Saturday, June 25, 2016

Packing up

(Published today in Business Standard)

My packing process has always been to stress out about it for two weeks beforehand while catching up on TV shows. At the eleventh hour I fling in clothes by the kilo rather than by usefulness, take the shoes I’m wearing, and tear around town buying supplies, finishing work, and saying goodbye to friends and family in the two hours before my cab leaves for the train station or the airport. It’s amazing how well one can get by at the beach with six sweaters and no underwear.

I’m getting better at organisation, but other issues have cropped up.

In 1999, I left home for three weeks carrying a small duffel bag and a knapsack. The bag contained t-shirts, a pair of jeans, a sweater, underwear, and a camera. The backpack contained my passport, tickets, wallet, and a book. I didn’t have a phone. I had never even heard of ‘travel insurance’. I just took off and had a great time. That’s how you travel at 27.

This week, as I surveyed my suitcase, I saw clothes for every climate known to man—even, possibly, for every man; and a vast sea of pills, interrupted only by the odd joint brace.

I have not been kind to my body recently. (For reasons of patient confidentiality I can’t get into the details, but I have this friend who drank too much, smoked too many cigarettes, had too many late nights, and stopped exercising completely for half a year.) I’m here—just barely—to tell you that in that dark alley of delinquency I ran into middle age, who turns out to be a violent, vindictive jerkface.

First, it broke my chest with an infection. Then it broke my tummy, both ways, so that first I was on stop-it-ups, and then on let-it-gos. Then it broke my eyes with a hat trick of styes that required three rounds of eyedrops, hot compresses and antibiotics, and one episode of corneal cell death. (“Relax,” said my ophthalmologist, “all I do all day is bring cells back.”) Somewhere in between came a vicious flu and a sprained ankle with crutches, crepe bandages, ice packs, and hot salted water.

As soon as I could walk, I began to heave myself around the park again, because my trip involves some trekking. So far, my fitness regimen has resulted in a sore back and an inflamed tendon. Then I bit down on a small stone in my food, and an ominous sensation shot all the way down through my jaw. A couple of days ago a seam in my track pants split during my morning walk, and the chafing created an angry, exquisitely painful welt on my inner thigh.

So packing isn’t what it used to be—it’s more like packing up. My bag includes anti-malaria pills, antacids and anti-emetics for the anti-malaria pills, mosquito repellent spray and patches, antihistamines, five kinds of antibiotic pills and creams, tummy meds, probiotics for the tummy meds, anti-spasmodic pills, muscular-skeletal painkillers, thyroid medication, muscle relaxant tablets and gel, fever meds, headache meds, antiseptic lotion, antibiotic eye drops, lubricating eye drops, crepe bandage, ankle sock, blister pads, band aids, gauze and surgical tape. Oh, and sunscreen. Ridiculous, right? On the other hand, I’m already using the gauze and surgical tape for the welt on my thigh. It was right there, amid my better-organised, already-bought packing items.

So this is how I’m going to the jungles of Rwanda—fat, wheezy, limping, swollen-eyed, raw-toothed, and sore all over, much like the UK after Brexit.

I can’t wait! The only thing that the thug in the alley hasn’t broken is my spirit. (Yet.)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Fly, the beloved country

(Published on June 11, 2016 in Business Standard)

When I was sixteen, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception convinced me that mind-altering substances were the way forward. I would know the colour of sound. I would see music! I would touch the most exalted parts of my brain, and the grottiest, and never be bored.

I took my first drag of marijuana in college, bright-eyed with expectation. Nothing happened, so I took three more quick ones. Suddenly I was boiling from the inside, skidded out of the door into a Pennsylvania winter storm, fainted into a snowdrift, and had to be dragged inside. After four head-spinning hours, when the panic attack subsided, I concluded that drugs were horrible, and left them the hell alone.

Twenty-five years later, a kindly felon chaperoned me through the right way to smoke the stuff, and I finally discovered why people go on about it. There I was, lifting through the inconsequential material roof of my skull, trying to float out clear to the stars, moored to the planet only because I was holding on to my chair. So that’s why people do drugs: unreality is much nicer.

It’s so appealing, in fact, that despite our strong Indian traditions of drug use typified by ascetics, Holi revellers, and Shiva, we also continually strive to achieve unreality without substances. It has become cultural second nature, probably because our realities are so nasty.

Thus the strange case of The-State-That-Must-Not-Be-Named in the movie Udta Punjab, which is currently giving everyone hives for completely opposite reasons. It’s a movie about the raging, tragic drug problem in Punjab. That seems like an important, necessary movie, right? But under the marijuana-like influence of the Central Board of Film Certification’s chief nitwit, Pahlaj Nihalani, Udta Punjab is being turned into a movie about someone, somewhere, doing something, beside a signboard that maybe threatens the sovereignty of India. The CBFC has removed bad words like ‘election’ and ‘MP’, and turned Udta Punjab into a movie floating up through our skulls, unmoored to any kind of reality. Nihalani’s imbecilic political and cultural instincts set off his alarms 89 times in that film, for reasons of swearing, for wanton use of the name ‘Punjab’ for the place ‘Punjab’, and for generally being offensively spot on. On Planet Nihalani, reality is defamation. The most unusual howls of protest from Bollywood have shown that even people known for party drugs draw the line somewhere.

The Shyam Benegal-led committee, set up this year to review the certification process, recommended a new category of certification, for which Udta Punjab may qualify: A/C, or ‘adult with caution’. A/C-certified films will be screened not at theatres near residential areas, but in, for example, red light areas. Puzzling, wot? Do cautious adults not live in residential areas? Are adults who take their kids out to the movies incapable of picking suitable movies? Are cautious adults only allowed to go to red light areas to demonstrate their caution? It’s all very confusing—or, in real, non-marijuana terms, barking mad. Benegal reportedly said that the Punjab government might be upset by the suggestion, in Udta Punjab, that parts of the government collude with the drug mafia, when, in fact, “the government is doing a great deal to curb this menace.” This suggests that Benegal and Nihalani both confuse the function of film certification with the function of keeping the state happy.

The point is, people, you can’t just go around confusing art with reality! You have to confuse it with political spin. That’s what it takes to pass anything in this joint—in which case, I’ll pass on that joint.

Kids: Just say no.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The unbearable niceness of TV

(Published on May 28, 2016 in Business Standard)

On Indian TV, any resemblance to real life is purely coincidental

If you’ve spent any time immobilised, lately—say, for example, because you’ve twisted your ankle, and been medically sentenced to two to three weeks of watching television while pretending to read—you will have noticed that TV has really changed in this country over the last few years. Specifically, it has been put into a playpen, wearing a corset and a veil, and tasked with safeguarding the national moral fibre.

In other words, it’s ruining television viewing. Dialogue now sounds like this: “If you had the *** you would have stood up to your ***. Now Get off your *** and get to work, you lazy ***.” It’s as if Vedic biochemists have discovered that our tender ears will burn to a crisp if they are exposed to the napalm of a salty colloquialism. It makes you want to throw the book you’re pretending to read, at the screen.

Indian television is self-regulated, and since the Broadcast Content Complaint Council was set up in 2011, TV has followed the Indian Broadcasting Foundation’s version of the Ministry of Information’s self-regulation guidelines. A quick look at these guidelines suggests that the Ministry suggests that Indian television protect Indian viewers from any resemblance to life. And asked to bend, broadcasters seem to have decided to crawl in order to avoid becoming judicial bait.

Watching a really great adult show like Orange is the New Black is, therefore, an incredibly annoying experience—not only do they keep cutting out same-sex kisses, as if those might cause Indian pelvises to go up in flames worse than heterosexual kisses, but every third word of dialogue is missing. Why air a show about inmates in a women’s prison if you’re only going to try to make it sound like a grown-ups day care centre? Are we supposed to believe that jailed criminals do drugs, run smuggling rackets, whack each other with locks in socks, and bonk each other constantly, but would never, never utter the word ‘boob’?

But—after noting that one show inexplicably replaced the word ‘shit’ with ‘jerk’—forget sex, drugs, violence, and swearing for a moment. Television shows are subtitled, to clarify difficult accents and compensate for hearing challenges. The subtitles take purification so seriously that they have become entirely uncoupled from rationality, replacing the word ‘breast’ with ‘chest’, ‘sexuality’ with ‘femininity’, ‘lesbian’ with ‘queer’, ‘horny’ with ‘in passion’.

Who amongst us has never said: “My queer friend said that chestfeeding can feel feminine, but maybe she was just generally in passion”?

Words like ‘vagina’ and ‘nipple’ can simply disappear into asterisks, so dangerous are they to society. So can ‘cocaine’. So can…wait for it…‘beef’. Yessir, beef. Not in a movie about Partition, but on an episode of the much-loved sitcom Friends.

Indian television airs shows like Orange is the New Black and Game of Thrones because younger Indians have the cultural bandwidth to appreciate them—they’re smart, sexy, and edgy. But it only airs them, as The National pointed out, after cutting out smarts, the sex, and the edge.

India is hauling itself into the future of entertainment with typically anaemic adherence to the most puritanical standards, not the most progressive. It’s amazing that a country filled with adult viewers hasn’t made a serious racket about increasingly being treated like infants. Or perhaps most adults just go and get the whole show off the Internet, without the mutilation.

It’s enough to make you say, ‘I’ve had it with this jerk,’ and go back to your book for real.