Sunday, January 27, 2013

Requiem for a Republic

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of our favourite national pastimes is to invite people into our home and put all of our best wares on display. Whether they’re material or human, doesn’t matter. We’ll brag about whatever makes us feel superior to our guests. Oh, the chair you’re sitting on smells of cheese and body odour because it’s an original Louis XV. No off-the-rack mass market furniture for us, please! Yes, that chunk of drywall proudly residing on the mantelpiece used to be a part of the Berlin Wall. I’m so embarrassed you saw that picture of me with the Dalai Lama. No, I don’t like to talk about our ‘close friendship’ that is why I put the picture on display where everyone can see it. And now, for dessert, I’m going to spend the next half hour trying to coax my four year old child to recite all the passages from Shakespeare I made him learn while your shitty child just sits there playing with his own spit.

We do that collectively as a country when we invite a leader from a foreign country as the ‘chief guest’ to witness our Republic Day parade. Oh that little thing? We picked it up while on a shopping excursion in Russia. Yeah, you see, we like our fighter planes like we like our politicians: old, decrypt and of no use to anyone. Those pencil-shaped missiles - pointed towards you for some reason - are from last quarter's Sears Ballistic Missiles Catalogue. Those large guns you saw at the entrance were an impulse purchase. We bought them after the Swiss offered us a ten percent ‘cash back offer.’ No you’re not crazy! That smell of glue is coming from those tanks passing by right now. We made them ourselves, using nothing else besides hard work, ingenuity and lots of papier-mâché.

At least all the cultural floats participating in the parade are a truthful representation of the country. Did you see them yesterday? They were awesome! The parade began with the float from Chandigarh, which consisted of college students shouting the f-word at each other, representing that city’s contribution to our reality show heritage. The float from Rajasthan had a beautiful replica of an ancient fort under whose shade two children who hadn’t even achieved puberty yet were getting married. The Travel Ministry float showcased its dedication to tourism by letting a few unsuspecting members of the chief guest’s delegation fleeced by touts. The north-east was well represented by the float from Mizoram which had six hundred men with goatees playing the guitar. The float from Chhattisgarh was simply an appeal from its government asking you to hire its citizens to paint your house. The actors in the float from Delhi had no idea what they were supposed to represent because all of them had bribed their way onto the float. This wasn’t a problem for the political party activists in the float from Maharashtra because all they had to do was pelt stones at the float from Bihar. Everyone appreciated the edgy float from Goa which depicted a couple of mobsters’ wives snorting cocaine. There was just one awkward moment in the whole parade when everyone realised that in lieu of sending an actual float, West Bengal had sent their chief minister to shout at all the dignitaries.

Unfortunately, some floats were conspicuous by their absence. There was no float from Haryana because the idea for the float was killed as soon as it was conceptualized. The UP float was kidnapped by ‘dacoits close to the administration’ and is now the feature performer in a seedy bar in Kanpur. The float from Assam was erroneously deported to China. The Andhra Pradesh float went nowhere because both its drivers couldn’t decide on a common route. The float from Kerala was the first to arrive at India Gate but was still not able to participate in the parade because it stopped at the entrance and was handing out tea and ‘light snacks’ to the spectators throughout the festivities.

On Republic Day, we celebrate the official adoption of our constitution. A constitution is perhaps the most important document in the life of a Republic. Being part of a Republic is like being part of an arranged marriage. You get grandfathered into making this huge commitment with someone you don’t know anything about and you spend the rest of your life being passive aggressive towards them. And even though the sex is sad, awkward and unenjoyable, you still stay together, not because you want to but because all the better options are already taken and you’re too old to find someone new anyway.

A republic’s strength does not lie in its symbols. Nor does it lie in the number of weapons it has. It lies in the ability of that republic to tolerate dissent, to have arguments without resorting to violence and to creating a safe environment for all of its citizens. A strong republic doesn’t need constant validation from its peers. A strong republic strives to create equal opportunities for all its citizens. A strong republic realizes that denying even a single person their freedom enslaves the whole country.

Most importantly, a strong republic doesn’t celebrate the anniversary of its foundation with a dry day.

Hey, if you don’t believe me, ask the constitution.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Baby, it’s Cold Outside

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

The saviour of people caught in awkward situations who have nothing else to talk about, the weather, has been a ‘hot’ topic of conversation lately. Unless you’re a hibernating bear languishing in a remote cave, you’d notice that the weather seems to have gotten a tad bit cooler. In fact, it was so cold, Shashi Tharoor said something controversial just to be in hot water again. However, nothing really says winter is here than when people start questioning whether global warming is real. Apparently, some folks like to keep warm by shrouding themselves in ignorance.

The fact that we’re still debating the reality of global warming does not bode well for our future. In simple terms, this is what happens: Human activity causes a large amount of gases to be released into the atmosphere. The earth’s atmosphere traps these gases as well as the heat generated by them. This causes our glaciers to melt at a faster rate than the natural process can replenish them. Glaciers deflect about eighty percent of the heat from the sun. So when the glaciers start disappearing, this heat is instead absorbed by the earth. This increases the temperature of the planet, thus leading to ‘global warming.’  The expected outcome of global warming is an increase in extreme weather conditions. So the cold weather will get colder, the rains will get more torrential, hurricanes will get more powerful and volcanoes will erupt more frequently. Basically, the weather will be more chaotic than closing hour at the stock market.

Denying climate change is like denying gravity. If you don’t want to believe the scientists (because why would you want to believe thousands of smart people who have conducted comprehensive research and have released study after study presenting overwhelming evidence to support their claim?), the erratic nature of the weather is visible to everyone. There is nothing “natural” or “cyclical” about having a cold wave and a heat wave in the same year. The past decade has been the hottest decade since when we started recording temperatures. Each natural catastrophe seems to be the ‘worst ever’ in a long time. Earlier this month, Jerusalem was hit with the worst storm in twenty years. The storm was so bad that Jesus turned to God and said “Hey Dad, next time drop me off somewhere warmer. Like Siberia.” Luckily, the city and its surrounding area is full of mature adults known for their tolerance, patience and their apathy to overreaction so they handled the situation quite well.

Australia – which exists in a hipster hemisphere and usually spends its time relaxing on a beach in summer while the countries in the northern hemisphere are freezing in winter – is witnessing such unprecedented high temperatures this season that they had to add new colour codes to the weather map. This has finally woken up their government which is now urging greater global action to combat climate change.

Climate change is exactly the sort of area that needs governments to step up. Not only do we need governments to pass laws to decrease the amount of harmful gases and radiation we release into the atmosphere, we also need them to actually enforce those laws stringently. We need governments to invest in renewable energy. We also need them to use the tools available at their disposal to subsidise the adaptation of technology which uses renewable resources as an energy source. We also need the government to protect whatever remains of our ecology and not cede them to corporate interests’ intent on mining every inch of the planet. But that doesn’t seem on the cards. Developing countries like India and China don’t want to take any major steps to combat climate change because they feel that they just started to pollute the environment and it’s their turn to ruin the planet. Hey, I just got the party, at least let me snort a couple of lines of coke before you call the cops. Most of Europe is busy trying to stay afloat in a large pool of debt using German life-jackets so they don’t even want to think about anything else right now. And half of America thinks that the earth is getting warmer because god is giving us a hug.

One of the reasons of global warming that we seldom talk about is our increasing population. I don’t get people who still insist of procreating. The earth is crumbling, habitable land is decreasing, the climate is getting harsher and living conditions are getting slowly becoming unbearable. Yet, we insist on introducing another life onto this earth, even though there are millions of children without anybody to care for them suffering in orphanages or out on the streets, A very common excuse people give for bringing new human prisoners for our computer overlords running the matrix (WAKE UP SHEEPLE!), is that they want to create life which is “just like themselves.” Someone who carries on their “family name.” Because we’re still like primitive tribal folk on the inside! I mean, really? Do you think that you’re so special that the world needs more copies of you running around? Holy extreme rise in ego, batman!

In the future, when we’re living in unshapely, sterile soviet-esque ‘barrack-homes’ while roaming around in space suits attached with personal air-conditioner units - because the heat outside would make even Mars seem bearable - we’re really going to regret our inaction.

Hopefully, I’ll be dead by then.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Gods Must be Crazy

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of the major myths of society that percolates into our subconscious from the time we are children is that growing old is a bad thing. It’s there in our conversations and in our popular culture. There is a whole industry built around making old people feel younger. You can fight ageing – an inevitable process that has been taking place for millions of years – by applying some chemical cocktail on your face. Why age gracefully when you can make your face look like Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb? We are constantly told that growing old is a horrid event that we must endure until we are able to escape it through the sweet release of death. Being young is where it’s at! Yeah, because who wants financial independence and emotional maturity? Who needs to deal with small problems that can be easily overcome when you can just close the door of your room and blast a song full of profanity to show everyone how angry you are? I, for one, don’t subscribe to this fallacy and can’t wait to grow old. You get to say stupid things and treat people badly without any repercussions. You can make people squirm in their seats and puncture any serious conversation by releasing a loud fart. In fact, my spirit animal is AK Hangal. However, not everybody on twitter shares my enthusiasm about the ageing process. This is most apparent when something happens to someone people used to revere when they were children. People become more aware of their decreasing mortality whenever a childhood icon dies/retires/says something racist. Wait, celebrity x died of a heart attack? WHY DOES EVERYTHING HAPPEN TO ME???!

This was the case last month when Sachin Tendulkar announced his retirement from one-day cricket. Nothing makes you feel your age than when the guy you watched grow from an awkward child prodigy into an awkward adult genius decides to hang up his ill-fitting jockstrap for good. We could handle the exit of eternal bridesmaid Rahul Dravid or ungraceful retirement expert Saurav Ganguly because we still had Sachin. But now even he’s gone to spend more time not spending any of his money on his family.

If you weren’t born in the 80’s you can’t fathom how important Sachin was to his countrymen. Sachin Tendulkar was a hero to a nation in dire need of one. Who can forget his memorable innings as the brand ambassador of a popular soft drink brand! Or when he launched a thousand bankruptcies by appearing in a credit card advertisement and asking people to go get it! Who even knows how many kids’ lives he saved when he revealed the secret of his energy!

Sachin was the perfect poster-child for the post-liberalisation era. A great icon! He was proof that if you had luck, talent, humility and enough gumption to hire a ruthless businessman to manage your affairs, you too could become so successful that Parliament would pass a special act to prevent you from being exorbitantly taxed on a business transaction. That is also why he doesn’t have to spend his post-retirement years scrounging for money, unlike his predecessors. There are no low budget advertisements promoting ‘English speaking courses’ in his future. No humiliating interviews with Karan Thapar. He doesn’t need to participate in a reality show where he gets paid to be the butt of everyone’s jokes. The BCCI will not dare to even try to rein him in if he does something they don’t approve of. Even troll king and the talking tiger from ‘Life of Pi,’ Bal Thackeray, was more than respectful when criticizing his fellow exhibitor of Marathi machismo.

Living in India and not having had a conversation about cricket is like being a white person in a Karan Johar movie and not being racist. It’s easier to go along than spend the next few hours explaining to people that you don’t think that spending five days glued to a teevee screen watching 22 guys play a sport invented by bored royals so that they could pretend to be athletic might not be the optimum utilization of your time. Being able to fake a conversation about cricket also prevents you from being lynched because in this country, there is no other topic of discussion more important than cricket. We pretend that there is nothing wrong when the whole country stops any productive activity because some people are playing a match, somewhere. We are constantly fed bullshit narratives about how cricket “unites” the country and for a few hours, people take a break from making life miserable for each other in exchange for shouting cricketing advice at the teevee/radio/website hoping that the professionals playing on the field are able to hear them. We have to revere everything that happens on the field and worship those who play on it. Whether it’s movies, politics or sports, India doesn’t accept mere humans. We only have time for Gods.

Now please excuse me while I download a Nintendo emulator on my computer so that I can play all my favourite childhood games and try to recapture my youth.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hell is Other People

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Whenever a horrific incident imbibes itself in the consciousness of the people of our country, there are various stages of grief we go through together. Now, these are not based on any trenchant analysis by renowned mental health professionals. Instead, these are based on our values, our ancient culture, and the wisdom that has been passed on from generation to generation since the Indus civilization.

First comes shock. We feel this when we first hear of the incident. We wonder what kind of animals would do such a thing. We are taken aback by the fact that such people live and breathe among us. We can’t really believe that this happened! Despite there being plenty of proof and a large number of incidents documented in the past. Yet we imagine that this is the first time a deer distracted by the headlights got run over by a car. Wait, the snowball turned into an avalanche? Did not see that coming!

We feel guilty that we didn’t do anything to make sure such incidents didn’t happen. We kick ourselves for suffering injustice silently; for being those monkeys made out of stone and not hearing, seeing or saying anything. But the thing that we find most scary is the thought that this could happen to us too. That makes us angry. We get angry at everything and everybody. And we want revenge! We want heads to roll and bodies to pile up. No time to stop and consider how we contribute to an environment which leads to such an event. We want scapegoats and we want them now!

While the people are angry, the government is in denial. They did nothing wrong. They were all doing their job. In fact, according to them, they did an excellent job. And no, they’re not showing any cowardice by getting the police to suppress dissent using British Raj era tactics. They just retreated into their guarded palaces because they wanted to give the people some space. They aren’t holding onto to power within an inch of their life or anything. And refusing to meet people because of the misbelief that they aren’t going to vote for you anyway is not hubris. Neither is comparing people asking for justice for a fellow citizen with terrorists wanting to overthrow the state. And the advisory issued to news channels covering the protest, was as harmless as advice from a friend. No one was threatening anyone with dire consequences. Whatever gave you the idea!

Of course, it doesn’t take long for any discussion to devolve into a partisan food fight. Everyone stews in their righteousness, because they sincerely believe that this is just another event which happened because people don’t listen to them. Just another example of why the world is screwed up because of the other guy. If only more people would listen to us! You also can’t just be sad and upset about something by itself. You have to retroactively be upset about all the events that took place in the past. And simultaneously be upset about whatever is going to happen in the future.

Then we become mired in farce. Politicians want to make symbolic gestures towards the dearly departed. News channels want you to never forget until the next big story comes along.  And the rest of us just want to go back to our busy lives after someone assures us that we will be able to meander through the rest of our days in peace. Why don’t you just leave us alone, troubles of the world?

* * *

Life in India can make you quite cynical. When you see democracy being sold in packages of various sizes everyday, it’s quite hard to believe that words like “freedom,” “rule of law,” or “justice” mean anything.  Yet, there seemed something different about the current protests. When it started, it was a spontaneous expression of anger. It didn’t have the cold, calculative machiavellian organization of pasts protest. Nor were the protestors made up of the rent-a-mobs used by most political parties. They were outraged citizens who weren’t dead inside like the rest of us and still thought that they could change the world. They were also naive and so blinded by anger that they were not even sure of what they were protesting. They were in dire need of a civics lesson and those among them wanting to do unspeakable things to the accused should probably see a shrink.

We were trying to have a national discussion about things we need to do to make the country better for its female populace but we got caught in the same trap we always do. We lost our way somewhere between chemical castrations and mentally dented presidential scions.

Let’s hope it’s not too late to find our way back.