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.