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.