Saturday, November 29, 2014

Because I'm happy

Actual title: "Because I'm grumpy happy"
But I can't get a strikethrough in the title in this format. Probably my incompetence, but if not, what's up with that, Blogger?

(Published in Business Standard on November 29, 2014)

As I return kicking and screaming gratefully to the disgusting dustpan verdant oasis that is Delhi, I am struck yet again by how batshit crazy eccentric its murderously aggressive amusingly moody citizens can be. When I open the advertorials newspapers in the noxious fumes crisp winter morning, to the sound of the strangled croaking of the last few surviving sparrows birdsong, I am depressed beyond description heartened and invigorated by the great backward slides forward strides our country is making in claiming that everything originated in India progressive education, encouraging people to hate each other communal harmony, and bringing back black money stored in shady overseas accounts I don’t even know what you’re talking about.

I hope you can tell that I’m trying hard to be positive. You can’t possibly appreciate how impressive that is, seeing as how it involves stabbing my real self to death, hacking it to pieces, mailing them to different places, and then watching them inexorably re-converge to form the glass-half-empty depressive whiner that is my indestructible true self.

But I’m trying, because I went off to the mountains for a two-day recharge, and I always come back from there with goofy, unfocused eyes and tweety birds circling my head. The nine hours’ drive either way, six of which consist of boring highway and such choking pits thriving crucibles of life as Hapur and Rudrapur, are more than worth it. Speaking of which, it occurred to me that small town India—not Tier Two India, but unclassified, small town India, might be the very definition of hell a great challenge to live in without ripping out your own liver giving in to a certain ennui. Swachch Bharat is nowhere to be seen, and dug up earth plainly shows geological strata comprised entirely of blue plastic bags. But back to the mountains.

By end-November the freeze hasn’t yet set in, but you still want a fleece during the day and a fire in the evenings. I chose this time to go up because the cold, clear weather unveils the Himalayas, which are so ridiculously good-looking that if they were lonely they could never find a date, because all the other mountain ranges in the world would be too intimidated and tongue-tied to even say hello, let alone get serious, move in, and have a bunch of little foothills.

From where I was you could see them in a shining white string from the massive scalloped bulk of Trishul and the presiding goddess of Kumaon, Nanda Devi, to the five sharp canines of the Panchachuli range and the Api-Nampa peaks in Nepal. The whole thing looks like the EKG of a god with ventricular fibrillation. At sunset there’s a fifteen-minute period of magic when the whole snowy parade turns flaming pink—not baby pink, but the unapologetic piggy pink of cartoons—and you can contemplate a rack of strawberry ice cream cones before they fade gently into night. The night sky, by the way, is not a blackboard with stars prettily sequinned on it, but a 3D experience in which you can see the galaxy, see depth and varying distance, and feel the need to send down up silent thanks for having been a part of this mind-bending art installation.

But eventually I had to tear myself away from all this beauty and come back to the soul-throttling exciting city, which has perks of its own. I can’t think of any right now, but that’s probably because the tweety birds are obstructing my view.

Anyway, I think I am almost dead from could really get used to this being positive thing, and in that spirit, expect normal programming to resume next week would like to wish you a wonderful weekend.

Putting the air back in despair

(Published in Business Standard on November 15, 2014)

Those of us who live in Delhi should never have crawled out of the primordial swamp. That way we wouldn’t be up here on land, dying slowly from breathing the air.

Among the great levellers in life are the need to breathe, and the need to excrete as privately as possible. Here in Delhi, where men from every strata of income, education and sophistication whip out their penises and spray Eau D’Homme all over the streets in broad daylight, we may have gotten past the universal shame of pissing in public—but even those dudes need to keep breathing.

And breathing in Delhi is increasingly hazardous. How hazardous? Well, you know how bratty kids all over the world threaten to hold their breath when they don’t get what they want? In Delhi, bratty kids threaten to keep breathing.

Seriously, there is something awesome about our collective ability to pretend that the air quality in the capital does not qualify as a huge, massive, colossal, gigantic, titanic, gargantuan and also very very big health problem. On the one hand it gives me confidence that there is no problem so great that we cannot ignore it. On the other hand, perhaps it is being this brain dead that is affecting our ability to breathe? Either way, we are not screaming bloody murder about it. It seems inexplicable.

Then I look at my asthmatic mother, wheezing her way up and down the stairs, and I realise that some of the people worst affected by the poisoned air are too busy trying to keep breathing to even dream of wasting their precious breath on screaming bloody murder. She likes to save what she has for when she feels a lecture coming on. And then I remember my nieces as babies, their tiny faces hidden behind nebulizers, and I realise that some of the other people worst affected by the poisoned air don’t yet know how to spell the word ‘air’.

There was an article buried deep in the inside pages of a newspaper just the other day, about how vehicular pollution in Delhi is responsible for some proportion of congenital diseases and foetal malformation. Are the powers that be waiting for some sort of critical mass of two-headed babies to be born before they address the pollution problem? Forget the powers that be—are we, citizens and parents, waiting for said two-headed babies?

Two-headed babies are, in fact the problem: there aren’t enough of them. If there were, we might do more than tut-tut about the air (though the odds are high that we might also just take to bathing them in milk and worshipping them). Unfortunately, we’ve gone and internalised as normal the wildly high rates of respiratory distress, heart disease and allergic reaction occasioned by breathing the Delhi air. Ten million wheezing babies on nebulisers: union cabinet meeting on how to guard their Indian moral values. A hundred two-headed babies: union cabinet meeting on how to guard their Indian moral values, and parents rattled enough to start bathing them in milk and worshipping them.

In other words, these slow-release killers are never as sexy as immediate emergencies. When we think of health, our heroes are cardiothoracic surgeons, not nutritionists; when we think of fire, we admire firemen rather than building code writers.

Since the relatively healthy in Delhi go around blithely breathing for years without incident, we don’t register the fact that we are being irreversibly choked. But at some point, what is now a slow-release lifestyle disease will become an emergency. At that point, perhaps, some political or bureaucratic hero will emerge—but don’t hold your breath. Or, well, do.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Unity in diversity

(Published in Business Standard on November 1, 2014)

Twitter has been overrun by a weed-like proliferation of handles that include the word “Lutyens”. It began with @LutyensSpice, which claimed to be the “official” political gossip channel. It was shortly challenged by @LutyensMasala, which set off a bunch of satirical copycats. My favourite is the one that takes the pants off the whole idea. @BoringLutyensGossip has an exquisite deadpan flair for the absurd. (Viz: “One courier has come for Shipping Ministry. But Shipping Ministry was merged into Transport ministry in 2004. So courier has been forwarded.” Or: “Two journalists were seen entering Rajan’s office together. They left separately, because one journalist had a meeting somewhere else.” Or: “Toner has run out at Finance Ministry.”)

This is all happening because people are desperate for news from the Modi government, which, on the transparency scale, ranks slightly lower than lead. There are a few things we do know without resorting to gossip channels, though. One is that the central government is a BJP government. We know this because the orange-and-black paint on Delhi’s pavements and road dividers has been changed to green-and-stale ham. I think they were going for green-and-saffron. It’s a terrible move, aesthetically and in terms of road safety, but at least it offers a weak reminder that there’s a political party nominally in charge, not just the one chap who doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus. It’s a very weak reminder, however, which nobody is buying.

Speaking of bestriding the narrow world like a Rs 2,979 crore colossus, that Statue of Unity the prime minister is building in Gujarat is a disgraceful waste of resources that does nothing for India except add a big fat bill and promise to make our ugliest nationalists even uglier. Modi is trying his best to appropriate as many iconic historical Indian figures as possible—it’s only a matter of time before he builds a 200m tall Swachch Bharat Statue of Amitabh Bachchan sweeping, made out of brooms from every part of India. I approve heartily of his unexpected embrace of Mahatma Gandhi, among others, but he doesn’t need to build huge statues of everyone to prove his love.

He could better have used the statue money to pulp Dina Nath Batra’s textbooks that mention airplanes in ancient India, and to print some reasonable histories which he could have hired good teachers to teach in schools he could have built for kids who could have grown up with an education, rather than with a fixation on chest size and trying to out-patriot everyone else. Unity comes from teaching tolerance and inclusiveness in a diverse country, not from building giant statues. But then we’re talking about a leader who likes to believe that ancient India had plastic surgery and genetic technology, and who says nothing when communal riots break out and when policemen say that rape is a result of lack of entertainment options, so maybe education and inclusiveness aren’t really his thing.

Education seems headed for the toilet anyway now that the Human Resources Minister is taking earnest notes on the RSS version, which has several tedious chips on its shoulder. So is social progress. If the recent rioting in Delhi’s Trilokpuri neighbourhood demonstrated one thing, it is that the government can’t maintain peace in the capital under the Prime Minister’s nose, so why should we expect it to defend the borders?

Modi’s silence only amplifies the ugly symphony of misogyny, jingoism and communalism that is rising again. Who needs Halloween when you’ve got the newspapers? Silence can be a useful political tool, but it makes the electorate very grumpy. Just ask Manmohan Singh.

What to do if you meet a bear

Published in Business Standard on October 18, 2014

In June this year, I drove up to the Jalori Pass, in Himachal Pradesh. It’s absolutely gorgeous, but if you’d told me I’d be on those spine-shattering roads again less than four months later, I would have laughed very loudly, and tossed salt over my shoulder, and washed your mouth out with soap, and punched you in the nose, and maybe also thrown you off the balcony, just to be safe.

Imagine my surprise, then, at finding myself there again at the beginning of October. This time I had pepper spray. That’s because our Jalori Pass walk was a tiny, easy little warm-up walk before the next day’s longer, harder walk into the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), which is a spectacular wilderness bristling with black bears. Like many city slickers, my relationship with nature has an edge of paranoia, so I’d asked a biologist friend what one should do if one meets an aggressive bear, and the guidelines he’d sent me said: “If you have pepper spray, prepare to use it”. By pure coincidence I had recently bought a pepper spray to support a campaign against acid attacks, so I was all kitted out.

The walk from the pass wound through misty woods and past dozens of pimply adolescents, all of whom seemed to have found their way to Serolsar Lake. We never made it, in the time we had, because we got confused by a fork in the path, so instead we settled down on a grassy knoll to have a picnic of tuna sandwiches and coffee while keeping a sharp eye out for tuna-loving bears. It was a nice easy walk, and nobody got eaten, so we called it a success. One’s bar for success drops sharply in middle age.

Speaking of sharp drops, the entry to the GHNP from Goshaini village is a 6km walk through parkland to the main entry gate, and a couple more kilometres to the campsite called Bhalu Bangla. The impossible beauty of the place—the lush dense green, blossoms, birds, a narrow sun-dappled trail, and the pretty blue Tirthan River sparkling along the valley floor, leaves your mouth hanging open. This makes a convenient aperture for your lolling tongue, which is possibly dripping sweat like a dog as you climb the hill. The thundering chirp of the cicadas were drowned out by weeping cries of ‘Help me, kill me now, I’m too old for this!’ which I eventually realised were coming from me.

Just when I thought the end was nigh, we scampered down to a gorgeous waterfall where I lay slumped upon the rocks, just like a walrus, but with a bigger moustache. It was only a few more minutes from there up to the gate, where we hit survival rations that we had carefully packed in hipflasks, and congratulated each other on not having suffered cardiac arrest.

Later that evening, returning from a midnight, moonlit walk, and via a series of alleged events that I continue to contest, I managed to step off the trail, and ended up dangling from the edge by my hands (one of which, acting from atavistic instinct, retained a vice-like grip on my cell phone), with the river rushing below. I doubt that the fall would have killed me, but I’d certainly have suffered severe depreciation. Do your push-ups, kids, they will save you a spot of bother someday.

Anyway, I feel that if you haven’t almost drowned in a river and almost fallen off a mountain to an uncertain fate, you aren’t doing it right. Also, in hindsight, and now that I’ve finally caught my breath two weeks later, the walk up was really just bracing.