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.