Wednesday, February 27, 2013

These Are the Days of Our Lives

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Somedays, it feels like we’re all living in a soap opera. No, not because we have a non-identical evil twin bent upon spending its whole life trying to destroy us –Hi Pakistan!–but because whoever is writing the story of our lives keeps using the same tropes and storylines. I’m guessing that the ‘god’ in charge of determining the direction of all our lives wrote one good thing – which he stole from a more deserving candidate anyway – and got promoted to Head of Operations (Asia Pacific) and now keeps making the same things happen again and again because that’s all he knows. Which suits us fine because we hate change anyway. We avoid it like we avoid the bubonic plague. We like to see movies with the same script. We prefer to elect politicians who make the same promises. We give our money to people who have cheated us before. We even cheer for the same team repeatedly hoping that this time they won’t disappoint us and will finally win the match, giving us the validation that comes from cheering for a bunch of people we have no personal connection to achieving an arbitrary goal. As they say: the millionth time is the charm!

A familiar trope that has been recycled more times than a gay joke at a bollywood awards show is the suppression of free speech. This is one storyline which brings with it a lot of ‘buzz.’ All you have to do is get one viewer to post a tweet and voila, you’re all over the newscycle.  No publicity is bad publicity, right? Currently, this storyline is being used for the ponytail loving cult leader called Arindham Chaudhari. This character suffers from what people in the medical profession call a classic case of ‘being an Indian whose orders must be compulsorily followed by a few minions due to unavoidable circumstances.’  He’s paranoid (the IIM mafia is out to get me), narcissistic (refers to himself in third person), misstates facts (free laptop!) and suffers from delusions of grandeur (gives himself grandiose titles which don’t mean anything outside the confines of his diploma shop). Like so many other characters on the show, Chaudhari misused the law put in by the government to make it easier for people who have something to hide to censor all criticism. What else can you expect from a character whose megalomania even outdoes last year’s breakout star, Mamta Banerjee. Not to be outdone, Ms. Banerjee has begun to bring back the focus on herself by ramping up the craziness quotient of her antics from ‘this is terrible but hilarious’ to ‘can we airlift everyone but her from West Bengal?’ In fiction, usually, things don’t end well for such characters who are on a trajectory of a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. But in our world, the only people who suffer from consequences are those who are trying to do the right thing.

This week’s ‘bharat bandh ’ special episode would have been a  flop if at the last minute goons from various political parties hadn’t bullied people into enacting a ‘spontaneous protest.’ It’s the thought that counts, even if the thought appeared in your brain once you saw someone else not thinking the same thing getting punched in the face.

For the next fortnight, we will have to also sit through the reruns of ‘Parliament Adjourned.’ These are broadcast so frequently because they are the easiest to produce. All they have to do is record a bunch of people rushing to the ‘well of the house’ while shouting indiscriminate slogans for ten minutes while the speaker tries to silence them with her vulcan death stare failing which she rolls her eyes and ends the session. They get this footage on the first day of every term and put it on loop for the next five years.

But the storyline I can’t bear to follow anymore is the one in which they declare a curfew in Kashmir and cut off their access to the rest of the world. I am so bored of that! Just because we keep treating them like they’re our colony doesn’t mean we have to keep hearing about how we’re denying them their fundamental rights. Why can’t they stop crowding the streets and turn their angst at being treated like prisoners in their own home into art? Hell, I know I’d be more sympathetic to their cause if one of them made a nifty graphic novel which showed the day to day indignities they have to suffer through. They need to realize that if it wasn’t for our stabilising influence, they’d descend into chaos.

Now, where have I heard that one before?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changing

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

When the grand mufti of Kashmir heard about Pargaash, an all girl rock band from Kashmir, he was livid. A woman following her passion? Who does she think she is, a man with enough money or power to buy off any threat of religious persecution? He then issued a ‘fatwa’ directing the band to quit, an instruction which was promptly followed. “Our tradition doesn’t allow it,” he whimpered. ‘Tradition,’ of course, is a polite word for saying that one should be ‘acting like an idiot for no logical reason.’ You mean the only reason I shouldn’t be doing this because thousands of years ago, some superstitious asshole wrote something down on paper-like material with a quill pen? Okay, that totally makes sense! Going to take all the important decisions of my life according to the ‘Five Point Someone’ of 102 B.C. What could go wrong?

We don’t send tweets to each other through birds, even though they were its traditional carriers. We don’t need to digest a billion ‘traditional’ herbs to cure a headache anymore. We don’t even need to rub two stones together to make a fire when we can use an overcharged phone battery. However, we insist on listening to a person barely educated in anything-other-than-religious-dogma on how we should live our lives, even though most of their edicts are – traditionally – pulled out from where the sun doesn’t shine. For example, do you remember a time god threatened to burn the earth down because of a really wicked rock band? Yeah, me neither. Hey, if he didn’t banish the group ‘Nickelback,’ to an eternity of hellfire and brimstone, then all the other bands are quite safe from his wrath.

Yet, the one thing the grand poobahs of all religions agree on is that we must strive to preserve gender roles forever, because it makes it easier to determine whom to discriminate against. It’s not misogynist if it’s written in the book! Stop complaining. What are you, a girl? Their basic grouse with the modern world is its snail-like journey towards equality. They are nostalgic for a time when men were men and women knew their place. Like during the stone age when men were gruffly, emotionless neanderthals who had the fashion sense of Tarzan and the wit and charm of the great Khali, and they ate anything they wanted to without even cooking it or washing it in boiled water (or as we call it in India, ‘Chinese food’). Meanwhile, the women stayed home in the cave combing their armpit hair while waiting for their man to bring home the uncooked bacon.

This discrimination also manifests itself in our culture of masculinity. We like our men to be like our most popular motorcycle: cheap, loud and using the same design since the Second World War. A ‘manly man’ must never drop his guard. If he makes one wrong move they can revoke his man card. It can be something as small as drinking the wrong beer or driving an SUV in a mountainous region while wearing a seat-belt. It can even be something simple like washing his hands before eating that can get him disqualified. And watching any teevee program whose description requires the use of more than one syllable qualifies him for instant self-deportation from Manlymanville. One would imagine that someone who wants to be perceived as a strong person with a will of steel wouldn’t be so subservient to society’s orthodox diktats. Turns out, the people who pretend to be the strongest always turn out to be the most afraid and paranoid.

We also like our government to be manly. We don’t like it when sissified college graduates lead them. An ‘education’ weakens you because it makes you do all those girly things like ‘thinking’ and ‘caring about consequences.’ Real leaders listen to their guts and only communicate in grunts and head nods. Diplomacy is for countries without a nuclear weapon arsenal! Why doesn’t our government just grow a pair and knead other governments in theirs? Man up and kill all those people whose mere existence makes us wet our pants.

Limiting your life to conform to other people’s expectations is an idea whose time has long passed its expiration date. We can only have real equality when people start looking at each other as individuals and a person’s gender won’t trap them into a life they don’t want. Being who you are is going to be the new normal. 

Now please excuse me while I spend the rest of the day learning how to make a sandwich.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Not Until You Say Yes

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Usually, we like to be quite tolerant on these pages. Accepting everyone for who they are and all that jazz. However, we also feel that it’s also important to speak up against those people who cause harm to society, no matter what the repercussions. The people I’m referring to are everywhere. They're your friends. Or your co-workers. You could even be related to them, thanks to the unfortunate accident of birth. These people are very smart and shrewd. They don’t care about you; they only care about spreading their agenda and increasing their numbers. They want to make the rest of the world believe that theirs is the righteous path. These people start brainwashing you from the day you are born. And they don't leave you alone until you become one of them.

You see them everywhere. You read about them in books & magazines. Or see them on teevee. They even have their own genre of movies. They shamefully continue to wave their decadent lifestyle in your face, without any care in the world.

You know who I am talking about.

Married people.

People in this country are obsessed with weddings. If you’re not having one of your own, then you’re asking someone else to have one. If you’re a single person, the most frequent question you get asked is ‘When are you getting married?’ even though what they should actually be asking you is ‘Why does your breath smell of cheetos and sadness?’ or ‘Is that cat hair on your jacket?’. Why would presuming that you are entitled to weigh in on someone else’s important, life-changing decisions be out of place in a country where letting relationships progress naturally by passing through different levels of commitment before taking the big plunge is frowned upon whereas deciding to spend your whole life with someone you met only twice is considered an idea worth emulating?

Even fictional characters are constantly encouraged to get hitched. The best way to get a ratings bump on Indian teevee is to stage a wedding. A large number of our movies are centred around weddings using familiar tropes like two star-crossed lovers who are so right for each other but don’t realize that they should get married or feuding families who are brought together by their youngest members falling in love with each other and getting married or a couple pretending to be married for some other reason besides love slowly falling for each other and then finally getting married before the credits roll in.

There is no news more important than a celebrity. They sent one lonely reporter to cover the demonstrations in Egypt but each channel had about a dozen reporters covering the Abhi-Ash wedding. Not many kids can recall the name of the President but they can recite the guest list for Vidya Balan’s ‘sangeet’ from memory. And celebrities encourage this behaviour because their weddings are now supposed to be a profitable business venture. When Raj Kundra married Shilpa Shetty’s name recognition while she decided to go into ‘holy matrimony’ with his money, they sold each sordid detail of the event to the highest bidder. There is so much pre and post wedding analysis that even the third cousin of the wedding photographer gets his fifteen minutes.

Of course, nothing is worse than the actual wedding ceremony. Let’s call everyone we know and have them congratulate us on the fact that we're going to spend the rest of our forlorn miserable existence together in faux monogamy. It doesn’t matter that most of our guests don’t even like us because we really enjoy standing around for five hours thanking strangers for their insincere wishes and crappy gifts. I’m old enough to remember a time when the most exciting thing you could do at a wedding was have a server put a scoop of vanilla into your cola-like beverage. Then there was a time when paying actual actors to perform at your wedding was a thing. Nowadays, people have cut out the middlemen and the “happy” couple and their families perform awkward dance routines while the audiences look on in horror and schadenfreude. The performances are choreographed to classic bollywood songs most of which express such wonderful sentiment like the groom taking the bride home forcefully because loving someone means treating them like your property or letting the groom know that he’s going to spend the rest of his life being miserable under the hitler-esque rule of his bride.

If that’s not an auspicious way to start your new life, I don’t know what is.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sophie’s Democracy

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

A cheer erupted among the faithful as one of his minions gave the speech nominating him. He didn’t know which minion it was, though. He had so many of them that all their faces were just a blur to him. The cheers became deafening as he took to the podium. No one would fault you for thinking that he had moves like Jagger. He looked around at the hundreds of subservient eyes watching him with hope and mild trepidation. He scanned the podium. His mother smiled at him and nodded. The Prime Minister gave him the look of gratefulness that he usually reserves only for American Presidents. The country’s favourite man-child smirked on the inside. You might as well call him Buddha from now on because at that precise moment he finally understood why he was ‘The One.’

No one could stop him now.  .

* * *

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or haven’t recently run into that irritating person in your life who cannot stop talking about politics, you’d know that armageddon the general elections are nigh. They’re officially scheduled to take place next year but the news media would like them to happen right now so that they can regurgitate all their clich├ęs (People only vote their cast and not cast their vote! A week is a long time in Indian politics! The voters are quite smart even though they keep voting for assholes!)  and make some money (Would you like the positive coverage package or the no news is good news package?). The UPA doesn’t even want to think about the election because it’s tired of running one of the most corrupt, undemocratic and clueless government in the country’s history and all it wants to do is lie down and close its eyes for a minute. The BJP believes that it has already won the election and the vote is just a formality and despite plenty of evidence to the contrary its going to do a better job than the UPA, ‘god promise.’ And the people can’t wait to invest their hopes and dreams in yet another government that will be worse than its predecessors so that they can vote them out too.

Even though most political parties have been preparing since last year (‘To govern’ refers to distributing freebies to your base, doesn’t it?), the campaign began in earnest this year when the Congress officially crowned its reigning prince as the Next Big Saviour and set him up for spectacular failure and/or mild success, while the various factions of the BJP were busy negotiating with each other to decide upon the most impotent and least harmful person who wouldn’t ruffle any feathers or do anything that his job entails so that they could make him President of their party.

The elections are going to give us such a stark choice. One of the parties consists of a bunch of unelectable regional satraps whose lust for power is only matched by their subservience to their favourite family and who would willingly elect a monkey if they were directed to do so by their dear leader. The other is a cauldron of Prime Ministerial ambitions bursting at the seams and barely held together by its members’ increasingly fleeting loyalty to a bunch of religious octogenarians who still wear shorts to work. Here’s a pro tip: If none of the political parties in your country hold elections to fill their leadership positions, then their commitment to 'democracy’ might not be as strong as they want you believe.

Let’s face it. The next election is going to be a contest between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. The Gandhi political machine meets the Modi juggernaut. The public image both of them have constructed for themselves over the past few years are going to battle each other in an election campaign that will make you want to curl up in a fetal position and cry softly into a pillow.

Rahul Gandhi is neither this salt-of-the-earth politician who pretends to be obsessed with uplifting the downtrodden nor is he a ‘youth icon’ who wants to change the very system from which he draws his power. He will never be the ‘man of the people,’ no matter how many choreographed visits to homes in rural villages or ‘spontaneous’ train rides he goes on.  The speech he gave at his coronation didn’t seem to come from a man whose family has been pretty much running the country since independence (except for a few commercial breaks in between). It was more like a speech given by a naive, sanctimonious character in a movie who ascends to power and then proceeds to lecture the villainous establishment on the advantages of virtue.

Narendra Modi likes to present himself as a larger-than-life leader with the ability to appear everywhere via hologram allowing himself to solve every problem in the country simultaneously. The false back-story he pretends is part of his non-existent folksy charm is that he’s a simple man who reluctantly took on the task of leading the state government - because he was a good soldier of his party - and then proceeded to make the state the economic powerhouse it is today. Who even cares that he is a vindictive megalomaniac possessing disdain for democratic norms who won’t let anyone stand in the way of his ultimate goal because development, development and development?

So that’s your choice, India. It’s either going to be a nincompoop scion who will get played more times than an air guitar at a Brayan Adams concert or a polished propagandist who has successfully papered over his machiavellian rise to glory. And even though both of them want to be Prime Minister real bad, they’ll act as if they’re only taking up the position in the ‘service for the country’ because the first rule of a Prime Ministerial campaign is that you don’t talk about your Prime Ministerial campaign. In fact, they’re going to act like they’re doing us a favour! How noble! We are indeed quite lucky to have such leaders who would scuttle their personal ambition for the welfare of others and become the second most powerful person in the country.

The most powerful being, of course, the host of Times Newshour.

* * *

Meanwhile, somewhere in Gandhinagar, a smug, bearded man sat alone in his house watching teevee. He saw this pip of a boy giving a speech. They think this young whippersnapper can take him? This is going to be easier than he thought. Normally, the bearded man didn’t allow himself to feel any emotion, but today, he let half a smile appear on his face. This was a special moment in his life and he would always cherish it, even though he was sharing it with no one else but the cold wind coming in from the open window. Today was the first day of the rest of his glorious life.

No one could stop him now.