Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Damn you, online shopping

I’m unfashionably late to this party

(Published on October 28, 2017 in Business Standard)

My generation regularly left home to go to shops to buy things, even after the advent of the internet and smartphones—which, for a long time, we did not even have. We lived for decades in these horrific conditions, like primitive amoebae scrabbling about in the mud. But let us not dwell on sad things.

The good thing is that, as the generation that went from booking long-distance calls two days in advance, to booking space travel online, we are fairly adaptable. We move with the times. In that spirit, I would like to announce that I may never visit a shop again, because of a thing I’ve discovered called ‘online shopping’.

If you’re going to tell me what a lame fossil I am, save it. Some people learn embarrassingly late in life that sexism is pervasive; others are late bloomers when it comes to giving all our money to Amazon and feeling grateful for it.

There have been many hurdles to my shopping online. One, I—still—need to put my foot in a shoe before buying it, and was applying this principle, donkey-like, to all products. Two, I have a pre-#DigitalIndia, post-#Aadhaar suspicion of connecting merchants with my bank account unless I’m physically present. I’m sure the actual process is very sophisticated, but in my head, when I click on ‘Place your order’, I see a giant pixelated blue hand reaching into my account and taking all my cash, and then running away with it to Fiji where it dips its giant pixelated blue toes in the surf, instead of sending me my things. 

Three, I hadn’t realised that you could buy anything on the internet, from a rubber band to a broccoli, to a bed, to a flying car. Four, I felt guilty about ordering, say, a packet of paper clips, and making other people use huge amounts of wrapping, fuel, and personal energy to bring it to your doorstep, when I can just as well walk down to the corner store and buy a packet of paper clips in four minutes without a bag.

Well, I’m over all of that. First, I live up three flights of stairs, and it’s much easier if someone else goes up and down carrying stuff. Second, I can buy anything at all from the fingertip superstore! Given the staircase situation, I have my eye on the flying car. Third, I can return anything I don’t like.

This last perk sounded dodgy to me at first, but I now know its evil plan. I scoured the internet for a compact milk jug that pours well, and ended up buying some unsatisfactory ceramic item. It arrived. After wading through kilos of packaging, I unveiled what looked like a big drunk bird—a dull yellow thing with a beaky schnoz that dripped. I immediately put the returns process in motion; but it turned out to be incredibly slow. In the many days since, I have fallen hopelessly in love with this milk jug, and cannot bear to be parted from it. It’s my fat yellow drunk and dribbling bird, yes it is, and we are very happy. I have torn up the returns labels and placed a broom near the front door, in case a returns person rings the doorbell and I have to brain him.

So here I am, bleeding profusely from the bank account, and it’s the best. Actually, you know what’s the best? A garlic peeler. You won’t know you needed one until you catch yourself buying it—and that is the limitless fuel of online retail.

See, moving with the times. Moving like Elvis.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Guess who’s coming to dinner

Doctor, I’m having bad dreams.

(Published on October 14, 2017 in Business Standard)

Doctor, I’ve been having these bad dreams. 

I’m having a dinner party. My guests are Aung San Suu Kyi, celebrated leader from Myanmar; Harvey Weinstein, madly powerful Hollywood producer; Honeypreet, devoted daughter of convict Gurmeet Singh; Jay Shah, quiet Gujarati businessman; Nandan Nilekani, mastermind of Aadhaar; and government contract worker @FollowedByPM2019.

What? I like meeting new people.

8pm. Ding dong!

Me: Welcome, Suu Kyi. I visited Myanmar in the 1990s, and walked by where you lived under house arrest as a beacon of democratic dissent, political prisoner of the brutal junta. Look at your gold Nobel Peace Prize medal! Wait, is it looking like rusted tin because of the Rohi—

Suu Kyi: If you say the word ‘Rohingya’, I’m going to leave. I’m very cool and elegant and adored, and everything is very complicated, and you don’t understand anything.

Me: This is disappointing, but familiar. Our PM does that same trick if you ask him a question about 2002. 

8.06pm. Ding dong!

Me: Good evening, Mr Weinstein. Please take your hand off my butt. Take your hand off her butt too, wtf is wrong with you?

H. Weinstein: When I was growing up, that was just the culture. I hope you know that I can end your dinner parties in this town. I’m off to rehab, where they will help me focus on how madly powerful Hollywood sex offenders get to go to rehab instead of jail.

8.07pm. Ding dong!

Me: May I help you? Oh, is that you, @FollowedByPM2019? I was expecting a grey egg. 

@FollowedByPM2019: You %*#?@ presstitute, you’re just sore because your perks and &$%^&* gravy train have ended after 70 years of $%^& Italian paymasters, you $$&% omg is that Harvey Weinstein? Sir, you’re my hero, sir! Wanna mentally undress these two out loud?

8.08pm. Ding dong!

Me: Nice to meet you Mr Nilekani, please come in.

N. Nilekani: First link your Aadhaar to your bank account and mobile phone and hairdryer. Otherwise I’m blocking your doorway in accordance with a government directive.

9.45pm. Ding dong!

Me: You’re just in time, Mr Shah—dinner is served. Would you like some cheese?

J. Shah: Of course not! The Quint’s sources say I’m a health freak. And an obedient son. And a doting father. And I bring my parents khakra.

Me: I’m very impressed with these touching human details, much like The Quint.

J. Shah: The Quint’s sources say I’m a sanskari son who will think a 100 times before violating any rule. Okay I’ve thought about it, I’ll have 16,000 helpings. 


J. Shah: Do you need anyone I know to help you pass the cheese?

Me: Here’s all the cheese. 

Me: Honeypreet! I didn’t hear the doorbell, how did you—oh, don’t worry about the hole in the floor. Let me show you the washroom so you can clean off all the mud.

Suu Kyi: Does she always tunnel in to dinner parties like that?

Honeypreet: It started with a bit of PTSD in a courtroom, but now it’s just habit. Excuse me, I’m just going to look for a hiding place for my cash and weapons. Must hide. Must hide. Must—

Me: Sit down, Honeypreet, relax, have a drink. Mr Weinstein, take your hand off her butt. And his butt.

@FollowedByPM2019: I like b&%*@es who drink whisky even though I’m afraid of them. I have much to learn from Harvey sir.

N. Nilekani: Guys, let me stack the plates on your biometrics.

Me: *Throws them all down the tunnel. Muffled shouting, scuffling. Goes to bed exhausted, afraid to fall asleep and dream.*

Dinner party Napoleon

I’m sorry for all the shade I threw at the PM

(Published on September 30, 2017 in Business Standard)

My new home is in a tucked-away pocket of the city, so easy to get to that nobody can find it. I invariably send elaborate directions; my friends invariably ignore them; everyone invariably staggers in an hour late with mud-streaked clothes and twigs sticking out of their hair, swearing. In hosting these chaotic dissenters, I’ve had an insight that has blown up all my convictions, and imperils my identity. It’s like seeing the Matrix in all its horrible magnificence, and realising that you are Agent Smith.

My siblings used to call me Napoleon, because I was short and headstrong. I don’t know what they were trying to say cough*control freak*cough but it seems to me that Napoleon achieved greatness because he was not burdened by any democratic nonsense. The fastest way to the history books is to be captain of the ship, with a great vision and absolute power to implement it.

Today, at large in my own ship, my quirks have gone rogue. I’ve become Captain Whatshisface with the octopus tentacle beard, on the Flying Dutchman—a hopped-up monstrosity of hubris. Today, in my house, not only do I wash my own hands and wipe away crumbs compulsively and place towels just so, but I have also caught myself following my visitors around, discreetly snooping on them to make sure they’re also doing things my way or, to use the technical term, the right way. (Okay once or twice, they caught me.) When they’re not doing it right, I become much less discreet and have been known to snatch things away, ban certain behaviours, and supply a lot of one-way commentary. 

For example, I cannot abide sticky and/or oily fingers touching taps and drawer handles, or being wiped on a cloth that was meant to dry dishes. I cannot abide cutting juicy or smelly things on the kitchen slab minus chopping board. I am baffled to notice that people often don’t follow my rules—which, by the way, are in place because they are the best way to do things—even when I’ve stated them clearly. I’m trying love and compassion instead of throwing people off the balcony, but I am aware that the latter is more efficient.

Meanwhile, I’m considering issuing visitors some kind of biometric ID card so I can hunt down each oily, sticky fingerprint and help them re-orient their thinking for the greater cleanliness of the household. It’s for their own good. It’s okay if people misunderstand me in the short term; many important historical figures were reviled in their time by those too blind to see.

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it: I would like to extend a heartfelt mea culpa to Mr Modi and his associates. I’m sorry for having been so critical—I didn’t know, I didn’t know… I finally understand that there is nothing as intoxicating as the cocktail of dogma and dominion. I finally understand why someone might behave like a micro-managing, know-it-all autocrat: In our heads it is obvious, and right, and good.

Sometimes I lie awake worrying that nothing short of a stake in the heart is going to save me from the path I am on. But most other times I lie awake thinking up snappy acronyms and Twitter trends like #JeSuisModi. Maybe I’ll make my friends give me their fingerprints before I give them directions. Mitron, I’ll tell them, the sky is the limit in my #NewPlace.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Some rooms of one’s own

The curious case of being like Benjamin Button

(Published on September 16, 2017 in Business Standard)

A sense of the weird—weird supernatural, not weird awkward—has lately dawned upon me. I’m afraid to tell anyone because they’ll think I’m losing my marbles, so this is just between you and me. Here it is: I’m living my life backwards, like Benjamin Button. It is upsetting to realise that my whole existence is patterned on an incredibly annoying Brad Pitt film, but the day we look away from truth is the day we could have been perfectly happy in a comforting lie but no, you had to be all goody two-shoes.

The fact is that while my chronological age is proceeding—apace, you might say—as per normal schedule, my temperament and actions have been steadily reversing the normal schedule. I began life as a detached, contemplative child who was happy to read and knit. I spent my twenties struggling with mortality; my thirties striving to stay fit, and my early forties being unruly in bars. Now, in middle age, I have moved into my own place for the very first time. You see the trend? When people say, ‘Where do you see yourself in the future?’ I will have to say, Going back to school, then throwing things at my siblings, and finally crawling around sticking my baby fingers in electrical sockets. I suppose my mother will have to stick around to de-raise me.

Speaking of my mother, she was naturally shattered that, after living with her for so long, I’d found and moved into this place so suddenly, while she was travelling. I went to visit her when she returned, guilt-ridden from anticipating her grief in the howling void of my absence.

‘Hello,’ she said, ‘Make sure you empty your cupboards, because I’m turning your room into a guest room and plan to have lots of visitors come and stay.’ It was a poignant moment. I thought to myself, How fast they grow. She also came to visit me in my new house, and began several sentences with “When I come to spend the night…” That woman is all about revenge.

So here I am, solo householder, writing down how much I spent on eggs and Harpic (et voilĂ , breakfast), engaging in intriguing cat-and-mouse games with electricians and plumbers, severely curtailing my drinks budget, and battling an army of ants so relentless and unreasonable that I think they might be on Twitter. I’m saving used tea leaves to put in potted plants. I walk into kitchen stores and quietly take leave of my senses because even though I’m a crappy cook I am helpless in the face of kitchen porn. My neighbour picks up my newspaper for me and sweetly sticks it in my door. People WhatsApp photos of crumbling plaster and seepage to each other instead of screaming up the stairwell. It’s just grand.

I’m told householding gets really old, really soon, but it’s only been a couple of weeks, so my castle and I are still very much in the honeymoon phase. I walk around admiring the light—buttery in the morning, honey gold in the afternoon; and the space—not too big, not too small; and the comfort of my bed—not too long, not too short; the sweet kitchen—not too complicated, not too simple; and the endless, endless cupboard space, of which I have pretended to occupy three cubby shelves by spreading stuff around thinly. The maid said, You’re going to bring more clothes, right? and I said, Hahahaha, have you met me?

My mother calls it my Goldilocks house, just right for me. That probably means I could very well wake up one day and find the place full of bears. But that’s life in reverse.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Something fishy about the kettle

It turns out that sometimes tea is not just tea

(Published on September 02, 2017 in Business Standard)

This week I bring you an important public service announcement: You know the handy electric kettle in your hotel room, the one placed on the tea and coffee tray? Well, according to a report in The Independent, some guests may have boiled their underwear in that kettle, leaving a residue of nasty, potentially deadly, bacteria in there.

It’s an upsetting read. All my life I’ve walked into hotel rooms and headed straight to the tea tray to make myself cup after relaxing cup of tea in that kettle, never once considering that somebody may have boiled their undies in it. Well, the only stupid person is the person who refuses to learn, and that ends today: I’m never packing extra underwear again, this kettle thing is genius. As for the toxins, if so many of us wear underwear so filthy that it has to be boiled, we’re probably already resistant to a large variety of harmful substances. 

A kettle is efficient, and anyway, what are the options? Don’t say the hotel laundry service—who trusts hotel laundries? They probably just have a giant kettle down there. You could hand wash things in the bathroom sink, but that would mean putting your phone down, and that’s just crazy talk. No, the kettle is still winning. 

It’s also environment friendly. Remember that the wars of the future will be fought not over whether or not the finale of Season 7 of Game of Thrones was disappointing, but over water scarcity. That may sound unlikely when Houston and Mumbai are drowning, but flood and drought are flip sides of the same climate change coin, and climate change is upon us, good people. We must all do our bit to save the planet. My father once told me that when he was a young man, living in a rented box room and always in a hurry to get to work, he often saved time and resources by shaving with the same water in which he boiled his eggs. I think there’s an important lesson there that can be applied to underwear and teabags. The teabags would give the underwear a nice sepia colour, or just even out the sepia colour you’ve already given it, and panty backwash might add that missing je ne sais quoi to your tea.

Just kidding! It’s gross and dangerous, people, don’t boil your freaking knickers in the freaking communal tea kettle that other people are going to use for tea! I can’t freaking believe that we’ve got space probes analysing Jupiter, and chips the size of pinheads running the world, and we still have to write sentences like that.

On the other hand, as Jean-Paul Sartre and Marvin the Paranoid Android knew, humans are inexhaustibly horrible and disgusting, and they seem to become more horrible and disgusting when they’re at hotels and restaurants. Waiters spit in the soup, housekeeping staff wipe drinking glasses with the same cloth as the sink and sofa; guests defecate in wardrobe drawers, urinate in minibar bottles they leave in the minibar, leave unspeakable fluids on their mattresses, and poop in their towels; annoyed housekeeping might clean your bathroom floor with your bath towel; one person clogged up the toilet by sticking an entire rotisserie chicken into it, and one guy killed a monkey in his room. And those are just the stories that do get told.

What I'm saying is, the kettle is not necessarily the filthiest thing your hotel room has ever seen, but it could be the most dangerous. The obvious fix is to avoid tea and coffee altogether, and just pack your own hip flask. You can wrap it in lots of extra underwear.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

No country for columns

I’m only doing this out of duty

(Published on August 19, 2017 in Business Standard)

I’m tired and grumpy and I almost didn’t write a column at all, because my plan for the day was to lie under the dining table under a blanket, with my thumb in my mouth and my face in a sack of salted chips and a glass of something comforting. I’m only writing this out of a tiresome sense of duty, and to annoy the people who hate self-indulgent columns. I figure I’ll just list all the reasons why I’m tired and grumpy—literally list them—so that we don’t have to have a great whacking discussion about any of it, because I'm all discussed out, and so terribly sad about everything that I don’t know if my heart will recover, except that it always does, the stupid masochistic thing, usually just in time to get broken again.

Anyway, here goes, in no particular order:

Dozens of children died in a hospital in Gorakhpur because the hospital hasn’t paid the oxygen supplier’s bill despite multiple reminders. After first denying that the hospital had anything to do with this, the BJP public relations machine decided to look decisive by going after various hospital staff members who actually tried to make things better.

Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari’s term came to an end after a speech or two in which he said several true things about how Indian Muslims feel. His exit from office was marked by a pack of BJP-RSS leaders and writers gracelessly snapping at his heels with speeches and articles drenched in contempt, communally-charged insinuation, and gloating.

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar’s Independence Day speech was blacked out by Doordarshan and All India Radio on Prasar Bharti’s orders because Sarkar refused to “reshape” his speech to cut out the bits about People Who Weren’t Involved With the Freedom Struggle and the bits about a danger to the secular democratic fabric of India. When the story broke, the BJP public relations machine first spent a day flatly denying it, and then said Okay, we did it, but gravity of the nation sanctity of the occasion blah blah.

The Supreme Court called in the National Investigation Agency (NIA)—the guys who work on counter-terrorism and other national security issues—to get to the bottom of an interfaith marriage between two consenting adults.

A woman in Rajasthan was beaten, whipped, made to eat faeces, dragged by her hair, made to lie on a bed of embers, blinded by embers shoved into her eyes, and accused of witchcraft, by her relatives, over property. She died of her injuries. The police at first refused to register an FIR.

A pedestrian hit by a car in Delhi lay on the road for twelve hours before someone took him to the hospital. Many people approached him meanwhile, but only to rob him. One passerby gave him some water but took Rs 12 in return because, he said, nothing comes for free. 

I won’t say a word further, even though there is no shortage of things to add. This brief list suggests to me that it is a far, far better thing to lie under a table in a foetal position than to write columns that do nothing to slow down the acute case of political and social ebola that we currently seem to have. 

Nope, columns do nothing. What we really need is an Opposition. So I’d be grateful if it would kindly move from under the table, where it is taking up all the thumb-sucking, foetal position space. That’s my spot. 

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Privates on parade

The fundamental right to privacy matters fundamentally

(Published on August 5, 2017, in Business Standard)

For reasons best known to themselves, the mighty Indian people consistently fail to put me in charge of our great country. My candidacy has been low key because of my idle recreational commitments, but still, this is very unfortunate. Now we have a colossal jobs crisis, Amit Shah’s bank balance is 300% fatter than when he came to power, the national drink is cow urine, the Chinese are getting fresh with us, only the courts stand between us and Death Eaters, and the place is generally going to the dogs. I’m not bitter or anything, but it serves the mighty Indian people right. They don’t seem to know a good thing when they see one.

And apparently they don’t know a bad thing when they see one either. Just look at the number of people who think it’s fine to say that Indians have no fundamental right to privacy, and that it’s okay to have to link your Aadhaar number every time you sneeze. What have you got to hide, they ask? You’ve got a smartphone and a Facebook account, why are you suddenly concerned about privacy? Why are you standing in the way of development? What about Malda?

None of these people get the following basic concept: Choice/consent, o mighty Indian people, fundamentally changes the nature of your actions and how you feel about them. For those who think this idea is overrated, here’s a laundry list of things with and without choice/consent. In each case, see if you can identify the option that includes choice/consent, and which option you naturally prefer. 

Your wardrobe, vs prisoner uniform. Sex vs rape. A volunteer army vs a conscripted force. Signing up for Facebook vs signing up for Facebook at gunpoint. Reading out bits of your diary to your friends, vs your friends stealing your diary and uploading it on the Internet. Coming out to your parents when you’re ready, vs your trusted confidante telling your parents behind your back. Locking your jewellery in the bank locker, vs locking your jewellery in the bank locker and having the manager allow a bunch of companies to borrow and rent out your jewellery for profit. Enjoying a bit of a flirtation, vs being stalked. Standing for the national anthem because you show patriotism that way, vs standing up for the national anthem because you’re terrified of being arrested or beaten up if you don’t. Executing a bungee jump after being appraised of the risks, vs being pushed off a bridge. 

How did you do?

Long-time readers of this column can testify that I am the absolute, no-contest empress of oversharing. But I’m also nutso-style private about what I don’t choose to overshare. Choice/consent is everything. We also have the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy. We should be able to make a phone call without worrying that someone is tapping the phone, or travel without reporting our movements. Our tiffin boxes should not endanger our lives. 

All this amounts to the right to be free and left the hell alone. Privacy obviously cannot be an absolute right. But the state must be made to meet a stiff legal standard to justify any encroachment on it. 

People who pooh-pooh privacy are like those kids who are so busy getting the right selfie that they back all the way off the edge off the cliff, and then look all surprised on the way down. I’d be quite pleased to watch them go if the rest of us weren’t also being backed off the same cliff, but at gunpoint.

I remain available to be sworn in whenever you come to your senses, o mighty people of India. I’m very good at swearing. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Wtf week: Pass the sphygmomanometer

The news will give you high blood pressure

(Published on July 22, 2017 in Business Standard)

The other day a friend of mine declined a second cup of coffee. My blood pressure is high, he said. I snickered at him for a bit before admitting that mine might be too. He said that if I didn’t see a doctor, he would tell my mother. I said I’d already told her, so nyahnyahnyah. Our maturity counts were clearly still low, but he made me go upstairs and fetch the sphygmomanometer, technically known as ‘that BP measuring thingy’.

Neither of us liked our first results, so we made it best of three. Another friend joined us just as we were being forced to move it up to best of five, and by the time a fourth friend showed up, we were just passing the thing around with grim focus, trying to beat each other’s measurements. At some point we acknowledged the sorry distance we have travelled between passing the beer and passing the sphygmomanometer. But we can’t be blamed for being jumpy and short-tempered.

Take just this week or two. This week, the Supreme Court began to hear arguments for and against having a fundamental right to privacy. I know, right—who on earth would even want to argue, in the year 2017, that Indians don’t have a right to privacy? The Indian government, that’s who. Indian government, why can’t you just not be evil? Watching the live tweeted proceedings, I chewed my fingernails to bits.

This same week, I read about a 10-year-old child who is 26 weeks pregnant from being repeatedly raped by her uncle. The district court in Chandigarh has refused to allow the one child to abort the other child, because rules. The legal abortion ceiling is 20 weeks, except for in certain exceptional circumstances. Apparently the learned judge does not consider being raped into pregnancy at 10, an exceptional circumstance. At this, my precarious exercise routine completely collapsed.

Then there was a cringe-inducing reaffirmation of class and caste barriers at a residential complex called Mahagun Moderne. A resident allegedly mistreated and abused a domestic worker, whose infuriated allies stormed the complex and threw stones. Union Minister Mahesh Sharma, a professional champion of the over-dog, put his arms around rattled residents and swore that he will ensure that the poor migrant workers never get bail, and that his party workers give them a “befitting reply”. (Translation: ‘Judiciary? What’s that?’) My sinuses immediately began to hurt and fill with goop.

And finally, India is being steadily and scarily militarised. The penniless tycoon, Ramdev, is creating a private security guard service to, as he said, “help develop military instinct in each and every citizen of the country so as to awaken the spirit and determination for individual and national security”—or, as he didn’t say, raise a militia. Pravin Togadia and his pop-veined Vishwa Hindu Parishad are training 5000 “religious warriors”. And the Prime Minister’s Office has asked the Human Resource Development ministry to incorporate some elements of military schools, i.e. physical training and patriotism, into regular schools. If students at Nalanda had had this training, said a minister of state for HRD, they would have foiled Bakhtiyar Khilji’s plan to plunder and destroy that great, ancient university. That caused my eye to erupt with a stye.

So I’m ending this week fat, bloody-fingered, stuffy-nosed, and swollen-eyed, all because of the news. But now is nothing. Pretty soon we’ll have private ragtag armies ricocheting around the subcontinent, inventing wrongs to right by sword and gun, all of it sanctified by Nationalism, India’s brainless new god.

I’m saving my sphygmomanometer battery for then.

Lunatics, zombies, and jerks

Helping people drop dead prematurely since the dawn of mankind.

(Published on July 8, 2017 in Business Standard)

Have you noticed how innocent people are forever expiring prematurely? Healthy as horses, dead as dodos, not their fault, very sad. One of the leading causes, according to a statistic I just made up, is competitive fundamentalist religion. Religious lunatics, who think their imaginary friend is better than other people’s imaginary friend, are constantly causing people who may or may not have imaginary friends to drop dead. And they do it in creative ways—spigots of blood, hangings, beheadings, stabbing, stoning, flaying, crucifixion, heads on pikes, dismemberment. They tear babies out of wombs with swords, barbecue people alive, fly them into buildings, gas them, blow them to smithereens, gun them down, poison them. They broadcast fake news to WhatsApp zombies and let the madness begin.

Each religion tries to beat the other religions, mostly literally. They all have that competitive killer instinct that sports coaches are always looking for. It makes them lynch and bomb each other—the fundamentalists, I mean, not the coaches—and throw money and training at their own best guys. They sometimes mean to kill innocent bystanders, and sometimes kill innocent bystanders even when they don’t mean to, because their aim is bad in all senses of the word. But even great talent needs nurturing. What they require is the environment, and the encouragement, to do better, to be better.

The time has come, my fellow citizens, for us to pause in our selfish little lives, take a breath, and contribute to creating this opportunity for fundamentalists to achieve their full potential. Since we already have a sports metaphor stretching to breaking point above, I propose a Religious Olympic Games.

I envision a huge religious fundamentalist competition, sponsored (obviously) by arms dealers. Let us assemble the batshit crazy of the world into vast arenas, and give them the time and space to share their thoughts and feelings with each other without inconveniencing the rest of us. Let them mill about in the confines of a series of enormous, blood-absorbent stadia, thoughtfully located in the heart of nowhere. We will supply them weapons and energy bars, lock the doors, and let them have at each other. The rules are simple: the last person standing has the best imaginary friend. That’ll be good, since they won’t have any real friends left.

To chivy this process along, I suggest that we also lock in those jerks in politics who like to fan the flames of violent religious competition. They excel at it and will deeply cut the time needed to extinguish all human life in the stadia. Since they too need incentive, we’ll announce a simultaneous competition for electoral dominance. One selfless organiser sitting at a remote computer terminal somewhere will have to manipulate the voting results, live-streamed on a large screen in the stadia, to keep the hacking, lynching and bombing going at as high a rate as possible.

The Religious Olympics Games will solve two problems at once: The last pious lunatic can pick his or her way through body parts to finally own the victory podium (which will consist only of the gold—no runners-up) and spend the rest of his or her life being excruciatingly smug and preachy to a bunch of decomposing human remains; and we’ll have gotten rid of the whole bunch without getting ick on our hands. It’s win-win all the way!

Then the rest of us can get back to doing whatever we have to do to get through this vale of tears—commune privately with god, make art, sell ball bearings, drink—without dying prematurely at the hands of lunatics, zombies, and jerks.

I even have a Games motto lined up: Altius, citius, fortius, quitbotherius.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Enlightenment in the hills

Fireflies in Kangra, teachers in Shimla

(Published on June 24, 2017 in Business Standard)

So there I was, sitting on a lightless porch in blackness thickened by the garden beyond. All around me was Lucifer, the shining one—but only in the shape of luciferin and luciferase, two of the chemicals in the chemical-rich posteriors of fireflies. Their reaction with oxygen creates those tiny winking lights that bejewel summer nights.

Except when the bugs are upset. A friend gently trapped some fireflies in a jar, and they began to rapidly flash their bottoms. (Not like that—don’t be so juvenile.) It’s a strobe-like distress signal. A bunch of other fireflies showed up and made uncertain flybys past the jar, now pulsing like a tiny disco. I’m not sure what they were planning to do for their fallen comrades—flash them some solidarity? break them out of jail? Maybe some were just rubbernecking.

The inner thoughts and feelings of fireflies are important questions when you’re out of the large flashy posterior we call Delhi. I’ve been roaming around in the hills, in cloud and rain and shine, under cedar and oak and starlight. I haven’t clapped eyes on a newspaper in eleven days, and it has improved my health. The other day I spent my day observing classes in a school in Shimla, and that considerably improved my mood—plus, I had an epiphany.

I always maintain that not always, but often, the difference between a free citizen and a bag of meat shuffling along behind a guy with a purse/totem/whip, is teachers. The classroom is a madly exciting space in which young people discover the potential and value of their own minds. Probably even the tiny fellow who spent the whole class staring at me with his mouth open. I wouldn’t bet the house on him, but still.

Madly exciting, that is, for the teacher. Imagine being able to introduce someone to the idea of thinking for herself, without immediately being accused of being a paid Italian slave! This is a strange but pleasant new idea. As I went from class to class, enjoying the delicious soup of student vibes—eagerness, intelligence, timidity, uncertainty, relish, rowdiness, shy affection, and the inevitable bouquet of bodies fresh from the soccer field—I found myself contemplating the never-before thought that perhaps it might be fun to teach.

It’s a never-before thought because I have horrible stage fright. My heart starts hammering, my voice gets squeaky. And yet this time, in class, I had no trouble talking—in fact, I may have had trouble shutting up. That’s new. Maybe it’s because I no longer experience kids only as annoying little frights. All I see is dramatic irony with aromatic armpits. For all their freshness and brilliance and creativity, they seem like innocent little accidents waiting to happen, and thank god somebody takes the trouble to help install, in their brains, the equivalent of a seat belt and an airbag. Maybe also a sick bag. And a bullshit detector. And a critical alarm light. And a toolbox and manual to maintain and repair their own engines… You get the drift. 

Shaping an open, curious and compassionate mind that is also fortified against manipulation is no easy task. I have no idea why they imagine that 12 years of schooling is enough. I’m thinking that 30 should do it. That’s probably why my schoolteacher career is dead in the water.

Anyway, I’m back in the boiling summer plains now, fireflies and shawls and moist forests just a wistful memory, so if you need me, just look for a woman zig-zagging around the place, rapidly flashing her bottom. (Not like that, don’t be so juvenile.)

Friday, June 16, 2017

The connection between drinking and horrible news

Never have I wanted a stiff drink more.

(Published on June 10, 2017, in Business Standard)

Timing is everything, and mine is awful. I can only ever think of a question to ask after the discussion panel has disbanded. I wear a boot cut when everyone is wearing skinny jeans. I decided to start drinking like a troubled teenager just when my peers had begun to buy houses and stay up late doing their kids’ homework.

But worst of all, I decided to stop drinking like a troubled teenager for a couple of months, just before news came in of children getting blown up at a concert in  The news then went on to behave like a faulty firecracker, shooting all over the room sparking crazily, as if it had short-circuited from all the weird bad stuff it had to report.

For example, the government said it cared deeply about cruelty to animals, and banned across India, except in places that like to eat beef and are about to vote. (It is probably upset with Kerala, which told it to take a running jump between mouthfuls of beef curry.)

A Rajasthan High Court judge said, Dear god, Indian people, can you believe I’m a High Court judge? The actual words he used were about how peahens get pregnant by drinking peacocks’ tears, but same thing.

A woman in Haryana was gang-raped, and rode home on the metro clutching the corpse of her baby, which her attackers had thrown into the road because it was crying. Also in Haryana, two men raped a woman and then bashed her skull in with a brick.

In Madhya Pradesh, police shot and killed five farmers who were protesting, in a creative interpretation of the government’s #JaiKisan hashtag.

In Delhi, the CBI raided the properties of the promoters of NDTV, which is arguably the only news channel still critical of the government. In the aftermath, published a column urging Indian media not to be so craven, and urging Indians to take to the streets to protest creeping authoritarianism and defend our liberties. You know things are bad when a Pakistani newspaper is irritated by our cowed media and our sheeplike acceptance of ‘religious fascism’.

member of the legislative council in Jammu started a campaign against momos, because while they might look like wildly popular little lumps of snacky deliciousness, the legislator knows that they are wicked addictive drugs that will corrupt and sicken our youth.

To top it all, there was a hideous story from the UK of a four-year-old autistic little boy whose mother died suddenly at home of an epileptic fit, and who himself starved to death in their flat, clinging to her decomposing body.

Now you tell me if the world cannot stand a little biochemical softening of the edges. There’s a reason grownups are allowed to drink. Here I am, having swapped psychic haleness for physical health, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not that great a deal. One is trying to be an upright citizen with a fresh-faced liver, in full possession of her faculties, but if ever one has needed a stiff drink, it has been in the last sixteen days, fifteen hours and twelve minutes at the time of writing, not that I’m counting.

A troublesome neighbour, who is directly responsible for my temporary abstinence, keeps trying to lure me back into temptation by offering gateway drugs like soft drinks. I’m staying strong, but I suspect this will be more possible if I make the odd exception. So I won’t really be drinking until July, or until tomorrow, whichever seems more reasonable in the moment.

This teetotaling thing is a breeze.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why so serious? Lessons in laughter from the Dalai Lama

Loosen up

(Published on May 27, 2017 in Business Standard)

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is a fabulous old egg. People of consequence tend to be a bit buttoned up, but he wears his eminence—wise learned monk, political firebrand, spiritual leader—like the lightest of cloaks. Everything he says comes with a gleeful ‘khi-khi-khi’, or a hearty guffaw. At almost 82, he jokes that after this life he might wind up downstairs rather than upstairs, khi-khi-khi! He takes the most infectious delight in everything. His ability to see the funny side of things is what makes him a truly enlightened chap, at least to my atheist eyes.

His Holiness could easily play up the gravitas. I mean, hello, he is revered as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara, the embodiment of compassion, who sticks around in this vale of tears to serve those who are suffering when he could perfectly well be relaxing in Nirvana. Of all spiritual leaders on earth, of all the godmen and sadhus and cardinals and imams and rabbis and shamans, he is arguably the most loved. From exile in India, he keeps the Tibetan cause blazing on the world radar. He could take himself very seriously indeed—hundreds of millions of people do, after all.

Instead, he is a joyous, laughing beacon of dissent, both political and spiritual. Like the Buddha—that most fabulous of all old eggs—he speaks of the vital importance of not deifying people or teachings, of not following mindlessly; of the importance of engaging in critique, questioning, independent examination, and independent practice. He’s interested in testing the old scriptures against science, and in updating them where necessary. In other words, he’s loving, humble, rational, secure, intellectually and spiritually adventurous, and he’s got a wicked sense of humour. No wonder he’s so loved.

It’s enough to make you want to leap into his lap and hug him forever, while making side-eyes at the dreary gargoyles who are currently celebrating three years of buttoning up India so tightly that nobody can breathe.

All that these gargoyles seem to know how to do is bow and scrape before gods and men and scripture and each other, all the while speaking of pride; tom-tom each other’s manliness and strength, all the while being too frightened to utter a word of dissent. All they do is impose with violence, what they cannot achieve with argument.

And, my god—and please read this in a very shouty voice—they have no sense of humour, like, none! Everything is just so terribly sacred and pompous and self-important and fearsome and worshipful! If they weren’t such stuffed shirts, they might admit how ridiculous they are, achieving the opposite of everything they aim for. 

Newsflash: You can’t love your country by oppressing your countrymen. It’s stupid to be proud of made-up ‘facts’. Stamping out questions is the opposite of education. Having a huge digital surveillance system isn’t the same as being modern. You can’t respect women by calling them goddesses and treating them like chattel. You can’t terrorise and kill people over cows and expect the world to admire your traditions. You can’t be pious by being hateful. You can’t enforce respect, it has to be earned. 

The problem with being too serious is that you can’t see when you’ve tipped over into absurdity. It’s just silly to puff up your chest quite so much when we’re all going to end up as small piles of ashes and dust.

But you can expect everyone else to laugh until their sides hurt, because laughter is a natural response to absurdity. I’ll probably still be laughing well into the alleged afterlife—probably downstairs, khi-khi-khi.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

RSS and the art of manufacturing super-babies

Is it a short baby? Is it a dark baby? No, it's an RSS super-baby!

(Published on May 13, 2017 in Business Standard)

Canadian singer is visiting India just as India is talking about babies, though not as many babies as in Justin’s superhit ‘Baby’. Nothing reflects the zeitgeist like horrible teenage pop.

I’m no baby lover. I have had none myself, despite some close shaves. I have been a useless aunt in terms of babysitting, and in all the other terms in which one can be an aunt. I can’t wait to get to life’s reproductive checkout counter and exchange my fertility for a small beard.

The reason for my sluggish maternal instinct was precisely put by American writer Jean Kerr: “Now the thing about having a baby—and I can’t be the first person to have noticed this—is that thereafter you have it.”

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate children. They’re cute as buttons, and nothing is as interesting as a child before its native genius is schooled out of it. But let’s face it: I don’t like the short, dark, dumb ones. Who does? Certainly no self-respecting Ary—I mean Ayurvedic, people. This is why I am so delighted, as a patriot, that those amongst us who are most dedicated to social work and nation-building have taken on the challenge of turning short, dark, skinny, dumb Indians into taller, fairer, better-built, smarter…Germans, I guess? Or Norwegians? No matter—they’re all Hindus anyway.

If you’re a short, dark, skinny dumbo who had a hard time finding someone to marry, you can give your children a leg up on the marriage market and in life by turning to the Garbh Vigyan Sanskar (Uterus Science Culture) project, the brainchild of the Arogya Bharati, the health wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). They will help you have not just babies, but better babies. If you have already had the great misfortune of birthing a short, dark, skinny, dim replica of yourself, you will have to keep him/her—hello, we’re not barbarians—but then you can try to have a better baby, and who’s to know which one you take better care of? We’ve been doing this with boys versus girls for ages.

Members of the have, in the past, demonstrated their scientific temper by covering their cell phones in cowdung; saying that cows both inhale and exhale oxygen; and warning that girls who study past 10pm are immoral. I’m no doctor, but the science behind manufacturing super-babies sounds similar: have sex when the right planets are lined up; stop having sex after you get pregnant (according to Arogya Bharati’s Dr Ashok Kumar Varshney, a PhD in biochemistry, it’s “suicidal for the mother and the baby”); and have the pregnant mother chant shlokas and mantras. All of this apparently repairs faulty genes, making Jatin look more like Justin. Western science can engineer genes in petri dishes; India can engineer racist pride right in the womb.  

Arogya Bharati has tried to help Indians manufacture proper fair babies ever since they got the idea from Germany in the 1940s. You can’t really tell this from casting your eye over the Indian population, but these things take time. Luckily the will be around for a while.

Speaking for myself, I’m glad to be off the baby-making hook—or, as Shashi Tharoor might have said, exultant to have eternally recused myself from viviparously nurturing minuscule iterations of Homo sapiens despite my biologically enhanced capacity to perform the function of distaff ancestor.

I don’t know why people make fun of the guy. If my didn’t come with a super vocabulary, I’d want my money back.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Our guys, their gais

Waiter, there’s a cow in my everything.

(Published on April 29, 2017 in Business Standard)

If I unexpectedly had five minutes of the government’s undivided attention—thoo, thoo, thoo—I would tell it just this one thing: Guys (if you will pardon the expression), the cow thing has gotten completely out of hand.

I don’t mean out of hand as in, how people are killing other people over cows. Nobody in the government cares about that. Nor do I mean how every cow is getting an Aadhaar number, though even lots of humans don’t want one—the government thinks that’s a good use of time and money. I don’t mean how killing a cow can get you life imprisonment in various states. Those state governments like the idea. It’s not about how people are checking other people’s tiffins for beef, since nobody is more into monitoring tiffins than the government. Forget that we’re going to open a retirement home for elderly cows in every district. The government really wants to. And I certainly don’t mean how, despite all this, people in the northeast can go ahead and slaughter and eat beef to their hearts’ content—the BJP is eyeing elections there next year, so cows can take a hike, which tells you a lot about the relationship between cows and votes.

No, what I mean, guys, is that the cow thing, and by ‘thing’ I mean all the stuff mentioned above—the cow thing makes you look straight-up ridiculous.

Ignore, for a moment, the insignificant outrage of your own citizens, and look at India through the eyes of the world. The world sees a giant nation with giant potential, bedevilled by hideous poverty and suffering, in desperate need of healthcare, education, jobs, and infrastructure, looking to the government to deliver development.

And what does the world see the giant nation doing about it? Putting cows front and centre. Cows on the street, cows in the newspapers, cows in television studios, cows in election campaigns, cows in the law. Cows everywhere except on our plates.

If I were the world, I’d back away quietly, being careful not to make any sudden moves.

Not that the world is going to come out and say that. The world will rock back on its heels and stroke its chin and keep up a polite rumble about markets and investment and potential and so forth. But later, over drinks by itself, it will say: That India—interesting country, big market, but my god, talk about loony tunes.

Guys, you’re going to say, Who cares what the world thinks? We’re the best, it is our destiny to lead the world, look, everyone’s doing yoga, everything the world has was originally ours.

But let’s get real—you care deeply what the world thinks, because you have a massive insecurity problem. You suspect that maybe you aren’t the best, and you suspect people of sneering at you. Even some of your own people, who see this whole thing as cowboys versus Indians. You hate being sneered at—it makes you crazy. The crazier it makes you, the crazier you act, and then the more people sneer at you. It’s a problem.

The world will probably just hold its nose and take crazy in its stride, as it always has, dealing with all kinds of shady people as long as it can make money off them. It’s possible that you won’t care that it is holding its nose—but I doubt it.

So you might want to course correct the whole cow thing. It makes you look as if you can’t lead us, let alone the world.

That’s what I would say. But it would probably be a total waste of five minutes.