Wednesday, April 24, 2013

It’s Not Twitter Wot Won It

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

While ‘the nation’ sweltered in the blistering summer, its political establishment used this opportunity to remind its citizens that mother nature’s wrath pales in comparison to the mind-numbing torture that is going to be the slow trundle towards the General Election from Hell by having its two top dogs give duelling speeches. The nation lay divided, forced to pick a side. Would they choose the frog who might one day turn into a handsome prince? Or would they choose the hare who assumes that he has won the race even before it has begun?

Nobody really knows what is going to happen but that hasn’t stopped those brave men and women who weather the blowing winds of common sense everyday to bring you fake narratives that have no basis in reality from making predictions about the outcome. Those heroes who have never been right about anything, ever. There are no words that can describe their contribution to the public welfare. To a country plagued by unending problems, they continue to be an unintentional source of hilarity. You find these legends everywhere! They’re the ones shouting at each other on teevee. They’re the ones writing columns in language so archaic that Macaulay would be proud. They’re the ones voluntarily submitting themselves to receiving a hundred metaphorical lashes from the internet by writing a post explaining their hypothesis.

On each of the days the frog and the hare were giving a speech, the fans and paid sycophants belonging to the opposition managed to get a hashtag mocking them to trend on twitter. (I use the word ‘mocking’ very loosely here. The kind of people that were posting tweets using either of the hashtags are an embarrassment to humanity.) So, naturally, it somehow became conventional wisdom that whoever wins the hashtag war (yes, that’s what they’re calling it) on twitter is going to win the General Election from Hell. There were actual human adults who are paid for providing information to the public taking this argument seriously.

I am old enough to remember when a twitter outrage cycle used to take a week before it reached the mainstream media. Now, it’s all over the news cycle in a couple of hours. That’s because twitter helps news organizations to find a great substitute for an actual issue without leaving their desk. Take that, people going to remote locations to gather information. .

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love twitter! It’s one of the good things about the internet. Some of my best friends are twitter users! It’s really great for having funny conversations, getting to know like minded people and finding out the best place to have brunch in Zanzibar. It also enables a person to cocoon themselves from contrary opinion. When you only follow people who are like you or agree with you most of the time, it becomes easy to believe that everybody is concerned about the same things you are. However, at any given moment, there are more people on twitter not giving a rat’s ass about issues closest to your heart. If you think that twitter has any impact on the real world, then you need to go out and speak to an actual human. (Though I wouldn’t recommend it. Did you know you cannot even re-tweet or favourite things that you say in real life? How crude! Human interaction is the worst.)

If anybody with a large number of followers thinks that it actually matters, then please note that Nirupama Rao, India’s Ambassador to the US, has more than a hundred thousand followers and her twitter feed is basically links to articles everybody else on the internet read two weeks ago and sepia toned photos of her travels (no, she doesn’t actually need to use any filters. She’s so boring that all her photographs look like they were taken with a box camera and took a month to develop). Our minister of re-tweeting compliments, Shashi Tharoor, has more than a million. And the worst thing to happen to the memory of Anne Frank, Justin Beiber, has more twitter followers than the population of Canada.

Maybe the backlash to such useless discussions will finally reach the ears of the people that run news organizations in this country. Maybe they’ll realize the error of their ways. Maybe it will dawn on them that they don’t have to be stuck in this circle of banality forever. Maybe they’ll figure out that they do not have to spend the rest of their lives being party to the extended foreplay between Swapan Dasgupta and Mani Shankar Aiyar. Maybe this time, when they ask the question, Did we pay too much undeserved attention to social media?, they will actually mean it. Maybe for one brief moment, they will look the viewer in the eye and do something unheard of: report the news.

Or maybe, they could just have another panel discussion.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

It’s Hard Out There For A Bigot

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

On twitter, a person’s one line ‘bio’ is a great way to gauge how people look at themselves. If the first thing they mention is what they do for work, then they usually turn out to be the sort of people who like to be defined by things they do in a professional capacity.  Anyone calling themselves a ‘foodie’ is the kind of person who goes to a restaurant and orders the most exotic sounding thing on the menu. A person who refers to themselves in third person is the type of person you need to stay away from. Someone with a mildly amusing, self-deprecating one-liner in their bio wants you to think that they’re funny. And when someone’s twitter bio says that “they’re politically incorrect,” what they’re trying to tell you is that they like to say racist things out loud. I’m a bigot and I know it!

Recently, while giving a speech at a fundraiser in California, American President and the guy who plays god to thousands of people through his killer flying robots, Barack Obama, called the state’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris, “the best looking attorney general in the country.” It became the sexist compliment heard around the world and Obama apologized to Harris a couple of days later. The apology angered a lot of people (mostly men. Shocking!) who hate ‘feminazis,’ the ‘p.c. police’ and the ‘liberal media’ for brainwashing everyone into believing newfangled ideas like treating other people with respect and dignity. Ugh. What has the world come to? Why can’t we benevolently compliment a woman about her looks in a professional setting? What’s next, not being able to constantly stare at women we’re not related to, lecherously? Tyranny!

If you’re not part of a marginalized group then you might have a blind spot towards subtle forms of discrimination they face. Even today, a lot of women are told that their only job is to look pretty and sit on the side with the other women while the men discuss important business, sweetie. It is a symptom of the problem that even an accomplished professional like Kamala Harris-a rising star who is talked about as a future Gubernatorial candidate or a nominee for the US Supreme Court-cannot escape the epithet.

If you’re someone who grew up in the 90’s then you probably know someone who visited a foreign country and was asked where they park their elephants. (There was like one guy who was asked this question for real and then everybody else stole the anecdote and made it their own. That question was the “have you seen slumdog millionaire?”  of that era.) or if you’re the vice-president in multi-national company but a lot of people still come to you with their computer problems because you’re Indian and they assume that you’d be able to help them even though the only thing you know about technology is how to browse matrimonial websites. If these things piss you off, then so should the fact that one of the most powerful people in the world thought it was okay to add “. . . but but she’s so purty” to a colleague’s resume. When we do things like that, we’re reducing the vastness of the human experience to a single attribute.

Although, in India, we’ve got the act of reducing people to a single attribute down to a T. We’ve had lots of practice, over the years. We can glorify/demonize large groups of people just based on one common attribute they inadvertently share. We like to put people in a box and get confused when they don’t fit.

If you like to kvetch about being mistreated, then, you probably shouldn’t be doing that to other people either. For example: If the best joke you can make about someone is based on a regressive stereotype, then maybe “jokes” are really not your forte. Try to be a little creative, maybe? Or not. As the first of April proves every year, a large majority of us are just not funny. Ask your doctor if shutting the f**k up is right for you!

You don’t have to be respectful towards other people. You can be as obnoxious as you want! No one’s stopping you. But if you want to be taken seriously, then maybe you should try to treat people like, you know, people.

Except, of course, anyone from Chennai.

Because nothing good ever comes out of that shithole.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Art of Magical Thinking

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of the things that makes this country great is the propensity of its citizens towards magical thinking. As long as something sounds implausible and illogical, we’ll believe it! Whether it’s the belief that banning smoking in movies will decrease consumption of cigarettes in real life or that wearing a ring with a ‘customized emerald’ will make you richer than a cabinet minister in the central government. Hey, if it’s second-hand information, it must be true!

This week, the competition to be India’s thought leader in magical thinking has been heating up!

Our first contender is noted self-help guru and living proof that if you say anything in a slow & deliberate voice, people will believe that you’re revealing the secret of the cosmos, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. In a recent public address, when asked about his opinion on the portrayal of outfits like his in hindi movies, he went off on a rant about how people who make movies are depraved, soulless drug addicts whose only purpose in life is to spend the public’s money and turn the country into a naxalite dystopia. Then a ‘holy man’ hailing from the shores of Benares gave the rebuttal.

It seems a little strange for self-help salesmen to rant against addicts. Being a member of a cult is just like being addicted to a harmful substance. You turn to both of them because you need a little pick-me-up. You think that you’re not an addict/one of those people who will believe this shit! Your need to run away from your problems keeps getting bigger and you promise yourself that one more session won’t do any harm. The people around you start avoiding you because of your one track focus. Then, when the crash comes, and you realize that your problems are still there and you can’t snort or meditate or wish them away, you try to climb back from the hole you’ve dug yourself into. At least drug addicts have the decency to not sell you overpriced spa sessions in the guise of spirituality. (Public Service Announcement: Don’t do drugs! Unless of course, you’re an investment banker, an actor or a musician. Then it’s mandatory! Hope this helps.)

Then we have the #1 chief minister in the history of the world and the man who will deliver us from evil by being more evil, Narendra Modi. As any hack on teevee will tell you, any issue surrounding Modi tends to turn “controversial” because he is a “polarising” figure. So, that is what happened when a delegation consisting of small time businessmen and three members of the US House of Representatives, who on a ten day tour of India, made a stopover in Gujarat and met the state’s chief minister. Modi’s supporters would like you to believe that this was the beginning of the ‘wooing’ that the international community will undertake because they have ‘accepted’ a truth that his detractors cannot. It’s a great narrative! Even the British ambassador also dropped in to meet him that one time. So now they can pretend that the west is trying to ‘engage’ Modi. Because if there is one thing Washington is good at, it’s picking heads of government for other countries.

Even though no one in the delegation was representing the Obama administration; even though Ahmadabad was just a stop in a ten day trip which was organized by an Indian-American organization and also included something called ‘a bollywood extravaganza,’ it didn’t stop Modi and his supporters from taking a victory lap. They were as giddy as a Times Now reporter talking about a tertiary Indian connection to a movie nominated for the Oscars. They used the sort of strenuous logic that can prove anything: Modi is popular, causes an extreme reaction in people and his fans on twitter keep trying to get his name into the top ten trending topics. ZOMG! He’s Justin Beiber!

Our final spot belongs to Sanjay Dutt and his supporters. Led by future psychiatric case study, Justice Katju and India’s creepy uncle whom no person under eighteen can meet without a court appointed adult supervisor, Amar Singh, his supporters have been arguing that Dutt must not be forced to serve any time in jail because he is the nicest person to ever be convicted of aiding terrorists. He lends people his land rover! He makes cameo appearances for free! He made Gandhi cool again! What sort of monster sends such a saint to jail?

In their legal argument, they’re citing the oft-ignored fine print in the footnotes of the constitution which says “you don’t need to follow any law as long as you’re a nice guy.”

Or at least that’s what I heard from a friend of a friend.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How Should a Woman Be?

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Over the past few months, many people in this country have been attempting to have a conversation about equal rights. Each time we start talking about how citizens belonging to a particular gender have been relegated to second-class status, the conversation gets hijacked by something trifle. However, on international women’s day, a few high-minded activists took to social media website twitter dot com to bring everybody’s focus back on perhaps the most important issue of our time: men’s rights.

For far too long women in this country have been manipulating the men into thinking that they are lesser beings. Men have been oppressed in this land of ours for centuries. Whether it was watching from the heavens as their wives voluntarily gave up their lives by forcing members of her family to throw her into her husband’s funeral pyre, or conning kings into marrying so many of them that the poor fellow had to suffer every man’s worst nightmare – having more than one mother-in-law. Over the last few decades, women have been trying to have it all by taking it away from the men. Not satisfied with letting their family elders choose which man they have to spend the rest of their life being subservient too, they now want to be the one taking all the decisions concerning their life. If women are allowed to decide what they want to wear or who they can be friends with or what time they want to return home, that would render religious leaders and judgemental senior citizens without anything to do.

That is why they all breathed a sigh of relief when during the discussion on the anti-sexual violence bill, the brave men in Parliament took a stand against criminalising every so called ‘harmful male behaviour.’ Just because some women let themselves be caught in compromising situations every now and then doesn’t mean that we have to penalize every man in this country. To paraphrase India’s premier icon of sexual desperation, Mahatma Bhagat: First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they realize that you won’t take no for an answer so they start running away from you. Then you chase after them because if women didn’t want men to sexually assault them, they wouldn’t have been doing provocative things like, you know, existing.

* * *

Recently, due to some unforeseen circumstances, I found myself at a fast-food “joint,” at 11p.m., ordering what I hoped was an edible pile of fried cholesterol. I noticed that a large crowd was present at the same venue. However, in one of the safest neighbourhoods in the city, at a time that wasn’t ‘too late in the night,’ there were no female patrons. And that’s one of the consequences of our delusional that victims of sexual crimes are ‘asking for it.’ Every time we hear about a horrific incident of sexual violence, some asshole will try to mansplain how the victim has to share some of the blame because she put herself in that situation. If only we’d have restricted more of the victim’s freedom, nothing like this would have ever happened!

This train of thought was the subtext of the discussion about the anti-sexual assault bill under consideration in our most important legislative body and winner of the Palme d'Or for the ‘Worst Advertisement about Democracy’, the Lok Sabha. Besides the victims themselves, the second biggest villain was the ever dependable ‘western culture.’ When in doubt, blame the west.

Damn you and your wretched hold over our minds, western culture! Pretty sure it’s western culture that makes people believe that women in this country don’t have a right over their own bodies. It’s probably western culture that makes people ruthlessly kill a new born when they don’t approve of its gender. It’s the cowardice evangelized by western culture that makes people in this country look the other way when they see sexual harassment taking place. If it wasn’t for the corrupt influence of western culture, no MP would have dared to rise up in parliament and give a rousing defence of criminal stalking.

None of our problems would have existed if we’d just followed Indian culture.

Now please excuse me as I’ve got to explain to a class full of teenage girls how our ancient traditions expect them to treat their future husbands like a God.