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.