Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Too Young to Matter, Too Old to Care

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As the monsoons sneaked upon us with torrential rains so devastating that they could only be interpreted as Mother Nature’s version of ‘we need to talk,’ the sun wasn’t the only ancient object that was being forcefully made to fade into the background. That was also the fate of BJP leader and UNESCO World Heritage Site, LK Advani. Always the optimist, where others saw a barely filled glass crowded with cobwebs and hardly able to sustain its own weight, he saw a glass that was brimming with leadership skills powerful enough to lead other glasses to victory. In a span of a few days, Advani’s narrative went from ‘look at how they’re bullying the elderly’ to ‘grandpa just took all his toys and went home,’ to making people ask the question, ‘ZOMG! Does he have dementia?’

Not to be outdone, the UPA dug up old Egyptian mummies, sent an urgent telegram to Transylvania asking all vampires to report for duty, found a few dozen zombies roaming the rabid wasteland of theatres still playing After Earth, and inducted all of them into its Cabinet of the Undead. The members of the UPA’s council of ministers are so old, their average age is ‘quadruple AK Hangal.’ From now on, all their meetings are going to take place in a hyperbaric oxygen therapy room, so as to save on the cost of individual oxygen tanks. After all, their catheter bills are already through the roof! Apparently, individuals who were born when all the continents on the planet were one single land mass are supposed to reinvigorate the government and help their party avoid its impending electoral implosion. The last time so many old people came together to save a messianic bloodline from disaster, they were called the Priory of Sion.

Infosys, one of the leaders of India’s technology boom, has had a lacklustre few years. Their stagnant growth had a negative impact on their earnings, which further eroded the value of their stock. So, to energize the employees and put a lid on the rapid attrition, the management of the company decided that they needed to hire someone with fresh ideas to lead the recovery. Someone with a new approach to doing business. A dynamic go-getter who dances to his own tune. Naturally, the only person who fit the bill was their former chairman who formally retired a few years ago. 

One of the major myths that has persisted for centuries in this country is that the higher your age, the more wisdom you possess. The old are always right and the young are supposed to follow them blindly, because chronology!  Even if the old person in question has nothing more to offer than banal nostalgia about how things were better in their day. The past is always perfect, even if it wrought discrimination, bigotry, ignorance, disease, and unnecessary hardship. Remember when you had to send a letter before the internet became widely accessible? Things were so simple! First you bought stamps, paper, envelopes and an adhesive. Then you sat down to write the letter. Once you were done, you put your letter in an envelope, sealed it, wrote the address on the front, calculated the postage and then stuck a stamp of appropriate value on the right hand corner. Afterwards, you would post the letter at your nearest mailbox. Your letter would reach its destination in three to eight weeks, depending upon the weather conditions. It would take another three to eight weeks for a reply to come back to you. And then the whole process would begin again. Nowadays, you can click a button and send a letter anywhere in the world in a couple of seconds. Where’s the romance in that?

Despite our fixation with the past, we have refused to learn anything constructive from it. Most of our important institutions - just like the people who run them - have become lethargic, ineffective and of no use to anyone. Neither do they possess the capability to understand the multitude of problems that we face, nor are they interested in solving them. You can’t get people who studied science before the invention of electricity to understand the importance of combating climate change. Or make those who were brainwashed since the day they were born into believing the superiority of their group over everyone else understand the importance of equal rights. The fact that in this day and age some people still think that the best way to ensure the safety of a large percentage of our citizens is to treat them like prisoners is proof enough that they shouldn’t be in any position of authority. And yet, our obsession with deferring to a person’s age keeps them there. 

I, for one, still yearn for the time when we weren’t faced with evidence of the looming shitstorm every single day and could take refuge in ignorance and lack of access to proper information.

Things were so much better in my day.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Your Call Is Important To Us

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

It was one of those weeks when the bad news just wouldn’t stop. However, one major event weighed heavily on everyone’s mind and ended up overshadowing everything else. An event which-years from now-will be considered the final nail in the coffin of life as we currently know it. An event which will be remembered as the starting point of the sordid state our future lives will be in. We are now marching towards the sort of nightmarish existence that all of our favourite ‘dystopian lit’ authors warned us about. The die has been cast, all the ducks are in a row and tyranny is knocking on our doorsteps. But enough about the elevation of Narendra Modi as his party’s campaign chief.

Earlier this week, whistleblower Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald-confirming a lot of people’s vague suspicions and breathing life into a thousand conspiracy theories-released documents which revealed how deep the tentacles of the secret intelligence agencies of the US government are embedded inside the global communication system. They ‘allegedly’ monitor every text, every email, every chat, every phone call, every tweet, every ‘like’ on Facebook, every to-do list, every post-it note, every game of scrabble and every entry in your journal. (Even the ones that come with a lock. All the government wants to know is why you would not want to share your most personal, darkest, and most revolting thoughts with the rest of the world. What are you, an enemy of the state?)

The only groups of people rejoicing this news are (a) lonely people who finally have someone who is listening to them all the time and (b) the sycophants of the surveillance state. The people belonging to the second group are always excusing the government’s violation of citizens’ privacy with “if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t be worried.” But then these people never practice what they preach and don’t make all their personal information available publicly. WHAT ARE THEY HIDING?

Monitoring every activity of every citizen does not make us safer; it makes us more vulnerable. You may think you’re doing nothing wrong right now, but what happens when the state decides that something you do every day is now illegal or equivalent to treason. For example, what if they made googling “UPA Government + Achievements” a punishable offence? (Though the joke would be on them because they don’t have any, unless you consider ‘giving Manmohan Singh an ulcer’ an achievement). Binayek Sen was jailed by the Chhattisgarh government for possessing reading materials that were considered ‘sympathetic’ to the naxalite cause. In Iran in 2009, the government arrested, jailed and tortured thousands of protestors belonging to the Green Movement on the basis of their internet activity and GPS data placing them at the scene of the protests.

No politician or bureaucrat goes around wearing a “lose your freedom now, ask me how” button. Allowing a government to put their citizens under surveillance without any oversight will never end well. All the information they possess can and will be used against you. Being able to keep tabs on every movement of their citizens is the wet dream of most governments. Once you start giving up your freedom, there is no limit to what can be taken away in the name of ‘national security.’

Even the Indian government is working on a central control system which will be able to monitor its citizen’s activities across all communication networks. People who can’t get their shit together to make a website strong enough to let more than one person book a train ticket at a time are going to keep track of all our personal information. It’s totally not going to be misused because if there is one thing government departments in India are known for, it’s their ability to keep important information secure! Somewhere outside the big government office in the sky, standing in a line waiting for lunch break to be over, a dozen RTI activists are nodding in agreement.

As the leaked documents show, the NSA doesn’t even have to go through the formality of seeking a court order to access anyone’s personal information. They don’t even have to ask or inform the service provider because they have direct access to their systems. And they can do that for people who they don’t even suspect of any wrongdoing.

This march, the NSA collected ninety seven billion pieces of evidence from computer networks worldwide, six billion of those gathered from India.

We’re all now citizens of the surveillance state. Being a terrorist until proven innocent is the new normal

Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How to Win Fake Friends and Pretend to Influence People

Welcome to Mindfest ThinkPalooza 2013! Today’s sessions include ‘Did we Really Pay a Hundred Thousand Dollars for This’ with Sarah Palin; followed by ‘If We Say Eight Percent Growth Enough Times it Will Magically Come True’ with Economic Einstein Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Tomorrow morning, we discuss ‘Banal Delusions of Grandeur’ with Shah Rukh Khan. We end our exciting weekend with a speech by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi titled ‘Is That a Riot in Your Pants or Are You Just Development to See Me?’

Recently, Kapil Sibal, our Union Minister of making-Chidambram-look-less-douchey-in-comparison gave a speech at a public forum. In his address, he said that the government shouldn’t be blamed for all the problems that plague the government. He then referred to himself as a poet. Even though Kapil Sibal is a poet like Uday Chopra is an actor, no one in the audience objected to this assertion because it’s cruel to contradict the self-deception of the elderly. After the speech, Sibal turned into a bat and flew back to his lair on a remote island in the Arabian Sea.

Our patron saint of cultivating eyebrows using pubic hair was speaking at something called ‘adda.’ It was one of those conferences organized by news organizations to create a ‘buzz’ about their ‘brand.’ They could commit actual journalism to achieve the same result without spending so much money, however, that would mean losing this huge opportunity to get together with their peers to get drunk and gossip ‘ideate’ and ‘strategize.’  

Thinkfluence this! Hosted by people who like to think that they’re influential and attended by people who take themselves way too seriously, these conferences are full of Very Solemn People who have Come Together to Deliberate on and Solve All The Issues Plaguing the World Today. You can determine each forum’s degree of uselessness by the amount of fancy corporate jargon contained in their title. Whether it’s a ‘conclave’ or a ‘thinkfest’ or an ‘ideas festival’, these conferences have become an unintentional parody of each other.

As seen on teevee! These conferences are what would happen if all the usual busybodies populating our news shows go on tour. It’s the same trite panel discussions, except with tepid applause. Even their structure is the same! You get one session with whoever is the fascination of that week’s newscycle. One session with a bollywood ‘star’ not  currently shooting a movie, one session with whichever Indian politician is not involved in a scam that week, and one session with war criminal Pervez Musharraf, whose knack of showing up at places where he isn’t wanted never seems to fail him. There also has to be an appearance by at least one American guest, so as to lend the conference the ‘respectability’ it so desperately seeks.

Some of my best friends are rich and famous! Now, the purpose of the sessions is not to ask any hard questions, because then the guests will stop showing up. The real purpose is to make the proprietors of the news organization or their editors feel important. So most of the sessions end up being nothing more than an exercise in stroking egos. Real questions are for people who don’t accept invitations to your dinner party.

My question is more of a statement. However, the most hilarious/awkward moments of these conferences happen when, after a session, the moderator invites questions from the audience. We’re one of the few countries where audience members asking questions have to be told that they shouldn’t use their time with the microphone to go off on a large rant. Most of the time the moderator has to interrupt the audience member trying to hijack his Q&A session and then try his best to translate whatever froth the person spewed into a coherent question. And when they’re lucky enough to get an actual question, it’s usually something the moderator and his guest have already answered. That’s because members of the audience have spent the weeks leading up to the event figuring out – what they think – is a clever question to ask, and they’re not going to let all their hard work go to waste by trying to come up with something more relevant.

If only there was some sort of event or venue where all of us could get together to discuss this and find a solution.

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

United Nation of Ban-a-ton

Dear faceless bureaucrats, elected and/or appointed government officials, and other sundry idiots,

Firstly, I hope you’re getting an adult to read this to you, so they can explain what I’m trying to say in whatever ancient language you speak. And by adult, I don’t mean any random person over the age of eighteen, but an actual human person who (a) does not giggle/get angry when they see human reproductive parts and (b) does not-when faced with an opinion contrary to their own-throw a tantrum like a child of a double income household who just discovered that parents on a guilt trip will literally buy you anything. However, as past experience shows, there is unlikely to be any such individual present in any one of your ‘august organizations,’ so we’ll make do with whatever we have.

Now, you must be wondering, because I presume you have the worldview of a new born gnat, why anyone would write you a letter, much less an open letter? I get that the word ‘open’ scares you because you’ve neither opened your mind nor the files on your desk. So don’t worry. Open letters are not really for the person they’re addressed to. They’re for the author of the letter and other like-minded individuals. Writing an open letter is like farting into the wind: it might add to all the noise, but at least it makes you feel a whole lot better.

When I first heard that someone in the I&B ministry banned Comedy Central’s humour intolerant Indian channel for ten days, I was relieved. Finally someone who shares our comic sensibilities, I said to myself. How long could all the channels broadcasting English language teevee shows in India pretend that it was still the 90’s and no one had access to things like the internet or ‘Indian Netflix.’  Personally, I thought it the punishment was a bit harsh for the petty (but blasphemous) crime of claiming that Dharma & Greg was comedy. But, you have to start somewhere and I figured that people of your age really believe in tough love. However, I was in for a rude shock. Turns out, the reason you banned the channel was because they violated some arbitrary standard of morality.  

This is not the first time you’ve banned a channel for offending you. Every few months we hear someone in your ministry banning FTV because of some perceived slight or the other. Like when some pretty ladyee shows her woomabachumbas, or a fine looking gentleman shows his ‘Manmohan Singh.’ (What? It was small, docile and had an uncircumcised head.)

We get it. You're Indian. Someone gave you power to lord over somebody else and you’ll be damned if you don’t use that. Show ‘em who’s the boss. We all know that if you really started to ban content to protect ‘public morality and decency,’ they’d be nothing to watch on teevee. And now that you’ve banned a low rated channel-whose primary purpose is to run in the background in the sort of espresso bar where the barista thinks that ‘macchiato’ is an abusive word-public decency has been restored. And if there were any remaining thoughts of indecency festering inside anybody’s mind, they were erased by the proposed ban on lingerie store mannequins introduced by members of Mumbai’s municipal corporation.

You must have loved common sense a lot because it seems like you set it free a long time ago and it never came back. You guys still don’t get it, do you? You think doing these things is going to have any effect on society at large, whatsoever? Did you ever stop to think that maybe you’re the problem? That you’re so obsessed with what other people get aroused by that you’re the weirdo you want to protect people from?

Banning something to positively change society is perhaps even worse than writing an open letter and expecting things to change.

At least I have the decency to couch my stupidity in self-awareness.

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)