Sunday, December 30, 2012

Down and Out on Hope Street

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Human beings love new beginnings. It makes for a great personal narrative! We want to leave our past behind and not be bogged down by it. We want to be a better person than we currently are. We want to have the perfect reply when confronted with a taunt -embedded with the truth - masquerading as joke. But we couldn’t think of anything at that time and now it’s too late. We can’t really change the past but we can always imagine living an inspirational life in a distant future. And there is nothing more inspiring than ‘a fresh start.’ And there is no better time than December to take stock of your life and convince yourself to begin anew. We seem to think that the year has only eleven months and December is the waiting period between the current year and the next. A whole month of being in limbo. December is like the child nobody cares about because he neither gets good marks nor can he play any sports.

There is something about December that turns everybody contemplative. We like to imagine that we spent the year actually doing something other than meandering through our life wondering where it all went wrong. So we try to quantify our whole year. We start making lists of everything that we’ve done. And coincidently, whatever we liked turns out to be the best the year had to offer. Top 10 things I could have done to improve my life instead of watching everything put out by HBO. Five things my grandmother said that were racist but I pretended were adorable. Thirty Thousand things I wanted to tell my boss but couldn’t because he’s a raving asshole and is the reason I die a little, everyday.

There is something about December which makes people overestimate their capacity for self-improvement. We make promises to ourselves that we know we won’t be able to follow through. And yet we still make them because hope is a flame which never burns out. Suddenly, we think that we’ll rise above our own mediocrity to start losing weight/quit smoking/stop re-tweeting compliments. We don’t want to begin the new year as ourselves. We want to spray some magic dust and turn into someone better. Even though the odds of that happening are even more remote than Sachin Tendulkar ever playing another one-day international, but hey, stranger things have happened, right?

There is something about December which makes everyone nostalgic. Suddenly, every old memory is drudged out and even people in their early twenties remember their childhood with a loud sigh and a fond head tilt. Did you really have the best time of your life when you were living in a socialist dystopia with one teevee channel, no internet and a twenty year wait for a telephone? Are you really sure that everything tastes better with a dash of poverty and a smidgen of desperation? Let’s face it. Everything seems better in hindsight. In reality, your childhood sucked. What’s so great about being a child anyway? Everyone tells you what to do; you have to pretend to feel guilty while blowing away your parent’s money on useless things like textbooks & tuition and you have to bribe your driver to make sure he doesn’t talk about all your recreational trips to your neighbourhood ‘Wine & Beer’ shop. If I wanted someone else to make rules for my life, I would have joined a religion.

There is something about December that turns everybody sincere. Maybe it’s the realisation that they’re getting closer to death or that they’ve already had a drink or two but even the most cynical people will sit beside you at a party and tell you about their hopes and dreams until you realize you’ve been listening to them drone on for an hour and you fake a phone call to get out of the conversation. It’s like everyone is going through the existential angst that you usually hear about in a Coldplay song.

There is something about December that makes people want to share its end with the whole world. For some reason a large percentage of people prefer to bring in the new year in a room full of strangers, eating cold food and drinking watered down alcohol, while being “entertained” by out of work performers. Sounds as exciting as a hernia operation! So many plans are made to be broken. And most of the time, even if you try to follow through on them, you end up not reaching your destination because of a traffic jam and you begin your fresh start with a road full of hostile, resentful strangers while trying to assure your empty stomach that you will be at your destination shortly as you calmly rue the day you decided to buy the tickets to your local rotary club’s “rocking” new year bash featuring some generic Punjabi pop song yeller. You sit there and contemplate how this came about and where it all went wrong.

Just like Mother Nature intended.

Have a great new year! Probably going to be just like the last one, but, whatever.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Bah! Humbug!

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Santa looked out at the falling snow through his small window. The calm outside was quite in contrast to the turmoil he was going through. He tried to remember the last time he had been happy. He drew a blank. He was unhappy before all the troubles started. He never wanted to go into the family business. He wanted to be an accountant. It wasn’t a glamorous job, he agreed. But he didn’t want glamour. He had seen celebrity up close. Fame had left both his father, the previous St. Nicolas and his Uncle Roger, the Easter bunny, broken and shattered. To be the most important person in the world for one day and then ignored for the rest of the year took a real toll. His father turned to alcoholism and Uncle Roger became reckless and began to break into homes with little children and steal all their eggs. This continued until the High Council of Festival Mascots stripped him of his title and had him committed to a correctional facility in North Korea. Santa was able to save his father by promising to take over the whole enterprise immediately. He forgot about his dreams and saved his family. Then everything went well until he ran into Lindsey Lohan one day. She introduced him to the other white snow and he was lost to its charms. He stopped paying attention and his assistant, Tim Cook, took over the operation. Cook dismantled everything. First he sold all the reindeer to a Russian billionaire. (All of them except Rudolf. Rudolf escaped captivity and fled to America, where he became the most famous reindeer in the world when he gave an emotional interview to Barbra Walters. His memoir about his struggle became a bestseller and even spawned a Lifetime movie starring Susan Sarandon and Rafalca Romney.) Then, he fired all the elves and got them deported to Middle Earth. Finally, he outsourced the workshop to a Chinese Foxconn facility and Bangalore’ed the back office and logistics. Everything was being done at a quarter of the cost that it used to. Santa was rendered jobless. And once the money disappeared, so did all the starlets. He was left alone, to ponder his fate. And to look at the snow.

If the Mayans were right and the world ended two days ago and you’re reading this while scavenging for food in a nuclear wasteland, then think of this as one of the reasons why mother earth hates your guts and tried to drown your whole species. And if nothing happens – which is a remote possibility because how can a bunch of superstitious tribesmen who lived hundreds of years ago and couldn’t even predict the demise of their own empire be wrong about the future – then welcome to yet another week in which we celebrate the triumph of consumerism.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate material things. I love them! If living in India has taught me anything, it’s that there is no problem that can’t be made to go away as long as you’re prepared to throw enough money at it. I’m just tired of celebrating this love every month under the guise of a ‘festival.’ There is always some holiday lurking in the corner, requiring us to buy things for the people around us and forcefully spending time with them. That’s what all the advertisements tell us! There is no amount of heartbreak and pain that cannot be compensated for by a fancy gift. You can be a horrible boss around the year, but if on one day of the year you gift your secretary a box of crappy chocolates and ask her to go home early, you’re a shoo-in for ‘boss of the year.’ Treat your wife like your own personal slave for ten years and then buy her forgiveness by giving her a comically large diamond necklace. To make up for all those times you ignored your grandparents, you can buy them a ring-tone of their favourite classic song for their mobile phone. Most of the time we don’t even realize what we’re celebrating. In one of the biggest festivals in the country, we celebrate a guy who went to war to defend the honour of his wife but then dumped her because his laundry guy said something uncharitable about her while we burn the effigy of a guy who respected women enough to take no for an answer.

Twitter is the last refuge for all those who want the festive masses to get off their lawn. However, this year on twitter there was a backlash against the backlash. Mostly from nostalgic NRIs missing the deafening sound of firecrackers and the breathlessness brought on by the large amounts of smoke. They told us to stop whining and start appreciating our good fortune. This is what India is all about, they fumed. Which was true, because who else would know more about the ‘authentic Indian experience’ than a person who, before visiting, ingests enough pills to immunize an entire African country? Thanks for your advice, captain. I’ll keep it right next to those unopened boxes of Ferrero Rocher you love to bring over.

Even the Mayan apocalypse won’t be able to make me open them.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

How the Grinch Stole Your Democracy

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of the perks of modern life is the convenience of being able to order things online. For someone who hates shopping and goes to buy things two times a year, it’s a godsend. The best of both worlds! You mean I can get what I want without any human contact and with enough pretence of a bargain to satiate my ancient Indian urge to always seek the best deal? Shut up and take my money! However, this sweet, blissful utopia is interrupted by the constant emails one receives from every online retailer once you make a purchase on their website. Indian or foreign, they go after you with the zeal of a crazy person with whom you once went on a disastrous date and who hasn’t stopped trying to get in touch with you ever since. And yet, you can’t punish them for this. What are you going to do? Go shopping to an actual shopping place (plazas? bazaars? junctions? I don’t even know what people call them anymore!) and be forced to explain to a real person what you want and then pay in cash? Ugh. You will take away my online fix from my cold, bankrupt hands.

And I’m probably not the only one who is addicted to the instant gratification of the purchase button. The UPA seems to be suffering from the same ailment. Seems like everytime they have to win a vote in parliament, they ‘add’ SP and BSP MPs to their ‘shopping cart’ and click ‘purchase.’ I hope they’re at least getting a ‘frequent buyer’ discount.

Like the vote on FDI, which became a farce even before the debate was to begin. The BJP wanted a discussion which would allow both the houses to vote on the policy. The UPA dithered on holding the discussion until it could ‘convince’ enough ‘allies’ to vote in its favour. Or at least walk out before the vote giving it a majority by default. While the BJP disrupted the Lok Sabha session to get it adjourned, the Congress got its fair weather friends to interrupt proceedings in the Rajya Sabha under silly pretences. Synergy! Bipartisanship! Strategery!

The discussion in the Lok Sabha was held under the watchful eyes of the speaker, Meira Kumar, who reflected the calm demeanour of a serial killer. Even a government school substitute teacher monitoring a class in which half the students get serious injuries and the other half jump from a ledge has more control over her class than Ms. Kumar has over her MPs. Once her term as the speaker ends, she will go back to her original job - being the voice of a much maligned cellular network who, for some reason, seems quite delighted to inform you that the number you’re trying to call is not available at the moment. The speeches in the house were filled with so much jargon that our MPs were instantly invited to be the featured speakers at the next TED conference. Our sanctimonious parliamentarians even managed to sully the good reputation of the Indian potato. Allegedly, they make for small fries. The last we heard, the Indian potato was being cheered up by his girlfriend, who told him that it’s not the size that matters, it’s how you eat the fries.

The discussion in the Rajya Sabha was even worse. Which is expected because most of these ‘elders’ are rejects from the Lok Sabha. They are so unelectable, even their families voted for the other candidate. But since both sides needed all the votes they could gather, it was all hands on deck. Everyone, except Sachin Tendulkar showed up. He wasn’t able to because he was busy protecting India from another foreign entity. And unlike his large fleet of planes, Vijay Mallya decided to make himself useful and was also present to cast his vote. I think he’s not yet familiar with how Parliament works because he was overheard ordering a drink to whoever looked like a waiter to him. The proceedings of the Rajya Sabha were being handled by the most nondescript man in India, Vice-President Hamid Ansari. The only reason he shows up for work everyday is because no one has told him yet that he’s in a coma.

In the end, the government’s investment paid off and the opposition’s motion was defeated in both the houses of Parliament, making the CEO of Wal-Mart India’s Governor-General for life. Seems like certain former chief ministers of UP will get a lot of ‘clean chits’ in their Christmas stocking this year. That’s probably what the framers of our constitution intended. Letting the fate of the country’s major policy decisions rest on the whims and fancies of two of the most opportunistic, vile, corrupt and self-serving politicians this country has ever seen.

If only politicians also came with a money-back guarantee.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Free Speech

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Most of the time, whenever someone talks about supporting free speech in this country, they always end up following it with a qualifier. “I’m all for free speech, but we need to have some restrictions!” Even the constitution does the same thing. You can have freedom of speech and expression, but within reasonable restrictions. And that’s where the problem begins, when we leave those ‘reasonable restrictions’ up for interpretation. With each successive generation, the ‘reasonable restrictions’ keep expanding while the space for free speech & expression keeps getting narrower. You can take a walk in this park and get some fresh air, as long as you also breathe in all the toxic smoke coming in from the factory next to it.

This has been a banner year for all the free speech restrictionists. Whether it involves preventing writers from speaking at literary festivals, or stopping artists from displaying their wares. They even managed to turn something as mundane as posting something on the internet into an act of civil disobedience. Free speech is one of those things which are defined by absolutes. Either speech is free or it’s restricted. When you add a qualifier, it’s an invitation for other people to do the same.

The Internet has been one of the biggest battlefields in the war on free speech. Recently, when a couple of young adults were arrested for posting harmless updates on Facebook, the Minister of Communication and ‘India’s nanny,’ Kapil Sibal, said that he was quite saddened by the misuse of the IT act. He was shocked that a law put in specifically to suppress dissent, was being used to suppress dissent. That’s like putting a ‘for rent’ sign outside your house and then wondering where all the prospective tenants came from. He didn’t start the fire, he just wrote a vague piece of legislation which could be widely interpreted and misused even by those who apply the law using the most stringent standards. When you don’t trust another party with the law you’ve made, then there is something wrong with your law. You don’t leave the door to the henhouse wide open and then get to pretend that you could never even imagine that the fox would go inside.

People like Dr. Eyebrows would like you to believe that the internet is one huge quagmire of filth from which they need to protect the innocent and the impressionable. They portray the internet as some huge lawless wasteland where anything goes; a wild, wild west where duels are fought by drowning your opponent in a quick stream of sarcasm and won by the first person to be compared with Hitler. They don’t use the internet themselves so they imagine it to be somewhat of a virtual Bangkok where temptation lurks in each corner.

What they conveniently miss is the Internet’s ability to correct itself. Most of the properties in this so called wasteland are owned by huge corporations whose interest resides in removing malicious content. Even Reddit, the ‘Uttar Pradesh’ of the internet, has removed content deemed inappropriate or malicious.

Of course our elected representatives are not big on discussions. They spend all their life shouting over each other, whether in Parliament or on teevee.

But what about us?

Free speech doesn’t just involve being able to say what you want. It also means being able to say what you want without being intimidated to take it back. It involves being able to write a book without being placed on the wrong side of an angry mob. Free speech means being able to question a national celebration of death without being questioned about your patriotism. It involves being able to have a character in your movie call a city by any name you want. Free speech means not throwing a tantrum on national teevee because someone on the internet was mean to you. It involves being able to hear things you don’t like, no matter how angry it makes you. Free speech means keeping all your ‘hurt sentiments’ to yourself.

I, for one, think that people need to be more tolerant of other’s opinions.

Hey, if you don’t believe me, ask all the people I blocked on twitter.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

All Hail the Common Man

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of the major myths of our country’s popular culture is about the power of the common man. The belief that if one day the common man decides to finally rise and take on the system, nothing would stand in his way. The system, hitherto unresponsive, would suddenly start bending for him. Judges would remember their oath to uphold the rule of law. Lawyers would remember their responsibilities as an officer of the court. The police would suddenly start protecting the very people they were bullying till about a day ago. And all the corrupt political leaders would be left stranded at the mercy of the benevolent mob.

We’ve seen this narrative used in countless movies, novels and teevee shows. That’s what passes for ‘social justice’ in this country. One solitary person taking on some of the major evils that prevail in society and winning. However, the ‘winning’ part of the story never happens in real life. Though, not for want of trying! There have been many people who have promised to take one for the team and be the David to all the Goliaths. Alas, they become a Goliath themselves or die trying.

The latest representative of this narrative and the country’s new false hero is one Arvind Kejriwal. He’s spent the past two years crafting a narrative for himself as a crusader against corruption. First behind the scenes, using an old man with ancient ideas as his prop, then dumping the old man when he became a nuisance and becoming the face of the movement himself. He then turned the fledging movement into a political party, pretending to do it for the sake of the people even though this was his plan all along. He spent the last few weeks repackaging information already available in the public domain as a ‘new exposé’ against members of the establishment, thus earning himself the badge of a crusader in the eyes of the uninformed. This week, he finally officially launched his political party, naming it after the common man. Just like the most oppressive republics have the word ‘democratic’ in their official name, the main concern of party of the common man is the self-aggrandisement of its convenor.

In fact, having a duplicitous name is not the only idea Kejriwal has stolen from oppressive regimes. His propaganda skills were on display when he took to twitter to complain about being placed under a media blackout. Unless they never sent me the memo changing the meaning of the word “blackout” to ‘having huge visibility,’ this was simply not true. Not only was Kejriwal giving one-on-one interviews on prime-time, but every major news channel had a report about his party on their main broadcasts. Why was the media-politics nexus victimising Arvind Kejriwal by putting him on teevee everyday?

Another myth Kejriwal perpetuates is that there is no ‘common man’ in Parliament. The truth is that a lot of our politicians come from very ‘humble beginnings.’ Mulayam Singh Yadav used to be a wrestler in a small town in UP. Sushil Kumar Shinde used to be a bailiff in a Solapur sessions court. Manmohan Singh used to be a professor at Delhi University. And yet, they (and others like them) couldn’t help but be tempted by the trappings of power. Our politicians are not some special species born and bred in secret and suddenly appointed to lord over us as if it were their birthright. People vote for them because they identify with them. We believe that if we elect someone just like us to be the captain, the ship will always run in the right direction.

Kejriwal’s version of political reform is to delegate all important decisions to informal village panchayats and local resident welfare associations. Because according to him, that’s where the wisdom lies. People should be able to choose which law they want to follow or not. Or as members of the Khap Panchayat put it “What is a law and why is it trying to marry my daughter?” Will not the most corrupt & vile people inhabit these ‘noble’ bodies? Will they not suffer from the same problems as the Lok & Vidhan Sabhas? Also, in a country where a random sample of five people wouldn’t be able to decide upon what to order for lunch, Kejriwal wants to consult everyone on important foreign policy decisions. Too many cooks never spoiled the broth, apparently.

Even the economic policies advocated by the Kejriwal politburo are based on magical thinking. They want the prices of commodities to be fixed by ‘the people.’ Let consumers decide what they want to pay for goods & services. Just put a tip-jar outside your shop and watch the money roll in because if there is one thing people in India like to do, it’s paying for things they want to purchase! 

If the common man is a superhero, then reality is his kryptonite.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Tale of Two Thackerays

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Last week, the country lost a man of great influence. A man who ended up changing the politics of his home state forever. A man who didn’t need to win an election to make the government apparatus bend to his diktats. But enough about Ponty Chadha!

In a just world, the demise of such an important man would be all everyone would focus on. However, if you turned on the teevee, all you heard about was the death of an old, obscure politician called Bal Thackeray. News anchors couldn't stop talking about how great this man was.  Even Arnab Goswami, who shows his independence by interrupting politicians of all political parties, suspended his usual persona to show us his gentle side. You could see that he was holding back his own tears while he was talking about the passing of this great messiah. After all, this was the person on whom Arnab had based the character he plays every night on India’s #1 variety comedy show, Times Newshour. In fact, perhaps for the first time in its history, everyone on Indian television seemed to be in agreement that the country had indeed lost its most magnanimous leader. Perhaps such a tragedy merits such unifying gestures. Even the members of the Hindi Film Industry – a group of people who cannot even agree on a name for their industry – were steadfast and united in their praise for the departed. The last time India had been united like this, Emperor Ashok was earning his stripes and establishing his candidacy for lending his name to the National Emblem. If there was any doubt to his greatness, would millions of people gathered for his funeral? If there is anything history has taught us it’s that if millions of people worship a person, he can never be evil.

I then realized that I should get out of my ignorant stupor and use the Google machine to find out more about such a dear leader. But I was shocked and astounded! There was no mention of the Bal Thackeray everyone was talking about on teevee. But there was lots of information about another person named Bal Thackeray, who lived in Mumbai too and wasn’t the omnipotent force for good that the our Bal Thackeray was. In fact, I couldn’t find any information about the original Bal Thackeray. The person Pritish Nandy called one of his ‘finest friends’ with whom he could always enjoy great conversation along with a warm glass of beer and whose death made Lata Mangeshkar feel orphaned. Someone seemed to have scrubbed all the archives of the news reports which point towards the contributions made by the original Bal Thackeray to the development of the country that his supporters evangelize about.

Though I must admit that reading about what Bal Thackeray’s namesake had been upto was quite a horrifying experience. He appears to have used Balasahab’s name to create a boilerplate for anyone who wants to rule through hatred and fear. Start by creating ‘an other’ by misleading a large group of people (united only through a single attribute which they share due to the accident of birth) into believing how their share of happiness is being stolen by another large group of people (united only through an attribute which they share due to the accident of birth). Pretend to be the messiah who will save them from this group and their usurping tendencies. Beat some members of the villainous group but do nothing to help your so-called own people.  Insulate yourself from any criticism by convincing people that anyone who dares to question you is insulting not only the proud traditions of your people, but is spitting on the legacy of the great ancient king himself and must be put down like the diseased-ridden animal they are. Lather, rinse and repeat.

Bal Thackeray is not dead. He will live through every instance of an innocent teenager being arrested for daring to share his opinion on the Internet. He will live through each time a mob ransacks a home/office/clinic because they didn’t like what the people residing/working there said. He will live through every work of art which is prevented from being shown to the public because it hurt someone’s made up sentiments. He will live through every filmmaker who goes to the house of a politician with an apology for their supposed transgression and a request to call off their goons.

Bal Thackeray made sure Gotham city will always have a Bane.

Along with a lot of dark nights.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dude, Where’s My Patron?

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As the festival of lights screeched its way into the calendar like a rogue firecracker, the city of Delhi got ready to say goodbye to the scorching summer and welcome the wavering winter by decking up its houses in different shades of lights. The ones belonging to minimalists were decorated like they were being prepared for a showroom opening, the dreamers had decorated their houses like they were characters out of a YashRaj movie and the large dwellings housing the extra enthusiastic were decorated with enough lights to power an entire solar system.

Of course, winter in Delhi also means another seasonal session of Parliament. Our MPs get together for a few days next month for another epic wastage of taxpayer money. Recently, we were provided with a preview of things to come when the leader of the opposition and potential prime ministerial candidate (pro tip: if a member of the BJP is able to breathe, then they’re a Prime Ministerial candidate) gave a speech specifying her legislative priorities. If on any day of the session her party sticks around for more than ten minutes before rushing to the ‘well of the house',’ she plans to introduce bills penalising those who dare to defy her religion by referencing names of mythological characters in movies and on teevee. She also talked about protecting cows from being slaughtered. The last time she was in the news for strongly advocating a policy position, she had demanded that the Bhagavad Gita be made the national book, after a small court in Siberia was entertaining a petition to ban it. Seems like she really has her pulse on the important issues of the day!

Now, Mrs. Swaraj is neither joining PETA nor appearing on the cover of Vogue wearing a saffron fedora anytime soon. These are the issues she talks about because she knows that these are the sort of issues that are going to get people to talk about her. She has to be seen doing something! You think talking about child malnutrition or illiteracy is going to get her on prime-time? She knows her constituency well. They’re going to be quite happy that she’s pissing off the asshole secularists by trying to legislate a belief that exists solely because some dude said something hundreds of years ago. Holy foolproof argument, batman!

Anyway, we don’t elect our politicians to lead. We elect them to be patrons. We want extra gas connections, free colour teevees and subsidised prices. Get your 'sound economic policies’ off my lawn.

We don’t need a government run by professionals who know what they’re talking about. That is why we ended up with an environment minister who thought global warming was a hoax and a health minister who thought that late night teevee was the best method of birth control. We’re happy enough if the government is being run by someone with whom we can establish some sort of kinship. Like in UP, where the two main parties spend all their time in government avenging “their people.” One of the first thing Mayawati does after taking office is to transfer anyone with the last name ‘Yadav’ holding positions of consequence in the police or the bureaucracy to posts which are considered as ‘punishments,’ replacing them with her people. Then whenever Mulayam wins back power, one of the first things he does is to transfer those people back. 

Elected officials - whether they are in the ruling party or the opposition, whether they are an MP, MLA ,a member of the municipal corporation or local panchayat - can do a lot to change the lives of their constituents. But most of our elected officials are not there to do real things. They have favours to payback and coffers to fill. If they spend their time in office learning about the issues that actually affect people, when will they find time to earn enough kickbacks to be able to pay for the next election campaign?

And no one really bothers to burden our ‘lawmakers’ by asking them questions about policy. The latest ‘comeback kid’ of Indian politics, amateur comedian Laloo Prasad Yadav has been getting lots of coverage lately. Most of the articles focus on the fact that he’s making jokes at his rallies again, which, for some reason, translates into him becoming a strong contender to win back the state! Having lost a number of elections doesn’t mean that Prasad has to now offer specific solutions to people’s problem. That would be silly thing to do! Instead, he has generously offered to award the chief ministerial post to a member of any caste, should he win the next election. Who wouldn’t like to elect such a progressive leader?

Now please excuse me while I courier my local MP my proposed thousand page draft bill that bans the use of the word “chillax.”

Let’s just hope he can read?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Young King and the Selfish Giant

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As he waved to the cheering hoards after his victory speech, Obama looked like a vanquishing hero from a big-budget Hollywood movie. This would be the perfect place for the credits to roll in the inevitable Obama biopic that will be made starring Will Smith as Barack, Halle Berry as Michelle - in an Oscar-winning portrayal that will finally revive her career – and the armour suit from the original Robocop movie as his Republican opponent, Mitch(?) Romney. It is a great story! The opposition threw everything they had at Obama. Continuous denial of his legitimacy, allegations of voter fraud, blocking legislation that would help the economy recover, blaming him for things that Bush was responsible for and using dog-whistle rhetoric to keep reminding their base that he’s black. Yet he still came out ahead, winning a decisive victory by pulverizing Romney in the Electoral College. And the non-crazy half of America and the rest of the world heaved a sigh of relief when they found out that the next commander-in-chief of the largest military in the world wasn’t going to be a cartoonish Bond villain slash Business Consultant. The End.

Hopefully, the movie version would be better than election day coverage we saw on teevee. It was a prime example of why news viewership is at its lowest ebb.  Al-Jazeera was continuously wondering how a country could change its President without first having a huge number of people gather and protest in a large, historic park. What do you mean the President leaves office after losing an election? And the military has no say on choosing the winner? You must have a really kind emir! The BBC World Service was bemused that anyone would want regular, timely updates about an event that could potentially have an impact on their lives. Oh sure, you can have election coverage. But, first, here’s a six hour documentary on making biscuits. Meanwhile, CNN seemed to have been broadcasting from a dystopian future in which humans only exist as holograms and the dominant species on earth is made up of large screens which constantly need to be swiped. As the night progressed and Obama’s path to victory began to look apparent and it became clear that at least for the next four years a majority of Americans had vetoed the Republican party’s plan to install a President named after a glove,  Fox News – America’s election HQ for racists, bigots and wearers of adult diapers –  was self-destructing on live teevee. One of their analysts, Karl Rove, even called the swing-state of denial for Romney. That was because he had been given millions of dollars by anonymous billionaires to spend on defeating Obama and he had nothing to show for it. Karl Rove was last spotted outside a bus station, offering to give a hand-job in exchange for a ticket to Mexico.

Watching Indian news channels was a real learning experience. Apparently, Obama battled ‘anti-incumbency’ to keep his ‘vote-bank’ together and was at an advantage because of still being able to maintain his image as a ‘youth-icon.’ The most important issue in the election was ‘friendly relations with India.’  And no matter who won, they would cancel all outsourcing to India, forever.

Our journalists seemed confused by the events of the day. Not that I blame them! America has such a strange way of selecting their President. The political parties in America choose their leader a long time before election day so that the voters can at least get to superficially know who they are voting for. The large number of people present for Obama’s speech had gathered there voluntarily without being provided with any alcohol or poultry related incentive. And they were cheering not out of subservient formality, but out of actual love & respect for their political leader. Americans don’t realize that choosing your leader can be hard work. This is why real democracies just let the party high-command pick them.

Now, here’s what we won’t see in the movie: collateral damage from drone strikes, secret kill lists, the war on whistleblowers and the continued dominance of the military-industrial complex.

But, hey, that’s what crappy sequels are for!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Barack the Vote, America

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

In a couple of days, when a majority of Americans get in line to vote for the next President, it would behove them well to remember 15 September, 2008, the day when Lehman brothers filed for bankruptcy and bought the global financial system to the brink of collapse, while the Bush Administration did nothing; or maybe 29 August, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina flooded the town of New Orleans causing extraordinary damage to both life and property while the Bush Administration did nothing; or maybe 1 May 2003, when President Bush gave a staged speech on a navy vessel declaring the end of the Iraq war with a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner in the background; or maybe even back to 6 August, 2001 when during his daily ‘presidential brief’, Bush was presented with a classified document titled ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.’, a warning that subsequent events revealed wasn’t heeded. 

Earlier this year, during the Republican National Convention, as Mitt Romney accepted the nomination for President, the crowd applauded tepidly. The convention didn’t look like a meeting of happy party members enthusiastically nominating a Presidential candidate. It appeared to be more like a Klan meeting. An auditorium filled with resentful people who were angry at the world for moving on and leaving them behind. A whole swathe of people with low I.Q’s yearning for a past which only exists in their head. A political party whose members had resigned from reality and were more than happy to live in the bubble where they felt safe and happy. Just like their guns, you’d have to take their bigotry, ignorance and fear from their cold, dead hands.

In the movie Game Change, Ed Harris’s John McCain warns Julian Moore’s Sarah Palin of letting the extreme wing of the Republican party co-opt her. Holy Foreshadowing, Batman! Because that’s exactly what happened. Not only did she become the uncrowned leader of the extreme wing of her party, she became its mascot. Yes, the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower is now the party of a reality teevee star who denies climate change, hates gay people, has nothing but contempt for anyone who has read any other book besides the bible and thinks Barack Obama is an Islamist Atheist Communist Terrorist-hugger. (They can’t even reconcile to the fact that a single person cannot be all these things at the same time.)

In the Republican bubble, the guy who ordered the kill on Bin Laden and drops bombs on terrorists using his killer flying robots everyday is soft on terrorism. In the Republican bubble, the guy who saved the American auto-industry from receding into oblivion and saved the global economy from collapse is hurting economic growth. In the Republican bubble, not constantly wanting to bomb every country in the world in alphabetical order is ‘going on an apology tour.’ In the Republican bubble, a person whose life has been investigated, examined and analyzed to such an extent that even his letters to his college girlfriend have been made public still remains ‘unvetted.’  In the Republican bubble, passing a healthcare law that has eluded five previous Presidents and is based on a successful law enacted by a Republican Governor is the sort of tyranny last seen during the Third Reich. (Oh, and by the way, the healthcare law was the only achievement of a one-term Governor known as Mitt Romney. Wonder what happened to that guy!)

When Mitt Romney first started running for office back in 1994, he pretended to be more liberal than his opponent, Edward Kennedy. He pretended to be a pro-choice, gay rights advocating, independent minded, moderate Republican. Even though he lost, he used the same shtick to become Governor in 2002. However, by the time he had started running for President in 2005 moderate Republicans were an endangered species. By 2011, when he announced his second run, moderate Republicans had become an urban myth, like unicorns or a person from Bangalore who doesn’t constantly talk about the weather. So post-2011 Mitt Romney became a ‘severely’ conservative candidate who wants to ban abortion & gay marriage, repeal the healthcare law and cut taxes for the mega-rich. Now he was for deporting undocumented immigrants, building a large fence on the border with Mexico, constantly hugging Israel and denying the existence of global warming. However, since we live in the era of YouTube, for every position taken by conservative Mitt Romney, there is a video of moderate Mitt Romney advocating for the opposing side. Even chameleons escaping a garden full of predators change colour less often.

Romney’s stated foreign policy goals are too unrealistic even for a Tom Clancy novel. He wants to start a trade-war with China and has been constantly talking about bombing Iran to prevent them from making a nuclear weapon. However, during the foreign policy debate with Obama he jettisoned all the previous positions he held and basically took the stance that he’d have the same foreign policy as Obama except he’d be more racist.

Not that Obama is a President who metaphorically walks on water. He’s made more than his share of mistakes and hasn’t been able to deliver on some of his campaign promises. He hasn’t been able to close Guantanamo Bay, his stance on drug use is purely political and he has expanded the Imperial Presidency. Yet, with him you know where he stands on most of the issues. And he doesn’t falter from doing the right thing just because it comes with a political cost. Mitt Romney is a shape-shifter who tries to fit into whatever mould he imagines you want him to.

The world is still recovering from the after-shocks of the last Republican presidency.

Let’s hope America doesn’t saddle us with another.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Article Is About You

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As he switched off the teevee, he could see the sun rising from his window. However, today this view wouldn’t cheer him up. He had just watched the foreign policy debate between Obama and Romney and he was disappointed that India wasn’t even mentioned once. How many more times will he have to face such humiliation? He feels his country is just a dirty little secret for the President. He took billions of dollars of our hard-earned money and then totally forgot about us. Each time he ignores us, it’s a slap in the face of the awesome future we had planned together. How can you do that to us, Barry? How can you slap?

As a country full of people who need constant validation, it was no surprise that the main point of discussion after the Presidential debate broadcast was that no one mentioned India during the debate. We’re like that character in sitcom who only pays attention to what other people are saying only when they’re talking about him. Even though the debate revolved around which candidate would be more awesome at bombing more brown people, people were upset that no one gave us a shout-out. After all, we invented the zero, bhangra music and Anil Kapoor. Isn’t that reason enough for everyone to keep talking about us, all the time?

Our politicians, diplomats and journalists have a schizophrenic love/hate relationship with America and its President.

Our politicians love to blame the ‘ubiquitous’ foreign hand for everything they are unable to explain. A foreign hand is behind the grassroots protest against nuclear power. The foreign hand teaches people that Internet censorship is bad. The foreign hand is in your telephone, tapping all your calls. And yet, the very same people trample over each other to shake the foreign hand when he comes over for a visit.

Our diplomats carry around a secret boner for the Republicans. Especially for their knight in faux cowboy boots, George W.  Bush. Because he does things they have always wanted to do. He didn't worry about "global warming" or the "Geneva convention" or "International treaties"  and would bomb, whoever he wanted, whenever he wanted. So what if a lot of civilians died as collateral damage? Who has time to find out if they’re bombing the right target or invading the right country when they’re busy choking on a pretzel? Christopher Columbus took a wrong turn - because he was using Apple Maps for navigation - and look how well it turned out for him. Republicans are always good for India! Who even remembers the time a Republican Administration sent a battleship to the Bay of Bengal to try to intimidate India during the ‘71 war or the time when another Republican administration funded the start of Osama Bin Laden and his ‘Jihad Jamboree.’ And don’t forget that while the last Republican administration might have given billions of dollars to the architect of the Kargil invasion to go shopping for weapons, they probably never intended to start another arms-race.  

Our news anchors act like entitled fangirls. They’re quite brave when they’re shouting at the teevee screen but turn to an embarrassing pile of mush once they’re actually faced with a member of the American government. One news anchor even asked Hillary Clinton on her first visit to India as Secretary of State to affirm America’s ‘love’ for India? What are we, a geopolitical entity or a girl in a rom-com who is about to lose her virginity to the wrong guy? Our journalists’ creepy obsession with America isn’t just limited to having a love-hate relationship with their political system. Our domestic news is also framed in American terms. Every terrorist attack in the country is India’s ‘9/11.’ Every government scandal is India’s ‘watergate.’ Every award ceremony in the country is India’s version of the Oscars. Aamir Khan’s teevee show talks about social issues, so naturally, he is India’s Oprah. And India has had more versions of Obama than the population of Kenya.

Our politicians, South Block mandarins and news anchors forget that only British Prime Ministers are constitutionally obligated to have unrequited feelings for the American President.

And that they’re supposed to get over him once he leaves office.

He knows that one day, Barry will be his friend. Until then he will sing Barry Can You Hear Me/Barry Can You See Me to the moon every night. He can take solace in the fact that some time in the near future, we will take our rightful place, right next to America, and both of us together will heal the world and make it a better place for you and for me and the entire human race. One day Barry will come home. Until then he will do what he does best. After all, the nation deserves to know.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Entitlement’s Children

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

A few years ago, a rent-a-mob ‘protesting’ a book attacked the institute where the author had done his research and destroyed important historical artifacts. A few months ago, the Indian government lodged an official protest with the US state department over a joke on a teevee show. A few weeks ago, an MP from Gujarat threatened a toll booth operator who dared to ask him to pay the toll.  A few days ago, members of the Pune police force physically attacked organizers of a music festival who refused to provide them with free tickets to a concert. These disparate events are connected not only by their absurdity, but by the feeling of entitlement present in the attitude of each of the perpetrators.

We’ve become a society of entitled individuals.

Our politicians feel entitled to living a privileged life on the taxpayer’s expense. Why pay for anything ever again when someone was foolish enough to send you to a legislative body? What do you mean I went for a vacation to Las Vegas? I was there in an official capacity: to study the effects of topless ladies doing amazing circus stunts on the general population. My luggage was a few hundred kilos over the allowed limit because as your elected representative I carry a heavy burden on my shoulders. One of the few times our MPs come together is to either give themselves more perks or to censure a private citizen who has dared to criticize them. Just because we barely show up to work or leave early if we do, doesn’t mean you should be criticizing us. If you think this is easy why don’t you try it? Haha, kidding! If you even think about doing this we’re going to send you into oblivion.

Our police lords over the very people they are hired to serve. The police in this country are like the ‘guardian’ of an underage heir in a 1980’s Hindi movie. Not only does the guardian cheat the heir out of all her money; he also turns her into his own personal slave. What do you mean your car got stolen? Are you sure? Why do you even need a car? You should try walking. Nobody walks to their destination anymore. Maybe the thief did you a favour? No, no need to write down a formal complaint. I’ll remember all the details. They don’t call me ‘Detective Karamchand’ for nothing!

Our governments feel entitled enough to tell us what books we can read or what movies we can see or which words on teevee we don’t deserve to hear. Because in real life nobody ever abuses anybody else and children are born when two flowers suddenly fall on each other. Why should we let you decide what you want to watch or read? Who do you think you are, an adult? The government can also place any restriction on the Internet because they’re entitled to their own interpretation of the law.  You can’t see this because . . . terrorism?

One of the major myths in this country which has become part of the conventional wisdom is that old people always know better. This is the sort of thinking that empowers arbitrary groups like the ‘Khap Panchayats’ to make decisions for other people, especially the young. A bunch of old, entitled men sitting around, making idiotic pronouncements which their community takes as gospel truth. A group of people so wise that they force members of the same family to kill each other for violating their ‘code.’

We’ve also convinced ourselves that we’re entitled to everything that we want. Whether it’s the parking spot someone else has been waiting for, or the first place in the line. If we don’t like something in the public domain, we’re entitled to break public property to protest against it. We’re entitled to discriminate against people based on an attribute of theirs we don’t like, but when other people do the same then they’re being racists. We’re entitled to use loudspeakers for our early morning prayers because what sort of heathen would object to worshipping god?

Nowadays, everyone seems to be entitled to their own facts too. Foreign investment equals colonialism! Global warming is a hoax! Eating crappy Chinese food makes you want to rape!

Now please excuse me while I let my dog out so he can relieve himself on my neighbour’s car.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Another One Bites The Dust

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As the lights dimmed and he headed back to his ‘make-up’ room, he looked back once again to the stage to see the last remnants of his dignity. He had just done a scripted-to-look-impromptu dance with a former leading lady who appeared on his show to promote her comeback movie. He used to be the biggest superstar in the country and now he has to suffer a thousand indignities everyday being a circus monkey for people he wouldn’t even have looked at when he was at the peak of his career. People who only are allowed to appear on his show because he needs them. His first teevee show gave the channel enough ratings to keep them on the top for a decade. Now, to attract a decent audience, he needs to use people with sad stories to sell as a crutch. His father was right: if you want people to stop caring about you, grow old.

One of the most popular tropes on twitter among people who don’t have anything funny or original to say is to make a ‘joke’ about someone in the news being a contestant on Bigg Boss. This sort of came true last week when commode enthusiast and alleged cartoonist Aseem Trivedi became a contestant on that show. Because the best way to fight injustice is to participate in a show famous for playing psychotic mind games with its contestants and is moderated by a man whose career is dedicated to making bullying seem kitschy-cool! Trivedi made so much noise about being in jail and when he was freed he voluntarily entered a large compound in which he, along with other inmates, has to follow a rigid set of rules – which if broken invite their own set of penalties, receive food rations barely enough for sustenance, and can only exit when asked to do so by a presiding authority. Well played! Seems like all our modern messiahs want to do is become famous enough to get on teevee.

Of course, in India, the shortest route to fame - other than leading a vague protest against the government’s policies - is to become a contestant on a reality show. We love the people on reality shows! Sure, we forget about them the minute the current season of the show ends, but electing a proper Indian Idol is more important than electing a proper government.

And we have a whole spate of reality shows to choose from! You have your regular talent shows, in which people who didn’t succeed in their actual chosen profession select people who are going to fail in theirs. Nowadays, most of these shows have turned into a contest to determine who is more poor and desperate. Will you vote for the grocery vendor from a village without electricity situated deep inside the Himalayan mountains whose parents have to trek 200 kilometres just to catch a glimpse of their only offspring on teevee or would you vote for the orphan from the streets of the badlands of UP who survived famine, caste war, family feuds, dacoit recruitment officers and Anu Malik’s poetry to reach the finale. Why wouldn’t you help them achieve their lifelong dream of winning a show that didn’t exist until a month ago, you monster? Some shows also feature celebrities – and by celebrities I mean anyone who might have appeared in a movie or television show or had their photo appear in the newspaper that one time  – dancing and singing away, shamelessly asking their ‘fans’ to vote for them. Perhaps the only thing more pathetic than contestants on reality shows assuming that they have fans is people on twitter assuming that those who follow them actually give a crap about which first world problem prevented them from sharing their bon mots with the rest of the world. Even the scripted banter on these shows is more banal and cliché ridden than Ravi Shashtri’s commentary.

Then there are a zillion ‘crime shows’ which portray crude dramatizations of real-life incidents while the anchor pops in after every scene to give a very serious monologue requiring very serious background music. Judging by the ratings of these shows, it seems India really loves watching ‘people like us’ suffer fatal consequences for bad decisions.

The worst of the lot are those interchangeable ‘youth-centric’ shows. Their basic conceit is to humiliate everyone involved in the show on national television. A whole generation has been brought up watching these shows, confusing notoriety with fame. Possessing a real talent has been replaced by possessing an ability to bully, cajole, outwit or seduce. Bonus points if you get bleeped every two seconds.

Perhaps that is going to be this generation’s teevee legacy: a bunch of illiterate people shouting the f-word at each other, completely devoid of any context.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Everybody got Oscar Fever

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

I never understand why publishers put book blurbs on the first few pages of a book. I get the blurbs on the back; you know a book isn’t worth reading if it hasn’t even been blurbed by Gary Shteyngart. But why put them on the inside? I’ve already bought the book! You won me over! Stop trying to tell me how good the book is; just let me start reading it! And why should I care about what the ‘Denver Post’ said about the book? I don’t even like Denver! It’s like going into a restaurant, ordering your meal and then being told by the waiter how good the food in the restaurant is until your order is served. The chicken you’re about to eat was called ‘Superb!’ by the San Francisco Chronicle. The ‘Denver Post’ gave it three stars! And the Times of India was kind enough to state ‘come for the waitresses, stay for the chicken!’  What’s with all the insecurity, bro?

The same sort of insecurity that rears its ugly head every year around the time when we first hear about India’s entry to the Oscars for the ‘Best Foreign Film’ category. If only we'd nominated a better movie; we might even have won this year!

Here is how the nominating process works: If the producers of a movie released in the past year – and which stayed in the theatres for at least seven consecutive days –  want it to be considered for ‘Best Foreign Film’ at the Oscars, they have to fill a form, pay a service charge and send a copy of their movie – with subtitles in English – to the Film Federation of India (FFI) by the middle of September. In the last fortnight of the same month, a secret cabal of alleged ‘bollywood insiders’ chosen by the FFI meets at an undisclosed location and takes a look at all the movies that people have bothered to submit. They choose the least crappy movie and ship a copy of it to the Academy as India’s official entry. Then the Academy takes the movie and screens it for a secret cabal of Academy members who choose which movie to nominate.

Each nominated movie follows such a long and tedious process. And the process is easily influenced by marketing, bias, corruption, prejudice, bullying and the favour economy. It’s really a stretch to presume that the ‘best’ movie gets nominated each year. And yet there is always lots of ‘controversy’ and hand-wringing whenever the nomination period rolls around. Another self-inflicted wound on our national insecurities! Remember when we lost our national marbles over Slumdog Millionare, a movie that flopped miserably when it was released in the country but became a national obsession when it was nominated for a couple of Oscars. We are so desperate for validation that we pretended that a badly made British clone of a 1980’s Hindi movie was the greatest thing to happen to Indian cinema since Alam Ara.

Granted, award shows in our country are a farce and people generally get awards just for showing up and the Oscars are a much lesser sham than our shitty award shows, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not some infallible earthly representative of the movie gods. Why get so hot & bothered about a random group of people giving awards to a random list of movies? An award show will always share the sensibilities of the people organizing it. 

Not that we make a lot of movies which can compete with the best in the world! It’s a wonder people in the rest of the world don’t like movies which tackle serious issues with the sensitivity of a starving otter who just spotted a school of fish. Hey Italy, you might be able to make a critically acclaimed, universally praised, inspiring movie about a group of blind orphans who went on to become Europe’s most popular dance troupe, but can you make the ‘leading men’ in your movies act like neanderthals with an I.Q. of a human toddler and the libido of an orangutan in heat? I don’t think so!

Next time we have a national freakout over sending the ‘wrong’ movie for a nomination, let us remember that we’re fretting about not winning an award from the same Academy who thought ‘The King’s Speech’ was the best movie of 2010.

A movie about a guy giving a good speech.

You know who else liked to give good speeches?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

We don’t need no stinkin’ FDI

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

It was déjà vu all over again. Manmohan Singh staked the future of his government on a policy measure. A regional party with a government in Bengal threatened to withdraw support unless the decisions was rolled back and then went ahead and withdrew it when the government refused. And the government was bailed out by the Samajwadi Party. It felt like we had seen the same sequence of events take place before. Now I know how people who watch a Madhur Bhandarkar movie feel.

There was also a lot of fake tension in the air and the oft-repeated drum of ‘mid-term elections’ was being beaten again. Everybody knew there was no chance of that happening, but it didn’t stop them from pretending that it can. There was a smörgåsbord of disingenuity to choose from. Teevee channels cut into their heated discussions about who would form the new government to show various groups of politicians exiting from each other’s houses while the b-roll displayed animated graphics about how many seats each party had in the Lok Sabha. Well placed newspaper articles seemed more interested in the third-front than the political parties who would actually constitute it. The only person who they were able to convince was ‘tragedy king’ LK Advani, who thought that all his efforts of sending positive vibes into the universe so that it may one day grant him his one wish were finally coming to fruition.

After flailing about for the past few years, taking one hilariously stupid decision after another and throwing everything they could think of at the wall in the hope that something sticks, the Congress was finally able to deliver a genuine one-two political punch to its opponents. The BJP, as always, was more clueless about what to do than a blind, legless kangaroo trying to manoeuvre a four-wheel drive. They were so disoriented, they even asked for a special session of Parliament so that they could disrupt it again. After that didn’t work, they brought out another useless political weapon from their arsenal, the ‘Bharat bandh.’ Apparently, the BJP wanted to send a message that it cares so much for the common man that it is going to make life difficult for him to protest against the government making life difficult for him. Blocking the roads, making people late for work, getting passengers stuck in trains and at the station, bullying people into not earning their daily wages, breaking shop windows; being an asshole towards people for no logical reason is great political strategy. Even the BJP’s current Indira Gandhi & future LK Advani, Narendra Modi, got into the mix. He made jokes about how the government’s decision about FDI in retail had been taken to benefit Italian businessmen. This ‘joke’ would have been hilarious if not for the fact that there are currently no Italian ‘retail chains’ clamouring to get into India. In fact, Italy is not exactly known for its ‘retail giants.’ And really, the central government is getting heat about foreign investment from the guy who has logged more frequent flier miles than Amelia Earhart touting his state as an attractive destination for foreign investment? Maybe he should talk more about how much he hates foreigners and their dirty neo-colonial money at the next ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summit.

The Congress & the TMC proved that they were no Ross & Rachel. Their ‘will they/won’t they’ tension was getting on everybody’s nerves. If Mamta Banerjee thought that the Congress would run to the airport singing “Please Don’t Go” to stop her from leaving like the last dozen times, she was mistaken. The Congress was sitting in its apartment, looking at photo albums of happier times, telling itself that it had to finally put an end to all the abuse. It could not spend its life with someone who treated it like a doormat.

Unfortunately, the Congress repeated past patterns by aligning itself with another high-maintenance regional ally, the Samajwadi Party. Its leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav told the press that even though he hates the Congress and thinks that it’s a blot on the face of humanity itself, he is still going to align with it because he wanted to keep ‘communal forces’ away from government. That familiar trope is always used by mortal enemies in Indian politics when they want to form governments together. Yeah, let’s get the old secular band back together again, for one more terrible performance. And who is more secular than the guy who claims to be an honorary 'Maulana’ so that everytime elections roll around he can patronisingly pander to the most fringe elements of a minority community?

Being made to witness the same things again and again. Now I know how people who watch a Madhur Bhandarkar movie feel.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Manmohan Singh’s Last Stand

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the past couple of years haven’t really been the ‘best years’ of Manmohan Singh’s life. He has been humiliated by both friend and foe. Insulted both in public and in private. Called names to his face and behind his back. Each new day brought with it more pain, more heartbreak and more damage to his prostrate. He couldn’t look at a newspaper without having an ulcer. Now, he could tolerate being pissed on by the Indian press; those wankers have always had it out for him. He wasn’t also bothered by what the people of the country were saying about him; it’s not like he needed their vote or anything. What he couldn’t digest was when his friends in the foreign press started to shit on him. The very people he had nurtured like a constituency. He had given them scoops, actual exclusive interviews, not laughed and thrown them out of the room when they offered suggestions on how to fix the economy. Was his back hurting their knife?

Thus, he decided he had to do something. He wasn’t going to be remembered as the man who couldn’t get things done. If he couldn’t make the government work, he was going to douse the whole thing with petrol, take a match to it and burn it to the ground. If he couldn’t convince his asshole allies, he was going to try to convince the people. He knew the country was angry at him. So he tried to bring the romance back. He came home early from work one day, cooked us our favourite meal, cleaned all the dishes and wrote us a card promising to be nice to our parents when they came for a visit. He even made an iTunes playlist of all the songs we used to listen to when we first started dating. Songs like “Fiscal Fever” and “Don’t auction my gold!” and “Reform! Reform!” And then he put on his happy face and held a press conference to make the announcement for new economic reforms, pretending that he believed that people had a right to know what their government was upto. He also sent his least smug minister to give an ‘exclusive’ interview to all the news channels and argue in favour of these policies.

And lo and behold, the narrative changed.  No more was he the Manmohan Singh who presided over one of the most corrupt governments in the history of the country. No more was he the Manmohan Singh who wanted to spend a large amount of taxpayer money to give freebies to people who could not afford them. No more was he a leader of a government which had garnered the reputation of being so lethargic that they couldn’t even pass a stone. He was back to being the champion of fiscal prudence. The only one who could jump-start the economy. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Foreign Correspondent.  

The analysts were clear: this was a game-changer! Old economists who had spent the past few years yearning for the Manmohan Singh of yore were quietly jizzing on television about how Singh had finally taken the bull by its horns. They believe that between FDI in multi-brand retail stores and the new season of KBC, we are going to eradicate poverty for once and for all. Even Lord Meghnad Desai and his hair – which, full disclosure, will be a huge beneficiary because it is large enough to house at least two Wal-Mart stores – were batting for the new economic reforms.

However, not everyone was impressed with the economic reforms announced by the Prime Minister. Most of the government’s allies and the opposition were dead set against his attempt at resituating the economy. Overnight, all of them seemed to have turned into card carrying members of the proletariat; they appeared to be very worried about the plight of the common man. What about families living below the poverty line? What about the friendly, neighbourhood ‘kirana’ store? What about the people in the unregulated sector who supply the fertilizer to those who sell synthetic milk?

Nobody made an actual economic argument. Everyone was battling on emotions and rhetoric. One side thought that just the announcement would bring in so much money that every person in the country would be swimming in it like a regular Uncle Scrooge whereas the other side proclaimed this as a bigger sell-out to ‘foreign powers’ than when in 1757 the Nawab of Bengal had appointed the East India company as its official tax collector.

If only there were some tools available to measure the impact of economic policies.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Copycat Democracy: Gangnam Style

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

I thought it would be a good idea to let him see where I work, so I invited him along. As soon as we entered my office, he began making a ruckus. Not only did he start shouting at random people, he began to break off pieces of the furniture and throw them at the cubicles on the other side of the isle. We were unable to do any work that day and had to suspend our proceedings. Serves me right for trying to celebrate ‘Bring Your MP to Work’ day.

Watching the Democratic National Convention while politicians in India continued to punch democracy in the face, gave a lot of people on twitter some pause. They were wondering why our polity is not more like America’s. ZOMG! Obama let a pizza shop owner give him a belly-to-belly suplex-hug. When will Sonia Gandhi/LK Advani/Manmohan Singh/Narendra Modi do that?

Whenever something terrible happens in our politics (which is almost every alternate day), people are always wondering why we couldn’t be more like America. We always want to adopt other country’s traditions..P.A. Sangma even called for a Presidential debate like the ones they hold during American elections. Which was great except for one thing: Presidents in India don’t really set policy. They’re supposed to sit there and parrot whatever the Prime Minister and his ‘council of ministers’ tell him. What would have Sangma and Mukherjee argued about in their hypothetical debates? That who would use better cutlery while entertaining creepy heads of state? Let’s import a system without first understanding how it works! Not that there aren’t things wrong with the American system; as some fellow once said, I like it but I have some notes.

Democracy is the art of selecting the person you feel will do the least damage to the country, even though sometimes a couple of people who care about actual policy and wanting to do some good manage to sneak in. In India, we don’t elect politicians based on their policy credentials. We elect them based on their last name or if they have the same caste as us or if they promise us a free colour teevee after the election. No one who is serious about tackling corruption or enacting laws that would benefit a large swathe of the populace will spend large amounts of illicit money providing potential voters with more alcohol than the other guy. The system of democracy always seems greener on the other side of the fence (unless the country on the other side of the fence is Pakistan. Then it’s a land so barren that it has less life than Mars). For example, many analysts in America have argued for a multi-party system’ while in India, we once lived under Prime Minister Deve Gowda, the best argument against a multi-party system.

People also lament the fact that we don’t have an Indian ‘Jon Stewart.’ That’s because as a country, we don’t have a sense of humour. We tend to take things very seriously. We get so worked up about shit that doesn’t matter. We even arrest people for ‘sedition.’

Sedition is blasphemy by another name. Both consist of perceived crimes against man-made symbols which must be protected from imaginary assault and both don’t belong in a democratic country. We think symbols of our democracy are more important than our democracy itself. These ‘symbols’ have survived wars, famine, emergency, assassinations, currency devaluation, coalition governments and terrorist attacks. Nothing is more insulting to them than the fact that we presume that they cannot handle being mocked by a shitty cartoonist.

We are unable to laugh at ourselves. We turn everything we like into a revered object that we expect everyone else in the world to also treat with ‘utmost respect.’  And we’re ready to gather into a mob and go on a rampage if they don’t.

In a healthy democracy, no god, no person and no symbol should be above being mocked.

Not even Sachin Tendulkar.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Against All Odds: The Unmukt Chand Story

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As someone douchey enough to think that he doesn’t need any personal heroes, I thought I had found one this week when I heard that some guy called Unmukt Chand was battling his college administration to let him sit for his exams even though his attendance record was not as good as they’d like it to be. He even had a minister intervene on his behalf! Finally, the world was coming around to enacting policies I had been advocating for so many years. Maybe the dream I had of the government pumping whiskey instead of water into our taps was not that far away!

Alas, this was not to be. My bubble burst when I heard that Unmukt Chand was not some teenage rebel who believed that he could change the world but the captain of the under nineteen cricket team which had recently won the world cup. He’s probably a nark who has never woken up with a hangover because he goes to sleep at 9pm everyday as he has to get up early in the morning and head to the stadium for ‘net practice.’ Ugh.

The silver lining is that his college finally relented and taught everybody else in his batch an important lesson about life in this country: you can do anything you want as long as other people deem you as someone ‘important.’ We don’t believe in any of that crap about equality or all people being the same. Who do you think we are, some socialist European country which doesn’t even have a cricket team?

I am old enough to remember when some guy called Jaspal Rana was everybody's favourite sports prodigy, having been awarded the Arjuna award when he was eighteen. Even he couldn’t get his college to extend to him the same privilege vis-a-vis his attendance and he had to join some other institution. But that was Rana’s own fault. We just don’t care about shooting as a sport. Not all of us are regional recruitment officers for dacoits in UP.

This is my problem with sportspeople who aren’t on the men’s cricket team (haha, it’s hilarious that a women’s cricket team even exists. If they’re watching cricket too then who will make the snacks when we invite all our office buddies to watch the match at our house?). They expect people to give a crap. Look, if you want us to pay attention, make your sport more interesting. Add a wicket or two. Or a pitch. And enough scandals so that even if the team we cheer for loses the match we can console our bruised egos by trying to convince ourselves that the match was fixed.

We can overlook how boring your sport is if we can be assured that you will win something. We even cheered for the '”great” Khali when he won his first WWE championship. So what if the WWE does not pretend to be anything other than a soap opera with pre-determined results? At least that tall, garbled bose speaker won some gold. That’s more than I can say for our Olympic contingent.

We were so embarrassed at the Olympics last month. We had to hang all our heads in shame because we did not do well at that global ‘P.T. class.’ Now, we can’t show our face at any international meet without being pointed and laughed at by countries with more medals than us, thanks to the incompetent sportspeople who don’t play cricket. Not having stadiums & infrastructure to practice in or any token financial assistance so that you have access to basic nutrition or not having anybody besides your family & stadium staff cheering for you is no excuse for such a lacklustre performance. How can a country of billion people not produce even a single gold medal winner? Okay, even if a substantial amount of people among the billion are busy playing ‘hunger games,’ what are the rest of us doing? Look at China. They won so many medals. Granted their government took care of the members of their Olympic squad and provided them with all the things they needed to propel them to victory but . . but. . . we have freedom?! I bet if cricket was an Olympic sport we’d have won more medals than Michael Phelps.

This is why I still think Unkumt Chand’s story is very inspiring. It should make for a great movie: Boy sees some guy playing cricket on teevee. Boy decides to be like that guy. Boy starts to learn how to play cricket. Boy gets access to coaches, training facilities and support from family to continue to have a single minded focus on achieving his dream. Boy battles all the odds and despite facing stiff opposition from unrelenting opponents like puberty and attendance registers, boy leads his team to world cup victory.

I’d watch that.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Toothless in Tehran

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

All eyes were on Tehran this week as it hosted the 16th summit of nations belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The NAM summit is the largest collective of tyrants, misogynists, homophobes, racists, scumbags, genocidal maniacs, conmen, busybodies, sociopaths, dirty Harrys and mouth-breathers this side of the Republican National Convention.

After the end of the Second World War, the world was divided into more cliques than a high school in South Bombay. All the jocks from the rich countries banded together in 1949 to form NATO and all the countries which grew up in tough neighbourhoods decided to tolerate each other’s existence to form the Warsaw Pact in 1955. However, outside of the UN, for the countries who didn’t belong to these two groups, there was nowhere to hangout. So in 1961, Nehru, Tito, Naseer, Sukarno and Nkrumah decided to get together and form a club consisting of all Goths, geeks, dorks, pacifists, poets, emo teenagers, mama’s boys, and hippies in the world who – at least on paper pretended not to be aligned to either of the two competing fight clubs – began calling themselves the Non-Aligned Movement.

Now, in 2012, with the cold war only existing in Jason Bourne novels, FPS video games and Vladimir Putin’s worldview, the NAM summit seems to have outlived its usefulness. When it was founded, India was part of all the countries who still needed a support group because of their oppressive colonial past. Nowadays, most heads of states attending the NAM summit oppress their own people and make them suffer atrocities that are equal to or sometimes infinitely worse than what happened when they were occupied by foreign powers. Like the host Iran, where a whole generation has been imprisoned both mentally and physically; where being gay is a crime punishable by public execution. Or Zimbabwean President and Hannibal Lector’s cousin, Robert Mugabe, a man who has jailed/killed/maimed more than half the population of his country and has led it to an economic apocalypse wherein the Zimbabwean Dollar is less valuable than the currency used in ‘Monopoly.’  

India still attends the summit mostly because of its obligation as a founding member and to prove to other countries that we’re totally not in the tank for America, even though in reality we totally are. We like to tout our non-aligned credentials, but we’re not really non-aligned anymore, are we? We’re part of the G20. We’re part of the ‘countries who can have nuclear weapons for some reason while the rest of the world cannot’ club. We pledge billions of dollars for funds to bailout financially irresponsible European countries. We’re like that guy who gets promoted to senior management but still shows up at the bar frequented by all the factory workers to prove to himself that he’s still the working class hero from every Springsteen song even though everybody else at the bar resents his presence.

We’re able to tread this thin line because we avoid taking a stand on important international issues for as long as we can. Most of the time we don’t want to say or do anything because we fear that anything we say or do will be used against us with regards to Kashmir. We can always be counted upon in the international arena to muddle the waters. We didn’t even vote against the falling Gaddafi regime, even though Gaddafi hated us and it was obvious to everyone that he was on his way out. Our stand on Syria is to ask both sides to lay down their weapons and talk. Basically, what we’re saying to all the people in Syria being massacred by their government is to stop defending themselves and try to talk to the guy trying to stamp them into oblivion. Because that always works out so well!

Our foreign policy is like that guy in a ‘modern’ Hindi movie who loves the girl who wears skirts and smokes and believes in casual sex but still ends up marrying the girl who dresses conservatively and knows how to cook because she reminds him of his Mom. The ‘social media outreach’ of our Ministry of External Affairs consists of getting our diplomats to tweet the links to every article they read on the Internet. Most of the time we only hear from the ministry when they hold a press conference to denounce the latest Times Now news report of some Chinese cat breaching the sanctity of the India-China border. And they do it with the smoothness of a battered woman denying spousal abuse “Ha ha, nothing happened. Everything is cool. The black eye? Well, it was nothing. I just slipped and fell into a fist. . . I mean from the stairs. Yeah. I fell from the stairs and broke my eye. What makes you think otherwise?

But, hey, there’s nothing another fruitless bilateral Singh-Zardari meeting won’t fix!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Manmohan’s Minions Make Martyrs of Morons

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

It’s that time of the month again, when the UPA government tries to cancel the country’s Internet connection. While trying to handle another national crisis, the UPA, – spoiler alert! – made its 43225428746543th historic blunder, cementing its status as India’s #1 comedy troupe.  Faced with a serious show of no-confidence in the government apparatus by thousands of citizens fleeing back to the North East, the government performed it’s favourite form of exercise: doing too little too late and using the opportunity to settle its own scores.

First they oppose you, then they arrest you and then you turn into a popular public figure. The UPA has made a career of turning molehills into mountains. They are more paranoid than a person tripping on LSD who thinks that he just saw a unicorn. After spending the whole of last year turning every political opponent into a public martyr, they are now focussing all their energies feeding the persecution complex of people on the Internet.

As of the time of writing this article, the government continued to block various websites and twitter accounts belonging to people unsympathetic to their cause. Most of these had nothing to do with the recent crisis. Of course, since it was the UPA, the block was easily circumvented. They are not some sinister genius hell bent on world domination but a bunch of incompetent nincompoops who are led by a man who has spoken less words than a monk meditating in an undiscovered Himalayan mountain for the past two hundred years. They cannot be relied upon to even do something wrong properly.

They tell us that India is under the most dangerous cyber attack since the founding of the republic and the best defence they can come up with is blocking twitter accounts of people whose views they don’t subscribe to? How can we expect them to preserve the ‘integrity & sovereignty’ of the country if they can’t take a couple of jokes from some guy on the Internet? How do they conduct diplomatic negotiations, by holding their breath until the other side acquiesces to their demands?

Almost all our ‘political parties’ are really just cults with political power. Their only purpose of existence is to keep their infallible prophet-in-chief happy. All’s well that ends with a smile on the face of the ‘high command.’ None of them are really adept at handling any sort of criticism. Nor do they care what the people really think about them. And they’re going to do anything to make sure you keep your opinions to yourself. If they can’t buy you, they’ll bully you. If they can’t bully you, they’ll give you things to be worried about. If they can’t distract you, they can always call you an anti-national seditionist. And if that also doesn’t work, they can simply make you go away. Permanently.

Political parties are not the only ones who would like people on the Internet to put a sock in it. Recently, even Sagarika Ghose, a human person with less functional grey cells than the Pillsbury Doughboy, called for censorship of ‘social media.’ She’s not the only one. Even her counterpart on NDTV, the one who pretends to be the greatest thing to happen to Indian journalism since Huen-Tsang - because she once went to an army outpost during a war and binged on the soldiers’ limited rations – isn't a big fan of people who don’t possess a fancy journalism degree and yet still insist on having opinions. Not that any of our ‘news anchors’ report the news anymore. All we get is the same bunch of people saying the same things to each other in the same passive aggressive manner. It’s not news unless it can be shown with scary music playing in the background. Hey people starving in villages without electricity, if you want people to pay attention to you, invade the Indo-Chinese border. Why leave the studio when you can keep talking and still say nothing all day long? People love to watch a condescending asshole talk down to them, don’t they?

Trying to censor the Internet is like trying to put humpty dumpty back together again. If all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t do it, then you can’t either, ‘esteemed’ members of the establishment. Being on the Internet is like being trapped with a bunch of monkeys in a cage. You can duck all you want, but one of these days you’re going to end up with shit on your face. The best you can do is to wipe it off and hope that no one figures out where the stench is coming from.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Then We Came To The End

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Looking through the small window of his cottage, as he saw the sun set, he couldn’t help but think of it as a metaphor for his own career. He turned to look at the Gandhi Topi on his dresser and sighed wistfully. A year ago at this time, he was the most popular man in the country. People couldn’t have enough of him! Everyone wanted to talk to him, touch him, seek his blessings, and name their children after him. Now they sneer at him when they pass him on the street. Last year, every self-important news anchor hung on his every word. They flew hundreds of miles and then waited for hours in the unforgiving heat without any of the creature comforts they were used to, just to interview him for ten minutes. Now they don’t even pick up his call. This country will rue the day they stopped supporting him. Until then, he will not let anyone know how heartbroken he really is. He will not let them have the satisfaction of knowing that these days, instead of surveying the village to find people to beat up, he spends his mornings curled up in the corner of his hut listening to Adele on his iPod and his nights curled up on his bed watching re-runs of Gilmore Girls, while binging on large gallons of ice-cream. Public display of emotion is an acceptable course of action only for women or people from weaker castes. Not for people of his stature.  

For a large part of last year, India was forced to pay attention to lessons on how to practice democracy from a tiny, Gollum-shaped tyrant - who lorded over his village like it was his personal fiefdom - called Anna Hazare. As he rode the Let’s Do Something Express to his first fast at Jantar Mantar, Hazare captured the nation’s imagination. If there is one thing India loves, its leaders who promise to bring about change without us having to lift a finger. You can clean up a mess without getting your hands dirty! Anybody who agrees with our totally unbiased assessment - that the main problem in this country is other people - is fit to lead us onto the light. Remember when our favourite mode of protest was sending people ‘get well soon’ cards because we saw some guy doing that in a movie? Yeah, good times! I bet our freedom fighters feel really stupid for sacrificing their lives when, instead of participating in a sustained, peaceful campaign spanning decades they could have driven the British out by simply liking the ‘Free India’ page on Facebook or sending abusive tweets to British leaders on Twitter. What a bunch of amateurs!

The Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement reached its peak last August when for about two weeks everything in the country seemed to revolve around its leader. People were forced into ‘spontaneous’ protests of solidarity all over the country in which they took to the streets wearing official Anna-themed swag. No one appeared to be bothered by the fact that passing a law to create a bloated bureaucracy to keep a check on another bloated bureaucracy seemed a tad wasteful. Who has time for nuance when you’re promised that all you have to do to help eradicate corruption from the country is to spend a couple of days participating in a procession whose only task is to arbitrarily march to the nearest television camera while shouting slogans proclaiming the superiority of ‘Bharat Mata’ over other lesser countries who do not have the privilege to be born of such divine parentage. Some cities even saw people dressed as famous freedom fighters of yore proclaiming that this nation full of pure, incorruptible people being made to suffer because of a few dozen bad apples who also happen to be our elected representatives. Like most politicians being investigated by the CBI, the people of this country gave themselves a ‘clean chit.’

The government responded in the same way it reacts to every situation: doing something rash after the initial panic sets in, then denying that anything is wrong at all and that they were not responsible for any steps taken by the so called ‘independent agencies.’ Afterwards, as slow acceptance creeps in that a problem really exists, they go ahead and suddenly capitulate to the demands of whoever is holding them hostage. The opposition parties ceded their space to the crypto-fascist from Ralegan Siddhi and then tried to hijack the issue with such hilarious shamelessness that it made them even less relevant.    

However, with great popularity comes even greater scrutiny. A few days after his ascension as the India’s newest saviour, the country watched in horror as Hazare revealed himself to be less the ‘new Gandhi’ and more of ‘an embarrassing cranky old family member who always says inappropriate, bigoted things in front of dinner guests.’ As the country was exposed to Hazare’s gratuitous opinions - Childless women are barren! People who drink should be beaten up within an inch of their life! Vigilante justice is probably the best thing since sliced bread! – it began to fall out of love with him. Of course, the people around him knew exactly what sort of a person he was (them and everybody else with basic Google skills), but that didn’t stop them from fostering this fossil on all of us. Team Anna doesn’t want to stop corruption. They’re more interested in promoting themselves and selling their books and other official merchandise like Hazare’s patented beat-a-drunk genuine leather belt. Which is why now they’re launching their “political party,” which will tell you which candidates you should vote for in the next general election. It’ll be like Yelp, but even less useful.

As Hazare’s public image deteriorated, so did the attendance and popularity of his subsequent ‘road shows.’ They flopped more miserably than a Harman Baweja movie. His latest protest was such a non-event that Kiran Bedi took to twitter to literally beg celebrities and/or ‘senior’ television journalists to show up. The best they could get was Indian television’s laughs-a-lot-lady and her husband, Whatishisname. Shockingly, no one really wants to hitch a ride on a sinking ship.

As Hazare aimlessly walks around his small hut, he feels like a defeated man. Played like a piano by forces superior to him. Abandoned and desolate, constantly wearing a forlorn expression. Then, suddenly, he hears a knock on the door. He ignores it. What’s the point, anyway? But the persistent knocking continues. “Anna,” says the person behind the door, “I’m from Magazine X. And I have a few questions.”  He wipes the tears off his face and runs to the door. When he opens it, he sees nothing but an empty wasteland. Another hallucination! He’d been having a lot of them these days. Then, he walked outside into the darkness, letting it engulf him.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Eat. Watch TV. Get rid of your love handles.

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Before there was the northern grid blackout, there was the great Internet blackout of 2012. Thanks to some strange conspiracy to make office workers more productive, last week the twin pillars on which internet junkies build their castle of procrastination, were unavailable for a few hours. First they came for our Google Talk. Then they came for our Twitter. Not only are they my last remaining connection to the outside world, them being out of circulation is the start of my most horrid nightmare. It starts with both these tools being unavailable and ends three thousand years later when the last remaining human with a non-primate brain takes his amphibian girlfriend and heads to what he thinks is his home to find that his whole civilization has been destroyed and the only proof of its existence is half a statue - which shares it’s likeness with the former chief minister of a populous North Indian state – that has washed up on the shore.

Thankfully, my nightmare did not initialize. But it was a very tense few hours and to avoid clicking on the Google Plus button in desperation (if you don’t know what Google Plus is, don’t worry! Neither does anybody at Google!) I had to leave the comfortable environs of the internet and head on to the chaos of television. I didn’t try to call someone or have a face-to-face conversation because why try to establish a connection with another living being when you can watch other people attempt it unsuccessfully?

Now, admittedly, the last time I had aimlessly ‘surfed’ the teevee, Manmohan Singh was still a popular reformist. But these things are like not riding a bike; it all comes back to you within the first few seconds. As I travelled through this familiar yet strange territory, I noticed a bizarre pattern. Instead of regular programming, most channels were showing ‘tele-shoppng’ adverts: Exclusive products available for a limited time only!

Even though most of these products were more dubious than the BJP’s promise to combat corruption, but for some reason they were being allowed to be sold to a large number of consumers. I noticed that no matter what these hacks are selling, their modus operandi seems to be quite similar. Hire an out of work celebrity – because nothing says ‘this is authentic’ like a person who has been out of work for more than a decade and would jump at any opportunity to make a buck – make them talk to hilariously bad extras who couldn’t convince a person about to faint from dehydration to have a drink of water; add a few doctors with vague qualifications and voila, you’ve got a product which you can sell for thousands of rupees to millions of unsuspecting customers. Remember, if you want to make your product look extra trustworthy, add a made up certificate or make sure to mention ‘ayurveda’ a couple of hundred times every two minutes.

One of the most frequent tele-shopping advertisements are regarding products which claim to help you lose weight. Shockingly, according to the sellers of these products, exercising and controlling your food intake is not the right way to go about it. The correct way is to only consume their product and not doing anything else. Eat anything you want! Don’t move a muscle! Just have an cup of ‘herbal’ tea twice a day or wear this magical belt and you will not only lose all your weight, you will somehow also look like a person who has spent the last decade living in a gym. Hey, if you don’t believe them, check out those totally truthful confessions from formerly fat people whose ‘before’ pictures are so badly photoshopped that the head they affix on pictures of obese bodies they steal from the internet doesn’t match the body either in proportion or skin tone.

Other exploitative products include dubious ‘education packs’ pretending to teach people how to speak chaste English in a couple of weeks. If you listen to this old man with a long beard and a deep baritone, then you too can speak horrible, grammatically incorrect English in a faux American accent. To make sure religious people don’t feel left out, there are hundreds of fake products that promise nothing short of nirvana. You can order amulets, conical photos, replicas of ancient palaces, and you’re all set for life. You don’t even have to go out and try to make a living. People will literally walk into your house and hand you money. You will never have to face any problems whatsoever. No one you know will ever fall sick or score less than hundred percent or take a wrong business decision. Say adieu to your ennui!

These people are successful in conning a large swathe of the population because people really want to believe them. If you ignore the kitschy production values or the obviously untrained actors, they offer a pretty good deal. Be successful without doing any hard work! You can lose weight just by having two shitty cups of our tea. You can turn into Mr. Universe without moving a muscle. You can speak English like the Queen in two weeks even if you haven’t spoken a word of it all your life. If you use our expensive amulet, God will personally annihilate anyone who dares to even think of looking at you in the wrong way.

But isn’t that how things are nowadays? Politicians are elected just because they have a famous surname. Reality show contestants become famous for being famous. News anchors win awards for never leaving their studios and passing off banal panel discussions as ‘news.’ Old fascist men from small villages in Maharashtra want to run the country without bothering to run for office.

At least these fake products have the decency to disappear into the ether after their time is up.