Monday, July 28, 2008

House help needed

“Let’s go to Parliament on the day of the trust vote,” I suggested to a friend, because I’m all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when it comes to our democratic institutions, even though I’ve been a few times before and should know better. “Okay, and let’s take a suitcase along with bank notes sticking out of the edges, and ask them sotto voce where we should put it,” he said, referring to the brisk trade in Members of Parliament in the days leading up to the vote of confidence in the UPA government.

We chuckled at our own silliness and trooped off to stand in a line roughly five kilometres long, full of other interested citizens patiently sweating and waiting their turn to watch which way the teetering Lok Sabha would swing. Would we have elections now, or a few months from now, an important difference that would impact the life of the nation exactly not at all? The suspense was unbearable.

A young lady in the line behind me was enrolled in the MIT School of Government in Pune, and interning for a BJP party member. “So you want to be a politician?” I asked her. “Oh yes!” she breathed. “Do you believe in what you’re doing?” I asked. “Oh no!” she breathed. I think she’ll be very happy.

Inside the hall, they were debating the Indo-US nuclear agreement, India’s dealings with the organisation known in some southern states as the YIYAYEYA, and the general wisdom of opting for nuclear energy.

Outside the hall, the line didn’t move for ages, and news came round that proceedings had been adjourned because honourable member A, thunderously denouncing the alleged horse-trading of MPs, had been perfidiously reminded by honourable member B that hon. member A had himself offered hon. member B a crore of rupees to vote a particular way, just recently, when hon. member A had visited hon. member B at his permanent residence in jail. No wonder Parliament has such high security: It’s to safeguard the country by keeping all the honour inside.

Not that security was too tight for two bags stuffed with bribe money to really, actually find their way into the august hall of the people, where MPs flung it around the room and screamed at each other so much that the people who decide these things decided to turn off the live camera feeds for a while so that the rest of the country wouldn’t have to throw up their typically modest dinners. My friend’s morning-time joke was, by the afternoon, about as funny as getting stabbed right in the honour.
It’s also difficult to understand why, in an institution where your right to speak and be heard is the basis of the whole institution, our MPs prefer to shout each other down rather than listen and respond. I suppose that when you can’t raise the level of the debate, you raise the volume.

Of course I might be misremembering things, because my time in the public gallery was spent using all of my brain cells to concentrate on not crossing my legs, which is the way that I naturally sit in a chair. Apparently, crossing your legs while you sit up there in utter silence, shows disrespect for the House. They hire people to stand in the gallery and watch, eagle-eyed, for crossed legs, and if you forget yourself, someone will come and uncross them for you, while shrieking MPs drink each other’s blood in the well of the House. If it weren’t for those alert leg people, the country’s dignity would be in tatters.

Everyone should spend a little time watching the proceedings in Parliament. At the very least, it will put any personal problems you have in perspective.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


For years together my sister has been complaining that I never come to visit her, forgetting that her typical evening consists of flying to Paris for a spa treatment and onward to Barcelona for dinner followed by dancing until dawn in Buenos Aires, while mine is spent fashioning a sliver of soap out of lime scraped off a wall, and standing in a tiny trickle of brown water between 7.30pm and 7.31pm in an effort to clean the lice out of my hair before settling down to a dinner of old roti seasoned with dust.

Some of that might be a very little bit exaggerated, but it is completely true that she complains about my not coming to see her. It’s really my loss, because she lives in very interesting places—at the moment, Shanghai. (In the time-honoured tradition of university undergraduates she enrolled in college to study medicine, but graduated with a degree in Chinese language and culture; her profession and personal life have kept her hanging about China and its environs ever since.) Anyway, I have resolved to go and see her this year after the Olympics are over, if I can sell enough little slivers of homemade soap to afford the fare.

Pretty much all I know about Shanghai is that it is a large port city with many gleaming skyscrapers and cheapo labour, and that it has lent its name to the verb ‘to shanghai’, which means to force someone to join up as a ship crew member by underhand means (and in general, by extension, to coerce someone into doing something against their will).

I also know, courtesy a Chinese government website, that “Most people in the city seldom worry about to be robbed when they walk on the streets while burglaries are also not easy to be heard, watched or read from media reports, say nothing of being killed by guns or pistols…Up till now,” adds the website in what looks like a direct poke in the ribs of the Delhi government, “people haven't got the news that foreign women insulted or hurt by criminals in the city. But still try to avoid to those unfamiliar places, such as small dark lanes, and the suburbs of the city. It won't hurt if a woman is accompanied with her colleagues, boyfriend or husband. After all, it is not a city of Eutopia.”

The site nevertheless warns against giving in to the temptations of drugs, gambling or commercial sex, because “Though policemen won't check your room unless they get your permission or have a search warranty, it will be wise enough for you to fence out from those troubles.” I once heard a story about a man who was executed on the spot during a train journey in China for stealing the laptop of a fellow passenger, so apocryphal or not, I don’t plan to get involved with searches, warrantied or not.

I will try and make some extra soap slivers so that I can also visit Beijing, which is the site of the Olympic stadium known as Bird’s Nest, and the Aquatics stadium nicknamed The Cube. These are both brilliant-looking bits of architecture, especially the former, which is at once beautiful and deeply disturbing. But that’s what you have to expect from artist-designer Ai Weiwei, who once curated an exhibition called “Fuck Off” (“Uncooperative Approach” in Mandarin) which included artists walking around town with blood dripping out of plastic tubes implanted in their viens, an artist wearing a diaper and floating down a river in a plastic bubble, and an artist cooking and eating a foetus.

Now that’s what I call a cultural revolution.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Secret service details

Information is power, and everyone wants as much of it as possible. Every self-respecting government in the world maintains an army of spooks charged with gathering intelligence to better serve the public interest. You’re probably familiar with the R&AW in India, the ISI in Pakistan, MI6 in Britain, and the FSB (previously KGB) in Russia.

What you may not know is that the largest and most efficient secret service in the world is a global all-volunteer force known as Friends of Friends (FOF). This vast, shadowy network of elite operatives—and they are all top-notch—elicits or intercepts sensitive information about friends and passes it on to other friends with the code words ‘I’m Sworn To Secrecy, I’m Only Telling You’. There is no greater public interest than in a service providing secrets, so Friends of Friends has evolved to be very good at what it does.

The information flow is so perfect that if it were a formal organisation it would have a Six Sigma rating. Its reach is limitless, since each contact relies on a bank of his or her own contacts, each of which represents an exponential increase in distribution on the previous point of origin. In this viral dissemination of classified, and preferably incriminating information, value is added at every step in the shape of creative embellishment and commentary, often making for a much better item than the original.

The whole thing is quite a lot like Amway, except that unlike Amway it does not suffer from stoppages or database erosion, because each FOF contact genuinely wants to get his or her hands on the product and pass it on, instead of wanting to stab the agent to death. The model relies on the social urge to live vicariously, pass judgement, appear to be closer to someone than their other friends, and, just out of intellectual curiosity, see what happens if you toss a flaming match into a tinderbox.

You might think you’re cleverer than that. You might think you can outwit the whole structure with conflicting information, or even keep things under wraps. But like all intelligence agencies, FOF have their ways of getting things out of you, around the world, and usually even back to you in a much different form, before the week is out. If you happen to be sitting on something that you should really, really keep to yourself, they will scent blood in seconds.

An operative disguised as one of your regular social circle will confuse you into entering an interrogation chamber that looks like a bar, and use their rigorous training in sympathy and affection to make you buy them large vodkas until you can’t take it any more. Believe it, pal: You will break down and sing like a canary, swearing them to secrecy all the while. And when you wake up the next morning they won’t have left any marks on your body, but everyone on the street will be looking at you funny.

It’s no use trying to fight them. But if there’s an upside, it is that in this field of intelligence, information flows democratically in any direction, so it’s quite possible to return the compliment if you’re in the mood for vengeance. Feelings of betrayal often cause the database of contacts to become realigned to the detriment of an offending party (people very seldom drop out of the system altogether).

FOF is always recruiting. The only qualifications required to join up for service are: 1. You must know at least two other people in the world, and 2. All three of you must still be breathing. Of course there’s one more thing, but it’s highly confidential so if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you. Unless you buy me a drink, and promise not to tell anyone else.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Over the rainbow

I’ve seen lots of spectacular rainbows, but have only ever been inside two. The first time was a few weeks ago, when the aircraft I was sitting in flew right through one. My window turned pink and indigo and yellow and green as the Alps drifted by on the other side; the whole thing was so magical that it almost made up for the horrible in-flight service, which consisted of stale chocolate wrapped in soccer-ball foil.

The second time was last weekend, in Connaught Place, when Delhi’s first-ever Queer Pride parade took place. Along and behind an enormous rainbow flag that is the international symbol of alternative sexuality, marched a few hundred people—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and supportive straights like myself—waving rainbow flags, carrying rainbow signs, and wearing rainbow face paint or rainbow masks.

Given that the average Delhi-ite is given to hissing “Indira Gandhi is out of Parliament!” to mean “Your bra strap is showing—step this way and kill yourself for shame”, the fact that Pride happened this year, and without incident, is a huge step for the city’s gay community. A rainbow-coloured friend had snorted that “We’ve been issued the standard NGO-type low-visibility route [from the Intercontinental hotel to Jantar Mantar],” but as it happened, the two-kilometre walk was anything but quiet: thumping drums, screaming cheers, booming slogans and a lot of self-affirming whistles and hoots made for a happily raucous procession.

The signs read ‘Down With Section 377’ and ‘Heterosexuality Is Not Normal, It’s Common’ and ‘Happy Homosexual’ and ‘Not All Females Are Women’ and ‘Proud To Be Lesbian’. Some people, including one friend who had threatened to come as a seahorse in heels, turned up in jeans and t-shirts; others were flamboyantly sequinned and glittered and eye-shadowed and bejewelled. The self-appointed Guardians of Indian Culture, some of whom were expected to show up in their knickers and prejudices, had stayed home, possibly in their closets. To everyone’s delight, some citizens who encountered the parade asked for a mask (which organisers had made available), so that they could join in without fear. Passersby on buses leaned out with their cameras, befuddled but interested. The cops escorting the march tried to look as bored as they could, and mostly managed not to giggle. I suppose it’s hard to resist a few friendly jokes (“Can I have a drag of your fag?” “Sure, take a poof.”).

There was a particularly happy little cluster around a sign that read ‘Proud to be Bisexual’. Queer Pride is a particularly good day for bisexuals, who are spend their lives caught between a rock and a hard place, seen as deviant by the straight community and waffling or indecisive by the gay community. A man-woman couple, both lapsed homosexuals, groused that erstwhile friends in the gay community wouldn’t talk to them now that they were seeing each other—which, if you think about it, is a pretty progressive kind of discrimination in a city like Delhi.

A few parents marched in support of their ‘out’ children. Most participants didn’t feel the need to conceal their identities, but as the organisers said at the concluding speeches, they were also marching for everyone who isn’t yet ready to come out, for everyone who cannot, and for everyone who chose suicide over oppression. A woman who is out to her friends but not her family, wondered whether or not it was time to tell her mother about her sexuality. “She might have to go on a cruise to relax a bit after that,” she said sardonically.

The five hundred souls who marched last Sunday are the very tiny little tip of an enormous iceberg; hopefully, when Queer Pride 2014 rolls around, they won’t need the signs saying ‘Drop 377’ anymore.