Saturday, December 10, 2016

Closet economist

In which I demonetise my wardrobe

(Published today in Business Standard)

The end of the year always triggers my de-cluttering instincts, which are rare, but ruthless. If a baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, that’s fine—the place will be quiet, and I’ll get to eat all the Cerelac. So I spent a good portion of last week weeding out my closet. About 95% of it is rubbish, and of that, I decided to purge 86%. I don’t know if those percentages are exact, but they’re the ones I remember.

As I suspected, I had way, way too much clothing, which you would never know from what I actually wear. I found about 15 lakh crores of things I’m tired of. Things I’m too fat for. Things that I have multiple copies of. Hand me downs. Thirty year old t-shirts. New things that don’t work on me because I’m bad at shopping, which is also why I have so many things I never wear, and hand me downs, and thirty year old t-shirts of which I’m tired. I shoved them all into four enormous garbage bags, and handed them out. About 11 lakh crores of those things, maybe more, will end up in other people’s closets. I can’t remember where those figures come from, but I see them every time I close my eyelids—the point is, I threw out a huge amount, and felt mighty pleased.

But guess what? My closet is still full. First I thought it might be some kind of magical closet, in which I should also consider rooting around for loaves and fishes, and maybe Aslan the Lion. But then I remembered that I’ve done this de-cluttering exercise before, and my closet inevitably refilled with superfluous clothing, as if it has a congenital condition that is fated to assert itself relentlessly. Maybe, I thought, that condition is me.

Yes, I do like to have clothes to wear, should I suddenly choose to wear them. I often keep them around just for that eventuality. I like them to be in available in my closet, so that I can just retrieve them, because it turns out you that there are a lot of places you can’t go unless you have clothes on. I feel reassured that if I have to suddenly dash to the hospital in the middle of the night, or travel to a cold country, or just play dress-up in front of the mirror, I can do that. They’re right there, in my closet! They’re my clothes, after all. But god, they make a huge clutter.

This got me thinking. Could the answer be just to not have any personal clothes at home anymore? Maybe we could just all use a huge central store of clothes, and take what clothes we need for the day, or for an occasion, from there? The problem with that is that when I borrow a warm coat, the central store will know I’m going somewhere cold; and when I want to play sexy dress-up, it will watch me borrow the wig and the lacy panties. It’s not illegal to wear a wig and lingerie, but you may not want other people to know about it. Heck, maybe you don’t want anyone to know that you like yourself a pair of bellbottomed velvet corduroy pants. Would I enjoy my lack of privacy just because nobody else has any either?

That’s a lot of verbiage about something as obvious and necessary as clothes. But I’m merely sounding a friendly note of caution. The thing about closets is, you have to make sure that when you’re cleaning them, other people aren’t cleaning up, and that you aren’t being cleaned out.

Demonetisation PTSD

I dimly remember the days when my money was mine.

(Published on November 26, 2016 in Business Standard)

I have trouble flying—hate it, avoid it. But if your country is going through demonetisation hell, and you’re among the privileged, it’s your duty to not clog up ATM lines unnecessarily. It’s your duty not to stress small businesses by buying on credit (except cigarettes, because, hello). It’s your duty to damn well get on a plane and visit family in a foreign country that feels like home in that there, too, your money is useless.

It’s been 16 years since I was last in Hong Kong, and I’d forgotten how awesome it is. Mountains and sea! Public transport! Dumplings, beef, sesame oil! Gorgeous skyline! Roadworks with no dust or rubble! (This is how you know you’re from Delhi.) But what really blew my mind was the overwhelming banality of cash.

Strike me dead if I’m making this up: Everywhere I looked, people were just whipping money out of their pockets and spending it, as if they had some kind of reliable supply. They behaved as if their government couldn’t possibly say, “We take back the promise printed on the money, it’s all junk except for petrol stati—hospi—seeds for farmers, until November 24—29—December 31—oops, November 24, okay just watch this space and see if you can keep up, because we can’t, terrorism national interest surgical strike masterstroke.” Seeing cash brought up chaotic, disjointed memories of a previous life, and made me anxious and sweaty.

The Peak and harbour are beautiful, but the most spellbinding thing is that when Hong Kongers say, “I’m going to the bank/ATM, back in five”, they mean five minutes, not hours. They just leave home, without even packing water, biscuits, books and a tent. My sister told me that she enters her bank without queuing, wrestling an armed guard, and shouting at the manager while waving a fake wedding invitation card. She said to please not let my mouth hang open like that. Most amazingly, you can withdraw as much of your own money as you like. I’m told the government and reserve bank don’t impose an arbitrary, changeable withdrawal cap based on their favourite sun sign that day. People’s blithe, free access to their own money brought tears to my eyes, and gave me restless dreams.

Back in Delhi after these confusing few days, the PM was crying and laughing, not in a good way. He conducted a poll on public sentiment that made the public laugh and cry, also not in a good way. The Finance minister said both that a) demonetisation is going brilliantly, and b) it’s the Opposition’s fault. The changing rules no longer matter, because nobody can keep them straight, and discretion has taken over. Nobody can find the RBI governor, though my cousin spotted a haunted-looking man bearing an uncanny resemblance to him, dressed as wait staff in a restaurant. 

Trauma shrinks expectations. I pack my water, biscuits, books and tent, and take my place in the queues. Every time I get close, cash runs out. But deserted shops, the unnatural abundance of parking spots, my dry bank, the empty ATMs—this entire gigantic shitstorm is now more real and easier to process than Hong Kong’s rash trust in stability.

It’s important, when dealing with trauma, to come to terms with what happened to you, instead of repressing it. To relax, creep under the bed next to where everyone now keeps legal currency, take out your plastic, and stroke it by the light of your smartphone while gibbering openly.

Meanwhile, I now owe the cigarette guy and the kathi rolls guy. But I’m sure that, as patriots, they don’t care, and ticked ‘Brilliant’ on the PM’s poll.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The ugly American

Now make sure this never happens again.

(Published on November 12, 2016 in Business Standard)

I knew that the US election was going disastrously when I headed out to lunch. I only ate a reckless, hang-it-all tenderloin burger with extra cheddar and a fried egg on top, fries on the side, as I watched the US go from leading the free world to freeing itself of leadership. But when the ticker tape on the restaurant TV flashed that Clinton had called Trump to congratulate him, I burst into tears—and it’s not even my election.

One image on social media said it all: Lady Liberty with her face in her hands. Three days into Trump’s America, the Ku Klux Klan is planning a victory parade; African-Americans are finding hateful messages scrawled on their cars; schoolchildren are telling their non-white classmates to leave the country; Muslim women are urging each other not to leave their hijabs at home; Latinos are being told to go to the other side of The Wall; gay people are being threatened with rape and murder; men are spitting obscenities at women on the streets.

That’s the ugly America that Trump dry-humped in his campaign for the White House. That is the ugly America that he will not be able to control. Perhaps he won’t want to. India knows how this goes. In possibly the most frightening sign of the times, America’s legendary, brilliant comedians were struggling for jokes. But they will come into their own, because what is too horrible for jokes is ripe for devastating satire.

Liberals in India, and in other countries governed by right-wing majoritarians, are old hands at this horror, like combat veterans—torn clothes, open sores, dirty bandana, one eye hanging out, used to the shelling, snacking on live rats, always trying to score good boots. Democrats in the US are like the new lot of squeaky clean, fresh-faced, shell-shocked recruits that have just been shoved out of the plane into the trenches. It behoves us to remember that feeling, and to be gentle with them as they go through the five stages of grief and acclimatise to the rough new terrain.

And then to tell them: You’ll survive. Not all of you, sadly, and it won’t be pretty, and your sense of decency and humanity will be constantly assaulted and offended. You will discover that it is possible to look up at rock bottom. You will feel as if you’ve lost your country—and in a few ways you have—but moving to Canada is the best way to never get it back. Stick around and don’t be cowed. The faster you get over yourself, the faster you can get down to fixing this mess. And who knows, life under Trump might sensitise you to the plight of citizens in other hate-peddling majoritarian states.

We know from experience that, as apocalyptic as things feel, life goes on. Indians took comfort from the fact that the BJP won only a third of the vote share. In the US, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Grieving US liberals have a lot of allies, and not just in the US—people the world over will be throwing up a little in their mouths every time they have to say ‘President Trump’.

The orange abomination heading to the White House may not represent US liberals, but he is their president. If Democrats are to resist Trumpism, and stay true to their ideals, they’ll have to do it peacefully. Don’t you wish the joint wasn’t bristling with privately-owned guns? Try not to have a civil war. It would be a damn shame to know that the shining city on the hill is shining because it’s on fire.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The unicorns are dying

The earth is disappointing. It’s time to move to outer space

(Published on October 29, 2016 in Business Standard)

My eyes generally ricochet right off any business news, due to a condition in my frontal cortex known as liberalartsi majoritis. Business vocabulary puts me off. Over the years people have repeatedly explained terms like ‘futures’ or ‘shorting the market’ or ‘debentures’ to me; every time, I have one brief moment of comprehension before the concept sinks back into a swamp of shipwrecked words barnacled with numbers. I subscribe to a business newspaper at home only for the crossword. That I write in a business paper only proves the utter absurdity of the universe.

But these days even someone like me is reading business news, perforce, because every inch of print from the Business Standard to the back of cereal boxes is leading with who stabbed who at Tata Sons, and what they said to the media about it, and who besmirched whom, and whether they are lying. The Tata Group is the crown jewel of family businesses, today generating by far the highest number of really low puns ever seen in three-inch media headlines. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but I know that everyone is behaving as if they’ve just discovered that their favourite grandfather is a peeping tom. The revulsion! The betrayal. The realisation that you knew all along, but didn’t want to believe it. Our business unicorn has died.

Maybe we’re having a meltdown about it because we already feel let down by the Bollywood drama in Mumbai, where Raj Thackeray pointed his thumb-and-two-fingers gun at Bollywood and said ‘Stick ’em up’, and Bollywood handed over its wallet before he had finished speaking, and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis patted everyone on the head. So much for strong leadership—how is the man going to stand up to foreign terrorists when he can’t handle domestic terrorists? And so much for Bollywood, which preaches cross-border peace as loudly as it promises never to hire Pakistani actors again. Our liberal unicorn has died—a thousand deaths, actually, because the Karan Johar-Raj Thackeray fiasco is only the latest instance of liberalism failing to have the courage of its convictions. On the upside, we know how to increase the tax net—tax compliance is highest when it’s an illegal, unreasonable tax based on some nitwit’s anger management issues.

All in all, the news has been depressing, not that the news is watchable anymore. Competitive oafish nationalism has made an embarrassment of journalism, including our broadcast journalism unicorn, NDTV, which officially stated that it would not question the army on the Uri strikes. 

Since you can’t throw a pea without hitting a dead unicorn anymore, I’m considering becoming Asgardian. Asgardia, for those just tuning in, is a new satellite-based nation conceptualised by a chap who sounds like a made-up Russian villain but is actually a respectable scientist. Asgardia has a government, a charter, and a population currently over half a million. It is presently running contests to design its flag and anthem, and as soon as it is recognised by the United Nations, it will begin to issue passports to its citizens, assuming their own nations allow dual citizenship. It isn’t physically moving people to space yet, but it might! For the moment, it exists online, on websites and on social media. 

Oh you think that's daft? Let me tell you, as you pick your way between rotting unicorns, that it might sound ambitious, but if ever this unicorn starts to disappoint, you won’t have to live with the smell of its festering death-poop—you’ll just be able to log off. Hah, paying attention now, aren’t you.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Birdiness, birditude, and birdicity

Turns out ornithology isn’t for the birds.

(Published on October 15, 2016 in Business Standard)

I love nature, but never had much time for birds. They’re skittish, they poop all over the place, and they’re fiddly to eat. Plus they conduct jihad from across the the LoC and have to be locked up, x-rayed, and put on suicide watch, and we really don’t need more than one kind of bipedal anti-national. Anyway, my birdwatching experience has been minimal, and I have spent one hundred percent of it going ‘Where? Where?’ because I never remember to carry binoculars. As far as birdiness is concerned, I’d rather watch paint dry.

This week I lived out one of my worst nightmares, which is that I am travelling to a place where there is nothing to do but birdwatch, with eleven family members including six children, and only one bottle of whisky.

It was trying. Everywhere I went, there were six little demons shrieking and running around, and shrieking, and leaving the doors open at mosquito time, and spreading sugar all over the bathroom floor and, oh yes, shrieking. I kept trying to wake up.

No, seriously—I really kept trying to wake up. Birdwatching is a crack-of-dawn activity. The only creatures that rise even earlier are small children, who don’t like to sleep when they could be screeching. But the kids were dressed and lined up by the hotel door while the adults were still stumbling around with one shoe on, stalling for another sip of tea. It turned out that their enthusiasm had nothing to do with birds, it was all about cycle rickshaws. Kids are weird like that. My niece who still can’t write in joined-up letters was carrying a knapsack containing night vision goggles.

In Keoladeo National Park, internationally famous for its birditude, you glide silently around the wetlands in a cycle rickshaw manned by a guide with visual superpowers and bewildering enthusiasm, who can spot and name a bird from half a kilometre away. You spend ten minutes fantasising about applying a chloroform-soaked napkin to this person’s nose, but then the clouds pink up in a sky threaded with gold, and you take out the binoculars you finally remembered to bring, and suddenly everything is better.

The blue startle of an Indian roller. This grey heron doing a solitary slo-mo tango in a tree-filled pond. A cormorant drying its netted wings in the sun. A darter scything snake-like through water; a spoonbill stork with its spatula beak. A whole nursery of painted storks with pink-splashed rumps, feeding their noisy chicks and sheltering them against the sun.

We contemplated this scene of parental tenderness while munching on our boxed breakfasts, which wasn’t macabre at all until my sister-in-law said, “Is it bothering anyone that we’re sitting here eating eggs?”

We saw drongos, tailor birds, purple moor hens; even an elusive nightjar that rolled one sleepy eye at us. We saw a mighty crested serpent eagle, and forty other kinds of beautiful creatures.

It was all unexpectedly enjoyable, especially since I had my own room, which remained a calm and quiet oasis after I announced, without raising my voice, that any child who came in would be put to death. They amused themselves outside, shrieking and swimming and smearing food into their eyebrows, while we drained the whisky bottle.

I think I’ll go back to Keoladeo for some more birdicity, minus kids—though I admit that even the kids were entertaining; I can totally relate to their logic. I asked my littlest niece which bird she liked best. ‘The cuckoo,’ she said. I asked why. ‘Because,’ she said, ‘it’s a silly name.’

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Another boring, muggy weekend

What if they gave a nuclear war and nobody came?

(Published in Business Standard today)

It’s another boring, muggy weekend. Traffic, paperwork, household chores, the drone of routine.

The only distraction, really, is the two nuclear powers poking each other in the eye. If you don’t already have plans to renew your insurance, you can remain glued to the news, mouth open and fingers crossed, or beating your naked chest painted with chicken’s blood, depending on how you feel about nuclear powers poking each other in the eye. Either way, it’s not just the weather that’s bringing sweatiness to an armpit near you.

I’m a peaceable realist—slow to physical aggression, but with a firm sense of justice. If a man keeps smacking me across the face without provocation, I’ll first try to discover his problem; then talk to him about it; then try to put a barrier between us; and then, at some point, I’ll get fed up and just smack him back. Escalation, if any, must be gradual. Smacking an aggressor back right away gives you no time to prepare, and lowers you to his sociopathic level. Still, after you’ve said ‘Wtf?’ a number of times increasingly loudly, without result, you may need to respond in kind.

At this level, I’m okay with India’s recent attack on PoK-based terror launch pads. The Indian government took measured steps and used its diplomatic clout, and came out looking mature and responsible and righteous and unwilling to be taken for granted. But honestly, this whole thing is more about us than about Pakistan, because they’re not going to stop being a pest. We now have to pray that Pakistan won’t escalate things into full-scale war. How did we get here?

Manmohan Singh: No war with Pakistan, strategic restraint.

BJP and supporters: Weak coward! Gnashing of teeth.

Narendra Modi: No war with Pakistan, strategic restraint.

BJP and supporters: Total masterstroke, sir, you really showed them.

Indian Army: We have conducted surgical strikes in PoK. Not our first time—but it’s the first time that a government is talking about it, because public sentiment.

BJP and supporters: The complete opposite of what you said before is also a total masterstroke, sir, you really showed them.

News: #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes *faints dead away from patriotic fervour*

Internet: #UnseemlyGlee #Revenge #NoQuestionsYouPorkistaniAntinational. *smears naked chest with chicken’s blood*

Nation: That’s for Uri and Pathankot, you dastardly, er, dastards.

Nation: Wait, can we keep Fawad Khan?

News: #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes #SurgicalStrikes.

Pakistan: What strikes? There were no strikes. You people are delusionary. We should know, we based our whole state on an imaginary friend.

USA: Oh you two think you’re in trouble? Are you watching our election?

BJP: Well at least we’ve delivered on one electoral promise. That should get our damn base off our backs, and maybe get some patriotic support in UP and Punjab where, incidentally, elections are coming up.

Everyone: Ohhhhh right.

Analysts: Having denied India’s strikes, Pakistan can’t retaliate.

Pakistan: *Immediately violates LoC ceasefire in J&K*

Indian film people: We’re banning all Pakistani actors!

Pakistani cinema people: Oh yeah? Well we’re not screening YOUR stupid films anymore!

World: Okay now you’re making us nervous.

2,00,000 Punjab residents: Let’s spend this weekend evacuating our villages as a precautionary measure, for an indeterminate length of time. Ah, border life.

Optional ending 1: Everyone calms down and goes back to poking each other in the eye, but covertly.

Nation: Welcome back, Fawad Khan.

Optional ending 2: Nuclear apocalypse, 21 million dead, nuclear winter.

Nation: Has anyone seen Fawad Khan?

I say we raise our glasses to a long series of boring, muggy weekends filled only with traffic, paperwork, and household chores.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Row, row, row your boat

Because the crew isn’t going to

(Published today in Business Standard)

Do you sometimes get the feeling that the country is like a passenger boat on the open water, in a huge storm, and the power is gone, and all hell has broken loose on board? Massive swells tossing the sea, thunder and lightning, helm spinning wildly? Passengers running around waving their arms and screaming, the crew reeling about drunk and giggly with their hair on fire, the captain hiding in a cupboard in his cabin, sobbing into his hands?

That’s what it feels like somedays, when you read the papers. Kashmir is festering like a wound. Actual people are actually marching around, actually trying to detect beef in biryani. Tamilians and Kannadigas are killing each other over Cauvery River water. Women continue to suffer sexual terrorism. Dalits continue to suffer caste atrocities. The Aam Aadmi Party is steadily losing its MPs and its marbles. Everyone is crawling around on hands and knees from chikungunya and dengue. Officials keep treating dead poor people like a public nuisance.   

So it’s very reassuring to get out of the hothouse, drive up to the hills, and realise, afresh, that besides the staggeringly stupid beef thing—which really does put a dent in many people’s dinners and livelihoods—most of India is just going about its business, whether that’s trying to put food on the table, raise kids, beat the traffic, sell something, or make something to sell. Turns out that our boat is going to weather the storm despite the incompetent crew, because of the hundreds of millions of individuals pulling at their individual oars, to move their individual patch of boat forward. It ends up saving the nation and it’s good exercise.

Speaking of going about one’s own business and good exercise, have you been reading about the Paralympics? Back when the Olympics were all over the news, I got back to exercising regularly, in solidarity with our Olympian athletes who have to fight poverty, lack of infrastructure, official neglect, and organisational disaster. But it turns out that those guys have it really good: they have all their limbs and physical faculties.

You know what’s even more inspiring? The Paralympics in Rio in 2016. The world’s disabled athletes are setting world records that outclass Olympians by some distance, despite the lack of an arm, or a foot, or vision, despite mental disability, despite shamefully little press coverage. None of this has stopped them from doing their own thing, and doing it blazingly well. Here’s the fact that slays: The guy who won gold at the Olympics 1500m run would have made fourth place at the Paralympics 1500m. Our own Paralympians have won several medals—Devendra Jhajharia struck gold by breaking his own world record in the men’s javelin throw. He used the derision he faced for his disability, to light the fire in his belly that turned him into a champion.

All of this makes you feel like lightning should strike you dead the next time you complain about anything, but of course, if you aren’t the kind of champion who can use adversity to build character,  complaining is vital to maintaining your mental health. That’s my line, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway, I did get out of the hothouse and drove up to the hills, and realised, afresh, that besides the staggeringly stupid beef thing, most of us can really just go about our business and get on with our lives. And that might be the best thing about the newspapers: they remind you that, at the end of the day, despite the maelstrom and the frankly lousy boat personnel, we remain the captains of our own tiny shares of the ship.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The beat of your own drums

Or, why homeless musicians are a thing

(Published in Business Standard today)

When I was 7 years old, my mother found me at the kitchen table weeping with anxiety because I couldn’t see how I’d ever be able to pay rent. She laughed and said that everything would work out. But my dark foreboding came horribly true. At 44 I’m still at her kitchen table, and she isn’t laughing anymore.

We have lived happily together for years, in a compact that has called for only a little accommodation of each other and even less logistical dependence. We have survived all kinds of delicate interpersonal situations, including a steady chorus of people strongly encouraging her to throw me out—a suggestion that she put aside with some wistfulness. But we have finally reached an intractable place that requires a shakeup.

The problem is my drum set. It’s not going with her sofas.  

I know, right? I tucked the thing so far into a corner of the living room that you need to use an ouija board to catch as much as a glimpse of its softly glowing metal and the handsome shine of its black-painted wood. It’s completely silent as long as I don’t play it, which I don’t while she’s in the house. Not going with her sofas—pfffft! She can be so unreasonable—especially since she is responsible for my buying the thing. That’s right, she’s the one who forwarded me the email from someone who was selling an old but excellent kit, in pristine condition, for the price of three or four posh martinis. Her accompanying message read: ‘In case someone in your music circle is interested.’

How was I supposed to know that that person would be me? Fate is a wondrous, numinous thingyjig that we should trust and respect.

So anyway, I’m house hunting. Turns out nobody wants to rent a flat to an Indian. “Don’t worry, uncle,” the broker told one landlord on the phone, “she’s Indian, but she’s like a foreigner only.” This admirably acute and very annoying statement is what got us in the front door everywhere we went.

One rheumy-eyed nonagenarian landlord smiled and smiled and said I could have the flat for whatever I wanted to pay for it, and he would fix it up any which way, and please when was I moving in. I was about to hand him Rs 10,000 and fetch my suitcase, when the broker murmured, “You’ll have to speak to aunty also.”

Aunty turned out to have a much more investigative streak. 

You will live alone? Yes. You have friends? Yes. Girl friends? Friends of both kinds. They will visit? Yes. They will spend the night? Yes, sometimes.

Her smile faded—and we hadn’t even gotten to the drums. That elderly couple would have been dreamy landlords in that they would never have detected the sound of the drums. I mentally bid farewell to that utterly charming, breezy, leafy flat. 

The broker was apologetic. “These days,” he said, “boys go to girls’ houses and girls go to boys’ houses, but what to do, she is from another time.” Listen, I replied, I’m not going to lie, and I won’t be questioned after I move in, so don’t bother showing me anyplace where the proprietor will have a problem.

I’m a single Indian woman, I have unpredictable hours and overnight guests, I’m stubborn as a mule, and I like practicing the drums. How hard can this be?

So far, the only person who desperately wants to house me on my terms is the broker, but I’m having fun looking. I figure there’s nothing like having your own kitchen table at which to sit and weep over paying the rent.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Five rings to bind them all

The Olympics have inspired me to start exercising again.

(Published in Business Standard today)

In boarding school, a friend of mine sneered that the most active thing he’d ever seen me do was sneeze. It’s true that I spent most of our games periods hiding behind a curtain in my dorm, drinking tea and reading, but I bet he was just jealous of my washboard abs and .001% body fat, which I’d achieved from years of being a teenager.

But that was a long time ago. Since then, I have been a more or less regular exerciser, though I go through phases. At the moment I’m in what you could call my ‘resting bitch phase’. In it, I have gone from being in the best shape of my life eight months ago, to being in the worst. I have grown roots in the sofa, let my muscle run to fat, and lost the will to do anything more active than breathe between morsels of fried food. My blood pressure is suddenly a thing. The horizon of my health has shrunk to the ungentle curve of my belly.

Or it had, until the Olympics began. I have finally kicked myself into brisk walks in the park again, in solidarity with the Games, because, frankly, nothing inspires me to get off my butt as much as watching the incredible performance of our Indian officials in Rio.

I assume you saw that Scoopwhoop story about how Vijay Goel, Sports Minister, misspelled gymnast Dipa Karmakar’s name in a tweet, and almost got his accreditation revoked, and how officials flew business to Rio while athletes went economy, and how the team doctor isn’t a sports doctor but a radiologist, and how they first said it would be wasteful to fly Karmakar’s physiotherapist to Rio, and how officials hung out on beaches and went sightseeing during Olympic events? Did you see the Quartz story on how the sports ministry organised a grand reception for the athletes at the Olympian Reunion Centre on Independence Day, at which they pulled out all the stops and served…wait for it…peanuts?

Thinking about all that really gets my blood up, so I’ve been using the momentum to heave my thunder thighs around the park.

The other thing that creates enough adrenaline to propel me out the door is reading all the sanctimonious tweets referring to Sakshi Malik, the women’s wrestling bronze medallist, as ‘India’s daughter’. It’s always irritating that we can’t relate to a woman normally unless she’s part of the family—daughter, mother, sister, wife—and therefore officially has no lady parts. But in this case it’s particularly nauseating because we wouldn’t know sports culture if it ran up to us and did 500 pull-ups while spitting in our eye. We don’t encourage or nurture sports, and we treat our athletes like dirt, completely ignoring them before and after any medal-winning—so Sakshi Malik, like most Indian sportspeople, got to where she is despite official India. Our athletes have genuine fans across the country, but for the Indian state to suddenly try to clasp medal-winners to its miserly bosom and appropriate their success is a joke. Sakshi Malik’s medal is her individual and singular accomplishment. So is P.V. Sindhu’s badminton medal. So is Dipa Karmakar’s loss-by-a-whisker. So is the surprise that is 18-year-old golfer Aditi Ashok.

Have you noticed that the Indians who have made us proudest at Rio are all women? This is the first Olympics at which so many people have called out the revolting sexism of sports reporting, so #JustSaying.

Maybe I don’t have to walk today—I must have burned 300 calories just feeling my feelings.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Dear John letter to the USA

It was nice knowing you

(Published on August 6, 2016 in Business Standard)

Dear America,

I keep close tabs on you, and you don’t know that I exist. That’s okay. I have loved you quietly—your beautiful constitution, your can-do spirit, your great lovely wild spaces, your music and your movies, especially Ice Age even though the new one sucks, your ability to think big, and your willingness to respect excellence and imagination.

But it’s true love, not blind love. I know you neck with the Saudis. I know you hold hands with Pakistan. I know you are an unequal society. I know that for every liberty you defend, you quietly abrogate another. I know you’re insular, greedy, spoiled, and you keep getting into brawls and making doody on other people’s carpets. Still, I love your team spirit and your protection of individual rights, and the fact that you appreciate the creative possibilities of challenge and disruption.

But even from my disempowered position, even though I’m the one with the feelings, I’m biting the bullet to say two things: 1) It’s over between us, and 2) It’s not me, it’s you.

Because, frankly, you’ve become mad as a bag of frogs.

You’re the richest country in the world, the mightiest, with the best incubators of innovation, technology, research, and intellectual progress. You gave us modern aviation. You gave us the Internet. You put the first man on the moon, for god’s sake. You currently have, in office, a man who represents the best of America—a smart, inclusive, funny, liberal-minded, melting pot of a man who, in a world gone increasingly bonkers, makes the US look really good, and sings beautifully to boot. No matter whether the rest of us love you or hate you, we take you seriously.

So far.

Look, I get the fooling around with the Saudis thing—you’re addicted to oil, you have double standards on human rights, you can’t help yourself. I get the necking with Pakistan thing—you don’t understand the region, or the mind-set of non-state combatants, you need local backup. I get the consumerist obsession—you have built your country on the belief that creating ever more desire for ever more consumption is the purpose of life.

But I cannot forgive you for your flirtation with The Donald. That just displays a degree of self-destructiveness that is going to wreck your life, and all your relationships.

It might be entertaining for us in the rest of the world to watch your slo-mo train wreck of an election, but it also makes our blood run cold. Thanks to our own recent experience here in India, we’re in a position to appreciate all the dramatic irony. Here, too, we elected an exclusivist, paranoid demagogue who talked development and walked the worst, basest instincts in people. We, too, had a large section of people who simply did not believe that he could actually possibly get elected. Everyone was going to come to their senses before voting day. Right? They were going to watch the tenor of the campaign—strong appeals to Hindu supremacist instincts, disturbingly vague promises of ‘development’. Right? Except they didn’t—or worse, they did, and they liked it. What we’ve got to show for it is massive unrest, violent vigilantism, ugly jingoism, and social regression—and lots of voters moaning that they made a huge mistake.

I can’t watch you go through that, so I’m breaking up with you for now. You’ll show your true colours in November, at which point I’ll reconsider. I may never mean anything to you; but I would love for you to continue to mean something to me.

With love for old times’ sake, but also some hollow laughter,


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Silver anniversary reunion

(Published on July 23, 2016 in Business Standard) 

Some years ago, an enterprising classmate from my boarding school, Rishi Valley, created a WhatsApp group for our class. It was a high-spirited space. After the first 200,000 messages, I put it on mute. 87,000 silent notifications later, I texted the group admin to say that I was exiting the group, though I still loved everyone. He sent me teary emoticons. I felt guilty.

The trouble is, I was only at this boarding school for two years, while many of my classmates grew up there together, share ionic bonds, and apparently all have Mensa-style memory. They kept reminiscing fondly about what x had said to y at 3.22pm on that Tuesday in Septemper 1986, behind z building, and then so-and-so teacher caught them—remember? I frequently can’t remember my own name, so I thought I’d slip off and do other stuff.

But this year marks 25 years since we graduated. One of our classmates took on the role of reunion architect, and set about persuading, cajoling, threatening, and browbeating everyone in an organised and timely fashion. He phoned me in March.

Hmm, I said, wow, lemme think about it, I’ll definitely try to m—

“I’ve emailed you your air ticket,” he said. “I don’t trust you.”

That’s how I found myself boarding a bus in Bangalore with a score of people who look exactly the same as they did a quarter century ago—perhaps a touch more tired, maybe because of staying up nights drinking babies’ blood.

But even the best preserved of us was a little slower. Between beer habits, lunch requirements, and weaker bladders, the three-hour journey from Bangalore somehow took seven hours. But finally we were there. Or were we? It looked as though it should look familiar, but if it hadn’t been for the signboards, I wouldn’t have recognised a thing.

And yet I remembered the feel. Rishi Valley is a looker, tucked between trees and ruddy Andhra earth and boulders and blossoms. What’s not to love about outdoor classes, on stone benches under shady trees? The valley is silent, which is to say, loud with birdsong, insects and the breeze in the trees. The air smells of sap and flowers. I went to school here? Lucky me.

I spent my weekend open-mouthed at all the beauty, trying to remember whether I remembered this walk to the dining hall, or that path to the junior school, or the fact that we had a juice break mid-morning. “Remember this?” people kept saying. “No,” I kept replying. The nice thing about a goldfish-like memory is that the world always seems new and fresh. I daydreamed about teaching here for a term, as so many alumni do. We rambled, chatted, wolfed the excellent cafeteria food and coffee, and capped the weekend with a mass bonding session—think the lovechild of Oprah and an AA meeting—in the middle of an operatic thunderstorm.

Reunions can happen anywhere—it’s the people that matter. But being on campus was very special. A quarter century later, it is much clearer how unusual a school it is, for better or worse. I’m suddenly glad, all over again, to have attended it, even though my lifestyle would make Jiddu Krishnamurti spin in his grave. I am not a sentimental person, but returning to Rishi Valley, with two-thirds of my class, revived a note of sweetness in a world energetically going to shit around us.

The whole thing was so good that I asked to be let back into the WhatsApp group. I’m not an idiot, though—it’s on mute for one year.