Monday, April 30, 2012

People like us are people too

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Parents all over the country sighed in relief this week when famous never-nudes at the I&B ministry issued a fatwa against broadcasting a national award winning movie because it was too ‘bold & mature’ (bureaucratic euphemism for ‘portrays sexual intercourse in terms other than the abhorrent sin it is’) for mainstream audiences. This was strange because the main message of the yanked movie was that if you sex too many people, everyone will shun you and you will end up killing yourself. This is also the kind of message most adults want to send to their children. Because if there is one thing most people in this country loathe, it’s talking about things with their children like a normal person. What should be a short, breezy conversation about the facts of life turns into an awkward conversation of epic proportions. Why talk and smooth things out to make life better for everyone involved when you can emotionally blackmail your children into suppressing what comes naturally to them?

The thing is, we need to protect our children from real life because we don’t want them to get strange ideas. This is a slippery slope. If you let them make decisions based on their own judgement, they will want to try things for themselves. Its better to pretend that things don’t exist rather than risk them doing stuff you don’t approve of. That is why nobody on those foreign shows on television eats beef and Brokeback Mountain was a documentary about drilling for minerals. Our national motto should be “Nothing to see here, move along.” Don’t you know that reality is against Indian culture?

Speaking of being alien to reality, rejected ‘Bengal Idol’ contestant and ongoing train-wreck Mamta Banerjee was busy trying to impress her fraternity members at the ‘South Asian Dictators Club’ while her government continued its slow troddle towards La La Land. This week, Bengal’s ‘eternal Chief Minister’ issued a diktat warning people against fraternizing with the CPM. Members of her party and their supporters & family members are not supposed to be friends with, be married to or even be seen in the vicinity of any known communists. The last time someone issued a warning like this, Germany was still two separate countries. Of course, since she lives in a padded room where no contrary thoughts are allowed to enter, a lot of the criticism online was directed towards her Man Friday, Derek O’Brien.

Everyone was surprised how this holy quizmaster could let them down by not speaking out against his paranoid boss. Maybe it’s an effect of putting my brain through various experiments which involved ‘medical marijuana’ (What? It was a sacrifice! For science!), I don’t remember O’Brien ever being an outspoken proponent of free speech. Do you think he hosted that quiz show because he cared about children knowing silly trivia?  

Did we assume that he would be a free speech ayatollah because he is one of the presumed future saviours of Indian democracy, the saintly ‘people like us.’ Its accepted gospel that unlike those poor, deprived souls from villages and other have-not communities who plunder the government’s treasury like a regular Mahmud Ghazni, people like us will stand up for what’s right! They would rather quit their posts than be a party to something utterly despicable. Wouldn’t we do that too, if we were in the same position? Even though in our own lives we do everything we don’t think other people should do. We lie because that’s a necessity of modern life. We bribe because that’s the cost of living in India. We break laws which don’t suit us because, let’s face it, most of them are ridiculous. We laugh at the horrible (and borderline racist) jokes our bosses make because we want to get ahead and playing the game is one way to do that. In this country, you give someone even the tiniest bit of power and they’ll show you who is boss. Everyone is the king of their castle, even if their castle is a broken down shack right next to garbage dump. And yet! We are shocked and appalled when our politicians exhibit the same behaviour.

Yes, like us, they are a shitty excuse for a human too. 

Just don’t tell my future children I said that. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Shobha Narayan wants you to give bigotry a chance

Devil incarnate and minister in the UPA government Kapil SIbal owes Mint columnist and the-good-life connoisseur Shobha Narayan an apology. He has made her lose a lot of sleep over the worst law in the history of the world, the Right to Education bill.

Before you begin your judging and call her names and everything, you need to realize that Ms. Narayan is a big supporter of education.

Educators may pore over curriculum; combat staff attrition; mull over real estate and infrastructure; but they dream of catalysing change, inspiring young minds and changing the future. For people deep in the trenches of teaching and learning, this fundamental right of every child to a decent education ought to seem self-evident. Knowledge—to paraphrase Rabindranath Tagore—should be free. Yet, most educators I know are against the Right to Education (RTE) Act—for reasons philosophical and practical.

I am not an educator. I have taught classes, but I approach this debate from the point of view of a parent and citizen.

I don’t know Ms. Narayan, but I have read one of her articles. So I feel I am qualified enough to comment on the mental process that led her to the conclusions outlined in her article. Now, how many of you can dare to paraphrase Rabindranath Tagore in support of your argument, without using your fancy internet search engine? I thought so. For your kind information, Ms. Narayan has committed Rabindra Dada’s whole oeuvre to her memory. She can quote Tagore like you can quote your favorite teevee character.

Now that we have established that Ms. Narayan is a great supporter of education of all peoples, let her educate us about the realities of real life:

The human face of the RTE Act and one that stares parents in the face is the 25% quota. Affluent urban Indians—and certainly the readership of this newspaper—send their children to elite private schools. The new reality is that these schools will have to mandatorily admit a 25% quota of underprivileged children—whether it is a Sanskriti, Bombay Scottish or Vidyashilp. This mingling of social classes is certain to cause discomfort even if few parents will vocalize it. “In principle, I have no problem with this,” we will say, and may even believe it. We will call forth our childhood hardships and tell each other, “I believe that my children ought to socialize with, and learn from, all types of children.” We will feel the halo shining around our heads.

Yes! We have all been well trained by the liberal media to be politically correct and try to say the terrible thoughts that come into our head using non-terrible words. But, right now, at this moment, this great visionary is going to break out of these shackles and hit us with a truth bomb.

Of course, class has nothing to do with character. Intelligence is marginally correlated with wealth, if that. In many cases, the plumbers, drivers and dairy farmers who work for the urban elite are just as honest, if not more, than their employers. Children do learn from their less-privileged peers. But usually, such learning happens in an organic, semi-structured way—over summer holidays at grandparents’ homes when the driver’s son teaches your son how to play pithoo.

Of course. All non-elite people are honest. They never lie, cheat or steal. They are so honest that if you leave a billion rupees on the street near a whole swath of them and come back in ten years, not only will you find the billion rupees where you left them but you will also get the interest amount that you would have gotten if you would have invested the money in a high-yielding bond. Such is the magic of poverty! No, we’re not overcompensating at all. What makes you say that?

Now, don’t get Ms. Narayan wrong. She is not a racist. Some of her best employees are government school teachers!

The lady who helps clean my home, Rosie, is an erstwhile government schoolteacher, who discovered that she makes more money cleaning homes than teaching. She lives in Yelahanka, in the vicinity of a number of Bangalore’s top private schools. In theory, Rosie’s daughter, Jenny, could and should be my daughter’s classmate. Jenny is a tall, bright girl with limpid eyes and a quick wit. She smiles often and asks questions. She is polite and curious. She is of the same age as my younger daughter; and they could learn from each other. In theory.

Yes, in theory, if this were a perfect world, or if we had realized Karl Marx’s Utopia, or if all of us always did the right thing, or if wishes were horses, we wouldn’t even be having this debate! But real life does not work that way. Theory is good, but you have to be practical after all. Look, Jenny, don’t take this personally, but you’d know all this if you’d had the opportunity to have a decent education. But we can’t have everything, now, can we? Love the things your mama gave you, like your limpid eyes, your smile and a society which won’t ever let you forget where you really belong.

However, if you think you’re going to blame Ms. Narayan for enumerating all these practical problems, then think again. She is not to blame. In her hearts of hearts, she has the best intentions. She wants people like Jenny to have a good education. But the real culprit is someone else. A person so ruthless that her mere presence sends shivers down the spines of anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path. Who is this person? I’m afraid I dare not even speak her name. The only person who can even talk about her is someone who is immune to all her devilry:

Children are cliquish. I don’t like this fact, but cannot escape it. I can invite any number of outsiders—from hovels or gated communities—to my daughter’s birthday party, command her to “be nice”, and after the initial “hello”, she will return to giggling with her school friends. Lectures about egalitarianism carry as much weight as all those lectures about “starving children while you waste food” and “I studied under the street lights while you forget to switch off the lights”.

Yes. Ms. Narayan’s daughter is the real culprit. Behind that (probably!) cute face, lies the mind of a sheepish villain. This child prodigy, a ruthless doyen of child society does not play fair. She will chew and spit out children like Jenny the minute they step into her circle of influence. This is why you can’t have nice things, Jenny. Ms. Narayan’s daughter might say mean things about you.

There, there, Jenny. Don’t cry. You probably cannot afford to lose all that salt from your body anyway. Listen, don’t worry. Ms. Narayan has got you covered. Due to the fact that she is a great egalitarian, she is going to solve your problem like America solves global terrorism: by throwing money at it:

I would be willing to pay an RTE fee in addition to what my children’s schools charge me, particularly if I know that it will help a child get an education. Educating underprivileged children is a pet cause among affluent parents—and I say this without rancour.

Yes. She wants all the poor, underprivileged children to be educated. It is her favorite cause, after all. Just not with her child. She is even ready to pay up so that you can open equal but separate schools for underprivileged children. This way everyone is happy!

The RTE Act, as it stands now, seems to me to be a massive government cop-out. [. . . ] As a parent, I laud the intent. I am willing to help make it work. But as a student of psychology, I don’t think plonking underprivileged children in elite schools is the solution.

Ms. Shobha Narayan’s solution, as it stands now, is a massive cop-out. As a connoisseur of unintentional hilarity, I applaud her effort. But as someone who learned everything he needs to know about psychology from Fraiser re-runs, I think she might be suffering from a case of wanting all the poors to get off her lawn.

That is all.

[Mint Lounge]

Monday, April 23, 2012

No privacy please, we’re Indian

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

On a brave January morning in the fifty-fifth year of the last century, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Poschim Bongo witnessed a miracle that would change its future forever. The clouds parted, the birds lined up in the sky as if practicing for a parade and the guy who plays the background music during such occasions put on some Rabindra sangeet. The stork responsible for delivering Bengali babies punched in his card and began to start making his deliveries. When he reached his workstation, he saw that the first baby he was to deliver was giving a fiery speech to the other babies around her who were crying and peeing in appreciation. He tried to get the baby to stop talking so that he could get on with his day but the baby threatened to go on a cerelac-strike until the conditions in the baby producing machines were not improved. After 26 hours of hard negotiations, the stork was finally able to deliver the baby. While the Gods watched this journey live on GodTube, they all nodded in agreement that this baby was one day going to lead her people onto the light. Then they all went back to their day job playing supporting characters in Rajnikanth movies.

Flash-forward to 2012. The fiery baby has now turned into the chief minister of Poschim Bongo. You can recognize her thanks to her old-school tantrums. Some things never change! This week she committed the most egregious crime in the history of the world; she tried to punish someone for posting stuff to the internet. How dare she! Didn’t our politicians get the memo? You can lie, cheat, steal, rape, pilour our taxes, bend the rules for your own personal benefit, but don’t you dare try to take away our ability to make semi-amusing jokes about you or we’ll treat you the same way the United Nations Security Council treats rogue countries who repeatedly violate international law: send you a strongly worded letter requesting you to stop.

Governments in this country have always tried to censor its citizens under one lousy pretext or another. They passed a draconian act making themselves kings of the internet, even though they did not need a new law to stifle dissent. Whether it is through tax raids or humiliating enforcement directorate ‘interrogations’ or using their stooges in the media to brand someone ‘anti-national’ to negate their criticism, they love making examples of people who ‘cross the line’ so that others self-censor themselves. However, their old methods of censorship are useless on the internet. Even if they manage to get something removed from a particular website, it will pop-up at a dozen other websites. Just like you can’t keep an alcoholic away from his drink no matter how many ‘dry-days’ you announce, you cannot keep information hidden on the internet from those who seek it.

Since they can’t get rid of the content, they do the next best thing. Punish the person who posted or shared it. And like with everything else they don’t understand, they try to ban it. The commitment of our government and government departments to make things difficult for legitimate users of things never falters. Simplicity is for countries with a weak digestive system. Tough countries complicate everything beyond recognition. If you like it then you can’t put a ring on it. A few people have a drinking problem? Raise the permissible age limit to get a drink to a number so high that it only makes sense to a person too drunk on power. Some people are using paypal and other online payment services to cheat on their taxes? Ban paypal. Are service providers refusing to share information about every user citing privacy concerns? Threaten to terminate their services until they budge. Privacy in India is treated with the same contempt that is usually reserved for an uninvited dinner guest who likes to share details of his bowel moments while everybody else is eating.

And if they can’t find any real reason to censor something, then they can go back using their most faithful excuse. National security. Those two words are a pre-emptive strike against every question. Sorry buddy, we need access to all your emails, text messages, tweets, facebook status updates and details about every second you spend on the internet. What do you mean your privacy is important to you? National security, boss. What are you, some kind of communist? Or a terrorist supporting liberal hippie? Privacy is for important people whose drivers accidentally record them in compromising positions. Not for schmucks like you.

Now please excuse me while I politely deal with this nice police officer at my front door who wants to know why I was using ‘private browsing’ between 4 and 5 am last Friday.

See you next week.

I hope.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Is that a coup in your pants or are you just happy to see me?

(The originally appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Bring out your bell-bottoms and unretire your hippies because we seemed to be re-living the 1970s again. Just like in those days, there were rumours of a coup on the streets of New Delhi, a member of the Gandhi family has undue influence on the government and people were actually reading something the ancients used to call a ‘newspaper.’

Another throwback to a previous decade was branding those who were raising uncomfortable questions with Orwellian terms. ‘Traitor’ seemed to be the new ‘CIA agent.’ Not that anyone believed those hilarious reports anyway, yet some members of the establishment thought it prudent to go on an all out offensive against those allegedly ‘making mischief.’ Suddenly, everyone seemed to have discovered their deep love for the troops. Slavish news anchors nodded continuously while defence experts--who seemed to have walked straight out of a PG Wodehouse novel--insisted that no one had the right to question the armed forces, forgetting that the “Don’t criticize me, bro!” directive is only for people currently serving.  We don’t really need our army chiefs to decide for us what we can and cannot speak about. Army chiefs should be like a trophy spouse; best seen and not heard from.

We need to stop feteshizing government institutions because all of them are riddled with problems and we don’t help by ignoring uncomfortable questions. Living in this country is like a choose-your-own-holy cow-which-no-one-can-slaughter adventure.  You can’t question the judiciary, because they are our only saving grace! You can’t question the army because apparently, we are now living in a JP Dutta movie. You can’t say anything against Parliament because the right to watch porn--as some jackass goes on and on about the plight of farmers--is sacrosanct! You can’t question Narendra Modi because he is the Diego Maradona of chief ministers and therefore does not need to be penalised for his ‘hand of god’ goal.

We can blame our ‘leaders’ but let’s first admit that all of us aren’t keen on discussing a lot of issues either. We love banning, clipping, censoring, bleeping, burning, tearing, destroying and beating. Our first reaction to any article we don’t agree with is ‘why did this publication print this?’ We seem to only appreciate people whose opinion and worldview coincides with our own. You mean to say if we just pass this little law here then all our problems will be solved? ZOMG! You complete me! And then we question someone’s patriotism as soon as they take a position we don’t seem to agree with. Hey, what are you going on and on about false democracy and crony capitalism? Somebody try this person for sedition, stat! Jingoistic patriotism seems to be the most popular ‘soup-of-the-day’ in our country. The real test of democracy is tolerating people you vehemently disagree with. Let the ‘free market of ideas’ determine the validity of the discourse. I may think you’re talking with you head up your arse, but I will defend to mild discomfort your right to make a fool of yourself in public.

We need to start treating each other as adults. Otherwise the only thing we’d be left to talk about will be the weather. But, wait, isn’t that controversial too, these days? Thanks to some people who believe that global warming is actually taking place. They don’t realize that Mother Nature is just Al Gore in drag and the weather is just going through a normal cyclical phase. Melting polar ice caps, disappearing glaciers and shrinking winter seasons are just part of the normal weather pattern, right? Who needs those icebergs anyway? Those damn things keep sinking our ships and killing all our handsome young men named after medieval painters.

Wait, if we can’t even talk about the weather then all we are left to discuss is our feelings and stuff?

Uh-oh. Beam me back into your time, Scotty.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Chinese Democracy in New Delhi

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As the summer sun in New Delhi charred everything it could get its rays on, world leaders descended on India’s capital for the BRICS summit. The summit got off to an awkward start. Apparently, the Russian delegates got drunk on their flight here and were hitting on the wives of other delegates. While the Indians were busy making sure their guests had more food on their plate than any normal human being could possibly eat in one sitting, the Chinese delegates were going around giving everyone wedgies and forcefully taking their money. The South African delegates were just happy to be get out of the house for once because no one ever invites them to any summit and they wanted to use this opportunity to show off their sparkling personality.

The dysfunction was not limited to the lower-rung delegates. There were more cat fights among the heads of state than there are during a Spice Girls world tour. They couldn’t even decide what to order for lunch! Hu ‘What you looking at MotherF***er Spice’ Jintao wanted to have authentic Indian cuisine because the Indian food available in China is too Chinese for his taste. Dmitry ‘Assassin Spice’  Medvedev wanted to try this new bistro in Hauz Khas that he had read about in ‘Ballistic Missiles Weekly,’ Manmohan ‘Baby Spice’ Singh wanted to skip lunch entirely because his stomach was still working on a piece of chicken he had eaten for dinner yesterday while Dilma ‘Here to make it a non-sausage fest Spice’ Rouseff would go for whatever the group decided because she was tired of circling the mall and all she wanted was to sit down somewhere and have a refreshing glass of ice tea. The leaders finally decided to order from McDonalds so that no one got what they wanted and everybody could claim to have compromised. This also helped in breaking the ice as all the leaders agreed that while they may have problems with each other, nothing is worse than western capitalism wrapped in a bun.

This thawing of the ice also allowed the Indian Prime Minister to release his inner ‘Funmohan.’ All these non-Indians get him, man! They know that beneath the tough exterior lies the real Manmohan. This super-Manmohan-who is funny, sensitive and caring-is nestled between the buzzer connected to an office in 10 Janpath and a hologram of the 1873 edition of the Oxford English dictionary. Manmohan Singh at an international summit is like that episode of a sitcom in which the character with the least amount of camera time suddenly finds himself at the centre of attention. It is a bizzaro world in which he is treated with kindness & respect. People actually listen to what Manmohan has to say and don’t collapse into a coma as soon as he opens his mouth. He schmoozes at these shindigs. And sometimes, even lets a journalist ask him a real question! Though not an Indian journalist. Those wankers have got it out for him. He talks to real journalists from real newspapers. Indians and hacks not allowed.

This year the jovial atmosphere of the summit was ruined by a few so called non-violent Tibetans. Not only did they harm themselves, they almost caused an international incident. How dare they think that they can avail the freedoms guaranteed to them under the Indian constitution? They didn’t even bother going through the proper channels! And by proper channels I mean the dear leader of Indian news. Did they even give him a single interview? No! Did they have the decency to rent a fake mob? No! Did they hire former journalists as their PR agents who would advice them on what time to protest so as to draw the maximum amount of coverage or how to make a crowd of a few hundred people seem like thousands? No! Such amateurs. They didn't even try to come up with catchy slogans. There were no pictures of Gandhi. And no obeisance was being paid to the glory of Bharat Mata. YAWN! Get your oppressed soul off my lawn.

I, for one, am tired of such ad-hominem attacks on the government. You use British Raj-era tactics on your own people a couple of times and suddenly they start questioning your democratic credentials. What you don’t understand is that this was for the Tibetans’ own protection. These people are so flammable that they needed to be kept indoors, away from Delhi’s extreme weather. So what if they can’t visit Tibet? They can ‘street view’ it on Google Maps and see what China has done to their erstwhile home. And if there is one thing we can be assured off, it is that China is very kind to territories it occupies. Just ask the people in Aksai Chin. They probably don’t even remember that they were once part of India! And as for the people from Manipur who got arrested because of racial profiling, well, s**t happens, get over it. They were simply collateral damage in the arduous task of maintaining law & order. If they don’t want this to happen again, they should try not to look so Chinese all the time.

Frankly, there is enough freedom in this country. You can say and do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt the made up sentiments of everyone else or cause the government any perceived embarrassment or don’t point out things which might inconvenience people with a lot riding on some really big projects. All they’re asking for is a little mutual respect. You respect their right to do whatever they want and they will respect your right to not be transported-under ‘mysterious circumstances,’ of course-to the big twitterverse in the sky. Capiche? 

In an unrelated story, does any freshly democratic country want an old, well-written but barely used constitution? Asking for a friend whose country doesn’t seem to have much use for one anymore.

Monday, April 2, 2012

India’s own private Idaho

(A version of this appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of the most difficult tasks in today’s world is to get politicians to take a stand on something, especially politicians running the UPA government. Getting the UPA government to take a stand on something is like trying to impregnate the statue of David. They are so neutral on every issue they make the Swiss look like Fox News. Even on the most obvious of issues, all you can get from them is the perennial why-cant-we-all-get-along plea of a wounded kangaroo trying to save her child from being killed by a larger animal.

So when it finally happened this week, hell froze over, there were more pigs in the sky than planes belonging to Kingfisher airlines, Imams were issuing fatwas calling for treating women as equals, Pundits were eating beef on a Tuesday and the only thing Priests in the catholic church were allowing choir boys to suck on was an ice cream stick. The UPA government had finally taken a stand on something! Even though the Supreme Court had to put a gun to their head to make them do it, but it’s the thought that counts, doesn’t it? They could have pivoted to the ignorant amongst us and taken a wrong stand, but they ignored Ghulam Nabi Azad and finally spelt out their support for the Delhi High Court judgement decriminalising homosexuality.

The fact that in 2012 human rights in this country are still up for debate is appalling. We treat our LGBT population like they are another species. Until July 2009, when good sense prevailed and the Delhi High Court read down section 377, the LGBT community in this country was technically still under colonial rule. Because unlike what the bigots proclaim, the only western influence present in this debate is institutionalized homophobia. Homosexuality has existed on this planet as long as life has existed on it.

One of the most popular hobbies of Indians everywhere is discriminating against people who they perceive to be different, but nothing unites all communities like their hatred of homosexuality. Gay people in this country have achieved something that even the ‘great’ MK Gandhi couldn't achieve; get all the crazy, bigoted people on the same side of an argument. These bigots predict that since the Delhi High Court has opened the floodgates, no one will want to love anyone of the opposite sex anymore. This will result in decreased male descendants ultimately causing the untimely demise of this young, vibrant nation whose people will then disappear from the face of the earth and take with them their ancient culture, their movies, the secret recipe of Chicken Manchurian and the ability to convince users of Dell computers to buy more RAM modules every time they call in to report a faulty keyboard. And then China will take over the vast empty wasteland and turn it into a nation of four year old child factory workers making smartphones whilst facing a working environment which probably violates a few provisions of the Geneva convention.

One doesn’t flick a switch and magically turn gay. Just like you don’t change the colour of your skin no matter how many tubes of fair & lovely you use, you can’t change the sexuality you were born with, no matter how much anybody else thinks that you will find the ‘right girl.’

Some countries punish all their gay citizens with death. In some countries bigots brutally murder gay citizens while the authorities look the other way or even encourage such vigilantism. In some countries you get sent to jail on the mere suspicion of being gay. In some countries legal sanctions can be brought against you for simply talking about homosexuality. In some countries, members of the gay community are raped by society's ‘moral guardians’ under the pretext of wanting to ‘fix’ them. In some countries you can be a self-hating homophobe tricking young gay men into feeling ashamed of who they are and still be married to a candidate running for President.

In India, you will get harassed by the police, bullied by the people around you and shunned by your family. Being gay is probably the number one item in the totem pole of things that upset Indian parents. It is even above marrying a person of a different religion or having a child without getting married first. Even our pop-culture is littered with rancid homophobia. Whether it is news channels who give credence to quacks like Ramdev who claim to heal homosexuality (If he was such a miracle worker, why can’t he stop his eye from constantly winking? What, is there no yoga app for that?) or celebrities who pretend to be gay for cheap laughs on award shows or even a lot of twitter users-who escape to the moral high ground when someone famous says something homophobic-have no qualms in mining bad stereotypes for re-tweets. The so called ‘macho’ leading men in popular movies prove how tough they are by mocking exaggerated stereotypes of gay men. Dude, you just bullied someone who has probably been facing discrimination every day of his life! Congratulations, here is your bravery award! This is not just limited to ill-informed and the uneducated, though. Even erudite ‘intellectuals’ will talk about promoting gay rights and then betray their ignorance by using ‘gay’ as a pejorative.

You know who else thought it was okay to discriminate against people for who they are?