Monday, May 28, 2012

Fahrenheit 2012

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

The streets of the internet filled with rumours. The news went viral faster than a video of a cat bungee jumping over the Potomac River while lip-synching to that irritating Carly Rae Jepsen song. The internet service providers in India were on a blocking spree again. Their actions brought various opposite camps on twitter together in their disgust and paranoia. The message the twittersphere wanted to send to the powers-that-be was clear: Steal our tax money and generally wreck up things to make our life harder, but don’t you dare try to take away our right to download free stuff from the internet or we’re going to HULK SMASH our keyboard and protest against internet censorship by posting things on the internet. And the powers-that-be did what they always do whenever legitimate users of something complain that their rights are being infringed upon - ignore them.

One of the parties involved in this iteration of block-a-mole has used the internet very successfully to create a buzz around their movie through a viral video. Now the producers of that very movie have turned on the very people who made them famous. Though they are not the only ones to do that. A large number of corporate entities try to clamp down on the internet by claiming that their forthcoming big-budget movie is allegedly being pirated online. They think that the reason people don’t want to see their movies is because they are pirating it on the internet. Not because they make terrible movies that have no stories but are just scenes of things put together haphazardly based on a focus group of one. Even though most people will not see these movies even if you paid them money, but, yeah, let’s pretend that the internet is the problem.

They keep trying to fight the internet instead of embracing it. If you make it easy for users to access your content, they would not need to pirate it. Trying to block torrent sites on the internet is like sending a hundred year old tortoise to catch the energizer bunny. Not only were they not able to achieve what they set out to do, in their haste, the movie producers even had the ISPs block, websites which had nothing to do with piracy. For example, they blocked Pastebin, a website whose sole function is to allow users on the internet to share pasted text, and Vimeo, a website which mostly contains time lapse videos of the remaining five picturesque locations on earth and indie movies made with such an austere budget that even P. Sainath would approve. By blocking these websites, they are actually hurting the people who want to showcase legitimate content.

In the end all the parties involved in this orgy of ignorance and ineptitude passed the blame for this to one another. The government could proudly claim that after a long time, it was relieved to not be the one trying to trample on its citizens rights. All we did was make these arbitrary and vague rules which can be willingly exploited by anyone to censor things they don’t want you to see. Don’t blame us! The corporate entities which sought to block the websites simply shrugged in response. We just cynically used our corporate heft to censor things that might hurt our business. Who is going to stop us? You? Or those government institutions who are so deeply embedded inside our ass that they can taste what we had for lunch?  And the internet service providers - who used this opportunity to block popular torrent and video sites to preserve their precious bandwidth - not only acted like they did not understand the court order and instead of blocking specific URL’s, blocked complete websites, and as of the time of writing this column, they were still pretending that they didn’t really understand how to completely unblock them. Sorry, court order! Our hands are tied behind our backs, giving you the finger. Meanwhile, the regulators responsible for protecting the consumers were AWOL as usual. Wait, are you talking to us? Are we supposed to do something in such a situation? Let us think about that for a while and come back to you with a whitepaper in 3 to 5 years. Hope that helps!

The internet is a problem for a lot of powerful groups in this country. Various governments and government institutions are unable to fathom the freedom of expression the internet offers. It is hard for them to accept the existence of a medium of communication which they cannot bully, cajole, or bribe into submission. Most politicians do not view the internet as a tool which can empower their citizens; rather they think of the internet as just another part of the vast conspiracy to destroy them. Instead of embracing it at every level, they resist it like white blood cells resist an infection. Corporate India does not like the internet because they can’t buy off all internet users by sending them on junkets or paying their child’s school fees. And the entertainment industry does not like the internet because it is full of “h8trz” who are “hatin” on them all the time. How can you allow a place where celebrities are not treated with the love and respect they deserve to exist? Sounds spooky, like something out of the Twilight Zone

On the bright side, at least they let us armchair critics feel like martyrs.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Fear and self-loathing in New Delhi

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Members of constant anti-democracy infomercial, the Indian parliament, were going through an existential crisis recently. They were searching hard for their place in the world. They looked around and wondered: are they just another degenerating life form in the senior citizen play pen that they belong to? Are they simply disposable pawns in the hands of their party high command? Serving at the high command’s pleasure, not having a voice of their own, doing the same thing day in and day out, burying their aspirations, their needs, and their principles for the larger good of the party. Are they just biding their time until they go back into the abyss thanks to the sweet release of death? Will they ever matter? Will they ever be able to look themselves in the mirror and not feel repulsed at what they have become? Will they be able to go back one day to the people – who keep electing them in the hope that maybe, maybe, this time things will be different – with their heads held high? Our elected representatives were having a morbid crisis of morality. The air inside Sansad Bhavan was full of melancholy. Lawmakers were searching for answers to which they did not even know the questions. And then, as the fellow once said, seek and ye shall receive, they finally found something that would not only unite them with purpose, but also redeem them in the eyes of the cynical electorate. No more tarring all of them with the same brush because of a few bad apples; they would get back the respect they deserve. The clouds of dread were replaced by the unseasonal spring as the honourable members finally found the source of all that ails this country: cartoons.

Yes, cartoons. You better believe it! Apparently, those terrorists at NCERT, a government department whose original mission was to develop a cure for insomnia, dared to print in one of their textbooks about politics, cartoons depicting our esteemed politicians in a non-positive light. Outrageous! Our great leaders are nothing but beacons of justice and propriety. Those self-proclaimed ‘esteemed educationists’ at NCERT are misusing their government-given positions to damage Indian democracy. As Pranab Mukerjee – the nearest thing the UPA government has to an adult – said the other day, cartoons are not for children. Yes, exactly. They might be old enough to learn about hoohas & peepees (I would have known the actual scientific terms for them if they had bothered to teach my class the chapter on reproduction and not deemed it ‘out of syllabus’), learn about how history was full of monsters who killed millions of people on a whim, and might even be expected to comprehend how until six short decades ago they were second class citizens in their own country, however, showing them mildly amusing cartoons about politicians will ruin their innocence and mentally scar them for life. And that is just not cricket, old chum.

This is not the first time the hard working parliamentarians have had to defend the very roots of our democracy from egregious outside attacks. Recently, they have been metaphorically pulverized by powerful forces like 80’s hindi movie villain ‘Baba’ Ramdev (He’s got his own private island, thousands of followers who subscribe to his every diktat and lots of financial backers in foreign countries. ZOMG! HE’S MOGAMBO!), famous actor & king of the pox people, Om Puri and former policewoman and current fake teevee judge who prevents irritating people from divorcing each other, Kiran Bedi. These three dared to insult and question the very dignity of our parliament by making somewhat truthful assertions about our MPs in a public forum. So our fair and balanced lawmakers took the only recourse available to them. (No, they did get any of the goons they have on a retainer to beat up these people! Those are for people without ‘friends’ in the media, silly!) They passed a censure motion against them. You may think this is not appropriate use of our lawmaker’s time, but who cares what you think anyway? You’re an elitist having access to basic necessities like education, clean water and electricity. The only opinion that counts is of the caricatures of poor people that live in our politician's heads.

Now some say that our MPs sully the very institution they pretend to revere by pulling various idiotic stunts like tearing bills they do not agree with. That is nonsense! The sanctity of parliament is not disturbed when the MPs frequently stage a walkout. They are just setting an example for the rest of the country to follow. Walking is good for your health. Keep walking! Neither was the dignity of the parliament affected when our MPs rushed to the well of the Lok Sabha with large amounts of currency. This was proof that India has finally arrived. We’re not that socialist country whose MPs can be bought for trifle amounts of money anymore. Now our MPs have ‘fuck you money,’ and only actual dollar billionaires can afford to temporary lease their integrity. If that doesn’t say progress, I don’t know what does. The parliament also maintains its status as a temple of democracy when the speaker of the house flouts the very rules she has been sworn-in to uphold by giving special consideration to a prominent leader of her party. Even real temples give preference to important people! It’s the rule of nature. If god wanted poor people to get any importance, he would have given them money.

If only there was a medium which we could use to illustrate the absurdity of this whole event.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of the most vulnerable minorities in this country are people with what you heathens call ‘religious sentiments.’ This small group consisting of millions of saintly souls is being oppressed by the thousands of tyrannical unbelievers. People experiencing these sentiments are so delicate, so fragile, and so defenseless, that they need to be protected at all costs. You need to realize that their feelings are natural. They cannot help it, they were born this way. To a neutral observer it must look like that these people were indoctrinated by their parents and others around them, but they were just being slightly nudged to express a devotion which was already existed. Pity that your bigoted eyes cannot see that. So what if their intolerance is slowly eroding the small set of freedoms that you enjoy? Just because they use loudspeakers at odd hours, block traffic as they please, use their position to diddle little children  bless little children with their holy seed, immerse environmentally unsafe products into the sea, you think you have a right to judge them and or call them names? If you feel so left out and helpless, why don’t you pray to your god? Oops! Sorry! Didn’t remember that you didn’t have any. Don’t worry; you’re probably going to hell anyway so why bother at all?

As the world grows more open, religions have turned more dogmatic and stringent. Instead of letting them evolve and adapt with modern life, the human race has turned religion into something complex and grotesque. These days religion is less about finding the meaning of life and more about competing with each other.

Religious people take real pride in being more pious than the other guy. Look at me; I’m so pious I only eat living things sprouting out of the soil. Screw you, you amateur! I’m so pious I don’t eat anything unless it has been regurgitated in the bowels of an animal. You call that being closer to god? I sneer in your general direction. I’m so pious I survive on rainwater and the raw bark of a dead tree.

Even religious festivals have turned into a competition to determine who can be the biggest asshole. Holi used to be about decorating your house with temporary graffiti, putting some non-cancerous chemical colour on each other and spending the rest of the day eating and drinking until that old uncle who cannot really hold down his alcohol starts to create a ruckus. Now it’s about starting to throw balloons at unsuspecting strangers a fortnight before the darn festival and then turning to eggs or paint or whatever you can get your hands on to use on the day itself. Diwali used to be about playing light Indian Poker, praying for more money and drinking and eating until that old uncle who was jealous of everybody’s success started to create a ruckus. Now it’s about gunfights over lost houses, destroyed families, gold idols and the race to produce the largest amount of noise and the most expensive toxic fumes. Christmas used to be about giving birth in unusual places without any medical assistance whatsoever. Now it’s about buying useless expensive gifts for people you don’t even like. 

People defend their religion from critics with the same fervour they defend Manchester United or Steve Jobs’ luxuriously autocratic mobile operating system. Nirvana is for people who have access to the most well stocked app store. Also, pretending to defend god is also pure human hubris. What the self-appointed defenders of faith are essentially saying is that not only is their god the most omnipotent, the most powerful, the king of every other god, but this very same powerful entity needs them, the average Joe-the guy who gets confined to the bed for five days because he was dumb enough to leave home without an umbrella even though it was drizzling outside-to defend them. Talk about your delusions of grandeur.

Not that I am a person who wants religion banished from the earth. We need religious people for the same reason we need the Kardashians; to make us feel better about ourselves. Everyone is entitled to their own delusion. I, for one, believe in the divine powers of a bottle of Jack Daniels and no amount of rehab can erode that belief. But I don’t go around legislating my beliefs or forcing them upon other people. In fact, I’d like as few people as possible to share my religion so that there is more ‘holy water’ left for me.

However, if you imagine someone is watching you every second of the day and keeping track of all your activities, then you’re right.

Although, I think you might have God confused with Kapil Sibal.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hail to the Chief

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

India’s brother from another mother and the world’s #1 source of porn and engaging television shows, the United States of America, finally began its pivot to the general elections. Unlike in our country, being President in America actually means something. Not only do you get to live in your own palatial house, you can use your own personal plane to go on as many shopping jaunts as you want. Now, America takes its responsibility to elect a President very seriously. That is why elections for the next cycle begin as soon as a President is elected.

On the Republican side we have the guy who used to play Ridge Forester on the Bold and the Beautiful, Mitt Romney; representing the Democrats is the incumbent Fresh Prince of Washington DC, Barack Obama. Mitt Romney has been running for President since 2005. He never stopped running, even when he lost the nomination the last time to the guy who chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. This last year, even though Mittens was the presumed frontrunner, he still almost lost the nomination again, at various points during the primaries. The Republicans are as excited about having Mitt Romney as their candidate as bartenders in Delhi are excited about refusing a drink to Manu Sharma, so they tried all the other options-a crazy homeless lady from Minnesota, a guy who was once CEO of a pizza chain right out of a badly written SNL skit, a time traveller from the 1950s and the human personification of every ugly American stereotype ever-before settling for Mitt. In fact, Mitt Romney’s journey to the Republican nomination was littered with so many setbacks that bullied gay kids in small towns all over America were making ‘It Gets Better’ videos for him.

Mitt Romney is the bizarro Obama of this election cycle. The evangelist Republican base thinks his choice of religion is weird, the pundits who presume to speak for the American people would like to know who the real Mitt Romney is and everyone seems to be asking whether he is human enough.

Of course, our mandarins in South Block and their counterparts in the media will love Mitt Romney. Not only does he share their cold war mindset, he cannot stand up to powerful individuals in his own party because he has no real political base of his own. Romney is a feckless generic individual-with the charisma of a bottle of home-made disinfectant-who will say and do anything just to get elected. Where have I heard that before?

It is conventional wisdom in New Delhi that somehow Republicans are better for India. Which is strange, because as the last guy demonstrated, Republican Presidents usually break the world. An overwhelming majority of our foreign policy ‘experts’ and their ‘anonymous sources’ spent the first two years of the Obama Presidency talking about how the previous Bush administration was such a ‘good friend’ to India. Don't you remember how we could call ol' Dubya anytime of the night, to complain about how after gym class whenever we were in the locker room changing back into our casuals, Pakistan used to pick a fight with us to distract us so that China could sneak behind our back and empty a whole tube of Ben-Gay into our fresh, clean underwear. And Dubya used to huff and puff and threaten to blow someone's house down! Meanwhile, Chocolate Gandhi does not even bother poke us back on facebook.

However, the pundits stopped breathing fire and brimstone once Obama came to visit us to whisper nice romantic things into our ear while we relaxed on the back seat of his plush limo. No one even remembered President Woody the Cowboy anymore. That is because we conduct our foreign policy with the same combination of neediness and brooding that Bella from the Twilight series conducts her love-life. And just like her, our only objective seems to be getting a very old, pale white guy to give us his undivided attention.

The most hilarious part is watching Indian analysts grapple with American elections. Their usual habit is to pay attention to it only when someone says something bad and truthful about Pakistan, which helps our news channels spend a week gloating about how we are not hyphenated with you-know-who anymore or when someone says something racist about outsourcing, which helps our news channels spend a week gloating about how America is now scared of India’s growing economic prowess. Watching Indian analysts interpret American politics is like watching the tele-tubbies interpret complex mathematical equations.

What we need is a reality check from someone who has been there, done that – a commentator who really knows how American elections work.

I hear that a handsome soap opera protagonist might be free after November.