Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Welcome to the Offense Economy

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of the most irritating human habits is to inform a person who you have just bumped into about a changed physical attribute.  “You’ve gained weight!,” or “your hair’s gone all white” or “your face looks a bit orange, Speaker Boehner.” Its one of the most unhelpful things one can say to another person. Thank you for noticing that I’ve grown all fat! All the clothes that don’t fit and the large amounts of food I’ve been consuming didn’t tip me off. Oh, my hair’s grown white, you say? I seemed to have missed that! No, it didn’t cause my mid-life crisis at all. That’s not the reason I bought a sports car and started dating my daughter’s classmate. I’m just doing research on being a douchebag for an article I’m writing.

That unhelpful insight was provided by the Indian twittersphere this week. All of a sudden, everyone seemed to have discovered that we’re turning into an intolerant country. Which was strange, because it wasn’t as if on Friday we were a beacon of freedom and tolerance and then, on Monday, we were suddenly transported into the dark ages. We have been travelling down this road for many years. The fake assassins from the Mumbai underworld did not kill free speech, we did. 

Here is how this offense economy works: Take a passage in a book or a scene in a movie or a crude interpretation of a painting. Pick a slow news day, hire a mob, make some noise and voila, a star is born! As if on cue, every other actor in the farce will be ready with their lines. The news channels will play the tapes of the protest on loop, interspersed with condemnation of the object of offense by politicians of all hues. The BJP members will blame the government and call for its resignation. The government ministers will pick straws and the unfortunate loser who draws the shortest will be sent to make a statement condemning the creator of the object of offense and caution against ‘offending people’s sentiments.’ Javed Akthar and Mahesh Bhatt will defend the creator of the object of offense, first on the phone and then in the studio. The Congress party will issue their own condemnation, and one of its patronizing spokesperson will go on each prime time news show and will alternate between sneering at the anchor and inaccurately quoting Shakespeare to condemn the object of offense and its creator while maintaining the logical fallacy that their party supports artistic freedom. The news anchors will be too busy grandstanding to actually cross question their ‘guests.’

After a week of un-helpful & inconclusive discussions, the cycle of outrage will head to all the weekend shows. The same celebrities & politicians will be called to sit among non-celebrities and the same arguments will be made once again. Then someone in the audience will say something emotional & patriotic (e.g. "be an Indian first") which will be useless, bullshit-y and will garner lots of applause. The anchor will then close the show on a sombre and surprisingly happy note. Afterwards, everyone will go back home, until they are called on to do the same thing all over again.

Our government also made us proud this week by registering an official complaint against a Jay Leno joke. The reply they got from the US state department was the diplomatic version of ‘stop being such a whiny little asshole.’ Our national self-image is so weak that we get offended by everything! We’re like the old patriarch in an Indian joint family who insists that everybody else listen to him. And everybody does, not out of any real respect, but just to humour the old man. We never put our weight behind anything positive. When countries torture & kill their citizens, we dismiss it as an ‘internal matter,’ but when it comes to scoring brownie points with a domestic constituency, we’re ready to even interfere in their court proceedings. If our foreign policy were a sitcom character, it would be the neurotic nerd who is in need of constant validation from his friends.

The offense economy is a dangerous game of poker in which each iteration of fame seeking offense-tards will try to outdo the ones that came before. We see your M.F. Husain and raise you a Salman Rushdie.

What we need is for someone to call their bluff.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Eyebrow Olympians & Clerics: The Net is No Country for Old Men

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Last month, when the news broke that telecom minister and eyebrow Olympics gold medallist Kapil Sibal was trying to censor the internet, the twittersphere rose up in unison and protested. It was as if a million Manmohan Singhs were trying to move a rock by sending it multiple strongly worded letters. After all, twitter is for tilting at windmills.

These wounds were re-opened this week when the Delhi High Court warned search and social networking companies that if they don’t comply with its diktats, the court would block them like they do in China. The Indian twittersphere was exasperated! Trying to make us more like China! Who do these old fogies think they are, N Ram? They don’t realize that if we wanted some unelected, arbitrary authority to determine the boundaries of acceptability, we would have supported Anna Hazare’s fledgling political outfit. Somebody switch on the rusty Dell 486 sitting politely at their desks and show them that the internet is like a Cormac McCarthy novel: it’s no country for old men.

While the Delhi High court wanted to turn us into China, vapid television anchors turned to twitter to lament our growing similarity to Pakistan. Finding such tenuous similarity between two countries is as easy as finding a son of a deposed Nigerian prince who just needs your bank account number to turn you into a bona fide millionaire. Allow me to demonstrate: We’re similar to Italy because both our countries have renowned economists who, as head of state, preside over an establishment prone to corruption. We’re like Britain because a large amount of both our populations yearn for the glory of the past. We’re like Australia because bigots in both countries are prone to using ethnic slurs to taunt tourists from less developed parts of the world. We’re like America because both of our countries are home to a large amount of illegal immigrants who have come from a smaller, poorer neighbouring country. We’re like Japan because both of our countries treat washed-out hollywood hangers-on as entertainment gods. We’re like Afghanistan because both our cricket teams are currently struggling to win a match overseas.

Speaking of being lazy, we discovered this week that boycotting harmless human garden gnome Salman Rushdie is still a thing! Hadn’t everyone secretly decided to move on from that battle? In fact, our last international nightmare involving Rushdie was when he took to twitter to complain about being blocked from making a Facebook page. Sure, Facebook is evil too, but it’s still slim pickings for the man who fought and won a war of attrition against Ayatollah Khomeini.

Rushdie was scheduled to speak at a couple of sessions during the Jaipur Literature Festival being held this week. So when the high-priests of the Darul Uloom heard about his visit, they called for the central government to cancel Rushdie’s visa, even though he doesn’t actually need one to visit India. But when have facts deterred a fundamentalist bent upon proving that his religion has the biggest penis? Also, why are these high priests channelling American movie studios and rehashing stuff from the 80’s?  

Of course, now that UP is having an election to determine its next top statue model, and the Congress is practically grovelling for votes in that state–like a starlet in Mumbai who promises a horny producer that she’ll do anything to get her big chance–it needed to do something to appease the crazy people. Thus, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, made some noises about the people of Rajasthan not wanting Rushdie to visit the state and then claiming that his government would not be able to provide adequate security to Rushdie. Firstly, we didn’t realize that Gehlot is just like the character Jim Carrey portrayed in Bruce Almighty, and can hear the thoughts of every person living in his state. Secondly, if his government cannot provide security to one single person, then what is the point of his government?

Not that any central or state government is interested in defending free speech even during non-election time. Most of them start shitting bricks at the mere thought of someone taking offence to something.

If we can't offend people who think a book of short stories written thousands of years ago contains instructions on how to live life in the 21st century, then the terrorists have won.

Friday, January 20, 2012

From movie star circle jerks to statues that need to be covered

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Celebrities: They’re famous! They’re brave! They collect admirers like normal people collect calories!

Star World’s Luv 2 Hate U is a new show in which your favourite celebrities confront the biggest threat to their existence: someone on the internet. Welcome to another link in the daisy chain of movie industry circle jerking, in which yet another actor gets together with his friends and enemies and all of them reflect in their nauseatingly fake mutual admiration and conjoined awesomeness. Hosted by the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz (or as you humans call him, Arjun Rampal), the show is like a famous person’s wet dream come true. They get to meet someone, who, they perceive, hates them irrationally. If only they could just talk to their haters! Then they could show the hater the error of their ways and both the former hater and the celebrity can ride off into the sunset, basking in their new found love & respect for each other. A few weeks ago this show featured India’s most popular bad sentence writer, Chetan Bhagat. A man who is proud of the fact that he has never met a compound conjunction that he has liked. The show enabled him to showcase his two favourite versions of himself: a victim of the critics and the choice of the new generation, both of which are a by-product of his delusions of grandeur. Some people say that Bhagat has made non-readers interested in reading. That’s like saying the ISI has been encouraging local tourists to visit India.

Chetan Bhagat and the Mercedes Benz brand go together like SIlvio Berlusconi and a vow of fidelity.

Bhagat is the closest thing the Indian twittersphere has to an arch-nemesis. You can be sure of three things in life: death, corruption and the fact that Chetan Bhagat will tweet something dumb every few weeks and cause an avalanche of bad jokes. A Chetan Bhagat joke is like the teacher who asks for a “red pen of any colour”. Everyone claims to have one of their own. This week, however, he was more of a willing participant in someone else’s bad decision. Inexplicably, luxury car maker and the preferred brand of 80s era movie villains, Mercedes Benz, chose Bhagat as a brand ambassador. Mercedes spent all that money hiring a marketing team and this is the best idea they had? What’s next, hiring the penguin from the batman comics to be the mascot of a “save the penguins” campaign?

Hide your inaccurate television psephologists, it’s election season in India! The election commission, in all it’s wisdom, decided that UP’s various Mayawati statues have to be covered with tents so that they do not influence the voter in the upcoming assembly elections. Twitter was abuzz with various conspiracy theories, but it seems like this is just another government department treating the Indian voter as an impressionable little child. Everyone must be mollycoddled, because they can’t be trusted to make their own decisions! Just like imparting sex education to teenagers will make them want to spend more sexytime with each other, instead of helping them become well-rounded adults. This country is being governed by a generation which most probably still refers to bodily functions in numerical form. Such cognitive dissonance leads to absurd situations like when an English movie channel broadcasted a film about gay rights while censoring the words “gay” and “homosexual.”

Speaking of living in the distant past, this month the Madhya Pradesh government’s new draconian bill banning cow slaughter is scheduled to be notified. You got to hand it to the BJP government in power in that state. It takes real cojones to look at the problems this country is facing and think ‘there’s nothing that a cow-slaughter ban won’t fix.’ The BJP is a party of difference in that no matter what the problem is, it makes no difference to it’s policies. If the people who claim to revere cows really cared about them, then these holy bovine creatures wouldn’t have been roaming our streets like an orphan from a Dickens novel.

Of course, banning something in India means that it will not happen. That is why every 15th August I read a chapter from the Satanic Verses to paintings of naked goddesses whilst drinking whiskey and resting my feet on the bust of a revered ancient king.

Friday, January 13, 2012

From Annapalooza to Murdochmania

(Tweitgeist is my new weekly column for the Sunday Guardian.)

Twitter! It’s basically a direct connection to your id. No matter how much you try to dress it up with witty bon mots or parsimonious prose, you can never hide your inner a**hole. This is a good thing, because, if we wanted to read saccharine updates from horrible people, we’d stick to Facebook.

Appropriately, the last week of 2011 saw the last hurrah of pro-violence Gandhian and ineligible Bachelor of the Year, Anna Hazare. Not only were people in the real world deserting him, even Twitter’s revolutionaries were leaving his sinking ship. First he came for our alcohol, then he came for the women who couldn’t breed. People were suddenly surprised that an old man whose name literally translates to “Big Brother” had some strong opinions on how other people should live and behave. Not that most Indians mind, of course. We like our Messiahs like we like our leading men in south Indian movies – old, dystopian and rumoured to possess supernatural powers.

So, while the action at Annapalooza fizzled out, Twitter India’s hopes turned from the dear leader of Ralegan Siddhi and were soon invested in the great speeches being delivered in the Rajya Sabha, the Jogger’s Park of legislative bodies. If only history had shown us – even once, Herr Reader – that making great speeches does not necessitate good policies! This euphoria turned to abject disappointment once the bill wasn’t passed. There was righteous anger about the fact that a group of people who have benefitted from a certain system are not even pretending to attempt to change that very system.

After orchestrating the drama in the Rajya Sabha over the passage of the Lokpal bill, each political party went on a media offensive, trying to usurp the high moral ground. They tried every tired excuse in the book, at one point even accusing each other of playing politics! Gasp! A political party playing politics? That has never before happened in the history of the world!

The Congress proved how serious it was to combat corruption when it made Ajit Singh — a politician whose career, rumour has it, has been like a prolonged withdrawal from the ATM — the Civil Aviation minister. The BJP showed its resolve to eradicate corruption by inducting into its UP unit ex-BSP members who even Mayawati thought were too corrupt to be around. Being judged too corrupt by Mayawati is like being called a “fundamentalist loony” by Subramaniyam Swamy. Perhaps the BJP’s ingenious plan to deny power to corrupt politicians is to make them members of the BJP. Meanwhile, Sharad & Laloo Yadav proved once again that they’re more suited to headline the terrible Archana Puran Singh variety comedy show than determine public policy.

Maybe now we can stop pretending that the Lokpal bill would have even slightly dented corruption in this country.

The Twittersphere had an auspicious start to the New Year by outraging about British television presenter and professional troll Jeremy Clarkson. Apparently he made bad jokes about not all Indians having access to hygienic washroom facilities. How dare a foreigner make mildly amusing remarks about a stark Indian reality? Also, there is no lack of washroom facilities in India. What Clarkson doesn’t realize is that in India, if you want to take a s**t, the world is your oyster. To some of our countrymen, nature is their commode. And rivers are their bidet. Who needs to be stuck in a small enclosure when you can be one with nature whilst emptying your body of all of yesterday’s toxins? It’s practically meditative! Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it, Clarkson. Stop being such a burra sahib for once.

Also this week, real life Bond villain and voicemail enthusiast Rupert Murdoch joined Twitter, ostensibly to present his side of the story. Because if there was one thing Murdoch is lacking, it’s a platform in which to present his views. After a few hours another Twitter account appeared, purporting to be his young wife and current head of security Wendi Deng. Both accounts were verified by both Twitter and Newscorp. A day later the Wendi Deng account revealed that it was a fake. Shocking! Someone on the Internet wasn’t who they said they were! Why would anyone lie on the Internet and ruin it’s sanctity? If there was any justice in the world, the Rupert Murdoch account would have been run by a gay girl from Damascus.