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.)