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.