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.