Friday, September 26, 2014

New Year resignations

(Published in Business Standard on January 11, 2014. And when I was posting it, I appear not to have gone beyond 'draft' to 'publish', so here it is, chronologically challenged in a welter of chronologically challenged posts.)

I was never gladder to be living in hot, stinky India than last week. That was when the internet became overrun by stills from the climate change disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, in which a monster funnel of arctic air brings US temperatures down so much that a giant frozen tsunami engulfs New York, and a paleoclimatologist has to trek on improvised snow shoes into a head wind to rescue his kid. When the sun finally comes back out, the surviving US population are refugees in Mexico. In the comity of nations the long-arrogant North suddenly depends on the large-heartedness of the South, and finally we’re all going to start taking nature seriously and biking rather than driving to work.

Then I discovered that the pictures were not stills from Hollywood, but the results of a real monster funnel of arctic air that pushed US temperatures so far down that a giant tsunami of real icicle photos engulfed the internet. It was so cold that people were tossing boiling water into the air to watch it turn into snow before it hit the ground, which is a great trick unless you’re one of the fifty people who accidentally tossed the water into the wind and got third degree burns.

One reporter said it was colder than Mars, which sounds like the kind of cold that will flay your skin in strips from your cheekbones. It’s the kind of cold that will kill you in five minutes unless you’re wearing a jacket made of polar bear skin padded with whale blubber, with an inner layer of electric blanket. It’s the kind of cold that makes my teeth hurt just to think about it; the kind of cold that makes you think, There but for the grace of god go I.

Which brings me to the meat of the matter: I’m so relieved to not be in cryogenic suspension that I’ve decided to cut myself some slack in the matter of New Year resolutions. I’d made several—robust, character-building stuff that might well have helped shape the course of history. But, looking at all the pictures of Niagara Falls frozen into a surreal sculpture, I decided that with mother nature already so cranky, there’s no point taking a chance on disappointing her further. Presenting, therefore, my own innovation: New Year resignations.

I hereby resign myself to overeating with abandon until at least mid-February. We may not have a polar vortex, but it’s pretty brisk in New Delhi, and why buy a coat when I can grow my own protective layer? I resign myself to not doing any more exercise than I bloody well feel like, because it isn’t making the blindest bit of difference anyway, especially with all the overeating. I resign myself to never doing today what I can put off until the day after tomorrow, because, well, okay, that’s just a lifelong habit. I resign myself to continuing to complain bitterly about the silly nothings in my life, even though I have nothing to complain about and have seen Lizzie Velasquez speak on YouTube. (If you haven’t, you should, just google her.) I resign myself to drinking enthusiastically when the mood takes me, just because the mood takes me. That’s mostly how it pans out, and I find it suits me very well. I resign myself to reading only if and when I’m in the mood. I resign myself to wriggling out of most family events, especially the ones where you’re expected to bring presents.

And that’s quite enough decision-making for one day. I’m off to look up details of the jet stream current, which scientists describe as ‘drunk’, and pictures of frozen lighthouses. Happy 2014!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yes, and no, and yes, and no…

(Published in Business Standard on September 20, 2014)

So Scotland held its referendum yesterday, and said ‘No thanks’ to kicking out the English. For a while it was very close but then the No thankses pulled ahead by a decisive margin.

I know, right? The English are so used to being kicked out of countries that this time they themselves turned their backs, lowered their trousers to display buttocks painted with the outline of boot soles for better targeting, and offered the Scots their turn. And the Scots said no—the Scots! Those famously aggressive drinkers with the blue Mel Gibson face! Worse, they didn’t even say No, they said Better Together, which is what you say when you’re too depressed about your decision to say No. But it still feels like a shame to waste all those boot outlines.

What do you mean, Who cares about Scotland? Oh, I see, you’ve been cut off from the world because you, like me, spent the last couple of days living, eating, sleeping and cursing in your car in one ginormous traffic jam the size of the Andromeda Galaxy, on account of the fact that Chinese president Xi Jinping was visiting? No, wait, I take that back—the Andromeda Galaxy is actually moving.

What’s that? You say it’s not that you were cut off from the world, seeing as there is no sentient life left on earth that does not have mobile data and a Twitter account, but just that you don’t give a flying galaxy what happens to Scotland as long as the whisky keeps flowing?

Well that’s typical of a former colony—you’re all done with getting your own independence, so you don’t care about anyone else. You probably care more that a bunch of Chinese soldiers were doing the salsa in Ladakh at the same time that Prime Minister Modi was nibbling lovingly on President Xi’s ear in central Delhi and the good people of Delhi were decomposing at the wheel. You probably care more, in your selfish local way, about the thousand wild-eyed people who were rustled up by the Rashtriya Lok Dal to do the merengue on the UP-Delhi border and threaten to cut off water supply to the capital unless party chief Ajit Singh can stay put in his ministerial bungalow even though he’s no longer a minister.

Well I’m very enthusiastic, though now I don’t know what to feel. There was almost a whole new nation born! Then they decided not to be born. Maybe they prefer the sound of a million Englishmen gloating? How depressing. Or maybe not—maybe they’ve secretly been running England all along and are having trouble giving up all the power. Oh well, a tiny bit over half of them probably know what’s best for… never mind.

Either way, I retain a soft spot for the Scots. Thanks to referendum hysteria I’ve been besieged with every memory of every fleeting association I’ve ever had with Scotland. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s ballad-poem, ‘Ticonderoga: a legend of the West Highlands’, which is about warring Stewart and Cameron clansmen and full of properly Scottish vengeance, and also delicious words like ‘pawkier’ and ‘scrog’ and ‘scaur’. I like red hair, and I love Mark Knopfler. I adore the heyland coos (which other people pronounce Highland cows). I like the rivers and heathery moors and the gritty national character, all of which go into producing Scotland’s best ever export, Scotch whisky.

And I confess that I like it a lot that Scottish men wear skirts and allegedly no panties, and yet manage to be lady-killers. (It’s the accent.)

You came so close, Scotland—almost an aye for a nae, you might say. Never mind, maybe in another few hundred years.

Bringing down the mouse

(Published in Business Standard on September 6, 2014)

Regular readers of this column, if you exist, may remember that a little over year ago I suddenly ran out into the summer sun and bought a guitar. I didn’t spend a lot on it, given the whimsicality of the moment, but contrary to expectations, I have sustained my interest in it.

My guitar is a cheapo black acoustic with a better sound than you would expect at the price, and I adore it. I thought about naming it, then felt that might be weird, then realised that it was already weird to buy a guitar with no clear idea of what to do with it or why, but anyway couldn’t think of a name that I would feel comfortable standing on the porch and calling out loud, which is the gold standard for a good name.

Physics says the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but nobody informed the bumblebee of that fact, so it flies on regardless. Thus was it with my guitar and me. Nobody said I couldn’t learn to play from the internet, so I did. (I’m going to write a song called ‘Fly By Wireless’.)

I therefore stared at a lot of websites, eyes crossed, tongue lolling, fingers twitching on the fretboard, and, barely a year later, I had learned six chords, give or take a few. It just goes to show that dedication can make a dilettante out of a no-hoper, and that there’s nothing you can’t do if you apply whatever’s left of your middle-aged brain. (I’m going to write a song called ‘Sixteen Synapses Standing’.) I wore my fingers down to stubs practicing those six chords, and am proud to say that while the strings still produce a tooth-hurting kind of buzz, I can now move fluidly between three of those six chords.

Armed with this technical virtuosity, I’ve taken to writing songs. It’s a lot like trying to build a house using nothing but a pack of chewing gum and a stork; and yet, nobody told me I couldn’t. I wrote four songs in the space of two weeks, which is more writing per day than I have voluntarily done in the last ten years. This tells me that either I missed my calling, or that, as Bob Dylan said about song writing in an interview, “Any idiot could do it.”

The great tragedy of my life, other than that my body seems averse to recreational drugs, is that I do not have a singing voice. I absolutely love to sing. I sing all the time—in the shower, in my head, in the car. Sadly, I emit only a kind of thin nasal wail that chokes and trembles and cracks, and occasionally lands foul of the note. Also, I have the lungpower of a smallish flea. (I’m going to write a song called 'Why, God, Why?')

I played and sang my first song in a great welter of nerves for the people I play with regularly, and at the end of it, though they clapped supportively, they confessed that while they thought the music was nice, they couldn’t actually hear a word that came out of my mouth. And that was when I was using a microphone. (I’m going to write a song called ‘What Is The Point Even, Stupid Microphone’.)

I’m trying to overcome my inner mouse and open up my voice. That may take a while, and may or may not yield results, but either way, I’ll keep writing songs, because it’s a ton of fun that any idiot can have.

Meanwhile, it has been suggested to me that I shouldn’t give up my day job. I won’t say who said so, but I’m not squeaking to them no more.

Four years later

(Published in Business Standard on August 23, 2014)

I recently reviewed a four-year-old book, on the grounds that I only just got around to reading it. These grounds might have a light whiff of wtf, but at the time four years didn’t seem like a big deal, though when I thought about it later I realised that it’s the entire lifespan of two of my nieces. In four years I would have been late for, like, their lives. However, the editor of the publication didn’t seem to mind, my lords and ladies, and I certainly didn’t, so then I just decided to go wild and do other things I’m four years late doing.

First, I stopped eating almost entirely, my lords and ladies. That was the easiest way to not have to take bathroom breaks. I shut off my phone, drew the blinds, and ignored the doorbell. Since it seemed as if I was either not home or dead, people went away. I’m going to figure out which of them thought I was dead, and unfriend them from Facebook.

I also gave up a number of forms of washing, my lords and ladies, and of exercise. I did nothing, in fact, for four straight days, except watch Game of Thrones, seasons one through four, one season a day. I’m not sure that I spoke to any real human beings in that time, which is probably a good thing. If I had, I probably would have addressed them as ‘my lord’ or ‘my lady’ and then tried to stab them.

GoT is fantasy—adult fantasy (think fornication and murder, but in a good way). I don’t know at what point it began to seem perfectly normal to me to worry about whether the dragons were getting enough to eat, or to decide that the incestuous Lannister twins actually make a nice couple, or that maybe I too can find love with an irresistibly charming blond dwarf with an alcohol problem.

For years—four years—I couldn’t understand why people kept going on about Game of Thrones. Stupid name suggesting annoying boys playing with annoying toys. What was everyone on about? Well, as they say in book reviewing circles, better four years late than never. Without giving away anything—though if you’re anal about it, skip the next couple of paragraphs—let me summarise the plotline of Game of Thrones: Everybody dies. Everybody. You think I’m joking? I’m not joking. You think, here’s a fantastic character, getting so much stage time, so central to the story, so clearly the main protagonist, no way would they invest so much in someone and then bump them off without a by your leave. Right? Gird your loins, my lords and ladies. Everybody keels over, and I mean everybody, usually in a scene straight out of some vicious ISIS-style nightmare, except that the person with the knife is likely to be your friend. It makes you question the whole notion of friendship very closely, like those friends who went away when they thought you were dead.

All I can say is, it’s my own loss for being so late. I haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s books yet, though I will, but I can tell you that HBO’s version of Game of Thrones is a riveting, amazingly accomplished piece of work. It takes a masterful touch to be able to present and round out characters so quickly and engagingly before tearing their throats out. If you haven’t seen it yet I encourage you to race out and get it—but get all four seasons at once, because once you start, you won’t want to stop.

If nothing else, my lords and ladies, it’s a great way to prune your Facebook friends list.

Trashing the house

(Published in Business Standard on August 9, 2014)

The excellent thing about a family reunion, when the youngest of you is middle-aged, is that when it’s over you can heave an audible sigh of relief, and nobody will be offended. They won’t actually hear you over their own audible sighs of relief. One loves one’s family madly, but after a point one is discreetly eager to get back to one’s own life before one gouges out one’s own eyeballs.

At the conclusion of our family reunion, therefore, all the family members in question shot off in different directions with loud screams of joy. My brother, who had understandably been complaining of nausea, immediately stopped vomiting and drove to Rajasthan; my sister was found clawing at the gates of her flight to Hong Kong four hours ahead of schedule; and my mother, traumatised afresh by the sheer number of children she has, fled to a German university to do a month-long course in Old Javanese. (She does unspeakable things in her study that require her to know Old Javanese, which is why I stay out of there.) She’s been sending heartrending emails about experiencing college life at 66.

Since I wasn’t going anywhere—in so, so, many ways—I decided to clean up. My mother has trouble throwing things away, and rains hellfire upon anyone who tries to. That creates clutter—think Augean Stables, but not as neat. I’m no Hercules, but on a cloudy night, if you close your eyes tightly, I can pass for Alexander, so I decided to cut the Gordian Knot, which is a mere trifle compared to the umbilical cord—and if you think my metaphors are messy, you should see my mother’s study.

I began there. I took a large garbage bag and placed it open-mawed in a small clearing at the centre of the room, and then walked around picking things up and sentencing them to death. Flat-out rubbish went. Maybe-rubbish went. Not rubbish, but unnecessary, went. Unidentifiable went. Spent went. Unused went. New, but useless to man or beast, went.

I trashed dozens of small decorative boxes. I uprooted a large number of inexplicable eggs—wooden eggs, marble eggs, ceramic eggs—of all sizes and colours, from nests of paper. (As I said, unspeakable things that I don’t want to know about.) I found my math homework from 1980. I performed ruthless triage on about eighteen thousand bottles of homeopathic pills, some of them older than homeopathy. I threw out countless used envelopes. I tossed broken gadgets, and noodles of wires fossilised in dust. I threw out dust.

I went rampaging through the house, pillaging and spreading fear. I shone bright lights into the eyes of a family of toothbrushes huddled in an unsanitary mug, nine of them living in squalor, wallowing in their own filth and probably stealing from the six hairbrushes next door to stay alive. I showed no mercy. A basket of potions and creams older than recorded history went. The mortal remains of shower caps that had long ago died from feelings of worthlessness, went. Dusty eye masks from countless airplane kits, went. Whole piles of paper I didn’t feel like reading, went. Drums rolled and cymbals clashed in my head. From time to time I adjusted my crown. It felt so good.

My sister warned me, on the phone, about how my mother would react to finding her cities sacked and her eggs plundered. I’m not worried, though. I can fight the old girl off—if you turn your back to me while wearing a blindfold, you can see my conqueror’s sword.

Plus, I happen to know that she has back pain from walking to class carrying a backpack filled with textbooks.

On finally growing up

(Published in Business Standard on July 25, 2014)

At the ripe old age of 42, I can finally say: I’m not even close yet! I have no desire to either, perhaps because I’m haven’t found the right incentive, but more probably because I still have no idea what growing up means.

It’s not the sort of thing that keeps me up at night, either. I’ve only been wondering because the other day I bumped into a cousin who asked what I’ve been up to. He may well have been asking the way an American asks ‘How are you’—a purely rhetorical device that is the opposite of an invitation to tell them how you are—but I got all literal and told him. He recoiled in horror and said: “What! Grow up. Aren’t you supposed to behave like that in your twenties, not your forties?” I looked at him with genuine puzzlement and said, “Why?” It appeared that neither he nor I had a good reason for why, but he muttered ‘Bad girl’ under his breath anyway.

Clearly, I don’t know what growing up is supposed to entail. So I did the responsible thing: I googled it. I got 183,000,000 results, one of which was a wikiHow page on ‘How to grow up: 22 steps (with pictures)’. I was very excited about finally having clear visual aids, but found that it just involved some cartoon people whose enormous manga eyes seem to say ‘I’m all grown up and calm, but I’m not going to tell you how or why, you immature loser’.

Lots of websites say the same old stuff about moderation—apparently adults must schedule feelings of fun—and a lot about saving money and not blowing off work to play Halo with your college friend. They all want to herd you into the matrix of settling down and starting a savings plan and a family and a mortgage, home, getting health insurance, and taking care of your body.

Well. What about that New York Times article by Pamela Druckerman that everyone was passing around the other day, ‘What You Learn In Your 40s’? It’s a great article. You should read it. The most insightful thing it has to say is:

“There are no grown-ups. We suspect this when we are younger, but can confirm it only once we are the ones writing books and attending parent-teacher conferences. Everyone is winging it, some just do it more confidently.”

I’m delighted to have this confirmation of a longstanding hunch. When we say the words “Grow up”, what we mean is “Recognise that your body isn’t what it used to be.” At least that’s what I have to assume from all the websites lecturing you about not drinking too much, or diversifying your sexual portfolio too much, or tossing too many jobs, or only doing what you like. It’s just weird: when you’re a child they tell you that you can do whatever you want when you grow up; and then, when you’re an adult doing whatever you want, they tell you to grow up.
If I were more paranoid, I would think that they just don’t want you to do these things.

The single certainty in life being death, I’d have thought that grownups are those who plan for dying by getting in a satisfactory amount of living. In my own humble opinion, that should involve work that you like, and kindness, and merry amounts of alcohol, and playing in an amateur band, and the kind of nightlife that makes your cousin back off muttering ‘Bad girl’.

But I have no idea. I’m just winging it.

Notes on faking it

(Published in Business Standard on July 12, 2014)

It’s that time of year when the wind blows hot, the skies get clouded, and there is crushing pressure to be interested in the FIFA World Cup. It’s enough to put a kink in your spine, and there’s no escaping it. You must have a favourite football team, you must idolise some one player, and you must make canny predictions of game outcomes based on data sets ranging from the strikers’ fitness level to the coach’s Zodiac sign. Do you much prefer watching tennis? Do you live for cricket? Would you rather gouge your own eyeballs out with a spoon than watch sports? Too bad. It’s the World Cup, and you will be mad for football. If not, you can plan on spending your evenings chatting with the potted plants.

For every genuine football fan who’s been living on Rio time and knows what each player had for breakfast, there are four fakers who get a solid night’s sleep and Google a couple of statistics in the morning just to stay in the conversation. I’m mostly a faker. In the football section of physical education in school I played fullback, on account of underwhelming athleticism, so I already associate football with long periods of solitude and boredom, but it turns out that if you fake it you can retain your social life.

You can only fake things up to a point, of course. I tend to ignore the World Cup for that period in which four thousand teams face off several times a day in some version of Burundi vs. Liechtenstein. That part lasts for what feels like seven months. I only get interested around the quarterfinals. This is when I realise how much eye candy I’ve been missing out on, and start to pay attention.

So far in this tournament, I’ve watched a grand total of four matches. The first was Argentina vs Iran, notable for the exquisite pasta dinner I’d ordered. The second was France vs Nigeria. That was quite exciting because an inebriated friend lurched off to chat up some French dude, so we sneaked away to another part of the bar and hid, so that when she returned she would think we’d left, and hopefully freak out. The new part of the bar had a good view of the game, but we spent most of the second half spying on her.

The third game was France vs Germany, in which I was captivated by the virtuosity of the guitarist in the live band that was playing at the bar. The band was putting its heart and soul into it even though no one was paying them the blindest bit of attention. It was very poignant.

The fourth game was Colombia vs. Brazil, which I spent trying to entice a tiny Colombian baby wearing a tiny Colombian jersey into my arms, but even though I leered at it as seductively as I could, it just looked at me with that cool, appraising look that is the baby equivalent of concertina wire.

I did try to watch a fifth game, the Netherlands vs Argentina match, the other night. That effort, however, was eclipsed by a number of beverages that caused me such suffering the next day that even my mother took pity on me and ditched the lecture, though I did hear the words “fat”, “old” and “drunkard” muttered in low tones.

I will be among the faithful, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, to watch my sixth game, the big final between Germany and Argentina, on Sunday night. So excuse me, I just have to go look up a few things to toss into the conversation. Go, Germany! Or Argentina!

Buy buy Delhi, hello Himachal

(Published in Business Standard on June 28, 2014)

So I’m back from a twelve-day road trip in Himachal Pradesh, one of those pradeshes that I don’t go to often enough. (Punjab, though, goes there so much that you’re hard-pressed to meet any actual Himachalis.) Going to Himachal is a lot like childbirth, in the sense of a simile stretched to breaking point. I’m trying to say that while eight-hour drives on rutted mountain roads aren’t easy, the trip is always more than worth the pain. Not all parents can unreservedly say that about parenting.

Everyone knows that Himachal Pradesh is stuffed to the gills with natural beauty—glorious gushing rivers, magical cedar and oak forests dappled with sunlight, resin-scented air, the mightiest peaks on earth strung up against the sky, hillsides dizzy with wildflowers, night skies engorged with stars, beautiful birds, blah-di-blah-di-blah.

But let me tell you a new thing I discovered: going to Himachal is financially ruinous because of the parking in South Extension market.

First, I had to buy a new phone, because the old one’s battery was like a deaf old dog in the sun, occasionally twitching and sighing but mostly just comatose. I thought I should have a reliable phone in the hills in case of, you know, some hilly emergency. Since every smartphone I’ve ever had has been a hand-me-down, I was shaken to discover that a new one costs the same as a small space shuttle. One doesn’t just pay for it, one pays for it while making piteous involuntary noises in the back of one’s throat.

Then I had to buy new sneakers, because to put the old ones on was to lace together a bunch of holes and pus-like eruptions of foam. They bore very little resemblance to the proud, cushioned young pups I had bought seven years ago. I was disturbed to find that since then, the price has risen to roughly as much as a private jet. Okay, I exaggerate—more like a second-hand private jet.

Nevertheless, this being a sports shop, I thought it a good time to replace my old track pants, which have a gaping hole in the leg and are so threadbare in the ass that I instinctively wear long t-shirts over them. Free association caused me to buy some new t-shirts as well. When the checkout clerk had prised my debit card from my hands with a pair of pliers and rung up my bill, I went straight to a sandal shop next door. My old sandals have so much thread coming out of them that they make my feet look bearded. The bill caused a certain wetness on my cheek, but when you’ve already bought a space shuttle and a second-hand private jet, what’s a couple more crores?

If you’ve been to South Extension, you’ll know that once you’re there, you feel you should just buy everything in sight so that you never, ever, ever, ever, ever (to abridge an Arnabism) have to park there again.

Thus equipped, I went to Himachal Pradesh, where I proceeded to buy five turquoise rings and a couple of shawls, because once you’ve bought a space shuttle, a second-hand private jet, and thrown a couple more crores at a pair of sandals, you might as well buy a couple of birthday presents and your regular souvenir ring, but multiply it by five just because you’re now acclimatised to excess. It’s a good thing I didn’t stay longer, I might have bid for a hillside or two.

Go to Himachal Pradesh, dear Dilliwallah, it will be a salve upon your tattered third world urban soul. But do your shopping by metro.

Heat and dust in Delhi

(Published in Business Standard on June 14, 2014)

Well it’s June in Delhi, and that can mean only one thing: All your friends have left town, and you’re the only loser left in the city. The weather report for the city is 47.8c, feels like the temperature at which the sun has nuclear hissy fits. It’s so hot that you have to beat the heat to exercise outdoors. You wake up earlier and earlier to hit the park before the temperature hits 35c, until one day your alarm is going off at 2am, but when you check your weather app it turns out you have to go back to bed because the mercury never once dipped below that.

The reason you’re the only loser left in town is that you didn’t make like the thrifty ant, you made like the devil-may-care grasshopper, and now the ants are partying in Roma and Brasilia and Sydney, and the grasshopper is having to sweep its melting hind legs along behind itself in Delhi as it drags itself to the nearest mango supplier, where it can only look at the mangoes, because it’s a bit allergic to mangoes, because God clearly hates it.

One friend sends me Whatsapp photos of herself in Spain, arm-in-arm with beautiful Basque families whose social customs include spending evenings kissing Indian visitors and telling them how beautiful they are, over indecent helpings of beer and jamon.

Another friend, who is hands-down the luckiest person I know, is spending her summer housesitting for a lady who lives on a Greek island. The lady in question runs an establishment—which, if I weren’t feeling so resentful, I would more accurately call a mansion—overlooking the Adriatic Sea. There’s a dog and a cat and a turtle to be watered and fed. They more or less walk themselves around the ginormous garden overlooking the sea. That’s it.

This friend sends me Whatsapp photos of her laptop open before the sea view from the garden, with a weather report for Delhi on the screen, because she has an exquisite sense of which buttons to push. Then she sends me photos of the same view four hours later, with the caption that she has managed, in that time, to shift a couple of inches to the left. When she really can’t take all the gorgeousness anymore, she walks down to the local bar and has interesting conversations with strangers over a pint or two or a dozen. She worries about turning into a lotus-eater. I hear her pain. This is the second year running she’s doing this gig.

It is some consolation that as a result of her being away on this demanding assignment, I have been housesitting her place in Delhi, but, as lovely an oasis as that is, it ain’t no Greek island. (I have checked and re-checked thoroughly.) So I, and a couple of other loser friends, have decided to heave ourselves off on a road trip to Himachal Pradesh, or those parts of it that stick out above the miasmic heat. In the spirit of all this musical housing, we’re going to stay with friends in Shimla, a friend in the Tirthan Valley, and then in some homestays in the lovely Lahaul and Spiti valley. We should be back just in time for the monsoon to fail to show up; apparently it has decided that things are nicer down south, so it should maybe just hang out there. That’s what the weatherman says, which probably means that you should get your gumboots out. It’s a sort of cosmic joke that on the eve of our departure, a rainshower in Delhi has brought the mercury plunging down into the high 20s.

Makes you really grumpy about a 6am departure.

No politics, please

(Published in Business Standard on May 31, 2014)

I bet you think this is going to be another damn column on the damn elections. I bet you’re thinking that you should just turn the page, because if you read one more iteration of the same statistics about the vote share or seat conversion rate you’re going to throw up your breakfast. I bet you’re thinking that if one more stupid newspaper columnist says one more stupid thing about the stupid elections, you’re going to just go ahead and burn the stupid newspaper. Well, don’t be hasty. This column is about upma.

Upma makes everything better. Swearing also makes everything better, but upma is full of life-giving calories. It has some fat in it, but it’s also got some magic x-factor that makes you feel as if you’re sitting in your mother’s lap. If you happen to be weeping over losing a family member or a friend or a lover, upma is what you want. I have discovered, via an exhaustive Google search, that despite all these health benefits, it is not mentioned nearly enough in commencement addresses. I had upma for lunch yesterday, and I can tell you that it salvaged yesterday. That’s about everything I know about upma, and all I need to know.

So that was the upma-related part of this column. I have no idea what the rest of it is about, but I do know that I am NOT going to write about the damn elections or about the stupid cabinet-formation which includes one number crazy Hindutva lady and one number riot-accused gentleman, of whom we will speak no more, on account of this column resolutely not being about the damn government.

This column, instead, will be about the fact that it is very tired of thinking about politics and the elections and all the things that are wrong with our country and our people. Thinking about this sort of thing constantly is, as we all know, detrimental to one’s health. So it will be more about things like, I don’t know, going out for a nice drink or meal. Preferably upma.

So I went out for a nice drink and meal the other night, and I ran into a cop friend. This was in the same tony part of town where we met a few weeks ago, at a birthday party. I’d been celebrating the birthday, and he’d been shutting down the birthday celebration and throwing us out. As he escorted us down several flights of stairs, we began to chat about… well, the then upcoming Lok Sabha elections. By the time we reached the ground floor we were fast friends. I keep meeting him in the same locality, and we always have a little chat.

The other night when we met, he said that any restaurant I’d like to go to, he would fix it up so it would be free for me. That’s very kind, I said, but I don’t want a free meal. How about a discount? I’ll get you a discount, he said. How sweet, but I don’t want a discount, I said. He is a large, barrelly sort of man, and he began to beetle his brow and glower at me. You will have to eat at least one dinner on me, he said firmly.

Then said that he thought that people seem more confident about the new government, but that the Human Resources Development minister should be better educated. But I’m not telling you any more about that since I have pledged to make this column not about stupid politics.

I think I’ll get him to spring for an upma.

Homo electus

(Published in Business Standard on May 17, 2014)

Good morning India! So… It’s over. They counted! It took two excruciating months to hold elections, during which the country split neatly down the middle between those who hate the opposing camp, those who hate everyone, and those who don’t care one way or the other (electoral math works differently than regular math); and then on counting day it only took them until 9.30am to call a result. But they still wouldn’t let us buy booze the whole day. Now we’re finally reunified as one nation that drank so much of its previously stashed booze on counting day that it isn’t sure which way is up.

Anyway, we have a result! As the exit polls unanimously predicted, the winner is Manmohan Singh, who has had it with this shit and is getting the hell out of Dodge. This may be the first day that he smiles broadly enough that his lips part.

No, just kidding. The winner is actually Arnab Goswami, who scolded the Congress party’s spokespeople so vigorously that he almost dislodged his scalp. Make fun of him all you like, but he called out their weak-kneed drivel and told them where they could get off, on behalf of millions of viewers all over the country who were attempting to throttle said spokespeople by thrusting their hands through their television screens.

No, just kidding. The winner is the Sensex, which has lost all contact with reality and, in fact, with earth, and is now in orbit amid space junk, wondering whether there’s a good IPO happening on Saturn.

No, just kidding. Here’s my scenario for what might be happening in the winning camp today.

Homo electus wakes up at 5am, and does yoga and meditation. He eats breakfast as he does all his meals, we’re told: always alone, always. His first task today is to read, with a small smile playing on his lips, the several hundred open letters that have been written to him by critics since the start of the election, which began roughly around the dawn of recorded time. Then he practices showing up as a hologram, so that he can make addresses to the nation on news channels not only in the present but also well back in time, all the way back to the golden period of Hindu culture when our values were intact and the Mughals hadn’t ruined everything.

Then he walks out of a small outhouse at 7 Racecourse Road—into which he moved several days ago because, really, there was no doubt, and why trouble with a commute?—into the main building. His party workers changed the curtains a week ago, stepping around the serving Prime Minister who insisted on continuing to work there and who is only leaving for real around noon today. Now everything is a lovely bright colour.

By mid-morning, Homo electus saddles up his white horse and rides down to the Yamuna, where he conducts a victory float on a giant lotus. Around lunchtime he fixes the economy (the Sensex, though, has well and truly shuffled off this mortal coil and is now distributing offer documents in the Horsehead Nebula). Then, to stave off boredom, he puts the entire government on a fantastic website that responds faster than you can type. After consuming a small fruit, he ends corruption. By teatime, poverty is just a bad memory.

And because it’s been such a good day, in the evening he breaks his lonely-meals rule to take a loyal lieutenant out to dinner—candles and flowers and everything. They hold hands, look deep into each other’s eyes and know, each, what the other is thinking: What can we not do, together?

The nation is wondering the same thing.

Pharma Chameleon

(Published in Business Standard on May 3, 2014)

When I was a kid I would frequently eat a whole bottle of Nux vomica or Rhus tox or Belladonna at bedtime. If you know homeopathy, you know that you’re only supposed to put four little pellets on your tongue, and that they are very effective at being delicious little balls of sweetness that stand in for dessert. I just pounded the whole bottle, and today I am a short, podgy person whose brain moves very slowly. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you recklessly overuse medication.

So here’s a public service announcement: Please listen to the World Health Organisation, which is screaming at us to kindly stop popping antibiotics as if they’re mints. I know countless highly educated people who are always buying antibiotics over the counter without a prescription (lousy idea) and self-medicating (big problem) for as long or as short a time as they feel like (enormous disaster). Stop it, would you? You’re screwing it up for the whole planet. Just because Dr X once gave you amoxicillin for five days when you had that thing, doesn’t mean you should now take it for two and a half days because you have a thing that feels a bit like that thing. Doing that makes you public health enemy number one.

Science long ago confirmed what we secretly already knew: we are scum, mostly, even those of us who aren’t running for public office. The most populous form of life on earth is not, in fact, people who talk loudly on their cell phones in the middle of movies, though it feels like it—it is actually bacteria. There are about two kilos of bacteria in your gut, and while some of the rest of you is made up of water, a lot of the rest of you is just creepy crawlies. Most of the world is bacteria.

Bacteria didn’t get this dominant by being stupid; they are champion survivors. If you throw a problem at them for long enough, they’ll figure out how to solve it. We’ve been throwing antibiotics at them for decades. Now tiny, revolting little bacteria scientists are beginning to publish, in their tiny, revolting little peer-reviewed bacteria medical journals, breakthroughs in beating antibiotics.

Our scientists, on the other hand, are saying very loudly that we’ve got no new antibiotics, and no time to develop them at the pace that bacteria are outwitting them. That’s extremely scary. We’re so used to having these medical brahmastras around that we’ve forgotten that, before them, you could die from a common infection. As humans become resistant to antibiotics, therefore, we’re heading for a public health crisis in which the only thing that our last-resort medications are going to achieve, is gazillions of tiny, revolting little bacteria eyerolls and yawns. We’ll be in the space-and-communications age, and simultaneously in the 1940s. In this brave new world, you will be able to buy real estate on Neptune and send four trillion spam messages a day, but a paper cut could kill you.

India being India, you have to fill out seventeen different kinds of paperwork to join a library, but you can get serious medication from a pharmacy without a doctor’s prescription. Until pharmacies are made to stop flinging fistfuls of antibiotics over the counter with cries of merriment, the onus is on individual patients to cooperate. Yes, it’s a pain to go and pay a doctor, but think of it as helping to save the world. If that doesn’t move you, consider whether you really like the idea of getting untreatable gonorrhoea, or dying of a urinary tract infection.

That was for the rationalists out there.

The rest of you: NaMo says stop abusing antibiotics.

Between the ballot sheets

(Published in Business Standard on April 19, 2014)

If you consume any kind of media, including street posters and hoardings, Mandate 2014 feels like a relationship two years in, when there’s no romance or suspense left in the bedroom. Both of you are kind of bored when you have an election, so you just sort of hold it as nicely as you can, and try not to fall asleep, and have what can only be described as an anti-climax.

That simile is stretched thinner than latex, but here’s the thrust of my argument: people are talking as if there’s almost no point holding a May 16 at all, seeing as how everyone already seems to know exactly what’s going to happen: the BJP is going to win and Narendra Modi is going to be Prime Minister. Depending on which side of the political belief gap you stand on, this is either the Second Coming, or the day India gets shafted; but either way, the BJP is going to win and Narendra Modi is going to be Prime Minister.

This may be because the BJP campaign has smartly bought up every square inch of media space. If voters think that they’re already in charge, it’s because voters, bombarded by advertising, tend to respond with all the will and critical distance of junkies. This says more about people than about advertising, but there we are. Delhi’s residents declared results sometime last month. We know what’s what, because our father’s second cousin’s nephew’s mother-in-law knows someone who designed a shirt for someone who works in the Railways who once touched an envelope from the Ministry of Culture.

But hold on, there’s a rumour that the elections are not actually over, and nothing has actually been counted, and nobody actually knows how things will pan out. So, if only in the interest of staying awake, buck up, people, and try to inject some fun into the next few weeks. Remember, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.

Meanwhile, here are six tips for how to spice up your life in the ballot box.

1. Do you like your current political prediction, but find the magic palling? If so, consider involving a third party. It’s okay to imagine it; after all, your biggest political asset is between your ears. Too kinky for some, but it can make things sizzle.

2. Has conversation become repetitive? Have you been banging on so long about efficiency and Hindu values that you want to gag everybody? Experiment with chatting about the right to information and women’s empowerment. Talking dirty is a huge turn-on.

3. Pay more attention to how you look and sound. Have you had the same old opinions about national pride and the Gujarat Model every day? Habit can breed tedium. Try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes for a bit, imagine what it might be like to be female, or a minority, or gay, and what their concerns might be. Mmmmm!

4. One word: novelty. Using new toys and literature can rekindle the sparks. How about reading some other party’s manifesto? Pay as much attention to design, presentation and reader-friendliness, as to substance. You may find it hotter than the one you already subscribe to. Nothing to be ashamed of, and discretion is assured—they’re all online.

5. And lastly, nothing says come hither like an inner layer one doesn’t expect. Putting on something fun and wild can make you feel sexier than ever. If you let a bit of social liberalism peek out from beneath your economically conservative hem, you may find your partner breathing more heavily.

6. Find the right button, for god’s sake. Nobody likes a voter who just fumbles around poking at the wrong spot.

Seasonal allergies

(Published in Business Standard on April 5, 2014)

So there I was at dinner a couple of weeks ago, with a glass of whisky in one hand and no cigarette in the other. I haven’t smoked in almost eight months, because my niece has spent more than half of her little life trying to get me to quit, and I feel that it is now important to let her focus on breaking into a schoolroom at night and setting up sandbags around a desk of her choice, which, according to Delhi’s parents, is the only way a kid can get into school.
Anyway there I was, just being socially maladjusted, minding my own business, when suddenly my body went to Defcon 2.

I used to have panic attacks, which qualify as Defcon 1, and I recognise them, but this was a whole different bunch of bananas. The back of my head began to itch as if a thousand ants were stampeding through, and my windpipe began to close shop. I had to sit down, and then everyone started to fuss, so then I had to stand up and walk around faking calm, when what I really wanted to do was to run, screaming, to a doctor with alphabet soup after his or her name, and millions of dollars’ worth of life-saving equipment, and maybe Nutella, because if you’re going to choke to death you might as well choke on Nutella.

This feeling lasted about fifteen minutes, during which I went home and crawled into bed. I am not normally the sort of irresponsible pig who will leave a party without finishing her drink, which should tell you how bad I felt.

But you know how, when you’re middle-aged, you think you’re immortal? By the next morning it was just a funny memory. Two weeks later, however, it happened again, this time at a barbeque event when I had a glass of white wine in one hand and no cigarette in the other. I was supposed to go from there to a concert to a dinner, but when my throat started to pull up the drawbridge I cancelled the lot and went straight to the nearest chemist to buy an antihistamine tablet.

I’ve never been allergic to anything in my life, but when I saw the doctor the next day he asked me all kinds of poky questions about shampoo and perfume and underwear and clothing and foodstuffs and alcohol. I sat there, dumbstruck, thinking that quitting smoking is all well and good, but if I’ve developed an allergy to alcohol I’ll have to ask him to euthanize me here and now.

The doctor asked me to maintain a food-and-drink diary for a while to try to identify the cause of these allergic reactions. He couldn’t have known what a non-starter of an idea this is—nosey siblings have scarred me for life in the diary-keeping department.

But then I got into my car and turned on the radio and one of those ‘Ab ki bar Modi sarkar’ ads came on for the millionth time. The back of my scalp stirred and my windpipe swelled up. I logged into Facebook, where friends have taken axes to each other over their political affiliations, and my tongue started to tingle. I scanned Twitter and saw more electoral data and graphs than can possibly be useful; a rash erupted on the back of my hand. I went to more dinners and heard nothing but talk about seats, candidates, politics, power, coalitions, and broke out into hives.

So I don’t really need to keep a diary, because I’ve identified my allergen—and how stupid of me not to remember: it’s polling season. I can’t wait for it to be over.

The mystery of MH370

(Published in Business Standard on March 22, 2014)

Two weeks on, the world is in one vast group hug to deal with the fact that we seem to have…well, misplaced a ginormous plane. The only newspaper in the world that doesn’t have something about it on the front page every day, is every newspaper in the world two weeks ago. Headlines have gone from restrained-tragic (‘Malaysian Airlines carrying 239 disappears’) to openly frustrated (‘Where’s the damn plane?’).

People in public places crowd around television screens to watch the non-stop coverage of MH370 with their mouths open. And, since there’s nothing like the internet to make you an instant expert on everything, everyone has a theory, especially when the thing is growing to epic proportions—twenty countries, a three million nautical mile search area, about a million hypotheses ranging from highly technical airmanshippy stuff to highly deranged aliens-and-black-holes stuff.

It’s all we’ve been talking about. I see your two oil slicks and raise you one yellow floating object. Forget the 14-minute gap between communications shutting down—what about the Indian military radar in the Andamans that they turn off to save costs? (Shh, don’t tell China.) There hasn’t been so much shouting about a sharp left turn since the Tea Partiers beheld their current Commie Kenyan Muslim president.

People who can’t change a light bulb in their own houses are chatting blithely about transponders and ACARS and the $10 Swift upgrade that Malaysian Airlines never bothered with. People who haven’t put a coherent sentence together in years are arguing about the Goodfellow electrical fire theory versus the Ledgerwood shadow flight path theory.

Everyone now knows that there’s a thingy between the pilot and co-pilot into which the flight path and emergency alternatives are programmed. Everyone now knows that a flight recorder ‘black box’ is actually orange, and gives off a signal for 30 days. Everyone knows that you have to Aviate, Navigate and Communicate, in that order, and that you’d have to get out of your seat, crawl through a trapdoor and tame a lion to disable both communication systems on a 777. Nobody will ever say “All right, good night” the same way again.

Knowing these things practically makes us all pilots, even those of us who have been flying planes for years from the economy cabin, selflessly staying awake wild-eyed and white-knuckled through every flight in order to ensure that the stupid thing stays aloft and the rest of you can sleep peacefully. But events like the Mystery of MH370 show that there’s always room for improvement—for instance, it never previously crossed my mind that you could conceivably take control of a flight from a computer terminal on the ground. I now have new things to worry about.

If there’s an upside to misplacing an enormous aircraft, it is that everyone’s geography stands vastly improved. Every bonehead at Riverdale High now knows where the Gulf of Vietnam, the Malacca Strait, the South China Sea, the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean are. Also, Malaysia. The only exception is the Malaysian government, which doesn’t seem to know anything.

As I write this, the Aussies have just found two large floating objects in the southern Indian Ocean. It could be MH370’s wreckage, which would be such a huge breakthrough that we’ll all have to go to a bar for a drink and a cry; or it could be something that fell off a cargo ship, which happens all the time—who knew?—in which case we’ll all still be living on caffeine and suspense.

Here’s to closure soon. I’m so emotionally exhausted from looking for the plane that I have nothing left to give to the Indian election—which is okay; the feeling, I fear, is mutual.

March of the zombies

(Published in Business Standard on March 8, 2014)

These are the best days of the year. The afternoon light lasts a bit longer. Cotton wool clouds are wafting across the sky. The breezes are warming up. Sweet green buds are sprouting on branches. The pansies are turning their crazy little faces up to the butterflies. The AAP and the BJP are hurling furniture at each other in the street to the soothing gush of police water cannons. Ah, spring in Delhi! There’s nothing quite like it.

The air fills with the chirp of birdsong in the trees earlier every morning, and the screaming of spokespeople in the studios later every evening. Parliament has fallen silent, but they hope to replace all the ripped out mikes in the next few months. It is at this time, between the chapped lips of winter and the baked scalps of summer, that the city takes a short, happy, relaxed breath.

This is Delhi is at its best, all mild sunshine and blazing flowerbeds. Also because the model code of conduct is now in effect, which means politicians are no longer allowed to influence voters, which means that it’s now up to voters to influence each other, which is not going so well because everyone has already made up their minds and are now spending all their brainpower coming up with good names to call the others.

Social media networks have turned into vast, timeless battlefields groaning under the weight of armies of zombies, trolls and gargoyles of all kinds, and filled with the crackling of verbal assault and gunfire, punctuated only by the odd Buzzfeed list to provide a more conventional kind of comic relief. Insult-generating widgets, compiled from common epithets bandied about on Twitter, say that you’re either a pseudo-sickular, Paki-loving, napunsak, weak, minority-appeasing, anti-progress, dynasty-supporting, paid news dalaal, congi dog, anti-Hindu PR ninja libtard; or a fear-mongering, genocidal, totalitarian, khap panchayati, plutocratic, cow-worshipping nazi pigdog, khaki-chaddi classhole trustafarian bigot Moditard. Or an AAPtard. (That one apparently says it all.) Everything is pretty much black or white out there. It’s not conversation as much as civil war.

It’s all startlingly reminiscent of post 9/11 America, when comments under every single article online could be clearly grouped into two seething, teeming camps of people who hated each other, and three or four hapless centrists talking about nuance, at whom everyone else yelled.

It’s called polarisation, it has been in a theatre near you for a while, and it’s not going anywhere soon. This election year is apparently going to consist of all thinking Indians picking a camp and defending it until their decaying corpses start smelling the place up; after which you’ll to pick your way through the booby traps they left in order to kick their dead libtard/Moditard/AAPtard asses. If you think that’s harsh, I promise it’s a rosebud, cleaned up, coiffed and sanitised, compared to most internet exchanges.

With temperatures so high already, all enfranchised Indians are praying as hard as they can that the nine-phase election summer will be kind to their cause, and roast all those other retards. The reality, of course, is that half the country (or, depending on which of one billion psephologists you’re listening to, much less than half the country) will spend the next five years drowning in disappointment. Any victor will preside over a bitter, uncooperative, obstructionist opposition that absolutely hates them.

But disappointment is for later. It’s only spring as yet, the season of hope. Enjoy it. Stretch your winter-stiff limbs, dine al fresco, take in great gulps of slightly allergenic air, refine and improve the insults in your insult-generating widget. That old Chinese curse is upon us: May you live in interesting times.

Mountain fortress, during office hours

(Published in Business Standard on February 22, 2014)

Making fun of the Swiss is so easy that it’s almost unsporting. Uderzo and Goscinny did it beautifully in Asterix in Switzerland, in which Swiss people are shown constantly dusting and cleaning, checking their cuckoo clocks, being very careful with money, and drunkenly throwing each other in the lake for committing the sin of losing one’s bread in the fondue. That’s many of the best known stereotypes all together right there.

And the Swiss do, in fact, lend themselves to stereotype, perhaps more than many other nationalities. Here are some: They are unfriendly. They are averse to signs of human life after 10pm (don’t be flushing your toilet). They call the police if you park in their spot. They love complex bureaucracy, hate litter, wear shorts with long white socks, are suspicious of outsiders, and are fiercely into their 700-year-old direct democracy. They must lose many man-hours voting on referendums like ‘Should we give our hysterical, extremist women the vote’ (yes, but only in 1971) ‘Should we ban those towelhead minarets’ (yes in 2009) and ‘Should we stop accepting every dusty, worthless Tom Dick and Harry who wants to come live here, even if they’re from the EU’ (yes in 2014). There’s cheese in every one of their dishes. They yodel as they walk. They can’t sleep if the company books are off by a centime. If you try to get financial information out of them they will poke you in the eye with a fondue fork and then throw you in the lake.

And yet, they founded the Red Cross, maintain strict neutrality, accept all kinds of refugees seeking political asylum, and by the way, are not nearly as close-minded as you would think. You will find young Swiss people travelling in the remotest, most malarial corners of the world with a smile on their faces. Who can blame them for seeing the world and deciding that their beautiful little corner of it should be preserved as is?

The six or seven Swiss people who give a rat’s ass what the world is saying about them spend a lot of time battling these unfair prejudices. I feel for them, because as of today, once the world is done weeping with laughter, it will have something to beat Switzerland over the head with for the rest of human history.

It’s that thing that happened at the beginning of this week—the thing where an Ethiopian Airlines flight was hijacked by its own co-pilot when the captain went to the loo, and then the hijacker diverted to Geneva and threatened to crash the plane unless he was given asylum, and then the Swiss Air Force, alerted to this incident at 4am, said, The Italians and the French will have to deal with this, because our office hours are 8am-noon and 1.30pm-5pm.

Here’s how a country known for its mountainous impregnability, its 26,000 bunkers and fortifications, its roads that double as airstrips, its population that has compulsory military service, gets kaboomed by its own orderliness. Every newspaper in the world has run a derisive story on how to invade Switzerland: Do it outside office hours.

The Swiss Air Force doesn’t work around the clock for a very good reason: budgetary shortfalls. F-18s and F-5s and pilots don’t grow on trees, you know. On the upside, they’ve been planning a new fleet of Gripens for a while now, scheduled to roll out in 2020.

That is, if the referendum they put out on that purchase passes muster. It’s not looking so good at the moment, because they did a polled recently, and found that 53% of Swiss people don’t approve of them Swedish planes.

My family and other animals

(Published in Business Standard on February 8, 2014)

India may as well give up rat racing with China, because China has done something we can’t even imagine: it has become insect-free. I know this because I was recently woken at 7am by a high-pitched, perfectly constant scream, straight out of that movie in which people who have been replaced by aliens point out people who haven’t yet by pointing at them and screaming—I think it was Body Snatchers? Just like in that movie. It caused me some concern because we were on holiday in Goa, where all the raving aliens tend to stick to the beaches.

Vibrating like a tuning fork, I staggered into the garden. The morning was dewy and fragrant. Steaming tea and Tiger biscuits were laid out under the chikoo tree by the pool. Hibiscus and bougainvillea blooms nodded in a gentle breeze, and jewel-like birds glittered among the branches. It was a paradise in which ear-splitting screaming really stood out.

It turned out to be my three-year-old niece, Lia, who has lived most of her life in Shanghai. Why is she pointing at the ground and screaming, I asked my sister. “Because there’s an ant,” she replied. “She’s not that familiar with ants.”

While I was trying to process this information, the niece began to jerk and flail around like a tiny short-circuiting appliance. She had gone from screaming to some kind of panicked shamanistic chanting. I listened carefully. She was repeating “Soufflé the border me, shuffler dabba demi” and other variations on the theme, very fast. “We don’t have too many flies either, in Shanghai,” said my sister wearily. “This is a lot of unfamiliar wildlife.”

Luckily neither Lia nor her six-year-old aunt Meera had trouble with regular wildlife. There was a wild-eyed kitten that spent its time either shooting around the kitchen with back arched and fur and tail standing straight up, or slaying dead leaves, slippers, and its own tail like a deadly predator with some motor control issues. Lia and Meera adored this kitten on sight, and decided that the best way to befriend such a clearly unstable creature would be to poke it tenderly in the eye while shrieking endearments at it. The kitten quickly learned to give them a wide berth, even though they tried to force fish down its throat.

The frogs were not so lucky. They jumped for their lives, even up upon wall-hung picture frames, but the two little angels shook them down like a kind of supercute assassination squad and followed them around. The frogs were so traumatised that one was discovered shivering inside a ceiling lampshade it could not possibly have reached without lethal amounts of adrenaline. I think it starved and prayed up there for three days. There were also gekkos, which Lia loved because she was told that they eat insects.

It turned out that she had been worried that insects eat people. Her parents said they didn’t (skirting some counterproductive truths involving end of life etc), but she felt that they must eat small people at the very least. She demanded that her father make her a bridge of towels to help her cross over the carpets of ants she was sure were snapping at her flesh.

But it’s amazing how kids learn. By the last day of our vacation Lia had gotten a little more used to insects, and was now only pointing and making a high whooping sound, and singing Shoo Fly with a little more control. It’s a shame that she has to go home so soon. It would have been nice to have her in Delhi a bit longer: I think she’s ready to be introduced to cockroaches.

Money for jam

(Published in Business Standard on January 25, 2014)

So the revolution is upon us in Delhi. And it’s about time, much as people who read and write on laptops, and have enough money to holiday, might dislike the idea. We all secretly know that we make fun of Arvind Kejriwal’s scarf because it is in the style of the millions of ordinary men you see riding to or from work on their bicycles in the winter. That scarf makes him look as if he’s one of them, and this congruence is deeply scary to people who feel that power should stay, as it always has, in the hands of the sorts of people who make fun of the sorts of people who dress like Arvind Kejriwal. It’s like having to accept a salaryman at the billionaire’s table. While it’s impolite to say so, you know you have little in common with him and don’t actually think he deserves to be there. (At least that’s what I imagine billionaires think when a salaryman joins their table.)

Anyway, the men who wear scarves around their ears rather than their necks, who were once merely unreal extras passing about silently and sometimes invisibly in the movie of our lives, the men you send off to the store when the storekeeper says ‘Send a man’, have suddenly become extremely visible and also rather noisy. And as they coalesce from inconsequential outlines into very solid forms, it’s clear that there are many, many, many of them. So many that we can no longer go on pretending that they don’t exist or matter and shouldn’t be trying to get above their station. It appears that they’re marching up to our table, and we’re either going to have to shift up or give up the seat entirely.

Those of us who have laptops but are fans of the revolution, must prepare to face the music.
So, while the streets prepare to run merrily with blood, I’m emulating the musical quartet in Titanic, who see the end coming but, by god, are going to go down flying the flag. So they just stand there on the listing deck, fiddling their hearts out, doing their thing because that’s all they know how to do. They probably feel quietly heroic doing it, embodying the poignant transience of beauty and life in the fearful maw of the sea.

So, in the same spirit, I’ve applied polish to my fingernails for the first time in my life this January. They’re scarlet, which makes a convenient, easy-to-identify target for the revolutionaries. For the first week or two I had painted them black, but then my mother said that she felt as if a crow had flown in to breakfast with her. My mother is direct like that. But that’s not why I replaced black with red. I replaced it because I had to wear a red dress to do a tango performance. If the polish didn’t tip the revolutionaries off, tango dancing should do the trick.

And since music is what gives a sinking ship dignity, and should be tuneful, I’ve taken to getting together with a few other amateurs to plinkety plonk some songs out on various instruments. We all work (some of us more than others) but none of us can be accused of having a scarf around the ears. We sometimes sound like a bunch of deaf foghorns, but we sometimes get it right, or close enough. Plus, there’s always a bottle of whiskey, and sometimes a fireplace. Never was a foundering ship cosier. If we could sell our own songs someday, that would be money for jam. On the other hand, what’s the point? You can’t take it with you when you go.

New Year 2014: Do or dye

(Published in Business Standard on December 28, 2013)

This friend of mine who has just had her ears operated swears that she now hears a constant concert of crickets singing inside her head that keeps her up at night. I found this very funny until I became aware of a whooshing sound inside my own head that is growing louder by the day. I’ve figured out what it is: the Doppler effect of yet another year blasting by.

When I was ten years old, time moved so slowly that it seemed certain that I would get old and die waiting to turn twenty. Things improved in my twenties, when I was too busy being confused and depressed by the world to actually notice the passage of time. The thirties, on balance, sucked so much that the universe slowed down the rate at which time passed in order to fit in all the suckiness. The forties, I’m happy to report, have thus far been fantastic, which is probably why time has suddenly begun to move like greased lightning. Time flies when you’re having fun. Now I’m told that it might be all because of my hair.

You can’t tell from the monochrome author illustration that appears above this column, which makes me look like Jack Nicholson in The Shining without the star appeal, but I have much more white hair than your average forty-something-year-old. At least this is what I have to assume when I look around me at the oceans of average forty-something Indians who continue to have lustrous raven locks. It’s not that I have a distinguished streak here and there; more than half my hair is grey, and the other half seems to have fallen out along the way.

There was a time when barbers would ask me whether I was having my hair streaked white. I didn’t know that was even a thing, but it was apparently all the rage, and not only among ten-year-olds in a hurry to grow up. People approved of the naturally aged look.

In the forties you’re too busy having fun to notice that everyone has suddenly changed their minds about things like acceptable hair colour. Last weekend I innocently entered a hotel restroom to mind my own business, when a lady of indeterminate age accosted me. She actually postponed entering a bathroom stall and relieving herself in order to tell me that I was “very brave.” When I asked why, she said, “You don’t dye your hair.” Then she added, “You should dye your hair.” She was clearly using the word “brave” in the sense of “extremely stupid”.

When people make helpful suggestions about how to fix my physical appearance, such as that I should thread my moustache or pluck my eyebrows or suck in my tummy, or wear something else for chrissakes, my heels grow small little steel spikes that dig deep into the ground. It’s like my superpower. I’ve never dyed my hair, I told her, and I’m unlikely to start now. “Dye your hair,” she said grimly. “You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

There was a time when I did not receive vague threats from hair colour aficionados in hotel bathrooms. I miss that time. That time has marched on, apparently all over my person. 2013 whooshed by faster than 2012, but if the Freelance Lady Stylist of the Bathrooms is right, 2014 will be gone even faster, and it’s only going to go downhill from there unless I make a hair appointment stat.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year to all our readers, and also to those of you who only look at the pictures. I’m going to ask the art department to colour them in.

The law is an ass

(Published in Business Standard on December 14, 2013)

Like many other people, I often fantasise about living in a different age. What must it have been like to be in Shakespearean England, when sewage ran in the streets and bathing was a special occasion? What must it have been like to be a Mughal princess, with emerald rings so heavy you’d need a whole other attendant to support your hand? What must it have been like to wander around Pompei as the mountain began to judder and spew? What must it have been like to insert a penis into the nostril of a buffalo in 1925?

Wait, what was that?

A funny thing happened this week, and by ‘funny’ I mean ‘say it isn’t so’—India discovered time travel! We’re back in Victorian England, except with the internet. This is very awesome because thanks to the internet, we can tell that Victorian England itself has moved on into a world where you can have consensual sex with whomever you like, in whatever position you like, without landing yourself in jail. We, the people of India, hope that this pathbreaking evolution of sexual mores lies in our future too.

Section 377 is a colonial relic of a law that makes it criminal to have “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. Nobody really knows what “against the course of nature” is, but the thrust of it, so to speak, is anything not involving a penis entering a vagina. The Law Commission recommended deleting Section 377 almost 13 years ago, and the High Court rightly read it down in 2009. Finally, thought India, we’re beginning to stand by the meaning of the word ‘freedom’.

But where there’s sexual freedom, can a bunch of insecure patriarchs be far behind? A collection of Hindu, Muslim and Christian petitioners, and other random self-appointed custodians of “Indian culture” is all it has taken for no less than the Supreme Court to decide to reinstate Section 377 on the grounds that it is not unconstitutional. Judge Singhvi who, after dropping this shameful turd of a judgement tottered off into his professional sunset, had suchlike things to say:

“…[C]arnal intercourse was criminalized because such acts have the tendency to lead to unmanliness and lead to persons not being useful in society.”

And: “[I]t could be said without any hesitation of contradiction that the orifice of mouth is not, according to nature, meant for sexual or carnal intercourse.

And: “…[T]he so-called rights of LGBT persons”.

Here’s the interesting part of being back in Victorian England, folks: It’s not the Supreme Court, or gay people, that have made the trip. It’s every Indian, gay or straight, male or female, rich or poor, Brahmin or Dalit, old or young. If you give or receive oral sex, you’re a criminal. Get ready to exchange your thrilling leather handcuffs for a real pair. And hello, singles and sleeping-alone-tonights, if you were thinking of flirting with yourself before your eyes close, do remember that blindness and hairy palms are even less enjoyable in jail.

It appears that the Supreme Court has preferred to do a mincing little dance around the issue and pass the buck on to Parliament. Nobody has forgotten that our Parliamentarians didn’t delete Section 377 when they could have after 2009. However, India’s lawmakers can redeem themselves by fixing this gargantuan, well, cock-up.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court should rest assured that the people of India gay and straight, are pretty much going to do whatever their sexuality dictates, and nobody is going to take this judgement lying down in the missionary position. The long arm of the law inserting itself into the bedrooms of the unwashed asses is the only thing against the order of nature.

The latest magazine news

(Published in Business Standard on November 30, 2013)

I bet lots of people didn’t really register the fact that the US and Iran recently agreed to dial back Iran’s nuclear programme, thus making the world a little less likely to spontaneously combust. I bet my last issue of Tehelka that that’s because they, along with their compatriots, colleagues, and most of the planets in the solar system, have spent almost two weeks entirely consumed by a burning need to know what did or did not happen in a lift in Goa in early November, and whether all parties concerned did or did not consent to what did or did not happen, and whether the situation thereafter was or was not handled in the worst possible way, leaving or not leaving everyone’s feminist credentials in shreds.

Notice how I’m being extra non-committal about that one-, four-, eight-, or fifteen-minute episode in the lift (depending on who you’re listening to)? This is because every life form known to man has already made up its mind about What Really Happened, but I’m Aquarian, so I feel duty-bound to be contrarian. Now that there are policemen involved, I say let them do their job. Also, lay off the rest of Tehelka. Acknowledge that the magazine has done some stellar work. Stop trying to get the remaining staff to quit their jobs. Just get back to scrutinising your own life and your own organisation’s anti-misogyny and anti-sexual harassment mechanisms, would you? And to Tarun Tejpal: don’t imply, though darkly muttered hints, that there is more to this story than meets the eye. If you have things to say in your defence, say them clearly, or shut up and face the music.

In any case the whole thing loses steam after a certain number of daily headlines reading ‘ARREST IMMINENT’. One can set up the public’s relish for the gallows and then dash it down only so many times before the public goes back to something more reliably titillating, like Miley Cyrus’s butt. It’s exhausting, you know? All that adrenaline, all that emotional energy, and then nothing happens, despite Times Now’s best efforts to provoke it into happening. At the time of writing arrest really does seem to be imminent (though postponed to 2.30pm), so perhaps by the time this is published events will have overtaken me and I’ll be back to following it on Twitter, which is enough to give a person hives.

Or not quite, because there’s this other thing I’m reading about a lot, namely the Aarushi-Hemraj double murder case verdict. I’m no high priestess of the law, but even I feel confident saying that any judge who thinks it’s a good idea to write stuff like “He has also admitted that Hemraj was average built but he has no knowledge as to whether his willy was turgid” and “…had come to her house on hearing boohoo” should be taken aside and given a short, focused course on how to save the reader from repetitiveness and ennui without, however, coming across as deranged. Reading the whole thing is like watching a head of state walk into a G-20 meeting wearing a jacket, tie, and boxers.

And that’s the best part of the judgement. I like to think that a higher court will re-examine what look like great big gaping holes in reasoning, to guard against a truly tragic miscarriage of justice.

I’m hoping for a lull in these two stories over the weekend. Then, finally, I will be able to get around to being attentive to the US-Iran détente and, apparently, some kind of election in Delhi.

Whining and dining

(Published in Business Standard on November 16, 2013)

Many things about college were scary, such as discovering that the long reading lists they regularly handed out were not just friendly suggestions. Or realising that one day they were going to lend me a hat and gown, give me a piece of paper, and then give me a little push in the small of my back. They’d have to push hard. Nobody in their right mind would willingly leave a wonderland where you can walk into a room, eat limitless quantities, and walk out, without ever planning, shopping, cooking, washing up, or paying a bill.

But by far my scariest moment in college was when my friend from Oregon, turned to me and said “Quitcherwhinin’!” From what I could tell, based on tone and body language, that’s Oregonian for ‘If you complain about one single thing more, one single time more, I will pull your abdomen out of your body via your eye sockets, and if you think I’m exaggerating, I can show you the remains of the last person who thought so.” I was so frightened that I think I ran straight to the cafeteria and ate food I did not have to provide for.

But one reverts, inevitably, to type, so I resumed whining shortly after being rapped on the knuckles. In fact, I took a policy decision not to stop. Don’t you believe those people who say that a good attitude will get you through anything, look at the smile on the face of that blind vagrant who just had an amputation and a divorce. Those people know not the sweet release of keeping up a gentle burble of complaint. It’s cathartic. It’s the oral equivalent of those evil-eye-warding-off thingies. It feels good.

My Oregonian friend was the first to point it out, but legions of people since then have told me to stop whining. One blog I read says that complaining is like second-hand smoke. (It also says that whiners just want attention.) Don’t get me wrong: I totally get that not everyone appreciates the finer points of bitching and moaning, but I assure you that whine-less dinners are dead boring. What are we supposed to do, sit across the table and smirk at each other about how wonderful our lives are? That sounds smug as a bug in a rug, at best.

Plus, I’m convinced that whining brings out the flavour of food. You could be gagging on some dreadful slime slopped out into a tin cup by a cook without tastebuds, and a good old moan will make it taste a lot better. To test this theory I googled ‘benefits of moaning’ and, expectedly, the internet gave me a lecture on sexual vocalisation. Then I got a grip and googled ‘benefits of complaining’ and got an article that nailed it: whining—more accurately expressed as futile complaining—helps you feel better when the world fails to match up to your expectations. Granted, it makes you feel better the way six shots of tequila do, not the way a daily morning jog does, but then you’re whining for the same reason as you’re drinking six tequila shots: to immediately relieve discomfort. The author says a lot of nitpicky stuff about the fine line between finding a connection to the person you’re whining to, and alienating them, but the burden of his song is that it’s evolutionarily not a bad thing.

So try it out. Go out to dinner with a friend and try a nice long vent. If your abdomen ends up on your plate beside your eyestalks, change tack and go to your happy place instead.

Wooooo! Wooooo!…Um.

(Published in Business Standard on November 2, 2013)

It’s that time of year again when we Delhiites excitedly prepare for colder weather, an uptick in the number of social events we commit to being late to, and rich cultural traditions such as Navratra, Dussehra, and, Halloween. Ah, Halloween. That Celtic pagan tradition of Samhain that Indian kids have looked forward to for generations going back at least three years.

Ha ha, fooled you! Halloween is not a traditional Indian festival.

Ha ha, fooled you again! Go stroll around in the markets, we’re obviously all pretending that it is. You can’t throw a pea without hitting a kid in a witchy costume asking for candy—not that you’d want to miss. The great thing about globalisation, and when I say ‘great’ I mean ‘maybe great and maybe not’, is the cultural fast food that you might call McTraditions, tagline “If you can buy the merchandise, you can have the festival.”

I’m not against shallow, rootless celebration, by the way. If there can be a Diwali puja in the White House, why shouldn’t we celebrate Halloween in Delhi? And when I say ‘celebrate’ I mean ‘buy a lot of themed stuff’. You’re going to say that the White House celebrates Diwali because it’s a representative democracy with a large number of influential Indian immigrants. By the same token, we’re a representative democracy with a large number of people who like to find ways of making money, and a large number who like to find ways to spend it. And frankly, we atheists are shallow, rootless celebrators most of the time anyway, so who am I to judge? So what if your brain does cartwheels when it sees Delhi beggars in Santa Claus hats on December 25, or Bombay heart-shaped paans on Feb 14 or Bangalore awash in tiny sorcerers and fairies looking for a sugar rush? No, I’m all for it.

It’s just that the new sanitised trick-or-treating version of Halloween is not scary. The real thing began as the seriously hair-raising idea that on All Hallow’s Eve the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, and that spirits roam the earth. People would put out food and offerings for their departed loved ones and friends, and give alms to the poor in exchange for prayers for their dead. The idea that some of these spirits are malevolent eventually made a debut, and people wore costumes so that these evil spirits would not recognise them. All through, young women tried to figure out when they would get married, and people tried to read the future.

I don’t know if they therefore saw that, as it its wont, a very large institution would get into the act and put it about that pagan celebrations are just not cool. This institution also disapproves of the Harry Potter books, which is odd because it is itself headed by an old man in a big pointy hat with a cloak. The point is, this institution tweaked Halloween to take out the really creepy stuff and make it more about entertainment. Enter the age of little kids knocking on people’s doors and demanding candy. Not scary.

The new thing in America is trunk-or-treating, which is about getting a bunch of wobbly tots together in a parking lot and making them just take the candy out of the trunk of a car, already, and then let’s go home. It’s apparently much safer than having them walk around dealing with traffic. Evocative, huh?

Nah, I don’t see the point of Halloween as it is now. If you really need something to scare the living crap out of you, all you have to do is read the newspapers.

Pet peeve

(Published in Business Standard on October 19, 2014)

Anyone with a degree in psychology, or biology, or secondary school, or, indeed an internet connection, will tell you that gentle touch is critical to human emotional development and health. You know what I’m talking about—those experiments in which scientists take two baby monkeys and put them in a cage with, in one case, a mother monkey-shaped structure with soft cuddly padding, and in the other case, a mother monkey-shaped structure made of cold poky metal. The first baby comes out of the experiment all smiling and well-adjusted and dreaming of working hard to buy a house in which it can raise its own babies, and the second one locks itself in a room wearing metal spikes and listening to a lot of bad music, is always attracted to the wrong kind of monkey, and eventually shoots its classmates in school.

Recently I passed a photo of ten adorable puppies pasted on a pet shop window, and it occurred to me how nice it would be to have a dog again. Dogs are soft and furry and affectionate. They’re nice to touch. You can love and be loved by them. Having one could keep me from going gaga before my appointed time. It’s a win-win thing.

My family has had three dogs in my memory. Kipo the boxer puppy died of hepatitis at seven months; Toffee the Dachshund was nicked when he slipped out under the gate; and Simba the Labrador spent nine delightful years warming our hearts and biting us whenever he felt like it before dying of a tumor.

We haven’t had a dog since Simba, because upon his passing my mother turned into a raving independence-eater. That’s like a man-eater, a carnivore that has tasted human flesh and now won’t go back to deer, except in this case she has tasted freedom after raising platoons of children and now won’t go back to being tied down by responsibility. But she loves dogs, so I took a shot.

“What do think about my getting a dog?” I said to her.

“What’s for me to think about?” she said.

“Well, I mean, of course it would be my responsibility.”

“You absolutely should get a dog as long as you housebreak it, walk it, feed it, take it to the vet, and don’t leave it alone for too long.”

“Yes, but just as back up, if I had to travel would you—”

“No,” she said.

“Of course, that’s what kennels are for,” I said. “How about on the odd occasion when I’m out for a few hours in the eve—”

“No,” she said. “You can forget your tango.”

I appealed to our cook, before remembering that he hadn’t much liked Simba.

“Lalji,” I said, “what do you think about my getting a dog?”

“What’s for me to think about?” he said, with a tone designed to politely spear your heart. Déjà vu all over again. They were doing some kind of coordinated pincer movement.

“Remember how Simba used to put his neck on your foot when you were sitting,” I asked my mother, “and he’d lick his chops and swallow and snooze companionably?”

“Yes,” she smiled, love blooming in her eyes. “He was so sweet.”

“Wouldn’t you want to have that agai—”

“No,” she said.

Sometimes the woman makes Polpot look like a softie. I examined her closely. She appeared to be composed entirely of flint and stone, with a couple of metal bits here and there. So it doesn’t look as if I’m going to be able to get a dog.

But that’s okay, I’ll just be over here wearing spikes, listening to bad music, hanging with bad apples, and cleaning my gun.

Who’s your daddy?

(Published in Business Standard on October 4, 2013)

If you think of the capital as a large accretion of stuffed shirts who only speak bureaucratese, you’re quite right. But last week the place was all a-twitter—so much so that some of the twitter was actually outside of Twitter. Delhi became that Edvard Munch set of paintings, The Scream, in which a Lord Voldemort-type creature with wild eyes and an O-shaped mouth appears to howl against an agitated backdrop. I find most art commentary to be about as helpful as having someone call out the times tables when you’re trying not to drown, so I’ll just say that the creature in the painting looks horrified.

Delhi was the scene of fevered, outraged debate. We spent an entire week debating respect and dominance. What it looks like, who should have it, for whom, when, to what degree, how it should be deployed, who didn’t get it, and why, and so on. We’re still doing this. The earth will resume spinning only when the television channels have fully gotten this debate off their chests.

Everyone has spent so much emotional energy on whether Rahul Gandhi should or shouldn’t have borrowed someone else’s press meet, or used the word ‘nonsense’ about an ordinance cleared by his party and by the government, or done this while the PM was abroad, that we have entirely forgotten to enjoy the fact that a truly scandalous piece of legislation that fully deserved to be torn up and thrown out—to coin a phrase—has, finally, been torn up and thrown out.
This is a good thing. It needed to happen. Right?

Yeah, forget that. Let’s get back to the fact that apparently now the PM should never again presume to meet his own eye in the mirror. Rumour has it that, despite the fatal injury to his sense of self-worth, the man continues to breathe. His indecent insistence on remaining composed and reasonable is obviously either caused by temerity, or a spirit so broken that it cannot evaluate its own unworthiness. Shame on him for not collapsing in a little heap of misery!

This is a total mystery to me. Why should a contrary opinion undermine the Prime Minister of India? He certainly doesn’t appear to be acting all undermined. Surely the office isn’t as fragile as that? Surely the inability to hear dissent is a chief characteristic not of a democrat but of an autocra—oh, that reminds me: Narendra Modi held a big rally in Delhi, at which he, too, expressed breast-beating horror at the disrespect to the PM, this time from Pakistan.

Modi thundered that the Pakistani PM had called our PM a village woman—put aside, for a moment, the other debate over whether or not he (the Pakistani PM) actually had—and that he (NaMo) didn’t think he (their PM) had any business calling him (our PM) a woman, because while he (NaMo) thought the PM (ours) is weak and incompetent, he (our PM) is not THAT weak and incompetent, and that this dread insult to the nation (ours) could only be avenged by drinking the blood of a thousand militants (theirs) straight from the jugular to the sound of a conch and electing him (NaMo) to lead the country (ours). I’m paraphrasing, but it’s about right. Wait a minute: you’re actually, really, using the term ‘woman’ to humiliate someone, and nobody said boo?

The takeaway from this week’s newspapers, then, was largely this: publicly calling out a rotten piece of legislation is disrespectful; but publicly insulting half a billion Indians goes unnoticed.

Funny peculiar, not funny ha ha.

Goodbye, Baby Boss

(Published in Business Standard on September 21, 2013)

A salesperson—let’s call him Manu—gets out of the car. He gets out, and gets out some more, and keeps getting out, like a fire hose uncoiling from a hydrant, which would make sense if we had fire hydrants on the streets, which we don’t because this is Delhi and we barely have streets #elections2013. The point is, Manu is very tall, so getting out of a car takes him much longer than the average human being. This is irrelevant to the story, but then the story isn’t world news either.

He is getting out of the car so that he can vacate the driver’s seat for me. When I have taken the wheel, he re-coils himself into shotgun position and finds white-knuckled purchase on his door handle—a tic developed by driving instructors and car salesmen and other people who spend their time being driven by unproven drivers.

I’m test-driving the vehicle. I’m doing this because my mother has taken it into her head that my current vehicle is a piece of junk. Having encouraged the purchase of my current vehicle as a great improvement in safety over its predecessor, she has now come to believe that it is merely a hideous accident waiting to happen that will reap the life of her daughter, so young and full of promi---oh wait, that’s the other daughter. Anyway, the point is, she thinks it’s a piece of junk whose fate lines look like truck tyre marks all over it.

A piece of junk—my Baby Boss (that’s her name, don’t ask)! Red! With a chunky wheel grip! And a cute backside and silly snouty nostril-lights! And a thingy on the dashboard I never worked out the genus and species of but it was supposed to make her look sporty!

She is getting on in years, though (Baby Boss, not my mother). So I test-drive this new car. And I like it. It’s sleek and elegant, and has astonishing new technology that allows me to manipulate both side mirrors with a button, instead of having to throw off my seat belt and lunge across the car. I feel like a tribal villager in New York.

Still, I’m not all naïve. On my first date with this car I’m evaluating it not as a flighty, love-hungry millennial but with the cool appraisal of an older Gen-Xer. It totally passes all cool appraisal tests, so I give in and fall in love and bob’s your uncle, new car.

But part of the deal is that I have to give them Baby Boss. Taking on this nice shiny new thing means letting go of my beloved old dinged-up thing. It’s like getting a puppy—not because your loyal old dog has died, but just because its hips are a bit arthritic and you like the new puppy and you can’t have two dogs. It feels wrong and mean. And yet.

I take out all my stuff—dance shoes, thousand-year-old receipts, wrist brace, earphones, CDs—and give Baby Boss a kiss on her dusty paintwork. My life with her—a bunch of midlife rollercoasters—flashes before my eyes. I know the history of each scratch and dent on her. I know which bits of her are not original. I know how she does on a speed bump and on the highway and in the rain. I know what I did in the back seat. And, um, the front seat.

A car, like a phone or a laptop, is an extension of yourself, a repository of history, a Proust-like madeleine. Goodbye Baby Boss. I wish I could box you up and stick you in a loft to open in my dotage like an old letter. Happy trails, and watch the trucks.

Atheist awareness week

(Published in Business Standard on September 7, 2013)

I believe. Not that anyone’s asking—most of the world just assumes one does. Believing is such a universal human presumption that if you haven’t a hope in hell of landing the top job in, say, the United States, or India, unless you have a declared religious faith.

I believe in science, in intuition, in justice, in humaneness, in respect, in being true, in washing one’s hands before eating, in art, in honesty, in Nutella, in the essential health-promoting goodness of making fun of things, in the notion that if you play fair you’ll sleep better.

But I don’t Believe. You know, in god. When you’re pronouncing a capital ‘b’ in Believe, you know you’re talking god. Digression: ‘God’ is one of those words, like ‘blood’, which, if you say it aloud, repeatedly and fast, suddenly reveal its alien oldiness and urr. Oldiness and urr are not real words, just the kinds of words that you might find in the entourage of the word ‘god’—brawny words, clad in skins and carrying blunt weapons.

The reason I don’t Believe is that…I just don’t. I wasn’t brought up either to, or not to. It’s not that I had religious faith and lost it after a mind-numbing tragedy—I simply never could muster any. It obviously gives people comfort and purpose during turbulent times, but even in the worst moments of my life, when I have desperately needed to lean on something, I have not been able to find faith.

What makes perfect sense to me is the idea of randomness, of blind chance. Why did my friend die while crossing the road? No reason. No good reason, that is. No reason that gives me comfort. And that’s pretty much that. There is also the (as yet) inexplicable, which may or may not always remain inexplicable. Why do I sometimes think of someone five seconds before they call on the phone?

It is very hard work to not have faith. (To be fair, it must also be hard work to have it and keep it in the face of increasing cynicism—which, if you don’t have, you should maybe offer yourself up to science.) It means not having either a good scapegoat or an external battery source, or an immortal parent. Every bit of strength, calmness, doubt handling and decision-making, has to be self-generated. Atheists need all tenderness they can find, or all the alcohol their health will allow.

But for some reason it’s the people who Believe who seem to get all the love—everyone is always stepping gingerly around their feelings and making sure they’re all right. (Perhaps this is because they Believe some crazy stuff—exhibit A: Scientologists, exhibit B: followers of any number of sleazy godmen in this country—so it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t hurt themselves.)

Atheists, however, are always getting it in the neck. The nicest thing they get called is arrogant. Rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was recently murdered, after a lifetime of healing people and fighting for their rights; schoolteacher Sanjay Salve, who refused to fold his hands during school prayers, faces the fury of his school’s principal, who was quoted as saying, “Had we overlooked this indiscipline, it might have spread to others…Hence, he was denied the higher pay grade.”

So much of human history is about Believing that atheists are outsiders to, or at best observers of, many traditional cultural practices. But we’re not begging to be let in—our motto is ‘Suck It Up’ (with optional therapeutic interim stages like ‘Moan’ and ‘Wallow’). Just don’t feel free to shoot us, you know? Stick with traditional cultural practice and keep shooting each other.