Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In God We Trust

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

There was once a young man called Sree,
Who wanted a lot of money for free,
He thought it was novel,
To fix a match using a towel,
But he was caught by the police before he could flee.

Last week, as the outrage cycle around the latest IPL scandal gathered steam, the match broadcast was eerily calm about the most popular breaking news of the day. For the commentators it was business as usual. There was no acknowledgment of the fact that someone they considered ‘one of their own’ had betrayed the very principles they purport to stand for. There was so much denial in that stadium that one expected the commentators to pay tribute to the glorious principles of the Juche republic. The only indication that something was amiss came when the camera spotted a young Aditya Pancholi flying over the pitch in a helicopter.

However, outside the stadium, almost everyone with a soapbox was having a staggering meltdown of epic proportions. While news channels called upon a veritable who’s who of who cares to bloviate, print magazines and websites were commissioning pieces in which the writer gave voice to the anguish they felt at such horrendous treachery. And some people on social media were shocked – shocked! – that an activity in India involving billions of dollars was embroiled in corruption.

This is sort of scandal everybody loves! The politicians got to rail against corruption and crony capitalism, the very systems that they derive their power from. The Delhi Police looks good because instead of holding a press conference to provide justification for trampling on someone’s fundamental rights, they’re holding one to announce something they’ve managed to accomplish. Hell, even the Mumbai Police got a piece of the action when they took a break from crashing private parties to actually arresting someone remotely related to criminal activity. And news organizations got someone new to throw under the bus. Someone who not only seems guilty enough but is also powerless to actually make them pay for their supposed ‘transgression.’ Welcome to the national orgy of ecstatic sanctimony. Angry people get in for free.

So now that we know that our police can follow the trail of illicit money and actually catch people, we should get them to use their superpowers for good - like arresting some of the big ‘kingpins’ who’re responsible for serious violations of the law. Maybe even a couple of people in positions of power who use our social resources for their own personal benefit, to begin with. They don’t have to try very hard to find these criminals. According to an unconfirmed survey by the Ministry of Statistics, every two seconds, a new scam is born in India. 

Let’s also stop pretending that participating in a sport is a noble pursuit that remains untouched by the corruption, deceit, double-dealing, dishonesty and trickery that exists in the world?  If you believe that, you probably also believe that all those businessmen who spent so much money to get elected President of the BCCI did so because they love the game. They don’t expect to profit from that position at all. “Surely.” I mean, they’re highly successful people who have amassed large amounts of wealth. What do they know about making money, anyway?

There are more cricket channels in India than the number of times Vijay Mallaya has hit on his team’s cheerleaders. If you get the five asshole kids from your neighbourhood to play a match on teevee, some fans will even watch that. However, most sports fans are addicted to the narrative. To them, a match means more than just a match; it’s an allegory for the human condition. It’s where mortals turn into gods, villains get their comeuppance, and the underdog comes out on top. It’s where miracles happen. If you remove the narrative around the sport, then it’s just a bunch of people standing around, throwing a ball to each other, following some arbitrary rules someone made up hundreds of years ago.

So when something punctures this romantic bubble that sports fans live in, they tend to take the betrayal personally. We want our sports competitions to have a picture perfect ending. And yet, we don’t realize that without these ‘outside influences,’ we’re not going to get one. There is no cancer-surviving seven time Tour De France champion without the steroids. There is no Tiger Woods without the sex addiction. And there is no ‘poetic finish to a great day of cricket’ without the betting.

The IPL is sports distilled down to its basic purpose: to make money. It’s a huge payday for everyone involved! People don’t play well because of idealistic notions like “team spirit” or “for the love of the game.” They play well because that gives them more money.  They play well because they want to be able to sell you fizzy drinks, washing machines, luxury sedans, potato chips, underwear and energy bars.

After this scandal broke, there were a few fans protesting outside stadiums hosting IPL matches, asking for a ban on the tournament. One of the banners they were holding said that cricket was their religion. 

Perhaps it’s time for these devotees to learn that even gods aren’t infallible.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Death at a Funeral

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

You know what is the worst part of hearing that someone you know has been visited by the grim reaper? No, not the part where someone you know has stopped existing forever; that’s something you deal with much later. The worst part is the realization that now you have to attend their funeral. 

If the funeral is for someone you shared an emotional connection with, then you’re probably too zoned out to notice what’s going around you. However, if the person being mourned is an acquaintance you didn’t meet often, like a ‘facebook friend’, you become a party to the farce that most funerals are. All our rituals are useless and horrible anyway. People do things they imagine would help the dead wherever they are, but it only helps them feel better about the situation. The dead don’t care what you do after they’re gone! They’re not coming back.

Firstly, the deceased is suddenly turned into a saint. Even if it is that old fascist relative who not only judged you for wearing jeans but also blamed you for putting a scratch on their precious Ming vase.  And despite the fact that everyone who has spent their life bashing them is relieved that the object of their disdain is finally visiting the big gulag in the sky, they still have to find something nice to say. He was a creature of routine! She really believed in old fashion values! At least he died doing what he loved; sucking the innocence out of young children.

Secondly, a lot of the people who populate these shindigs are kind of terrible human beings. They are not there because they feel any sadness or remorse over the passing of the deceased. They’re there because it’s a social obligation. Because they imagine that if they don’t show up and pretend to mourn, people are going to hold it against them and won’t show up when their own time comes. If I wanted to see people put up a false show of emotion while also trying very hard to look forlorn, I’d watch an episode of KBC.

Then there is the compulsive Indian need to put food into people. We’ve been programmed to be so social that even during a funeral we have to take care of people who are supposed to be comforting us. When you go over to give your condolences and mumble empty platitudes that offer no real solace whatsoever, members of that family will cry and force you stay for lunch. You feel like shaking them and telling them that you just lost a family member! Mourn, for cripes sake! Stop asking me if I have eaten. Instead, you nod and awkwardly agree to do whatever they say, because you know on the inside they’re thinking: here, have some lunch. A single serving contains vegetables, salt, tears, despair, and a compelling feeling of running away somewhere, anywhere, just to get away from all these expressions of artificial grief and phony concern that I have to endure for no logical reason.

We even take this with us wherever we go. For example, after the horrific shooting at a Gurdwara in Wisconsin last year, while family members waited outside with a smattering of friends, relatives, police personnel and journalists, some of them got together and were serving food and beverages to all the people who were waiting. I’m so worried about my family still trapped inside, but here, have a bran muffin.

According to most of our traditions and religious customs, the official mourning period ends after the deceased’s family has fed a few hundred of their closest friends and relatives one last time. But people don’t get the memo! They still keep coming over or calling you on the phone. And everyone wants to know what happened! So you keep reliving your trauma each time you need to answer that question. By the time the last vestiges of ‘well wishers’ are done darkening your doorstep, you start wishing that you were the one who died instead of the lucky bastard who escaped this daily dose of fresh hell.

A common reaction to hearing of someone’s demise can be summed up as it could have been me! Death, even if it happens to someone we barely know, reminds us of how thin the thread of life really is and despite what our favourite self-help guru says, we’re not really in control.

Hey, at least we don’t have to attend our own funeral.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mind Your Elections: Clichémageddon

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

While the rest of the country was busy shouting expletives at their favourite IPL teams on teevee and hoping that Sachin Tendulkar wouldn’t injure his ‘brand’ by pulling a ‘Ganguly’ and overstaying his welcome, the people of Karnataka were busy electing a new set of porn addicts to darken the legislative halls of ‘India’s weather capital,’ Bangalore.

Elections in India bring out all the clichés to the yard.

The clichémageddon begins before even a single vote is cast. Most days leading up to the election are spent talking about the gaffe of the day. Some unpolished leader will say what is really on their mind and people will be shocked and outraged that an Indian politician is a horrible person on the inside. If the person is a senior leader of their party or are instrumental to the election campaign, they will begrudgingly release a terse statement saying that they didn’t mean to cause any offence; a sort of non-apology in which you can sense the gritted teeth and the unstated contempt. If the leader is a disposable sycophant, their party will leave them to fend for themselves and they will disappear from the election campaign for a few days.

There will also be a lot of puffy teevee and print profiles in which a reporter spends a day or two with one of the star campaigners for a party in which they show how hard the leader is campaigning for the elections by addressing multiple meetings in one day, clocking thousands of miles in a helicopter and/or chartered jet. You can tell which leader is being setup for the electoral success-failed government-eventual comeback narrative by the amount of news coverage they receive.

The most common refrain that we hear from every second person covering the elections is that in India people vote their caste and do not cast their vote. Which is a horrible thing to say because not only is it a bad pun, it reveals a casual acceptance of racism. Nope, nothing to see here. Everything’s a-okay! Just a large percentage of people being bigots. It’s a feature of Indian democracy, not a bug! We are like this only, etc.

On the day of the elections, we get to see exciting pictures of party leaders casting their votes for the “political leaders: they’re just like us except they get to cast their vote accompanied by security personnel and hundreds of flashing cameras!” segments. After the polls close, they release the voter percentage. Without any exception, the most prominent urban city in the state is revealed to have the most appalling percentage of voter turnout. That city becomes the object of everyone’s disappointment. Celebrity panellists chide the eligible voters who didn’t bother to show up at a polling station and question their commitment to civic engagement because, apparently, casting a vote once every few years is the answer to all your problems. Low voter turnout also helps people on the internet play a round of their favourite game: my third world, dystopian shithole of a city is better than your third world, dystopian shithole of a city because more of us show up to stand in a line to select our next ‘most corrupt government yet.’

Then there are the exit polls. From the moment the last vote is cast to counting day, we are on the receiving end of analysis, debates, arguments, plausible scenarios, hypothetical coalitions, and bad metaphors based on these famed ‘polls,’ even though they are seldom accurate. But no one ever takes any responsibility for being wrong! Instead, we end up hearing paeans to the Indian voter who suddenly turns out to be ‘smart’ and ‘wise.’ Hey, the gypsy lady with a crystal ball who writes our poll predictions was having an off day. What can we do about it?

However, the major impact of clichémageddon is felt on counting day. If you turn on NDTV, you get to see a panel of experts who were popular and respected in the 1990’s but have spent the last decade being exposed for the hacks they are. Times Now will have more old people on its panel than a ‘yoga shivir’ in Haridwar so they spend all their time shouting at each other. IBN makes it clear that no matter what the results show, the real winner of the election is always their coverage, which has won every award they have printed out on Rajdeep’s personal ‘dot-matrix’ printer. Headlines Today is the popular destination for all the analysts no other channel invited - like the world’s premier writer of erotic Rahul Gandhi fan fiction, Sanjay Jha. Headlines Today is the “linked-in” of Indian news channels; people join it just to get a better job somewhere else.

The reaction of the political parties was also quite predictable. The BJP was pretending to be shocked that changing names of cities, banning beef every few months and beating up people trying to get a drink after a bad day at work didn’t make them popular. Deve Gowda’s party wrapped up all its dry cleaned jackets in plastic, put on its pyjamas, and got ready to go back into hibernation for the next five years. And the Congress ‘outsourced’ the election of its chief minister to the party’s ‘high command.’

If only there was some way to determine what the people really wanted.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

You Know Who Else Was A Superpower?

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of the most popular narratives of the late 90s/early aughts was the emergence of India as a candidate for this century’s “superpower.”
We were supposed to finally break the shackles of the past, realize our full potential, and take our natural place among the world’s most powerful countries. But then reality intervened and everyone realized that we weren't really ready for prime-time. However, despite being faced with a large amount of evidence to the contrary, the narrative still strangely persists.

We’re the ‘Ajit Agarkar’ of superpowers. The only reason we’re on the team is because someone with actual power pulled some strings to get us in. A real superpower shouldn’t have millions of malnutritioned children going to bed hungry every night. A real superpower shouldn’t have a complete electricity grid failure for more than half the country because some idiot overloaded the system by switching on his toaster. And the primary objective of a real superpower’s foreign policy shouldn’t be to get every country in the world to like them.

When someone says that they want their country to be a ‘superpower,’ what they’re trying to say is that they now want their country to be the world’s ‘decider.’ The sort of asshole country which tells other countries what to do and where they can stick their ‘sovereignty.’ What they mean is that they want to be the guy in the room who has the remote to the teevee and will continue to watch a documentary on the drainage system of the Aztec civilization even though everyone else wants to watch that show which has ‘everyday people’ eating bugs for money. 

What jingoistic patriots don’t realize is that being a superpower is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Superpowers have to keep fighting wars; even those which they have won. Did you know that there are still more than fifty thousand American soldiers stationed in Germany. Why? Probably just in case Germany gets that funny feeling in its stomach and wants to try to take over the world again. In India, we don't like wars. No, not because of the millions of lives that would be fruitlessly lost. No one cares about hippie things like “human lives” in our country. The reason we don't like wars is because they clash with the cricket season.

The various spy agencies of a superpower need to be powerful enough to engineer a coup in unstable countries. Our spy agencies can’t even organize a dinner party successfully.

Superpowers have huge empires. Do we really want to be like the people Tom Alter portrays everytime he is forced to speak Hindi with a bad accent? We’ve always maintained that our country doesn’t want someone else’s territory. We’re happy with what our Mama gave us. Plus, we satisfy all our colonial urges by acting like an occupying force in Kashmir and the North East.

Superpowers need a constant supply of straw enemies to keep a large portion of the country’s populace so terrified that the government could do anything in the name of national security. Okay, I’ll let you have that one.

The demise of empires like Ancient Greece, the Romans, Nazi Germany, the United Kingdom, and the USSR are proof that no superpower stays on top forever. Being a superpower means spending a few years at the top and then eventually fizzling out. Being a superpower means penalising future generations by making them live in a country whose best days have passed but whose people still have delusions of grandeur. If superpowers were people, they’d be the 1983 Indian cricket world cup team - a bunch of has-beens hanging on to every last shred of glory for something which happened decades ago. Maybe it's because I never stayed in a hostel or participated in an NCC camp, but I don't see the point of playing the geographical version of "mine is bigger."

I’m not saying that we should burn all our weapons in a bonfire and invite all our neighbouring countries to hold our hands while we dance around the pyre singing ‘kumbaya.’ However, we could tread a saner yellow brick road. Maybe we could try being the superpower of space exploration (Think of all the “ring view” apartments in gated communities they can build on Jupiter!). We could try to be the superpower of not letting foodgrain rot in government warehouses. If we’re not expending all our energies enriching Israeli defence equipment companies, we could try to be the superpower that provides its citizens with quality healthcare (Most of our current healthcare plans involve asking people who cannot afford treatment to ‘walk it off’). We could even try to be the superpower of not trying to ruin the environment at such a rapid speed that mother earth finally loses her cool and cancels ‘the human race show’ forever.

Or we could just spend all day dreaming about punching China in the face.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How to Survive Result Season

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

In a few days, as we finally say goodbye to angsty April and waddle into marshy May, we will be reminded why May is one of the most important months in the children’s calendar. While for most of them it is the beginning of the summer vacation - a lovely time which they make forced memories of happy times with their families by heading out to overcrowded vacation spots full of other families wanting to make forced memories - for some it is the month of nervousness and anticipation.

That’s because in May the board exam results are announced. For some students it’s a culmination of years of hard work. A moment in time, which if goes their way, would vindicate all the sacrifices they’ve had to make since they were nothing but a mere twinkle in their parent’s eyes. For others, it’s an indication that getting a decent result by pulling an all-nighter is a metaphor for the rest of your life. A life which you will spend ignoring that pesky voice in your head which fruitlessly keeps asking you to stop procrastinating. Now, since we once skimmed through a book in which a minor character was a child psychologist, we feel that we are qualified enough to offer our counsel to all our young friends out there to help them cope with the aftermath of such a game-changing life event. (We call them ‘friends’ because that makes it easier to speak to them in a condescending tone. You see, that’s how we old people talk. We also answer every question about our age by saying I am __ years young in a faux-inspirational voiceWe even use the plural ‘we’ to refer to ourselves. Why do we do that, you ask? Simple! Because we’re a terrible person! As you kids say, Like duh.) Also, since we don’t know how to communicate with teenagers because the present lot of them seem to suffer from some sort of a mystery ailment that makes them talk and write without using any vowels, we’re hoping that one of our kind readers would translate this article into teenager-friendly things like a “facebook status update” or a “sext.”

Now, kids, the most important thing to remember is that your board exams do not define you. They do not decide the trajectory of your life. One of the objective of a well rounded education is to make you try a lot of things to find out what you really want to do in life. “LOL j/k.” Kidding! Your board exams results are the most important thing that will happen in your life. They are the only thing that will determine how successful you will be in the future. They are so important, that years from now when you’re old and haggard, and your half human/half-Pandorian grandchild asks you why you and the rest of your family are not allowed to enter the ‘gangnam galaxy,’ you will have to tell him that it happened because you weren’t successful enough and that this downward spiral started when you only scored a measly 95% in your board exams. His innocence shattered, he will look at you with disgust as you hang your head in shame and drown yourself in a puddle of sadness and humiliation.

The best course of action is to just follow the path your parents want you to walk on. This way, you don’t have to take any personal responsibility for your own actions and can spend the rest of your life being resentful towards them. Also, by pretending to be the sort of person who “obeys” his parents, you’re automatically set for the road to sainthood. In this country, the sort of children who cannot think for themselves and blindly do everything their elders tell them to are every parent’s dream accessory. Other parents will cite you as an example for their children to emulate. People will assume that you’re an honest and trustworthy person, for some reason. And once your parents decide that you’re old enough to make a lifelong commitment to a random stranger of their choice, your stock in the ‘arranged marriage’ market will be higher than Microsoft in the 1990’s. 

If you get good grades then you’re in for a lifetime of success! All you have to do is continue the same routine you had before. Just spend all your time working. You can sleep when you’re dead! And keep fooling yourself into believing that this is only temporary and that you will finally be able to really start living once you reach your goal because you will keep shifting the goalposts. And then, in a blink of an eye, ten years will have passed and one lonely Saturday night when you’ve finished work early and have had too much to drink, you’ll let your mind travel to that dark place where you finally ask yourself whether it was worth it. But nothing will come out of it because even though you know the answer to that question, you’re too much of a coward to actually do something about it and on Monday morning everything will go back to normal.

Hope that helps!