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 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.