Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ending 2015 on a good note

(Published on December 26, 2015 in Business Standard)

I’m usually thrilled to watch the taillights of a year disappear into the dustbin of history. But I’m smiling fondly at 2015, because of all the music.

I cannot live without music, and I wouldn’t want to. If it’s not playing around me, it’s playing in my head. I sing constantly, either out loud—a sound like a bee trapped behind a window, or an animal losing the will to live—or in my head, and I can put up with any amount of annoyance, inconvenience, or delay, as long as I can listen to music through it. Learning to play the guitar seemed like an obvious move.

But let’s face it: I’m an old dog, and playing music is an altogether new trick. It is deeply humbling to start from scratch, and have to learn to walk and speak all over again, in the early afternoon of your life when you’re supposed to be master of your ship, snoozing in the first class cabin while minions do the grunt work. But while one’s synapses are frayed, and one’s fingers clumsy, one can make slow, unsteady progress, even without a teacher. I really should have gotten a teacher.

I did at one point hire a random curly-haired youth who, in four lessons, made me realise that I was spending precious booze money on a chap whose musical ability was vastly outweighed by his ability to make me feel as old as the pyramids. I made a tough budgetary cut, and went back to learning from random curly-haired youths on the internet, who also make me feel as old as the pyramids, but for free. The result is that I haven’t gotten beyond the basic chord strum, nor been able to resist looking up chords rather than figuring them out by ear. I have written a bunch of horrible little dirges—which I have to be completely drunk to sing, and you need to be completely drunk to hear—and one fake-happy song. All in all, after three years of enthusiastic guitar playing, I still suck.

But I’m also still having the most fun I’ve had in my life. My guitar may well be a version of the midlife little red sports car, but my god, does it put a spring in my step and roses in my cheeks. Or maybe the roses come out of a bottle—whatever. The point is, it makes me feel the best a person can feel.

This last year I’ve also spent massive amounts of time sitting in bars listening to live music, and if there’s one thing I’ve discovered, it is that this city is filled with the most insanely gifted musicians. It’s a source of constant amazement to me that they walk amongst us, like normal people, without large signs around them declaring that they have magical powers in their fingers and lungs.

Also, and this is critical, musicians are the best people. Hanging around them can be exhilarating or exasperating, but it’s never boring. They’re all totally bonkers. My theory is that the bits of brain that allow people to make music are cannibalised from those bits of brain that allow people to match their socks. Some musicians you experience as a warm bath, some as a drive-by shooting, but they’re all mad fun.

So to all the people that I’ve been privileged to listen to, and to the hapless few with whom I play regularly, thank you for the music, you’re the best. Now I will sing a song for you. Wait, where’s everyone going?

Air today, gone tomorrow

(Published on December 12, 2015 in Business Standard)

It’s hard being a smoker who outrages over the quality of Delhi air. Once the hoots of derision die down, everyone looks at you as if your teeny tiny little cigarette is stealing their children’s future all by itself. Never mind that you’re already exiled to the lepers’ area outside, arm politely stretched over the edge of the planet, stealing the future of Martian children instead. Let me tell you something: Delhi air is so virulently poisonous that cigarette smoke is the clean stuff in it. Anyone will tell you that living in Delhi is the same thing as smoking a pack a day.

Not that I’m defending smoking. Smoking is very bad, children, don’t do it. There are all kinds of other really fun roads to self-destruc—I mean, may you live long and virtuous lives and eventually die in the natural way, of boredom, and have your children drive you to the cremation ground on whatever day works for their car number plate.

That is, if the Delhi Government’s number plate scheme—cars with odd number plates allowed to ply on odd dates, even number plates on even dates—lasts longer than the two-week trial scheduled for next January. I’m not even sure that we’ll last the full two weeks, because this is a country where people who can afford cars would rather choke on toxic air than give up the convenience of rolling out of their houses and into their cars for the thirty second ride to the market to buy books on how to get active and fit. I can’t see them standing around hailing autos or hoofing it to and from a metro, even in clement weather.

There’s been lots of talk about quick fixes, by which I mean outwitting pollution control rules, because creatively bypassing rules is the national forte. Rich? Buy two cars, one odd-plated and one even! Smart? Buy fake number plates! Morally flexible? Steal whichever car you need that day! Activist? Vote out the creeps who are trying to disrupt our lives! (Voters are widely known to be politically motivated.)

Many good arguments have been made for why the Aam Aadmi Party’s odd-even response is not the best solution, and they merit consideration. But listen people, we have to do something, because we care about our collective quality of life.

Hahahahaha! That’s hilarious.

Let’s face it: if we thought like that, we’d never have gotten to this point of emergency—we’d have cleaned up our air, water, and waste systems years ago. The fact is that widespread dying and astronomical health costs are probably less of a catalyst for action than global mortification. We’re more likely to get a move on because of really pressing issues, like the Chief Justice of India’s embarrassment about having to admit to Delhi’s pollution levels to the President of the International Court of Justice. The national image is at stake.

Admittedly I work from home, am fit enough to take public transport, and do the vast majority of my driving after 8pm, so the odd-even rule doesn’t freak me out. And frankly, pollution control was the one thing that I—and my asthmatic mother, whose doctor advised her to leave the city—wanted from the AAP, and they’re trying, so it’s a start.

The even better news for people like me, i.e. with ovaries, is that they’re thinking of exempting women from the odd-even rule, on grounds of safety. Who says that patronising patriarchy has no silver lining? I expect that other motorists will give us the evil eye, but that’s what sunglasses are for.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Incredible Indiahahaha

(Published on November 28 2015, in Business Standard)

Until recently, thinking of India made me smile fondly or bang my head against the wall, often at the same time. It was complicated, but one could recognise and process one’s feelings and describe them in words. Words were equal to the task. Words worked.

Now when I think of India, I smile fondly, bang my head against the wall, and then double over shrieking and yowling as I physically transform, Hulk-style. When I straighten up, my head has been replaced with a perfectly round, perfectly bald yellow laughing face, with two bright blue tears of mirth spouting from its laughing eyes.

This emoji is so much better than words that it was declared Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year 2015. They call it ‘Face with tears of joy’, but I call it ‘Hahahahaha I’m laughing so hard, I’m crying’.
This week my emoji head erupted when Bollywood superstar and Incredible India! brand ambassador Aamir Khan said that his wife Kiran was scared to read the papers, and she sometimes wondered whether they should continue to live in India, at which point the social media patriot monkeys began to hurl social media patriot monkey faeces at him. The lazier of them uninstalled the Snapdeal app that Khan represents.

My emoji head showed up when a real life lawyer filed a real life sedition charge against Khan in a real life court. I got emoji head when the Shiv Sena, the evil clown act in the right wing political circus, offered a Rs 1 lakh award to anyone who would slap Khan (prompting various wags to wonder whether they meant THE Aamir Khan, or just anyone named Aamir Khan, and whether only the first person to slap him got the dosh, and whether Kiran might pick up the award since she must want to slap him sometimes anyway on account of marriage being a difficult thing.) I got it again when the Shiv Sena’s Lucknow branch conducted a mock funeral for Khan. And again when BJP spokesman MJ Akbear said that Aamir Khan’s statement was ‘a moral offence’ and he was ‘dragging the whole country down’, thus ascribing magical powers to someone other than Baba Ramdev.

Waking up to suddenly find yourself transformed into a giant insect is positively humdrum compared to these levels of absurdity. Kafka’s ghost must be drinking itself into a stupor to numb its feelings of writerly inadequacy.

But then this is Incredible India!, where there is no such thing as ‘it can’t possibly get worse’. Shortly thereafter, Rajnath Singh got up on the floor of Parliament and said that Lord Ram was a true democrat because he addressed his subjects’ concern about Sita’s purity by making her undergo a trial by fire. Now listen, Rajnath Singh is not some gremlin on Twitter. He’s India’s Home Minister. He is among a limited number of people who really can drag the whole country down. When I was done doubling over and shrieking, I had not one but ten bald yellow laughing heads.

In the last many, many months, we have had more than enough demonstrations of how the BJP leadership and its most ardent supporters understand things like ‘democracy’, ‘patriotism’, ‘sedition’, ‘secularism’, ‘development’ and ‘progress’, to know that we really are being dragged down. It’s a form of poetic justice that a party that cravenly yearns for international validation under a pseudo-nationalist cloak is the party that is methodically turning India into the world’s laughing stock, statement by brainless statement. Imagine the whole world looking at India and developing emoji-head.

We should drag Kafka’s ghost away from its glass of spirits. It might be inspired to ghost-write something truly fantastic.

On second thoughts, perhaps that face means: Hahahahahaha I’m crying so hard, I’m laughing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Polls, trolls, and festival goals

(Published on November 14, 2015 in Business Standard)

That special heart-warming, all lit up, end-of-year thing is finally here. We really need it. For one thing, we almost had a national nervous breakdown last week as Bihar completed its state assembly poll. The election seemed vitally important—it was—even if it really wasn’t (it was). We had favourite teams. We staked our first-born babies on the result, especially those of us who don’t have babies. We lost a lot of national hair, from the national stress of waiting for the verdict on Sunday. Would Bihar tell the BJP where it can get off?

I woke up that Sunday, propped myself up in bed, and placed some essentials within an arm’s length orbit—tea, cigarettes, laptop, phone, water, and some alcohol just in case—to watch the results. The news channels were on some hideous Keystone Cops trip of misinformation, hubris, and backpedalling. First I was stressed out, then depressed, then confused, then lifted into a mood that I can best describe as yelling Neenee nana noonoo! while drinking single malt before noon. This is not a metaphor.

I felt as if a weight had lifted off my chest. And I fully plumbed the joys of Schadenfreude. I discovered my inner troll. I’m only just getting the hang of these Twitter terms, but I think it’s accurate to say that I spent much of the remaining day leaping out from under Twitter bridges—twidges?—and biting tweeple on the twankles as they paraded along into twitternity. (Now I know why the online Hindus do it: it’s deeply satisfying, especially following a long period of perceived oppression. If my alternative career as an Uber driver doesn’t work out, I might be able to find work on a troll farm.) Then, like countless others, I went out to celebrate. It’s no wonder that by Monday evening everyone was wiped out from the emotional roller coaster.

The other reason that we need that special heart-warming, all lit up, end-of year thing, is that if we don’t light stuff up, we’ll be bumping into the buildings. What’s with this yearly Diwali smog holocaust, people? My asthmatic mother, who is usually quite capable of emitting her own fire and brimstone, at this time of year lies around gasping like a fish on a marketplace slab. She watches PM 2.5 statistics the way other people watch the stock market (just so you know, this Diwali it peaked at 985 microns per cubic metre, when the WHO limit is 25, and the Indian government’s is 60). She’s maxed out on all her emergency asthma medication. If she has to step out, she wears a mask that would frighten Darth Vader. And she still struggles for breath.

She tries not to be in Delhi around Diwali, but that’s not always possible. This year she checked herself into a nearby hotel in the hope that their air conditioning system would filter out most of the crap in the air. You try explaining to hotel staff that you don’t need a car from the airport because actually you live across the road and this is an experiment in continuing to breathe.

I say ban crackers, rockets and bombs. Ban the sale and use of anything that makes noise, and/or produces more than minimal of smoke, and/or increases deadly particulate matter. Penalise non-cooperation with jail time and fines. The air we breathe is an emergency at the best of times; on and around Diwali, it’s anti-life. Oil lamps and sparklers are beautiful, so could you please consider that instead? All those messages that say ‘May the light of blah blah shine on your thingy’ mean less when you can’t read them through all the smoke.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Uma Bharti and the divine water isotopes

(Published on October 31, 2015 in Business Standard)

Did you imagine, o people of India, that the key to creating jobs, improving infrastructure, and lifting people out of poverty, would be to discuss cows until they come home? Now half the country is traumatised by the thought of cow-murder, and the other half is posting ‘Selfie With Beef’ to their Facebook profiles. Did you imagine, fellow citizens, that you would suddenly know this many authors, artists, academics and artistes, even though they aren’t helping to fix banking or sort out labour laws?

But that’s just the media, slavishly anti-Modi (#Presstitutes) even though it was quite recently slavishly pro-Modi (#FreedomOfExpression). Luckily, the country and its institutions carry on. Among other things, we retain the rigorous scientific temper to which we constitutionally aspire, according to our anti-Hindu Nehruvian western import of a constitution (#WakeUpHindus).

The minister for Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, Uma Bharti, has put scientists at the National Institute of Hydrology (NIH) in Roorkee on the job of figuring out where the river Ganga originates. We almost certainly know that the Ganga originates at Gaumukh, near Gangotri, if only because the NIH has an observatory nearby studying the river. There’s a ‘cow’ in ‘Gaumukh’. It all seems like a win. However, the minister thirsts to know if the river can be connected to the sacred lake Mansarovar in Tibet.

Mythology says that the great ascetic, Shiva, who lives there, broke Ganga’s furious descent to earth by catching her in his hair, and thus saved the earth from her raging floods. He held her in his matted locks, tamed her, and made her release her waters into seven streams, and if that’s not an ancient, proud Indian sex scene, I don’t know what is. In fact, I think there’s an exciting publishing opportunity in collating all the ancient proud Indian sex scenes from the scriptures and epics into a nicely designed little paperback series titled Spills & Boons, or Fills & Spoons or something.

At any rate, the minister isn’t going to take mythology’s word for it like some unscientific yob. Like all Taureans, she’s very determined. So the scientists are going to use water isotopes tracer technology to see if the Ganga can in any way be connected, via drifting molecules or whatever, to Mansarovar. Would proving this connection not give mythology the fillip it needs to create jobs, improve infrastructure, and lift people out of poverty? One of the NIH’s experts acknowledged, with magnificent restraint, that: “The new task is a challenging one as we are heading into a completely different direction.”

I have no idea what water isotopes tracer technology is. I think maybe it’s when scientists assemble in a lab equipped with cutting-edge dart boards and beer, and sit around playing cards and telling sociologist jokes for the duration of a reasonable science experiment, before releasing a statement saying, “Our results show that this has been a total hoot, and we would now like to apply for government funding to investigate the turning radius of Kartikeya’s peacock if it had to get away from Brahma’s pillar of fire at speed. Your turn to deal.”

I will say, though, that Uma Bharti’s is not the stupidest scientific experiment I’ve heard of. That would have to be the experiment that showed that rats cannot differentiate between Dutch and Japanese sentences when a video is played backwards to them.

But I’m nitpicking. The truth is that I’ve always had a big thing for Shiva. He’s romantic perfection—passionate, powerful, unavailable, good dancer. It’s straight out of Thrills & Moon. I’m actually okay with the government throwing money at him; I’ll just pretend that I’m tucking it into his loincloth.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bringing India to book

(Published today in Business Standard)

It’s gratifying to wake up to a newspaper featuring writers on page one. Yes, those awkward people who hide out at home a lot, being quiet and weird by themselves. Front page. They’ve gone rogue. A growing number are chucking Sahitya Akademi and other national awards back in the government’s face to protest India’s growing climate of intolerance, and getting slammed for it.

You’d think that writing a letter, submitting it, and getting rejected is just time-honoured literary tradition, but no, it’s a showdown. Off the page, writers are fairly peaceable folk until you poke them in the eye. The Prime Minister’s shoddy failure to speak out against the murder of writers and people trying to have dinner constitutes a poke in the eye, so they are, to use the technical literary term, pissed.

The RSS called these writers “self-proclaimed contractors of intellect”, which makes it sound as if you’re supposed to float tenders for the job of thinking, and also as if the RSS would not qualify to bid. The Finance Minister called the protest “politics by other means” even though it is straight-up politics. Arnab accused the writers of having a bias, possibly because he mistrusts the process of reaching a considered conclusion with no screaming at all. The BJP said it was all politically motivated; they’ve already been screwed over by the RSS turning out to be a political wolf in social work fleece, so maybe mole-like writers turning out to be grizzlies feels like déjà vu all over again.

Lots of people said, “Why didn’t these writers return their awards to protest the issue of the Muzzafarpur riots/Babri Masjid/Kashmiri Pundits/Emergency/Jallianwalla Bagh/Mughal invasion/hominids leaving Africa?” I imagine these people are also angrily asking how come our independence movement didn’t bother becoming our independence movement until it became our independence movement. Whataboutery has a new playmate in wherewereyouery.

But if writers are such irrelevant, marginal opportunists, why are so many knickers in a twist? You would think that the government would just ignore the national awards piling up in the garbage and get on with the task of developing India into one giant app, right? Maybe they’ve suddenly realised there’s some inconvenient competition on their turf.

Making art is a progressive political act that expands freedom of thought and action. If you see a comfortable, pretty space, you’re either ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the middle of it, or looking at very forgettable art. The civilised world values art for just this reason—a smart country picks the best of its self-expression, holds it up high, and encourages more. There is a reason why the enduring image of barbarism is a smashed sculpture and a burning library. The GoI tends to make news more for banning than for nurturing art. Now confronting itself in the pages of The Guardian, The New York Times, the BBC, and the Washington Post, it is stung less by the indictment of our writers than by the disapproving stares from the world stage. Now it has to pick a direction.

We publicly overvalue the books that cause people to try to pluck each other’s eyes out, i.e. the religious ones. But there are millions of books and artworks that express India. Their multiplicity is kryptonite to thought control, and they will keep coming. Artists who find their voices can be very loud, and very inconvenient. It is their job.

Perhaps the stupidest response to the protest, so far, came from the BJP’s Vijay Goel, who said: “Writers should be concerned with their pen only, otherwise giving awards would be stopped.” It’s so dim that it’s kind of sweet, like threatening the ocean with a hairdryer.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

I’ll have the holy cow, medium-rare

(Published on October 3, 2015 in Business Standard)

I’ve been having this vision problem lately. I’ll be out in the world, among civilised smiling people, well-dressed, well-educated, well-spoken, going about their business sipping cocktails, or working diligently, or buying soap or whatever. Suddenly it’s as if the skin of the world slips a bit and all I see, underneath the pleasant smiles, is a bunch of savages with bloodstained lips and murderous intent. Then they’ll say something very normal, like ‘I just got promoted, so I’m donating lots of money for the welfare of the girl child,’ and the skin realigns.

Ha ha! Just kidding. Nobody says that.

Anyway, this is why I love watching toddlers at play. There’s no deceptive civilisational veneer in the way: what you see is what you get. They’re just nodes of primal emotion and instinct, nakedly violent and power-hungry. They gang up two against one to snatch a toy, then fight each other for the toy, then regroup in an entirely new configuration to repossess the toy. They howl, kiss, kick each other, and break stuff. They waddle off to tattle on each other with a highly doctored history of what happened. Then they make up by collaborating sweetly on pulling the wings off a fly or torturing a puppy.

Objectively speaking, we’re looking at instinctively manipulative, double-crossing opportunists with no principles. While they can be tender, they show almost exalted imagination and creativity when it comes to inflicting pain. The exalted part is that they don’t need a reason, let alone a good one. If kids weren’t designed to look unbearably cute, adults would exercise rationality and snuff them out. Rationality is moot, however: it turns out that adults are just taller toddlers in more expensive clothes. William Golding told us so, but who’s got time to read Lord of the Flies when you’re busy spreading lies about your neighbours and sticking knives into your friends’ backs?

Under the cologne and the small talk, we’re savages. There’s no better time to remember that than while savouring the creamy pink flesh of a medium-rare beefsteak. I ordered it for Mohammed Akhlaq, who was murdered by a mob because someone said there was beef in his fridge. But mostly I ordered it because I like beef. You are entitled to be upset by this, and I’m free to not give a flying cow’s carcass. That is how the Constitution works. (I regret that my steak was not actually cow, but then neither was the meat in Akhlaq’s fridge.)

So I chomped on my juicy and delicious steak, drank a few drinks, and listened to some music, and felt, well, tired. I hope very much that when the rest of the world looks at us, they too will see the skin of India slip a bit. We can brag all we like about our youth, our economy, and our rightful place on the Security Council, but when the digitally forward, commercially vibrant, Bollywood-obsessed, philosophically sophisticated, ancient, charming skin of India slips, it is a truly nasty sight.

So, world, come Make in India. You will make hills of money. The only thing is, you might actually have to live here. You should know that present-day India is the sort of ancient, proud, powerhouse society that could also decide to break down your door and kill you because it doesn’t like the sound of your dinner. Then the police and the politicians will say tut-tut, your mistake. That’s how they think the Constitution works.

While you’re deciding whether or not to come, please re-read Lord of the Flies, and evaluate your appetite for risk. But if you do come, I’ll take us both out to a fabulous steak dinner. It would be my absolute pleasure.

That’s Amore: the over-40s singles love life

(Published on September 19, 2015 in the Business Standard)

A friend of mine took me to lunch the other day to diagnose the train wreck that is my love life. “Why are you always getting your heart broken?” he asked. I pointed out that people my age are either in a committed relationship (most people) or irrevocably screwed up (me) and that therefore, purely circumstantially, it’s more likely that I’ll be the one scraping myself off the ground. He tried very hard to come up with a list of single, not-crazy people my age, and finally saw my point.

If you’re single and over forty, getting into a romance is very much like batting your eyelashes at an approaching SUV before throwing yourself under its wheels. It’s only weird in that you had no intention of throwing yourself in front of an SUV when you woke up earlier that morning, and it’s not like you didn’t see it coming. This is hardly the kind of effect you forget in a hurry, and you can only bring yourself to do it again if you become comfortable with the idea of repeatedly becoming roadkill. What’s not to love?

You’ve done the things people do. You feared marriage, or tried marriage, or are in a marriage, and decided it wasn’t for you. You went to bars with your friends, who knew when to gag you, when to intervene, when to talk you down, when to take your weapons away, and when to pull you off the scene gently but firmly. Come to think of it, this describes none of my friends, not one. Thanks, guys.

You were creeped out by arranged meetings; too old-fashioned for Tinder and the raft of other dating apps that are common currency with younger people (and several very conflicted married people). You successfully failed to die for so long, in the same town, that you already became fast friends with most of the people in the ambit of your life. How are you supposed to meet anyone worth feeling romantic about? If you do, how do you proceed? Here, let me direct your attention to this attractive SUV approaching at speed.

Sure, there’s the odd full-throated relationship, with insane love and (good) possessiveness, of which I have some experience. There’s the toxic one-way thing with the (bad) possessiveness and (brazen) double standards, of which I also have some experience. There’s the ships passing in the night thing, which is a double-edged sword. There is the set-up, which only one of my friends ever tried on me (I made a new friend). There are singles parties, but the only one I was ever invited to was on a Whatsapp chat, before the event, that robbed me of my will to live, let alone attend. There is the random meeting, which, if it didn’t seem disastrous today, will tomorrow. I will only say that if you want to be in any kind of relationship, do it before you turn forty, because after that you are likely to be your own worst enemy, and cranky to boot.

Don’t say something idiotic, like, ‘Don’t throw yourself in front of the SUV,’ or ‘Don’t give your heart’. Human culture is brimful of artistic tributes to horrible romantic decisions, because there’s absolutely no point in living pristine and unscathed and bored to tears. The friend who took me to lunch wanted to know whether the ups were worth the downs. The answer is yes—there’s nothing quite like that split second of flying through the air, before the wheels hit. Now please take me to the emergency room? Tell them it’s the usual.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Shooting for the moon

(Published on September 5, 2015 in Business Standard)

Early in my twenties, my father sat me down for the world’s shortest conversation.

“So,” he said, “what do you want to do with your life?”

“I think I want to be a good person,” I said.

He smiled. “How nice!” he said. “And what about your plans for the future?”

I fished about in the deeps of my soul and found that it was all shallows.

“Nah, that’s it, really,” I said.

His smile became briefly fixed, like that of a person who can see a hungry lion sneaking up behind you but doesn’t want to ruin your last moments by telling you so. Then his face slipped into frank panic, and he walked off, no doubt to strike my name from his will.

I think my father would much rather have been a freelance photographer, but he had to have a more stable job on account of having produced squadrons of children. He worked like a demon all his life, and liked being good at his work. My mother likes to be good at her work. My siblings like to be good at their work. I have to spend a lot of time keeping my inherent tendency to be a jerk in check.

Fact: I have no ambition. I am a viciously competitive Boggle player, and when I’m drunk I often challenge much larger people to arm-wrestling matches, but that’s about the size of it.

I’ve been thinking about ambition, because these days you cannot draw breath without choking on some image, or article, or television debate, or conversation, about the Sheena Bora alleged murder case, which seems to boil down to a discussion about the nature of ambition. The noise around this case has drowned out all other known sound in the universe. If there is life on Mars, it is sitting around arguing about whether Indrani Mukerjea is a ruthless gold-digging baby-killer, or a healthily ambitious baby-killer. Eveyone has an expert opinion. (By the way: I got a three-word email from Peter Mukerjea eight years ago, in response to a column, and this very week I was in the same room as a guy whose last name is Bora. So if anyone wants me on a TV panel, I’m available.)

I was sick when the story broke, and not just from the media treatment of the story. I had fever, a bodyache, and a wet cough. As I lay around trying not to die, my thoughts turned once more to my future. It’s good to be good, but it’s better to be able to pay one’s medical bills, which are only going to increase. I have no relevant skills, now that email, text, and social media have totally sidelined grammar and punctuation. I am unemployable, on account of consistently resisting employment. I won’t marry rich because, hello, I’m lazy, not stupid.

What to do?

I think I have finally hit upon a workable plan: I could be an Uber cab driver. I have a car, I love to drive, and I am an excellent driver, especially after a nip or two. I am not well dressed, but I can be courteous. I generally don’t smoke in the car. I am absolutely guaranteed not to rape any customers, though if Mark Ruffalo climbed into my cab I might drive more slowly and try to chat him up a bit. When I don’t feel like driving, I can just turn off the app. It seems win-win.

I finally feel I have something to work toward. But you never know, when you’re dreaming your tender dreams, how horribly wrong things can go. As Leonard Cohen said, “I’ve seen the future, baby: it is murder.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Political superbug

(Published on August 22, 2015 in Business Standard)

As a kid, I was obsessed with an animated TV show about a team of vigilantes, to the extent that I insisted the family dog be called after one of the characters. The family agreed, probably because everyone secretly loves superhero tropes: righteous masked crusaders swooping down to dispense justice with a cool look and excellent equipment and everything. They’ve always got signature moves and awesome calling cards, as they go about smiting evil and scouring the land clean of wickedness.

That’s television.

Reality being what it is, all you get here in real life is the perversion thereof.

I refer to that band of sociopaths known as ISIS. Okay that’s not fair, maybe they’re not all sociopaths, some may be psychopaths. Widely not known for their charm and laid-back nature, these guys don’t sleep well until they have thought up a way of killing infidels and subjugating women that is newer, fresher, and more grotesque than before. Maybe they see it as excelling in their field. Women getting too big for their boots? Institutionalise sexual slavery. Beheadings? That worked for a bit, got a lot of people all worked up. Stick infidel in cage, set fire to it, watch him try to escape flames? That was a new benchmark. Stick infidel in cage and drown slowly? There’s a creative variation on a rocking theme.

These sweethearts recently beheaded a man, known as Mr Palmyra in tribute to his lifetime study of the culture and art of his Syrian hometown, apparently because he wouldn’t lead them to the city’s cultural treasures so that they could be destroyed or sold. ISIS strung him up in a public square and placed his head, glasses still on, on the ground between his dangling feet. Take that, culture and history! Take that, intellect and emotion! Take that, humanity.

Pretty repulsive, huh? Thank god that we in India are safe from that kind of scary rampaging brutality. Right?

A few days ago, in Shahjahanpur, a couple of teenaged brothers hacked off their sister’s head, because she was keen on someone they didn’t approve of, and reportedly ran through the village carrying it as a warning to people about how women should behave. This is very much not the first time that someone has been beheaded in India for falling in love with the wrong person. That person’s own parents might even engineer the beheading.

The other day a teenaged Dalit girl in Fatiyapur village stepped out to buy medicine for her father. She was found raped and murdered in a field. Not just raped and murdered, but with stab wounds in her eyes and private parts. Stab. Wounds. Indian women are raped, murdered, and brutalised on a very regular basis. It’s very, very common.

Religious and political groups in India regularly vandalise art exhibitions and burn books they don’t agree with, and threaten, maim or kill academics and journalists whose work is inconvenient to their agenda.

A newspaper analysis of communal incidents over time in India shows a surge in the run-up to elections that implicates political parties (in case you didn’t already know that). Communal incidents are boringly common.

Oh, look at that—beheadings, murders, people and property burnt to the ground, a mix of sexual prudery and sexual savagery, religious violence, cultural vigilantism.

The only thing worse than ISIS doing its thing in India, is not-ISIS doing the same thing in India. If the former is like a vicious infection, the latter is an autoimmune disease. ISIS calls it the will of God. We call it social values and patriotism.

This being the light-hearted weekend space, I will just add—have a lovely monsoon weekend.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Same strokes for different folks

(Published today in Business Standard)

Once upon a time, an editor asked me to write a porny story for an anthology of porny stories. She used the polite word ‘erotica’, but I feel that trying to be polite and porny at the same time is like chasing your own tail, which is also the only tail you’ll end up getting. I was 25 at the time, and had even less experience of sex or porny stories than I do now. I obediently went off and wrote something that was a little polite despite itself—portica, if you will, or eroticorn—and therefore sucked, and she never got back to me, so that was the end of that. All I can tell you is that it is not easy to write good porny stories, although it is very nice to read or watch them.

I don’t know if ‘porny’ is one of those words that could cause a website to get blocked by the recent porn ban. Online, where it applies, it’s known as #PornBan, but its official name is the ‘Complete-partial-repealed-sorta Porn-just-child-porn-revenge-porn-and-er-collegehumour.com Ban-oh-don’t-be-dramatic-we-have-or-maybe-haven’t-taken-it-back-are-you-happy-now Controlled Sex Act 2015’.

I’m all for wiping out child porn. I’m all for breaking the repulsive nexus of human trafficking, which feeds the porn industry. I’m all for cleaning up exploitation wherever it exists in the production chain of porn. When you start banning porn itself, however, you are messing not just with the wrong single, bored woman, but also—it turns out—with the wrong morally sanctimonious country. This time it wasn’t just liberals yelling the house down over #PornBan; the socially conservative right wing on Twitter rose as one great quivering shaft of indignation, going wtf? I can imagine the Modi government lying awake at night, crying softly and hiccupping, “It’s like I don’t even recognise my own base anymore.” It has been pointed out that after being viciously divided on beef eating, love jihad, and the hanging of Yakub Memon, online India has united as one pissed-off monolith, against the assault on our porny URLs.

No democracy likes a government supervising its dinner plate, or vetting its wardrobe, or demanding its travel documents. And it positively hates a government peering into its bedroom or down its pants. This is something that this administration, possibly high on its own parliamentary majority, is having trouble grasping. It is too busy implementing its dreary socio-cultural project—religious revivalism, jingoism, paternalism and a bunch of other unpleasant isms—to notice that significant numbers of people don’t like the project, and really really love their porn. (Gratuitous aside: It is also very busy pretending that it didn’t make all the little messes it is making on the drawing room carpet. Letting us all get hot and bothered about our porn, for better or worse, certainly takes the focus off those smelly little patches called Lalitgate and Vyapam.)

It’s odd that a government so hell-bent on national pride also appears so hell-bent on looking stupid. Isn’t this the tech-savvy bunch that took the country by social media storm? Haven’t they heard that the Internet is not about to roll over and die because somebody made a list of 857 websites to block, based on a set of completely opaque parameters? The only impact of #PornBan is that the Internet is now pointing at the government and weeping and shaking with laughter. This is what happens when you leave things to policy wanks. Wonks! Policy wonks.

In an odd coincidence, someone else recently asked if I would write a porny story, nearly twenty years since the last one. I have some reservations—what if I’m even politer today, and can’t turn anyone on?—but in the spirit of #PornBan, I think I’ll give it a go.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

On smoking (Part 591)

(Published on July 25, 2015 in Business Standard)

Last week, on a day scheduled like a highway pileup, I got home in the wee hours. My mother had returned from her holiday just moments before, and she opened the door for me with a big smile. My mother’s smile can light up the far corners of a coalmine. I felt very sorry to have to do this.

‘Hello!’ she said, lighting up the far corners of a coal mine.

‘I smoke again now!’ I said, just lighting up.

Her face fell like a brick off a cliff. I felt really, really bad, but only for four seconds, because the weight of five weeks of guilt had simultaneously also just fallen away from me. Confession=absolution=liberation. After five weeks of tucking my obscene horns, hideous pointy tail and misshapen hump under hat, trousers and coat, I could finally just be me again, stop trying to fit amongst the normal, just walk tall and disgusting and free—a person with smelly flaws, yes; but a person who is okay with your stares of revulsion because she can focus on the important stuff, which is to remap the city according to where the best paanwallahs are and how late they’re open, because it’s been nearly two years, and things change.

So yes, I have fallen off the wagon. I’m not proud of it, but I am enjoying it greatly. (Statutory warning: Smoking rots your mouth, gives you cancer, destroys your lungs, and makes your mommy sad.)

I blame the extreme abroadiness of my summer holiday: cool temperatures; lots of walking; feelings of invincibility and immortality, etc. For a while I only bummed smokes, but that’s very bad manners when one cigarette costs Rs 17,943. So one day, walking alone and anonymous, I bought my own pack of ten. I felt positively dirty asking for it, as if I were trying to buy a child slave; but it was really easy to get over as I sat at an al fresco table with my book, glass of wine, and cigarette.

So I had smoked during my holiday, but it was when I returned to Delhi that everything really fell apart. The first thing I saw in my room was the book Reasons to Smoke that came out in 2007 when smoking bans began to kick in. I hadn’t come across it in years, especially since it measures 3 X 3 inches—but the chaos of house painting, also known as God, had placed it on my desk. It’s not a particularly funny book, but it did its evil work.

For a few days I bought one cigarette at a time. People walked up to me with their mouths making perfectly round ‘o’s, their eyes perfect twin ‘o’s above that. ‘But you quit smoking!’ they said—I think, because what came out was ‘oooooooo’. And I said, ‘I still don’t smoke smoke, I’m just having some cigarettes.’

But that line wore pretty thin when I bought a proper 20-pack of my old brand, and a lighter. In smoker terms, that’s like calling up your old flame and getting engaged. Suddenly I was on my fourth packet, and other people who claimed to have quit were bumming cigarettes off me. Just as I could not fathom, when I quit, why I ever smoked, now I cannot fathom why I ever quit. Just as the smell of smoke was so recently repellent, it is now a cuddly, comforting stench.

Standing at the bottom of the habit hill all over again, I’m aghast at how far I have to climb. It may take a while.

In my defence, though, I’d like to point out that Sisyphus never quit.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Period piece

(Published in Business Standard today.)

The other day I walked into my local chemist shop to buy supplies. A salesperson materialised instantly at my elbow and tried to rip the toothpaste out of my hand. As you know, India is a great mighty country that is very powerful and mighty, and our proud youth are a mighty powerhouse of proudy might. This means that if you reach for a tube of toothpaste, a salesperson will teleport to your side, snatch it from you and carry it to the counter so that you don’t have to strain yourself, while at the same time nobody can seem to find any good people to hire. This is known as the ‘demographic dividend’, or ‘Vyapam degree, ah?’

“Can I help you with anything else, ma’am?” said the salesperson, tugging at my toothpaste.

“Yes,” I said, maintaining a death grip on my end, “do you have a menstrual cup?”

She dropped the tube and looked at me as if I was trying to eat her face.

“The thing you’re saying,” she said furtively, “You ask at the counter.”

As someone with a vagina, I have struggled with periods all my adult life. I don’t get nasty cramps, nor am I grossed out by blood and gore. But in thousands of years of human history, all of it chock-a-block full of bleeding women, nobody has yet come up with a good product to protect clothing from expired endometrial lining. Sanitary pads are bulky and leaky, and create unlovely aromas. Tampons are less obtrusive, but if they aren’t put in right you end up walking like an orc, and you could always be the one statistic who dies of toxic shock syndrome. Someone recently invented some kind of menstrual panty, but it sounds like an inadequate diaper.

Enter, some years ago, the menstrual cup. This is a flexible bell-shaped cup that fits against the vaginal walls and can collect a larger amount of blood than either pad or tampon. I’ve heard very good things about menstrual cups: they’re comfortable, easy to maintain, re-usable, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, and I’ve been meaning to try one for the longest time. You can order them online, but I thought they might be available at the local market.

It’s a different matter that that my menstrual cycle has suddenly gotten very erratic, which means that I’m either dying of a horrible disease, or entering that glorious stage of life technically known as ‘who needs birth control’. It takes a special kind of lazy procrastinator to only get around to trying a menstrual product when she hits peri-menopause (or the brink of death, as the case may be), but better late than never.

I went to the counter and asked the man if they sold menstrual cups. Ashen-faced, he body-blocked himself behind a female colleague. I addressed myself to her. Did they sell menstrual cups?

“Menthol capsules?” she said uncertainly.

“No: menstrual cups,” I said, enunciating. She appealed to another colleague, who pretended he couldn’t see her.

“Sorry, ma’am,” she said, “What do you want?”

“A menstrual cup,” I said loudly.

She scurried backstage, pretended to rummage around, and returned.

“What did you say it was?”

“A menstrual cup,” I bawled.

The whole shop froze. Time stopped; the laws of the universe reversed; god fainted. In the dread vacuum of the un-possible the salesgirl said, in a small desperate whisper,

“We don’t have those capsules.”

Maybe, sometime in the twelve long years that I’m told it can take to complete menopause, my chemist will start to stock menstrual cups. But it might still be easier to order them online.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

In the event of an Emergency

(Stet was on a summer break on the Saturdays of May 30 and June 13. It resumed with this, published in Business Standard on June 27, 2015.)

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard. In command is Captain Fantastic. Exciting new guy, strong, silent type, only thing is he won’t let anyone onto the flight deck, so this is a flunky speaking and I’m just guessing. Our flight away from the past and into the future will basically follow a little-interrogated model of development, avoid awkward conversations about who’s actually welcome, and take a dim view of dissent. Our journey will take—well, if you give us ten years then it’ll take ten years, but we assure you that we could get you there faster if you gave us fifteen. Think about it?

We should be ready for take-off shortly. I realise we’ve been in line forever, behind China Air at the head of the queue (it kills us to say this), and—will you look at that, a Biman Bangladesh has just cheekily nipped in in front of us. We apologise for the delay, but if we’re going nowhere fast, it’s because you insist on flying us only five years at a time.

Ladies and gentlemen, we ask you to kindly direct your attention to the front of the cabin, where the crew will now demonstrate a few important safety features of this NOMO-1975 statecraft. Even if you have been a citizen before, we ask you to pay attention for a few minutes to ensure a relaxed and pleasant political climate.

This is your seat belt. We’re doing everything we can, but keep it on and stay put. It’s not just in case of turbulence; you have been seated according to a delicate algorithm based on religion, community, gender, and age hierarchies that took us many millennia to perfect, so please try not to pollute it with your rootless, patronising Western ideas. Just because we’re all going to the future together doesn’t mean that we don’t take the proud traditions of our past along.

If there is a drop in cabin pressure, oxygen masks should ideally drop from the panel above your head, but we had to remove the oxygen masks to find the budget for the prayer rooms installed at the front, rear and over the wings. Please feel free to use these rooms to pray that there is no drop in cabin pressure.

Your life vest used to be in a pouch beneath your seat. You will notice that we have done away with seats in favour of yoga mats. You’re welcome. We also replaced the life vests with copies of the Gita, which you will find under the lump in your yoga mat. Enjoy. By the way, we’re totally trimming costs with these moves. You can’t say we aren’t rocking this economy thing, right! Right?

In the unlikely event of an Emergency, do not panic. We had one, and we learned from it. One of the things we learned is that the captain shouldn’t necessarily declare an Emergency—studies have shown that it only upsets people, when in fact we have every intention of giving you a pleasant ride. All we’ll say is that we really, really, really recommend that you follow our directions, stop whining about how YOU really don’t want to wear your seat belt or do your yoga, and understand that asking annoying questions is anti-national. The point is that this statecraft is more important than your individual liberties. The more time you spend in the prayer rooms, the better you will understand this.

At any rate, we will do our best to distract you from any Emergency procedures we may initiate. We assure you that our crew will carry out their duties quietly and efficiently and take care of it. You just sit back, relax, and have a pleasant flight.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


(Published in Business Standard today)

I woke up the other morning to find that I couldn’t step on my left foot without pain. It was so unexpected and so painful that I thought I might have broken a bone, except that there hadn’t been any tripping or bumping during the previous day, nor, in fact, during the previous year, when I might have occasioned a sprain or a broken bone. A bit of poking and prodding narrowed it down to my left big toe.

I mentioned it to my mother at breakfast. She said, with no pause—nor, I’d like to point out, medical qualification, “Probably gout. Rich man’s disease. From drinking too much and eating too much rich food.” She proceeded to smirk into her newspaper. She often makes up things to fit her darkest theories about me, so I went to the internet, which knows its stuff, and looked up my symptoms.

Here’s what I got: Gout. Ever heard of gout? Rich man’s disease. From drinking too much and eating too much rich food.

I hate the internet.

My aunt dropped in for tea and the two of them had a lovely time laughing at me. They particularly enjoyed the fact that the classic image of the gout sufferer is an elderly earl in a nightcap, suffocating in rolls of his own fat, aching toe propped up on a footstool, paying for a lifetime of frivolous overindulgence with joint pain that sends his howls of agony echoing through his draughty castle. Some people have no empathy.

I went back to the internet and decided to go with other possibilities, like sesamoiditis (an inflammation of the little bones around the big toe) which I can attribute to tango dancing and an insanely healthy exercise regimen; or to osteoarthritis, for which I can blame genetics, aka my mother. I like that one. I will apply an ice pack and refuse to go to the doctor and if that ends with my foot being sawed off in an operating theatre, so be it. The alternative, which is to acknowledge that frivolous overindulgence might have played its part, is simply too shaming to contemplate, and anyway, I don’t have a castle to howl into.

However, if it is gout, that’s both ironic and really bad news, because I’m about to travel a great distance to two places, one to watch a couple of music concerts, which covers frivolity, and the other to patiently observe and mimic the habits of the locals, who are known for their enthusiastic drinking, which covers overindulgence. There is no length to which I will not go to be culturally sensitive (when in Rome, etc etc), and if that involves imbibing a lot of ale and spirits, well, my big toe can just lump it. An added wrinkle is that I’m going to be driving a rental car around the second place, so sure, it would be nice to have two working feet, but I feel I can get away with one.

The best way to deal with inexplicable physical ailments is to go with the theory that most are self-limiting and can be ignored away. I have places to go and things to do, so if I have to drag a gouty foot along with me, I will. Anyway, what does the Internet know? Getting online is the best way to conclude that your cold is a symptom of a brain tumour. And what does my mother know? If all goes according to plan she will have a gouty foot of her own at the end of this frivolous, overindulgent holiday, because she’s coming with me.

Diary of a traditional Indian wife

(Published in Business Standard on May 2, 2015)

Wednesday, April 30, 5.30pm.

Woke as usual, giving thanks—before I’m even fully conscious, that’s how thankful I am—that I have a husband, and therefore a place in Indian society. Turned over and looked at the hairy back I’ve woken up next to for four years. Sometimes, waking up to this view makes me want to stick a knife between his shoulder blades, but when that happens I quickly do some pranayama, as our ancient culture counsels, and the feeling passes. (Don’t understand it. Indian marriage is a sacrament. Maybe I have a vitamin deficiency?) What would I do without Hairy? I’d have no kids, I’d be a shell of a being, a waste of social space. My spirit, my mind, my friends, my interests, my job—all meaningless. Feeling thankful all over again.

Checked FB and Twitter very quietly. The minute Hairy wakes up, he expects me to be kneeling by his bedside with tea and biscuits, so if I want a few minutes’ peace I have to be as quiet as a mouse. Saw some hoo-hah in the headlines about something called marital rape. Hairy and I have talked a lot about rape, he’s very progressive and totally outraged by it as I am. He’s never mentioned marital rape, so it’s probably not even a thing, so I ignored it. He says the pseudo-sickular western atheist gay West is always making stuff up to try and make India look bad.

Eventually the kid started wailing. That woke Hairy, who wanted to get busy straight away. I said no, have to feed the kid. These days he wants to get busy a lot because the kid is a girl and he wants a boy. He’s not as responsible as I am about feeding her when she’s hungry. I tried to get out of bed and he wouldn’t let me. I said stop it, but he didn’t, and it turned into what we call a ‘marital scrape’. I hate when that happens. I could hear the kid wailing throughout, which made me very distressed, in addition to being in pain and furious and humiliated. Hairy did say ‘Sorry, but’ afterwards. He always does, and I always want to kill him, except that he’s my god and my sun. I wrote down “Indian marriage is a sacrament” fifty times on a piece of paper and then ate it, so that he won’t know that I have to practice when doubt creeps in.

Dropped the kid off at the in-laws’ place. Pa-in-law still winking annoyingly at me about a second baby. Pran Chacha was also there, who once tried to kiss me in the corridor. Obviously I told Ma. She told me to never mention it again. I gather that there was some funny business between Pa-in-law and Pran's daughter once too, nobody talks about that either. Bottom line, it’s understood that nobody is in a position to point fingers or get judgmental.

Went off to work, editing copy. Opinion pieces filled with rape statistics. Very odd thing: Parliament says this marital rape thing doesn’t apply in India, but official reports say that 97% of women are raped by people they know and intimate partners. Hmm. But that means…Hang on just one goddamn second. That means... Can it be true? Oh god.

Indian marriage is a sacrament. Indian marriage is a sacrament. Indian marriage is a sacrament. Indian marriage is a sacrament.

It’s not working.

Hairy and I need to have a conversation.

Hell, Parliament and I need to have a conversation.

Hands off my Internet

(Published in Business Standard on April 18, 2015)

Back in the olden days, my family got a word processor. It was a horrible, clunky machine with a bulbous screen, a rectangular flashing cursor, and zit-sized pixels. The sharpest image on the screen was your reflection. I learned to touch type on it, and played Mario Brothers like a zombie. The thing wasn’t good for much else—my mother did use it to work on her book, which my father deleted one day while trying to be helpful, even as I stood behind him loudly saying ‘Don’t press that, you’re going to delete her book,’ in my best don’t-come-crying-to-me adolescent tone. What happened next would shock you if I could remember it, but it was the kind of drama that adolescent brains block out so that they can concentrate on improving their Mario Brothers score.

I didn’t handle a computer again until college, where we were expected to hand in typed papers. I could only think in longhand, so I wrote everything by hand first and then typed it up. But that just took way too much time away from playing Trivial Pursuits, so eventually I switched to a computer. Suddenly I could only think if I typed, and to this day my handwriting looks as if it’s having seizures.

Somewhere in the middle of college life, email and the internet appeared. I’d just gotten the hang of it when I found myself back in India, using VSNL dialup services, which consisted mostly of soaring blood pressure caused by that infernal warbling whistle trying, trying, and trying again, mostly without success, to get online. It was around then that a friend told me about a cool new search engine thing called Google, and I got a mobile phone. The world changed.

I’m one of the ever-diminishing numbers of fossils whose formative years were on an internet-free, smartphone-free planet. Somehow we took off on road trips without digital maps at our fingertips. We made plans on landlines and then stuck to them, because there was no good way of changing them on the fly. We bought tickets at—you won’t believe this—ticket counters. We had to find a physical person or book or periodical for any sort of reference. Your views remained within your own tiny circle of friends and family. Information was the preserve of specialists. It was ancient. I was there. Let’s not get caught up in syllogisms.

I’m not here to tell you how much better it all was. Here we are twenty years later, with the whole mind-boggling galaxy of human thinking and learning at our fingertips—a magnificent and powerful tool for democracy, social justice, and stupid cat photos—and I no longer know how the hell we lived without free movement around the internet. How much time was spent on the littlest thing! What a curated set of views we had! The things that greedy, powerful and criminal people got away with, without anybody knowing! Information was the preserve of specialists. Access to information looked, in fact, a lot like that old computer of ours.

Today, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been updated, with only a little irony, to rest on a base of battery and wifi; the Internet is increasingly regarded as a basic human right. Should it be tweaked, like most things, to favour large corporations, by charging more for access to certain sites? If you like your Internet the way it is now—equal access to all sites—take a look at the Save the Internet campaign. You get to weigh in on the net neutrality debate until April 24.
Meanwhile I’m off to surf, just because I can. Have a nice weekend

No smoke without study

(Published in Business Standard on April 4, 2015)

I’m feeling very stupid for having quit smoking. A certain kind of pedant would point out that I had five cigarettes on my birthday, four on another random night, and one each on two other evenings; I would point out that that kind of repellent nitpicking personality is just dead weight that nobody wants on a Pictionary team. As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t smoked in about two years.

There’s no doubt that quitting has multiple benefits. I can smell things, though this is a double-edged sword when you live in Delhi. I’m carrying some amount of extra weight, but you can’t really tell it apart from all the other extra weight I was already carrying. My complexion, nurtured on Delhi air, has been upgraded from grey to sallow. My fitness levels are higher. I have more money to spend on booze. But, if BJP MP Dilip Gandhi is to be believed, I totally jumped the gun by not waiting for a properly Indian study on the perils of smoking. Or at least one of which he was aware.

Gandhi is reluctant to plaster graphic warnings all over tobacco products. Packaging cigarettes with grotesque tumours instead of hot cowboys is becoming an international standard because it has been shown to be the most effective deterrent to smoking. But Gandhi says that while everyone knows that smoking is bad for you, there have been no Indian studies confirming the evil link between tobacco and dying, and he needs more time to think about it. We should cut the guy some slack. He’s a patriot, and like all patriots of that kind, probably needs time to use Google, or researchers, or certain virginal tracts of brain.

Actually I don’t feel all that strongly about his dragging his heels on this, only because those warnings never had the slightest impact on me. I have cheerily smoked truckfuls of such packets adorned with any number of gangrenous feet, tumorous faces, or black and shrivelled lungs. I ripped open those packets, god help me, and smoked the lot.

No; obstinate people such as myself will not accept anything other than evidence provided by truly patriotic Indians such as myself. I read reams of material detailing what cigarette smoking does to your body, and merely copyedited them in my head. I watched little signs pop up during movies telling us that smoking is bad for your health, and merely felt annoyed at the intrusion on the screen. I watched ads showing thick black tar being squeezed out of a sponge to illustrate what’s going into your lungs, and that grossed me out a bit.

But what really made me chuck the stuff was a very regular flu, which for some reason felt much worse than any other I’ve ever had, and made me believe that I was on the verge of death. I felt so sick that I didn’t even want to smoke through it; and by the time the illness passed I was already past the discomfort of initial withdrawal. In other words, the self-destructiveness of smoking stops being enjoyable when you actually feel the self-destruction.

Turns out that in the face of many studies (though apparently not enough Indian ones), lots of public service ads and announcements, and an entire Internet filled with revolting pictures of terminal smoking-related illnesses, smoking rates are actually climbing. As far as I can tell, the only foolproof way of getting someone to quit is to let them smoke their lungs out until they feel the cold breath of mortality on the backs of their necks. That’s always robust incentive for a lifestyle change.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Diving Miss Daisy

(Published in Business Standard on March 21, 2015)

Before last Saturday I hadn’t boarded an airplane in over a year, because I love flying like I love being dragged through rusty nails and then rubbed down with salt. This time it was a Dreamliner, and it took off into the blackest, angriest skies I’d ever seen. Why create a fabulous aircraft, I fretted, only to give it to a nitwit who points it into the jaws of death? After a spot of hypocritical praying I looked out again, and got goose pimples: we were floating through a dim ocean, the sun a fuzzy pale spot beyond the surface far above. Eventually I realised that the shutter-free windows were photochromatic—after dialling down the shading, the skies turned out to be sunny and calm, the airplane far above the clouds, and the nitwit not in the cockpit but quivering in seat 34A.

The twilight zone sense of being underwater, though, was apt. I was going to the Maldives for a long overdue catch-up with my college pal Denise, with whom I last shared a room 24 years ago. Denise is the kind of unspeakably cool person who is not only nice enough to invite people to the Maldives, but also a diver. I’ve wanted to dive since childhood, having seen the wonders of the ocean reef via snorkel, but I’m on the lily-livered side of things. But Denise passed on the following salty sea saying: If snorkelling is like kissing, diving is like going all the way. So, after days of snorkelling in aquamarine waters, wiggling my toes in white sands, and staring at the Milky Way over cocktails, I finally decided it was time for an introductory dive. In hindsight I blame the gin and tonic, as is traditional.

Here’s how it’s done: You sign up, and immediately regret it. You sleep poorly the previous night. You make yourself walk to the dive centre despite a powerful recurring temptation to conceal yourself behind a bush instead. You let them strap you into the equipment, horribly aware of being a land animal. You wade into shallow water to practice breathing and clearing your mask, and kick yourself for putting your stupid name on a stupid list and now you’re going to die, and you haven’t even had dinner with Hugh Laurie yet. You resolve to rip off your mask and tank, hit the instructor on the head with chunks of coral and passing crabs, and run away in your flippers.

But then suddenly I was in a blessed silence broken only by my own breath, in a kaleidoscopic ballet of form and colour lit by lacy bars of sunlight. There were tiny orange-and-blue fish, big bright yellow ones, black-and-white clownfish, flamboyant parrotfish. There were little red starfish, and breathing corals. There were microscopic plankton, and enormous fish with faces like unhappy tax inspectors. Eels yawned toothily. There was even a little black-tipped reef shark, but I was too busy biting practically through my regulator to worry about it biting me.

It wasn’t all perfect. The air made my throat dry, and fear surged through me whenever saltwater entered my nostrils. I confused the signs for ‘Okay’ and ‘Want to go up’. My ears hurt, so I couldn’t go too deep. All through, I maintained a vice-like grip on the hand of my instructor, a longhaired Maldivian whose superpower was to make his eyes large and hypnotically persuasive, like that cat in Shrek, and thus keep me calm.

But it was fantastic. I was down for 43 minutes, or 42.5 more than I expected. For at least 35 of those minutes, I was able to enjoy watching the extraordinary, mind-boggling diversity of Creation go about its business underwater.

So I’m here to tell you this: if you haven’t had a fish poop in your face, you haven’t lived. And I’d like to dive again, but if I never do, I’ll always have the Maldives.

Union Budget analysis, 2015

(Published in Business Standard on March 7, 2015)

Before you say, “Wait, didn’t everyone do this already?” let me remind you that this is a business newspaper, okay? I might not be your typical business writer, but I too lie awake at night, worrying about job creation, manufacturing, the GST deficit and whether import fiscals will reform the Big Bang, when infra sentiment looks taxing and 16% of the Rs 6,000 lakh crore allocation could subsidise the short-term implements. I fear our youth might rollout on their fundamentals and go GAAR—it certainly makes me want to. And if you think I’m dodgy, consider that yoga is now a charitable activity, so the likes of Baba Ramdev are suddenly all tax-free.

Despite my strong grasp of the subject I know I have a long way to go, so I try to watch the budget speech every year, just in case it suddenly starts to make sense. Not to be grandiose or anything, but think Luke with his light sabre, in a rain of ungrammatical taunts, trying to get with the Force; or Neo, training in a virtual martial arts room, trying to see the Matrix. So far no luck; all wet I am, and bruised. But nobody achieved anything great by giving up.

Meanwhile, whenever budget time rolls around I feel I must make one for myself, but am always defeated by economic instincts hardwired by decades of evolution. Here’s how they work.

I have the dim sense that there should be some money in the bank because I distinctly remember doing some work. I know that it was not much work, and not high-paying work, so it follows that it’s not much money. A sort of inchoate foreboding takes root in my soul, and my hand, unbidden, picks up the phone, and my mouth, unbidden, invites some people out on the town for dinner. And drinks. And maybe some more drinks.

On my way to dinner I will pop into a shop, without the slightest need or provocation, to buy a ring or a book or a boiled sweet or something. I do it just to prove that I still have purchasing power. Acts of defiance in the face of fiduciary peril fill me with joie de vivre. Surely if I were really broke, I think, this wouldn’t feel so good. So off I go, frontal cortex charred beyond recognition by the blistering heat of confidence, suddenly feeling like a squillion bucks, to some fancy-ass joint where I announce that dinner is on me.

Somewhere in the front of my head a tiny homunculus of an accountant pops up, innocent of facts and figures but wearing a panicky expression; and immediately the back of my head, which looks like a T-Rex in a singlet and stolen jewellery, pounces on him, gags him, and locks him up in my super-max limbic closet.

Dinner proceeds apace, interspersed with drinks, and is followed by desert, followed by coffee, followed by more drinks.

“This round is on me!” I shout, drunk on financial power.

The next day it is much clearer to me that ruin is nigh, at which point I pop into a shop to buy a ring or a book or a boiled sweet or something, and the whole thing starts again.

So it goes. The closer I get to the cliff, which I can’t actually see because of all the arithmetical mist, the faster I drive. Not to be grandiose or anything, but think Thelma and Lousie, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some people go skydiving without checking their parachutes; I fail to make a budget. It’s just the way it is. So anyone want to grab drinks, and dinner, and maybe more drinks, lemme know.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Whatever floats your flaming boat

(Published in Business Standard today)

As 2014 turned into 2015, a Pakistani fishing boat suddenly went up in flames off the coast of Gujarat and sank, and the Government of India put it about that the Pakistani crew had set themselves on fire, either because they were terrorists, or because they were very unhappy. Who can be sure? I mean, people are always going up in flames in Gujarat, and nobody ever has a clue who did it. Maybe it’s spontaneous combustion.

Then the DIG Coast Guard was shown on video fondly reminiscing about ordering people to blow up the boat. The government said that the DIG had misspoken, and went looking for him with a steely glint in its eye. The DIG immediately denied saying it, refusing to let audiovisual evidence derail his narrative arc. The upshot is that nobody knows how exactly a Pakistani boat burst into flames and sank after we chased it for an hour and surrounded it.

In some countries, that would count as a fairly newsworthy bit of intrigue.

In this country, however, it is only as newsworthy as a situation involving another bunch of jokers, which also blew up, but differently.

People have been up all night yelling at each other and writing anguished op-eds about All-India Bakchod (AIB), the comedy collective that you hadn’t heard of until a couple of weeks ago and now cannot get away from. AIB recently held a roast of two Bollywood actors that featured swear words and sex jokes, as roasts do, and as soon as it was put online, invited a rash of complaints and First Information Reports.

One of the FIRs points out that AIB used swear words and made references to sex in an audience that included women. These women, in their simple, innocent way, brought their ears with them to the show. How could they have been prepared, by the word ‘roast’, for ribald humour? In mixed company! Do these AIB people think they’re too good for women’s safety? Ladies are so pea-brained--though of course a highly respected national asset--that they don’t understand how unsafe they are in the presence of swear words. They bought tickets to the show, and laughed their highly respected posteriors off. Never mind, we’re all here at the police station to clean up this mess.

As for the famously in-the-closet Bollywood personality who MC’d the show--pardon my French--his mother was in the audience. She had to sit there, in public, and listen to jokes about her son’s allegedly gay sex life—and he even mentioned what position he likes! First off, Indian mothers, having had their fun, are no longer aware that anyone in the country is having sex. When they daydream about their sons, as Indian mothers are supposed to, they see them only torso up. If the son has children, then his torso is forced to float upon a cloud composed entirely of euphemisms. Mothers, never, never, ever, associate children with sex.

Thank god there are people out there who care for our morality far, far more than we do ourselves. Without them, we’d just be some regular, grown-up nation with a sense of humour, or at least one that can live and let live.

The AIB episode should reassure us that we will steadfastly continue to address the long and scary list of India’s problems--from infant mortality to casteism to gender violence to corruption--by trying to prosecute people who make jokes we don’t find funny, and by trying to protect people who aren’t offended. Way to go, fellow patriots!

Meanwhile, I hope someone is working on a roast of the Coast Guard and the Defence Ministry.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How an electorate is like a safety kayaker

(Published in Business Standard on February 7, 2015)

About 200 years or so ago, I went on a five-day rafting expedition on the Alaknanda River, in a ducky. A ducky is an inflatable kayak, kind of like a two-person mini-raft. It is chiefly designed to pitch you without warning into shrieking torrents of glacial melt, and make you cry by the campfire every night, praying that you’ll pass away in your sleep so that you don’t have to do it all again the next day.

Anyway, one of the things they do on a rafting expedition is to carefully explain safety kayaking. Safety kayakers, in their one-man hard-shell kayaks, are fast, daring, insanely skilled river jockeys. These people surf and play in the maw of vicious rapids just for fun. Their job is to roll their eyes as they snatch you from the jaws of death after you fall into the river like the fat old loser you are.

Here’s how the safety kayaker briefing goes:

“Hi! I’m [insert cool Top Gun-type name]. When you fall into the river like a fat old loser, I will race to your side but then stop just out of your reach, and evaluate whether you are able to follow my directions. If I don’t think you can, I’ll wait until I think you can. I will direct you to calmly reach for this metal ring on my kayak and hold it, so that I can tow you to safety while rolling my eyes. If you panic and go for either me, or my kayak, in a manner that I determine endangers my own safety, I will whack you in the nose with my paddle and back off until you settle the hell down. I’m serious, I will hurt you. Don’t panic or thrash about or lunge, and we’ll be fine.”

I paraphrase, but that’s roughly it.

I duly fell into the Alaknanda and panicked and thrashed about and lunged at the safety kayaker who had materialised in two seconds. Sure enough, he bobbed around just out of my reach, observing me beadily and repeating “Calm down.” At first I was very angry that here I was, drowning—so young, so full of dreams—and there he was, obsessing about my tone rather than what I was saying. It was only after I’d mastered my emotions (i.e. realised that I had a life jacket on and wasn’t being dragged into the green depths) that the dude let me cling to his kayak while he rolled his eyes.

What does this have to do with elections in Delhi?

Well, in the last few weeks, as the pace and pitch of the campaign for Delhi has risen, the BJP has suddenly woken to find itself wet, cold and in trouble. Its last-minute chief ministerial candidate is not even from its own ranks. Its thugs have attacked churches; its police has cracked down on protesters; it has taken to smear campaigns; the PM called the media ‘bazaaru’ (sluttish); a critical news channel was allegedly mysteriously blocked in parts of Delhi. Complacency shattered, the roaring lion of the 2014 general elections is behaving exactly like a panicking rafter.

Electorates, like safety kayakers, are implacably committed to their own interests first. They will take a good hard look at the people freaking out in the water, and decide whether they’re likely to cooperate or to drag them down. They don’t like desperate, dangerous dirty tricks. There are other, less panicky swimmers in the fray, like the Aam Aadmi Party, and, it is rumoured, the Indian National Congress. So, as Delhi goes to the polls today, it will be interesting to see whether the BJP has earned itself a rescue, or a humiliating whack in the nose.

Either way, the electorate will be rolling its eyes.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Doing one’s bit for the country

(Published today in Business Standard)

I’m terribly confused. In a couple of weeks I have to go and vote in a new government for the city-state of Delhi. Not only did I JUST DO THIS a mere thirteen months ago, but it also made more sense at the time. Since then, the whole political cast has run around the stage switching places and personalities.

As I understand it, the vote-catching face of Narendra Modi, who turned secular left-liberals into sobbing alcoholics by sweeping the BJP to power all over the country, has been ditched and replaced by ex-cop Kiran Bedi, who used to be with India Against Corruption and said she would never join politics, but now thinks that Modi is Helen of Troy and she a little star buzzing around his sun, which makes her sound almost more bonkers than she sounds when she complains that people go on about small-small rapes when there’s so much corruption, which makes you wonder why she left India Against Corruption.

Arvind Kejriwal, who first said he wanted nothing to do with politics and then formed the Aam Aadmi party, massively won an election, and packed up his government in an almighty sulk after 49 days, has now said he is very sorry about that, and is running again under the Twitter hashtag #Mufflerman. The only constant thing about him is his cough.

The TV spokespeople are no better. Shazia Ilmi, who first joined the Aam Aadmi Party and had not one nice thing to say about either the Congress or the BJP, has now joined the BJP, where she says she is very happy, and now has not one nice thing to say about Arvind Kejriwal.

Meanwhile the Congress party’s Ajay Maken…zzzzzzzz…where was I?

Another way to understand Delhi’s political fortunes: First the AAP took a big bite out of the Congress. Amazement! Then the BJP was set to take a big bite out of everybody. Sob. Suddenly the AAP looked like it might come back from behind—cheers!—and take a big bite out of the BJP, but then the BJP craftily bit back—burrrrrrn—and then everyone began to bite the AAP—fight, fight!—which then really got into the mood and started backbiting itself—lol. Nobody can figure out what the Bhushans, père et fils, are up to. Everyone is ignoring the Congress, because you have to have teeth to play, but who knows how many canines that lot will grow between now and February?

Nobody in this nightmare has mentioned a single substantive issue I can remember.

I hope somebody will explain all this to poor Barack Obama while he sits captive at this year’s extra-long, extra-show-offy Republic Day Parade. It seems we will have more floats, which is only a tiny bit better than making the same old set of floats go slower. If we’re going to spend the equivalent of some riffraff country’s GDP on security, we might as well extract the maximum bang for our buck.

Speaking of bangs, I don't even know if I'll have time to be an upright citizen and vote, because apparently the growth in India's Muslim population has left us Hindus at a vanishing 80 per cent, so the Vishva Hindu Parishad wants me to be a horizontal citizen and lie with men. It just goes to show that you can eventually find common ground with the unlikeliest people. I look forward to winking at men with trishuls in bars and saying, "Hey baby, wanna take ten for the team?" I might be atheist, secular, childless and on the brink of menopause, but I do find working on having children to be lots of fun, especially if there's no risk of actually having children as a result.

Maybe they’ll give me that new national honour, the Padma Shri Shri Baba Maharaj Award, for effort.

Six gods walk into a bar

(Published in Business Standard on January 10, 2015)

Q: Where do Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, and Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva go to try to forget about their stupidest followers?

A: Buddha-Bar.

The above is an increasingly endangered form of speech known as “a joke”, which is based on pricking some kind of balloon with an element of subversion. I made it up, so it’s kind of lame, but still. The sad epilogue to this joke is that the only thing the gods are going to achieve is a horrible hangover, because no amount of ambrosia can obliterate the tragic embarrassment of having followers who kill other people in the name of imaginary friends.

Jokes are based on varying degrees of offence, and in order to find them funny, you have to be aware of what is being sent up, and agree that it’s worthy of ridicule. This is often premised on the ability to laugh at oneself. But you don’t have to find jokes or satire funny for them to be perfectly valid ways of expressing opinion.

I’m explaining all this at tedious length because people keep complaining about ‘unnecessarily provocative’ humour, which suggests that they either don’t know or have forgotten that humour is based on irreverence, offence, and provocation.

I don’t think my joke is particularly offensive, but someone, somewhere might, because the number of people who roam the world with a cork up their arse is really just mind-boggling. But that’s okay. One of the great misconceptions about free speech is that the needlessly provocative jerks practicing it think they shouldn’t be criticised. This is, to use a technical term, balls. Those needlessly provocative jerks know that the right to criticise and offend is the basis of free speech, humorous or not, and cuts both ways. Any spoken or written criticism and rebuttal is fine. Peaceful protest is fine. If you really, really have a problem, you can take each other to court, or attempt to expand—or contract, depending on your views—the laws that regulate free speech in your country.

At no point does physical violence enter the picture.

Satire is only one form of provocative free speech. There’s also straight up provocative, artistically provocative, and crudely provocative. This is where people typically ask the question: Why be unnecessarily provocative? What’s the need?

Here is why provocation, and peaceful tolerance of it, is not just needless, but necessary: anything that lies outside a society’s comfort zone—rudeness, irreverence, provocation, heresy, blasphemy, all considered needless and dangerous—is a point of potential social and intellectual innovation and progress. Not all of it bears out that potential—some of it really is stupid, we decide, and move quickly on; but to borrow a scientific analogy, medical breakthroughs come out of a lot of wasteful experimental duds. We don’t scrap the whole endeavour because some of it sucked.

It was once considered ‘needlessly provocative’ to say that the earth moves around the sun, or that human evolved from apes. It was once considered needlessly provocative for women to demand the vote. It was once needlessly provocative to reject caste, or to show a kiss on film. It is only by risking offence, by risking discomfort, hostility, and dismissal, that ideas evolve and generate other ideas.

Social consensus in India, supported by laws like 295A, encourages an attitude of infantile docility when it comes to religious sentiment, placing a premium on coddling personal belief even at the cost of other individual and human rights and social progress. We do ourselves a social and intellectual disservice with this attitude, because all we have accomplished is to say: comply, or accept violent reprisal.

The Charlie Hebdo journalists who were murdered this week poked at every social taboo they could think of. If that is needlessly provocative, then we desperately need some needless provocation in this country.