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.