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.