Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bringing India to book

(Published today in Business Standard)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

I’ll have the holy cow, medium-rare

(Published on October 3, 2015 in Business Standard)

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

Ha ha! Just kidding. Nobody says that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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