eyjafjallajökull, which in the local language means “A hundred thousand cancelled flights later you still won’t be able to pronounce this”, is wreaking havoc with the aviation industry, and with newscasters around the world whose tongues now loll, limp and useless, from the effort of trying to say it several times a day. This greatly amuses Icelanders, who themselves breezily ignore half the letters, stick in some unscheduled ‘t’s, and then pronounce them ‘d’. You can listen to them say it right here; as far as I can make out, it’s Ay-a-fadla-yo-kudl. The rest of the clip is devoted to making fun of how everyone else says it.

I can’t begrudge them a few giggles, though. They haven’t had the best couple of years, what with everyone looking crossly at them because of how much they owe the world, and now for busting up travel plans and bankrupting airlines, as if they’re responsible for the behaviour of their volcanoes. (It doesn’t, however, look good that Reykjavik has sunny skies and that all flights between Iceland and the non-European world are right on schedule.)

Things could get worse: scientists say that not only could this volcano keep burping fire for weeks or months, but apparently Eyjafjallajökull’s explosions tend to trigger the neighbouring, much fiercer Katla volcano. Connected to the same magma chain is Laki—and the last eruption of that one, in 1783, has been blamed for effects as far-reaching as the French Revolution (volcanic gases change patterns, crop production falls in Europe, peasants run amok). Global warming is likely to increase both volcanic eruptions and their intensity. But figuring all this out is not going to be easy; GNS Science, a New Zealand research organisation, wanted to send a scientist to study Eyjafjallajökull, but he couldn’t get a flight to Europe.

But really, everyone should just suck it up. I don’t care if I never go to Europe again, as long as they wait for it to be safe to fly. All the people yelling about the lack of crisis coordination and demanding their high-tech, high-speed lives back should take a quick refresher on the ‘Jakarta incident’ of 1982, when a British Airways Boeing flew into the ash plume of Mt Galunggung near the Indonesian capital and lost all four of its engines. The crew took the plane into a nosedive to prevent oxygen-starvation, and upon exiting the ash cloud were able to restart their engines, but had to land without their instruments and more or less blind. The whole thing was, as the captain memorably described it, “a bit like negotiating one’s way up a badger’s arse.”

If that sounds like fun, go ahead and blow your top agitating for flights to resume asap. But it might be much more fun to sit around on a boat, or in a train or car, and use the time to look at photographs or film clips of volcanic eruptions, because they’re truly spectacular events.

And maybe practice how to say Eyjafjallajökull.