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.