Saturday, October 30, 2010

The case of the missing attribution*

*This week, for the first time since its inception in August 2006, Stet was not published in Business Standard's weekend edition (October 30, 2010) . You'll find the likely reason for that in the second-last paragraph of the spiked column, reproduced below.

Update November 2, 2010: Business Standard's view that the post below was too dated to run is utterly unpersuasive, and I'm afraid I don't believe it. They also say that since this post was put up on the blog, along with comments about BS, the question of carrying it in the paper does not arise. We shall have to agree to disagree on this whole thing, and I will write a post about that in a few days; but meanwhile, I have terminated my arrangement with them with immediate effect. As of this week, Stet will no longer appear in Business Standard.

Given my own recent battle with the effects of long-haul travel, I have great sympathy for Aroon Purie. Jet lag is the worst. Did you know that sleep deprivation can give you Type II diabetes, heart disease, and plagiarism? It’s a real tiger-nado of a bummer.

Aw, I’m being unfair. It wasn’t Aroon Purie himself who copy-pasted large bits of Grady Hendrix’s Slate article on Rajnikanth into the ‘Letter from the Editor’ in India Today’s infamous southern issue on Rajnikanth. It’s complicated. Somebody sent somebody something and somebody got confused and, well, oops.

Except that it was Aroon Purie: his name is right there at the end of the letter. Allegedly he rarely writes his own editor’s letter—it is generally either drafted or entirely written by someone else, and he makes changes ranging from the minor to the major. The problem is that, no matter who put those words together, the buck stops with the name at the end of the piece. You would think that an editor might therefore either stick to writing his own pieces or care about his credibility enough to check what he’s putting his name to. If he doesn’t, it’s his mistake.

It is therefore ungracious for him to try to publicly pass-the-buck-without-passing-the-buck. If he has seen fit to be credited for lots of editorial letters that don’t ever mention “inputs from Delhi”, he shouldn’t suddenly mention them to explain this one—which, unfortunately, is the one he’s likely to be remembered for.

His weaselly apology tried a breezy, jokey style (“Jet lag is clearly injurious to the health of journalism”) to lay out an excuse that effectively hollowed out the mea culpa. It would have been more worthy of respect if he had said “Dear readers, I have unfortunately lifted half my letter from the editor from Slate magazine, and I’m sorry, and it will never happen again.” If he were truly interested in integrity, he would add, “Also, I’ve been outsourcing my letter from the Editor—what kind of Editor does that?—and that will never happen again either.” As a journalist friend of mine put it, those weekly letters are ghostwritten as if they’re speeches from a CEO, not letters from the Editor.

The total lack of surprise or shock about all this in the journalist community is the best indicator that Indian media is in crisis as far as integrity is concerned. Amongst other crimes such as those listed in the Press Council of India report which nobody in the media wants to talk about, is rampant plagiarism. Nobody in the media wants to talk about that either. It’s not as if ours is the only media in the world with big problems. But when ours is confronted with its own scandals, you can hear the clang of a fraternity closing ranks, followed by the weird sound of thousands of furious back-scratchings, followed by the thunderous silence of stones not being thrown in glass houses.

Everyone is human, so screwups are going to happen. Nobody is infallible, nor is anyone expected to be infallible. There are genuine cases of faulty memory and communication gaps and plain sloppiness. Unequivocal apologies can and should be made. But we’re at the point where it has become so commonplace to plagiarise in small and big ways that to many journalists it’s no big deal, and that’s the point at which we’re in trouble. Getting caught is not embarrassing enough yet—the media still mostly chooses to tiptoe around the doo-doo on the carpet, trying to be polite to whoever put it there. When we become a profession that respects itself enough to hang plagiarists out to dry, we will be a profession we can be proud of.

Off the books*

All that the Shiv Sena had to do was to get one its youngest pups to bare his milk teeth and let out a couple of tentative yips, and Mumbai University fell to its knees, gibbering with fear. My chest is fairly swelling with pride in the efficiency of that institution: the Vice Chancellor took Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such A Long Journey, off the syllabus within twenty-four hours of being yipped at about how it is offensive to Marathis and the Shiv Sena.

Of course, the Shiv Sena is not to be trifled with, since its critical mass of brainless morons have always believed that the sword is mightier than the pen, and hold that vandalising property and beating up people is an attractive alternative to all that fussing about with democratic debate. The Sena is by no means the only collection of brainless morons (see the MNS, the Ram Sene, the Bajrang Dal and so forth), but it is one of the most tediously consistent bullies.

The case of Rohinton Mistry is not a call for a ban, merely a specific veiled threat directed at a university curriculum. The Sena’s lawyer says that the notion that the university acted under any kind of duress is merely an assumption. But it’s a fair assumption that if the Vice Chancellor was not under direct political pressure, the university has responded with what Rohinton Mistry calls the ugly notion of self-censorship. That says something horrifying about the effectiveness of intimidation, or the cravenness of our institutions, or both.

Lucky Rohinton Mistry, though. I bet the sales of his book will enjoy a bump on account of this, because there’s nothing as magnetic to most people as a thing that has been deemed inappropriate for their consumption—especially if it is so deemed after ten years of being deemed perfectly appropriate.

The lawyer for the Shiv Sena said, on a television debate earlier this week, that nobody “in the right frame of mind” could possibly tolerate certain passages in Such A Long Journey. This phrase, a brick wall of absolutism, disallows the possibililty of dissent other than on grounds of—what? Inebriation? A bout of melancholy? Childhood abuse? All-out madness?

On the other side, people opposed to the Sena’s stand point out that the “objectionable” critical views of the Shiv Sena in the book are espoused by a fictional character who cannot be equated with Rohinton Mistry. They point out that the book tears into not just the Sena but also the Congress and all kinds of Indians. These arguments are as short-sighted as those of the Sena—yes, the character happens to be fictional, and is not the same person as Mistry, but what if this had been a work of non-fiction by Mistry, presenting Mistry’s take on Maharashtrian politics? What if it had focused purely on one political organisation? Would the Sena then be justified? And would the University cave in?

If the answer to that is yes, then we are indeed the kind of tinpot nation that artists and dissenters of all kinds like to leave skidmarks in as they shoot over the border (though in this neighbourhood that would have to involve getting on a plane). The fact that the Congress chief minister of Maharashta has thrown his weight behind the Sena is disappointing at best, and confirms only that no political party will stand up to a bully and stand up for the freedom of speech.

So I suppose it will be left to the artists and dissenters to keep writing, from wherever they’re writing, and for everyone else to keep reading. One can only hope that the rate of production and consumption remains too high for the tiny-minded to keep pace with.

*Business Standard said that they were uncomfortable using the term "brainless morons" because (wouldn't you know it) the Shiv Sena "could cause trouble for the paper". I told them to black it out, a la censor's pen, to make it clear that they were self-censoring. Unfortunately they changed it to "@&*#$" instead, and did not run that change by me. I wouldn't have approved it because a) it's cowardly and b) it's meant to cover for an expletive, and 'brainless morons' is not an expletive, it's a descriptor.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ode to jet lag

They say a clear conscience ensures
That despite all that mankind endures
By the harsh light of day,
It will all go away
With those eight healing hours of snores.

That’s why I can’t help but feel cheated—
So much that I Facebook and tweet it
In the wee, wee hours,
As one more night sours—
This jet lag has got me defeated.

GMT plus, oh, five and a half
Is my home—at this point, what a laugh;
By my boggy old sinus,
My body’s in minus,
And the difference is making me barf.

Travellers throughout the long ages
Have known what a journey presages:
You sit on a flight
For what looks like one night
But is really three days in two stages.

The result is this vampiric state,
An endless, penumbra-filled wait
For the sun to emerge
And bring on the urge
To rise just to disintegrate.

More non-incidental effects
Of these intercontinental treks:
And some constipation,
And other stuff much more complex.

It depends on one’s cosmology,
But for me, in this vile symphony,
The most terrible fate
I can delineate
Is being doomed to my own company.

I’d gnaw off my right arm to know
Of a good way to get this to go.
They offer you cures,
From sun shades to scores
Of tablets and potions; but show

Me a man who can shake off this feeling
(Of slowly and painfully peeling
The skin from one’s eyes
As one rigidly lies
Peering up at the inky-dark ceiling)

Before his own body’s decided
That the day that his long flight elided
Is made up at last—
And I’ll show you a past
Master of guff who should be derided.

They say uppers like Red Bull or Pepsi
Might help you to keep you in step—see,
But I hate ’em. Each noon
I collapse in a swoon,
In the python hug of narcolepsy

Each day I try staying up later,
And sleep with my phone on vibrator.
3am on the nose
I shoot out of repose,
As if jolted by defibrillator.

They say alternate carbs and proteins,
Baked chicken one meal, then beans;
You can try melatonin
Or a medical phone-in—
But there just are no good enough means.

Hoping to outwit time lag
Is like waving a karmic red flag.
As much as I moan,
One day per time zone
Is the rate of circadian drag.

So the fact is, dear reader, it’s crazy
To think you can just take the lazy
Way out of this hole.
My much-wanted goal
Remains distant, and fragile, and hazy.

The only available option
Is to implement the adoption
Of patience and rest
And hope for the best
And meanwhile just brew a decoction.

I must live in this temporal band,
And my body sure could use a hand.
But I’ll just have to lump it,
And get out my trumpet,
And cheer on my pineal gland.

At least it’s not getting much worse,
My modern day jet-setting curse.
But sleep-deprived minds
Make bad moves of all kinds—
Like, who wants to read lousy verse?

The Big Apple

The other week I joked that I was tempted to run off and become an illegal immigrant in New York. This week I’m serious. [Note to immigration officers everywhere: This is also a joke, sort of.] Some things about this city have changed—it’s noticeably cleaner and the phone booths that used to stand on virtually every street corner are gone. But I’m sitting in Times Square, using free public wi-fi, and if it’s a little depressing that the capital of sleaze now looks much more like Disneyland, it’s still wonderful.

New York is my ideal metropolis. This is how a city should look and work. Mass public transport, including a fabulously intricate subway that is rarely more than a couple of blocks away and that, by the way, was built in the nineteenth century; street lights that take pedestrians into account; friendly cops who will give you recommendations for where you might find a nice little place to eat; people and food from all over the world; a throbbing night life; and incredibly tolerant people. And if all this means you get a few crazies thrown in for free, so what?

I walked around Ground Zero for a bit, since it’s the precise epicentre of the history of the decade between my last visit and this one, and the defining event of my generation. It’s now a big construction site. (Quite literally next door is St Paul’s Chapel, which famously didn’t suffer even a broken pane of glass, and where people volunteered their time after 9/11 to provide food and massages to rescue workers, festooned with testimonials.)

It’s all quite moving, in the way that these things can be, and yet, a couple of nights later I was in a great little bar called the Stoned Crow, chatting with a native New Yorker who thought that everyone should get over themselves and turn the damn place into a mall, and why was it taking so long to build the new tower and the memorial? It’s good to be in a city where people can separate the law of the land and its founding principles from what we in India are pleased to call our sentiments. (And speaking of great little bars, that’s the other vital component of an excellent metropolis. I wish Delhi would stop thinking that every bar should look like a Greek dwelling with candles in niches.)

Of course New York is the temple of consumerism, but the real pleasure of being here comes entirely for free: the great parade of people from every conceivable country (I crossed Central Park in a pedicab operated by a young Tajik who claimed—dubiously—that there are only a hundred Tajiks in New York, and also that his real job was teaching physics in a university) of every conceivable shape, size, colour and sexual orientation, wearing every conceivable kind of clothing, speaking every conceivable language and working at every conceivable kind of job. I could spend all day, every day, hanging out on the street, people-watching. Joy, thy name is diversity. And although people have tried to persuade me for years that New Yorkers are rude and aggressive, I’ve never found a single one that was anything but pleasant and helpful.

So much as I’ve tried to resist my impulses, I can’t. This is it. Wish me luck as I prepare to move into my hovel inhabited by twelve other illegals from Bangladesh and the Ukraine and start my life over, bussing tables at Dunkin Donuts and dodging the law until I’m able to start my own drycleaning business.

[Note to immigration officials everywhere: I’m kidding! Or not.]

New York state of mind

The drive into Boston, Massachussetts from Logan International Airport was notable for one feature: crappy roads. But any smugness I may have felt about that had already been cancelled by the enormous picture on the front page of The New York Times that morning, which showed a stadium in Delhi looking like a bomb site that could just maybe double up as the venue for the swimming competition, if you don’t mind competing in floodwater.

The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games 2010 will take place in Delhi tomorrow, and I do hope everything goes well, because the CWG needs another fiasco like it needs a hole in the… oh, wait. But really, I’m just saying that.

I remember feeling all het up about the CWG not that long ago, but then, on a wi-fi enabled bus barrelling from Boston to New York down a silky interstate highway, I realised that I now have only a vestigial sense that there was once something, somewhere in the world, that was bugging me for some reason. I’ve been reading occasionally about collapsing beds and fake bombs in stadia and unsightly people being booted out of town, and I’m trying to care, but the sight of fiery fall colours under an iron sky, of concrete canyons, and fifty nationalities in one metro car, is beating outrage hands down.

The closest I can get is a tepid consideration of the schisms that have sprung up between Indians over the whole thing. We were a perfectly integrated country before the CWG came along—and by country I mean, of course, set of Facebook friends—compared to what we have become: cleft into rival camps of Cynics and Patriots. Either you have to hate everything about the CWG, or you have to love it blindly. It’s like the Montagues and the Capulets: you’re either for us or against us. Sick-of-cynicism and sickened-by-jingoism would duel at dawn, except that they’re not talking for long enough to make the appointment.

Being a champion of moderation—if not in my own life then in everybody else’s—I’m going to gently suggest that it’s possible to be fair: cheer the good stuff and jeer the bad stuff. This may be confusing, because it will no longer be possible to think of each other as either unremittingly pessimistic or blindly loyal, but why not give it a shot? Black and white are classics, but grey is such a beautifully textured colour.

The pavements around some parts of Delhi look great, and in some cases when I say ‘look great’ I mean ‘now exist’; parts of the Commonwealth Village and some of the stadia look good at least in the photographs; and the airport is a darn sight nicer than it used to be, stupid carpet notwithstanding. Organisers’ rampantly misused and mismanaged public funds, there’s third-rate construction in several places, and the excuse that it’s been raining is contemptible because our super duper Indian wisdom and science has warned for five thousand years that during the monsoon, it could well rain, so it’s probably best to get stuff done before it arrives.

There, see how easy that was?

But maybe this wishy-washy middle ground is only a side effect of an enthusiasm deficit. Partly, that’s because it’s been an emotionally exhausting haul to Sunday, October 3, and when one is plumb out of time, resignation sets in.

But mostly, it’s because I’m in New York City, and everything in the world pales by comparison. Good luck to the CWG; I’m taking a break from caring.

Born again in the USA

It’s been ten years since I made a trip to the US. The last time, in 2000, I was happily bewildered when they gave me a ten-year multiple entry visa despite the fact that I hadn’t grovelled, foamed at the mouth, nor indeed even asked. Yay, I thought, now I can go over whenever I like, for ten years! No more providing years of income tax returns and months of bank statements! No more feeling, in front of the visa officer, like a waste of space with a shady past despite having a spotless record with no instances of being jailed! I blew a year’s worth of my pitiful salary on that holiday—and of course never went again, on account of never having any money.

By the time you read this, I will be a week into my three-week trip there—this time in the south of the country. The only other time I’ve been in the south was during junior year in college, when three friends and I fled a nightmarish winter in Pennsylvania to spend spring break in the crown jewel of Louisiana: New Orleans. The heart of the action was on Bourbon Street, which at night lights up like a nuclear explosion and leaves visitors looking much as anyone caught in a nuclear explosion might.

Speaking of bourbon, that’s what the first week of my trip is about: a visit to parts of the American Whiskey Trail, which is a tourism initiative of the Distilled Spirits Council of the US. It involves lurching from distillery to distillery in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Going on wine- or whiskey-tasting trips is always a bit of a balancing act—one tries to keep it professional, but one is not all that big-built, and one’s blood volume is easily overwhelmed, and so one cannot guarantee that one will not wind up staggering around like Tallulah Bankhead, who allegedly could go through a bottle of bourbon in half an hour. According to a snippet in The Guardian, her last words were apparently “Codeine, bourbon” before she succumbed to the pneumonia she got from walking around starkers.

The point, though, is that what with the epic civic mess leading up to the Commonwealth Games, and the dengue and swine flu and malaria, and Kashmir, and the fact that income tax officers expect a bribe to hand you your refund, America is suddenly looking like a shinier, happier prospect than it has in the last ten years.

It is, after all, the land of milk and oxytetracycline-free honey. (They do have salmonella problems with eggs, and penicillin in pigs, but nobody’s perfect.) Does it feel much different than pre-9/11? I can’t tell you yet, since I’m writing this before I get on the plane on account of copy deadlines that don’t go well with whiskey tasting. All I know is that it’s a place where people go to seek refuge from whatever hideous combination of civic meltdown, disease and conflict they call home. I can imagine the relief and elation they must feel, those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, as they sight the Statue of Liberty gifted to America by the cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

I feel a bit the same way myself. I’m seriously considering getting a false moustache and melting into the vast crowd of illegal aliens from south Asia who traditionally drive taxis in New York. I could change the name of the column and start over. Yes indeed; the bright promise of being all that I can be might prove to tough to resist, especially when blotto. Watch this space.

[Note to immigration officials everywhere: I’m kidding.]

How to save the planet?

Bad news comes in threes, they say. In the last few days a friend’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer, another friend has lost her father, and a family has tragically lost a child. If this sort of thing is not actually happening to you, there’s nothing quite like a personal connection to bring it home with the full force of fear, tragedy or loss. There you are, living a perfectly happy life, and suddenly your insides are liquefied by shock, your mouth is dry, and your heart physically hurts. Your throat and eyes fill with tears, your head with questions.

Similarly, you might hear news of a friend’s success and feel the wildest elation. Or, depending on the kind of person you are, the aforementioned shock and horror—but let’s not go there for now.

The point is, you feel for other people. It’s called empathy, and all but the most interesting sociopaths amongst us have it.
In one of the many excellent animated talks on the website of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), economist and political advisor Jeremy Rifkin touches on the emerging science surrounding empathy (his latest book is The Empathic Civilisation; watch the ten-minute video, and also all the other videos, if only for the wonderful art).

In the 1990s, Rifkin says, an Italian laboratory discovered what are called mirror neurons in the brain. In tests, these light up when the subject observes another’s experience, essentially recreating that experience in the subject. In Rifkin’s words, “we’re soft wired to experience another’s plight as if it were happening to us.” The first drive, he says, is not aggression or utilitarianism, but sociability and affection—the drive to belong.

He traces the expansion of that empathic drive through history as technology and other factors shrink time and space, thus enabling empathy across ever-larger communities from tribes to religious groups to nation states. “Empathy is grounded,” he says, “in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life and rooting for each other to flourish and be.” Is it possible, he asks, to extend our empathy to the whole of the human race, and to the biosphere? Could the ability to do this prove crucial to saving the human species and the planet?

Good question. Then why do we bleed emotionally when someone we know suffers, but are much less moved by the suffering of large, anonymous groups of people? Perhaps some of it has to do with certain kinds of experience being alien to ours. Could an American heiress living in a Manhattan penthouse possibly feel for an Indian living in a discarded sewer pipe—could she go beyond merely acknowledging the injustice, or thinking ‘there but for the grace of god go I’, to really feeling the horror of hunger, discomfort, and insecurity? Possibly not. But could she at least, in her own way, imagine herself into as proximate a situation as possible? As we used to say when I worked at the travel magazine, Let your mind travel; your body will follow.

I’m no scientist, but I’ll stick my neck out and offer the thesis that, too often, lack of empathy—for the daily tribulations of discomfort, deprivation, illness, trauma, and loss—is a failure of imagination. Sometimes it’s an honest-to-goodness lack of experience; for instance, it’s almost impossible to empathise with the pain of jealousy without having experienced it. But more often, it’s a lack of willingness to do the work of finding personal resonance. Perhaps it’s also about psychic limits: there’s nothing attractive about pain, and empathy can be bloodying and exhausting.

But maybe fellow-feeling is the only way to translate need into action. I’d say it’s worth the pain.