Saturday, October 18, 2014

You don't say...

(Published in The Friday Times, on October 17, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/you-dont-say/)


Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times

When I was a child, my mother worried that I would not ever make friends. In kindergarten, I didn’t wave goodbye to people. “They pinch my cheeks,” I used to explain. In elementary school, I ignored people who called out to say bye. “All they do in class is talk,” I used to explain. In middle school, I was never recruited into a gang – now, these gangs were essentially groups of boys and girls who shared lunch and gave themselves ridiculous and usually alliterative names, like, say, ‘Back-bench Blazers’ or ‘Right-wall Rockets’, based on where they sat in the classroom. In high school, I managed to make conversation with a few people, and even invited them home – an experience which taught me never to be the host, because you spend most of your time fetching food and water. In college, I shunned the even more pathetic all-girl gangs, until I found myself banded into a pleasant lot of fellow-misfits.

I thought I was not made for friendships. I shudder at the idea of people double dipping into each other’s food. I balk at the idea of having to ‘plan’ outings to the movies, and wait for people to schedule it in.

But, then, I discovered that what I had was an allergy to Conversation Hogs.

These are people who will go on and on about themselves, even in a group of six. When everyone gradually gives up trying to get a word in, this grand, self-obsessed speaker will assume that it is not out of listlessness, but out of enthralment with what he or she is saying. It does not strike the Hog that no one could possibly care about what his or her nephew or pet poodle did, or why he or she had a fight with the spouse. It probably does not matter to the Hog who is punishing us with a long-winded, oral film review that he or she has already lost everyone at, “So, I watched Haider...”

Unfortunately, at some point in my adulthood, I began to make the acquaintance of Conversation Hogs, and have been spending the better part of a year trying to shake them off.

The problem with people like me is that our boredom is often mistaken for speechless fascination with the subject at hand. And, for people who like to talk, there is no company that is more agreeable than people who don’t like to talk. The fact that you don’t like to listen either is of no account, because – to them – as long as you don’t get up and leave, declaring “This conversation is too dull for me to continue”, or hang up the phone, you’re an audience for their monologues.

I avoid eating at restaurants. It’s become rather easy, these days, since everyone is so into health. “I don’t eat outside,” you can say, and, after your interlocutor indulges himself or herself in a half-hour homily on how he or she has become health-conscious too, you’re let off the phone.

But, it’s trickier to avoid phone calls.

Often, I pretend that I have a sore throat so that I don’t have to pick up calls. However, though my throat is fairly susceptible to infection, there are times when I am not ill. And, after a week of people anxiously texting to ask “How’s your throat now?”, I do have to maintain my credibility by assuring them I’m not down with a superbug.

The worst is when you return from a trip.

“Tell me all about London!”

“We have to meet and talk about Paris!”

“So, are you back from Dubai?”

You make the courtesy call. All is well, you say, you’re just jetlagged, and will talk in a while. The interlocutor has no intention of heeding that. He or she will take off on the last word you spoke – ‘jetlagged’, and tell you about how long the jetlag from each trip on which he or she has been lasted. An hour later, drained, you hang up.

Within days, there’s that dreaded message again: “Are you over jetlag now?”

Right. So, you think, you’ll speak about the Eiffel Tower for five minutes and get it over with. But then, you didn’t realise that asking you about Paris was essentially an excuse for the Conversation Hog to start pontificating on his or her visit to New York.

Not only am I reticent in the presence of a Hog, I also dislike interrupting almost as much as I dislike being interrupted.

Eventually, I worked out a solution. I would not stop talking if someone were to interrupt. I would go on and finish my sentence, and then search for something else – anything else, even garbled sentences – and yap so much that the Hog would become the Hogged.

So far, my parallel talking record has been two whole minutes, before the Hog gave up.

I am happy to report that I have not met a single person whom I did not want to meet in the last week, and I have had to screen fewer than ten calls.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Why the Yesudas-Kiran Desai duet is worrying

(Published in Sify.com, on October 15, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/why-the-yesudas-kiran-desai-duet-is-worrying-news-columns-okpqK2bghighi.html?source=sifyhome&slot=c1s2)

For some weeks now, everyone has been finding a stake in singer Yesudas’ comment about women and jeans. Did he have a right to say what he said? Should his celebrity status have made him think twice? Does he hold moral responsibility for encouraging the nincompoops who say women are “asking for it” by wearing the clothes they wear? Does his opinion have a bearing on the women in his family?

The tabloids and newspapers have been frantically approaching celebrities for their take on the singer’s comments. An FIR was filed almost as soon as he made the comment.

Around the same time, another article surfaced, one in which Booker Prize-winning Indian-origin author Kiran Desai spoke about how India is meant for Indian clothes, and – even more bizarrely – how it doesn’t make sense to wear sarees in the West, apparently because it is impossible to maintain a saree without a bevy of servants.

Of course, everyone – including celebrities – has a right to say what s/he wants to say.

But, what makes me cringe is the crudity of the manner in which both these celebrities – one of whom has won acclaim for her prowess in language – chose to word their opinions.

Yesudas is reported to have said: “Women should not cause trouble to others by wearing jeans....What should be covered should be covered.”

First up, the argument that women are “causing trouble to others” by their choice of clothing is the same one on which the mandate of the burkha – which to me is the most abhorrent of garments – is based.

Secondly, who died and made Yesudas the authority on “what should be covered”?

Thirdly, what do jeans not cover that any other piece of clothing does? Does a woman commit an obscene act by revealing the shape of her legs, or half her legs, depending on the style of jeans she wears?

As for Kiran Desai’s comments, I can only hope she was grossly misquoted in the Guardian interview. Not only does she say that one looks “awful” wearing Western clothes in India, an inference supposedly gleaned from the fact that “everyone comments on how awful you look right away”, but she also says that women in New York “have no pride” because they wear “little high heels” and “tiny clothes” that “look horrible”.

She spoke of how an aunt of hers was forced into jeans by her children after 9/11 – because, hey, why try beating a stereotype, eh? – and how she would ideally come up with a uniform for the whole world, because that’s the best solution to her theory that “fashions don't carry over, so if you fly between places you will inevitably look wrong in the country you're going to”.

The problem is not with celebrities holding an opinion, or voicing it.

The problem is that the opinion of a celebrity is often treated as fact. And it is not.

For instance, I don’t know of any women who painstakingly wash their sarees by hand, starch them, and fold them with the help of servants. I wear sarees at least three times a week, and I machine wash all of them. Ironically, I wore sarees to several events at a literary festival in Paris, at which I suspect Kiran Desai did the controversial interview, and I did not feel out of place.

As for Yesudas’ litany on what women should wear, his stature as a prominent artist in society immediately lends authority to his opinion.

Technically, his comments only make him one among several millions of perverts who believe that a woman’s clothing is to blame for her being at the receiving end of sexual harassment. But to all those other millions of perverts, the fact that a respected member of society agrees with them lends legitimacy to their views. The fact that he is respected for his art, and not for his beliefs, will not matter to them.

We live in a society where a newspaper that brands itself India’s leading daily, The Times of India sees fit to respond to Deepika Padukone’s tweet, which took objection to their posting a video of her “cleavage show”, by calling her a hypocrite.

This may well be the ugliest article I have read. The reporter who has written this piece accuses Deepika Padukone of having “flaunted her body while dancing on stage, posing for magazine covers, or doing photo ops at movie promotional functions”, which somehow makes her a hypocrite for objecting to the paper’s official handle tweeting “OMG! Deepika’s cleavage show!”

Even more crudely, the paper faulted her argument that male actors were not objectified the way their female counterparts are, with this gem: “Deepika, just for the record, we do not zoom into a woman’s vagina or show her nipples.”

Politicians regularly state that women are “asking for it” with the clothes they wear.

Under these circumstances, ideally, they shouldn’t find support in celebrities.

But, more importantly, when a celebrity does shoot off his or her mouth without thinking, it is crucial to counter them.

Parking Tips

(Published in The Friday Times, on October 10, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/parking-tips/)


Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times
There are only three reasons for a desi security guard, taxi driver or waiter to be polite to you – you’re a foreigner; he expects a tip; both.
Of all the people who want your gratitude on banknotes, the species that irritates me most is the security-guard-who-doubles-as-parking-assistant.
He makes his appearance right after you have eased your car into a slot. You could have done with his help in finding space among the cars parked across two slots. You could have done with his help in making sure you didn’t scratch a car on your way in.
But he manifests himself right as you’ve turned the engine off and are about to get out – he whistles in panic, striking out his free arm, his facial expression reminiscent of Sunny Deol in one of those films where he’s about to rescue the heroine from a fire (caused, of course, by a bomb blast, courtesy Kashmiri militants).
When he reaches your car, he positions himself behind your rear windshield, frowns in concentration and flutters one hand toward himself, while the other supports the whistle, which is working overtime.
“Back, back. Slight left,” he calls.
“Why?” you ask.
His whistle answers: “Puhishoo, puhishoo, PUHISHOOOOO!”
You sigh, and reverse. Before you’ve moved six inches, his eyes bulge and he bangs on your windshield to ask you to stop. He then runs to the front of the car, and wags his panicky hand at you. You edge forward and stop. He glares at you impatiently, willing your car to move a micro-inch forward. Then, his eyes bulge again and he bangs your bonnet in horror, because an extra micro-inch will end the world.
“The bonnet!” you shriek, “You made a dent!”
He ponders for a second, and then yelps and draws one knee to his chest.
Madam, you ran over my leg!” he moans, and then, adds magnanimously, “but it’s okay.” He limps off.
You meet him again an hour later, just as you’ve pulled your car out. Holding up his panicky whistle and panickier hand, he throws himself about your car and then grins ingratiatingly, while saluting you clumsily. “Good evening, madam.”
He then places his foot just behind your wheel – a clever reminder of the damage he has already accused you of wreaking, as well as a preventive measure, in case you intend to leave without paying him for his unsolicited services.
You roll down the window. “What?”
Good evening, madam.” Salute.
Now, you enter a battle of wills. You raise your eyebrows. He raises the obsequiousness of his grin. You smile and begin to raise your window. He raises the stakes by jamming his foot against the wheel.
Finally, he decides the games are over. He holds out his palm and demands, “Tea, madam.” He then points at his foot. “You even ran over my leg,” he says, as if he were indulging you in some kinky, sadomasochistic role play.
Having lost all my small change to the vandals of my car, I contemplated carrying around a flask of tea with me. However, an objective analysis of my driving skills suggested that my seats would consume most of the beverage, and I abandoned the idea.
I decided the only way to stop paying these self-appointed parking assistants to do what they’re paid to do was to outrun them.
Since then, my motto has been: “Carry on, regardless.”
I have lost a heel from my one good pair of party slippers. I have nearly lost my toe to a tip-demander who decided to prove his worth by banging my door shut before I had got in. I have nearly squashed the foot of another during a race that was headed to a photo finish until he fell over. I have left a few square inches of my sari under the boot of another.
But, one day, I met my match. He guided another car to halt right behind my car, blocking my way. He then marched up to my window and banged on the glass. Salute. “Tea madam.”
“What for?”
“One minute, madam.”
He did take a minute to whistle till I nearly went deaf, urging the driver of the other car to move till I had a whole micro-inch of extra space.
“Ask him to move some more.”
More, madam?” he gave me a long-suffering glance, and then hunched along to the other driver and said, apologetically, “Sir, move a little bit. Madam needs more space. Lady driver.”
When ‘Sir’ had sighed, shaken his head and moved his car forward another micro-inch, enabling me to squeeze past, the parking assistant banged my bonnet again. “Tea, madam.” With a flourish, he indicated the luxurious space accorded to me.
“What for? Isn’t that why they pay you your salary?”
“Madam!” he gasped, appalled at my grasp of corporate economics, “I could have just been sitting in my chair.”
As I parted with my last coin, I thought wistfully of the many appraisals at which I could have used that line.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

“Make yourself at home”

(Published in The Friday Times, on October 3, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/make-yourself-at-home/)


The first sign, really, is that the clothesline has been resurrected – the clothesline you have abhorred for over two decades, which was brought down only after all the foreign-passport-bearers in the family had attested that South Asia is the only part of the world where people string underwear across terraces. There they are, several pairs of oversized underclothes, waving in the breeze like flags heralding the presence of their owners. You gaze at them in horror as you steer your car into your driveway. You know that your distant relatives from the gaon, uncles four times removed and aunts seven times removed, have decided to camp in your home for the foreseeable future.
Like most self-respecting city dwellers born after the 1950s, I have never been to that gaon. The only reminders of its existence are the relatives who totter into the city and take up residence in my home.
Every year, a group of retired people, who have tired of pastoral green lands and the bleats of goats and sheep, decides that it will impose itself on happy families. This group moves in formation, swooping into home after home at regular intervals. It leaves behind it a trail of ugly clotheslines, strange smells and bitter families whose members are lunging at each other’s throats.
Unfailingly, I am told every year that I have “grown so tall!” I haven’t grown an inch for at least the last eight years. This leads me to believe that the freeloaders’ reference point is a childhood picture of me, where I am standing on the driver’s seat of a car, stretching out so I can reach the steering wheel. I may have been somewhere between the ages of two and three in the photograph. I suppose someone in the group of distant relatives has retained it in order to be able to pretend that they remember my name and face.
Within five minutes of the euphoria over my height dying down, I am asked the inevitable: “So, when will we get to eat at your wedding?”
“Haven’t you eaten enough?” I want to scream, as I survey the large – and now empty – vessels that had housed a whole day’s worth of food, of which I am destined not to partake a single morsel.
“Don’t leave it too long,” a crone, whose uterus has produced five crotchety women and three fat men, warns me, “It can become hard to conceive later.”
I force an insipid smile and head for my room...only to find a snoring stranger sprawled on my bed. I see a stain of coconut oil seeping through my treasured pillow cover. I try not to think of the damage the effect of summer heat on a...ahem...healthywoman has wrought on my bedcovers. I notice that the woman’s experiments with switching the AC on have been unsuccessful, because it hasn’t occurred to her that some switches flick upwards. I also note that the electrician must be called, because that switch is currently on the floor, as a result of the ardent efforts of the sleeping stranger to manipulate it.
Of course, my cupboard is now a shared resource. A shelf has been cleared of my clothes, and been replaced by the contents of four suitcases, which now lie in wait for someone to trip over.
Worse, my bookshelf has been ransacked by a distant cousin who, though younger than I, has already produced two children who have been learning to read. She has decided to test their intelligence on my collection of literature. Here is a copy ofMidnight’s Children I can never touch again, because it now bears the imprint of a five-year-old’s teeth. Here is a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, being held upside down by a six-year-old genius who has finally pronounced, “Fourteen” – possibly the page number – to the delight of the freeloaders who produced it.
As I stand watching the works of my favourite authors disintegrate under the ministrations of the imbeciles, someone hobbles up to me. “Do you think you can take me to the shopping area? The autos cost so much these days.”
“You can’t get parking in the shopping area at this time,” I say, thankful for the congestion that is the blessing of all big cities for when small town relatives visit.
“I have your mobile number. I will call you when I’m done,” the hobbler says, “Just drop me and be somewhere in the area. Then, when I call you, you can pick me up.”
“S...sure...uhh, one second, I have to take this,” you say, urgently, as your phone begins to ring.
“No, no, I was giving you a missed call so that you’ll have my number,” the hobbler assures you.
On your despondent way out of the door, you notice that your four-inch heels have been appropriated by a seven-year-old. You smile for the first time that day when the heels do their job, and its wearer squeals as she hits the floor, face first.

Jayalalithaa case: What does it mean for Tamil Nadu?

(Published in Sify.com, on October 2, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/jayalalithaa-case-what-does-it-mean-for-tamil-nadu-news-national-okckT0fbiadcc.html)


To those who remember Jayalalithaa’s first term, the woman who took over the position of Chief Minister in 2011 – her third term in power – has been almost unrecognisable. Within months of assuming power, Jayalalithaa had streamlined the power situation in the state. Over the next couple of years, she introduced a spate of welfare schemes.
It appeared the state, whose votes have been chiefly driven by anti-incumbency for several elections, finally had some semblance of political stability. The government’s schemes for the poor, including the hugely successful Amma Canteens, have been admired by delegates from across the country and, in fact, the world. Jayalalithaa even brought the auto-rickshaws, which have been robbing the public blind for decades, under control.
But now, Jayalalithaa’s excesses during her first term in power have caught up with her, and there are signs of a looming political crisis in Tamil Nadu.
Unless her conviction is quickly suspended and overturned by the higher courts, it appears Jayalalithaa’s future in politics is under high risk.
Her attempted manoeuvres of the judicial system have all backfired so far. Chances are that the quantum of punishment would not have been so harsh if Jayalalithaa had not asked that questions under Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure be sent to her in the form of a questionnaire, rather than appear in court in person. This is only done under exceptional circumstances, and was one of the reasons the Supreme Court slammed the manner in which a trial court had handled the case in Madras, and shifted it to Bangalore.
Special judge John Michael D’Cunha had originally fixed September 20 for the announcement of the verdict, which was pushed by a week after Jayalalithaa moved a last-minute petition regarding her security in court. If she had refrained, chances are that Jayalalithaa would have been able to file a bail petition and appeal in the Karnataka High Court, ahead of the Dussehra vacation.
Jayalalithaa has been arrested in power earlier – in 2001 – and the man who was chosen to head her government in her absence was Paneerselvam, who has taken on the mantle again this week.
However, her conviction was overturned in months at that time, and she was in Madras.
This time, though, it is not clear whether she will be allowed to leave the jurisdiction of the Karnataka High Court, even if she were to be granted bail.
The trial has dragged on for 18 years, and the sheer volume of paperwork will likely ensure that the judges handling the appeal will take rather longer to arrive at a decision than the Supreme Court did in 2001.
Jayalalithaa’s assets have been frozen, and a Rs. 100 crore fine imposed on her. It is unclear how she will find the resources to continue fighting the case.
Meanwhile, at least six people have committed suicide and several others have attempted it, in the wake of Jayalalithaa’s conviction. It has been reported that 10 AIADMK workers have died of cardiac arrest since the verdict came out. Bizarrely, a supporter chopped off his little finger in protest against the judgment.
The first challenge in Tamil Nadu is to control the hysteria that has followed the verdict. Within minutes of the announcement, Subramanian Swamy – who had first filed the case against Jayalalithaa, in 1996 – was burnt in effigy. AIADMK supporters gathered outside the house of DMK head Karunanidhi, and took out protest marches elsewhere in the city.
Given the tension between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka – exacerbated by issues ranging from the Cauvery Water Dispute to language – the fact that Jayalalithaa was convicted in Bangalore could spark off more riots.
If the conviction is not overturned, Jayalalithaa will not be able to contest elections for ten years, by which time she will be in her mid-seventies.
There is no other single leader in the state in whom a majority of people place trust. The DMK’s involvement in various scams, in addition to the in-fighting has made it extremely difficult for the party – and its nonagenarian leader – to make a comeback. The DMDK, led by actor Vijayakanth, has a few pockets in which it is popular, but its leader has no political experience and even less charisma.
Jayalalithaa has not groomed a leader in the party to take over from her.
As we wait out the Dussehra holidays, and try to decide whether we would prefer to see justice done or stability maintained – for there is no doubt that Jayalalithaa is an excellent administrator – it appears Tamil Nadu may be headed towards a period of political uncertainty.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Morning People

(Published in The Friday Times, on September 26, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/morning-people/)


It is often said that the night belongs to poets and prostitutes. This pronouncement is usually made by poets. Though I cannot say with certainty that I have a legitimate claim to either title, I do like the night. Recently, there has been a spate of articles, likely based on random and possibly unscientific research, which suggest that most geniuses work late into the night.
Nothing makes me happier than reading such articles. Part of the reason is, perhaps, that I like those relatives who harangue me about my nocturnal wakefulness to feel that they are more incompetent than I am. But, the most important reason is that I have always disliked people who look after their own health, and it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to have seemingly definitive proof that they are intellectually inferior to the rest of humanity.
There’s something repulsive about people who avoid certain foods, try to protect their livers from lubrication by alcohol, and exercise for any reason other than short-term gains, such as fitting into a new designer dress or playing havoc on the hormones of a crush.
And these people are out in numbers before the night has given way to the morning, and the poets have gone home to write about the prostitutes.
Motivated by the honourable intention of wanting to look ravishing enough in a Size 6 dress to seduce a prospective boyfriend, I joined a running club and a cycling club. I believed I would meet people who are as shallow as I am.
Now, the first thing that is wrong with these clubs is that they meet early in the morning – around 5:00 am, which is often earlier than my bedtime.
The second thing wrong with these clubs is that they are teeming with people whose motivation is the idea of fitness and good health.
There is nothing more depressing than staggering sleepily out of one’s car to see a bright-eyed runner doing push-ups. Well, except staggering sleepily out of one’s car to see a bright-eyed CEO getting ready to cycle, three hours after he landed in the country.
“I got picked up by my driver from the airport. I had some khana-vaana there itself. You know, at the Business Class lounge. I went home. I told my wife I am going to the shower, and then I changed into these things, picked up by sneakers, and took out my cycle. She calls me ‘maniac’,” he laughs boisterously to the admiring engineer who is hoping to be hired by him someday.
From the tone of his voice, you would think ‘maniac’ was his wife’s codeword for ‘George Clooney’.
There is always that woman who realised after putting herself through childbirth that her true calling was running. She hopes that women’s magazines and newspaper supplements across the country will send rookie reporters in search of stories to her, so that she can start a trend. She also hopes that sycophantic 20-year-olds will gasp when she casually mentions her children, and yelp, “Oh my GOD! You have a child?! I would never have thought! I thought you were younger than me! I thought you were in school or something!”
There is also that guy who is something of an evangelist for the morning masochism. He will corner you as you yawn and stretch and try to recall the face of the man or woman for whom you want to shed the extra pounds.
“You know, I used to weigh 90 kilos. Now, my weight is 62,” he will say, and then beam.
Chances are that you will miss your cue to trill, “You?! You were 90 kilos? Okay, wait...you, you mean actually you? NINETY?! Tell me your secret!”
If you don’t say that, in those exact words, he will look at you, nod, raise his eyebrows and contort his lips. “Ninety. Imagine. Me.”
You finally mumble, “Really?”
“Yes. Nobody believes me. You can’t imagine, no? Me, ninety?” he laughs. “I used to find it difficult to climb one flight of stairs. Now, I run up all six floors to my office. My secretary – she’s this chit of a girl, just out of college, and I’m 45, you won’t believe – she looks at me and says, ‘How do you do it, sir?’ I tell her it is all willpower. I feel so much healthier now, so much happier, so much more...”
“Loquacious?” you want to ask.
For my part, I gave both the running and the cycling clubs a fair try. I showed up once for the running, and managed to hurl myself through roads whose pores exhaled the odours of sewage. I even set my alarm on another occasion. I borrowed my brother’s cycle, pedalled from the start point, went home, had coffee, and returned to the start point after an hour. When everyone thought I had completed the 15-kilometre trail, I knew the researchers were right.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Vacation blues

(Published in The Friday Times, on September 19, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/vacation-blues/)

Every few months, I put up a cryptic status on Facebook: “Won’t be reachable for a month and a half on phone. If you need to contact me – which you shouldn’t, since I’m unemployed, misanthropic and reluctant to help anyone with anything – use email or Facebook.”
For a while, the response was satisfying: concerned messages about my well-being and my family’s, usually brimming with thinly-disguised curiosity – “Heyyyyy...Hope all well...your post got me worried...family and everyone okay?” – which could be ignored with, “All well, thanks. *Smiley*”
Eventually people figured out that this meant I was going on vacation.
If you’re from this part of the world, and you’re going “abroad”, this can mean only two things – souvenirs and courier service.
Suddenly, you’re bombarded with messages from people, asking where you’re headed. Whether you’re headed to New York or some deserted part of Mongolia, someone who is connected to you on Facebook will know someone who is a janitor, or student, or both, in your destination. He or she will beg you to take something. Why not send it through FedEx? Well, that doesn’t have the “personal touch”, you see. In other words, they can save a few hundred rupees by swallowing a valuable chunk of your vacation time.
And then, there are those students and janitors who will ask you to fetch something from home.
“Hey! Can I ask you for a teensy favour? Do you think you can fit in my sweater / bra / phone / iPod / hard drive/ shoes? I left them behind last time!”
First of all, all these commodities are available across the world. In fact, they slowly made their progress from the West to East over the last century.
Second of all, someone who is stupid enough to leave any of the above behind deserves to live without them for the rest of his or her miserable life.
Or, they ask: “Hey, I really miss aam papad from the store near my parents’ house. Pretty please, bring?”
A friend told me that she knew someone who had posted about his imminent return from the US, saying: “No I will not carry a parcel or buy something for you. Thanks for missing me, guys.”
I was inspired for a few seconds. But, knowing the basket cases I have on my Friends list, I’m fairly sure that someone will post, “Hey, gurl, t hel wit d ppl who don mis u, u r awsum n remember it, luv u, muah. <3 font="">
I will not know how to react – should I be deeply embarrassed about knowing people like this, because this could estrange me from the Facebook friends I actually respect? Should I be angry? If so, should I be more annoyed by the use of quicktext, or by the content, or by the run-on sentences? Should I delete the comment, and then the commenter?
Another consequence of being on vacation is that people relentlessly follow your posts. Now, I don’t put up many pictures when I’m on vacation. If you feel the need to Facebook your every move, you probably don’t like either the place or the company, or you’re desperate for people to know you like the place and/or the company.
Yet, when I last returned from Europe, someone I know said, “Hey, I saw you were posting from your phone though you said you weren’t going to be using it. What sort of data plan did you get? And do you have the SIM card? I can save a few euros if I take it from you instead of buying a new one. We’re going in two weeks.”
About a month ago, I was selected as one of five winners of a fiction contest. We are being sent to Paris to attend the Writers of India Festival, which conducted the contest in association with Columbia University and Caravan magazine.
Somehow, people interpreted this as: “I’m going on a sponsored sex romp to Paris and, of course, it will be my pleasure to satisfy your liquor and liqueur needs, flouting all customs regulations. Also, I exist solely to bring back fridge magnets.”
God. I cannot tell you how much I despise being asked for fridge magnets. To begin with, I think it is the lamest idea that ever became a success, IQ no bar. Second, I don’t see what the point of a souvenir bought by someone else is. Isn’t the whole point of a souvenir the memory of a moment or a trip? Third, all these collectors of magnets have specifications – they want “something funky, not the clichéd Eiffel Tower types that you get in the souvenir shops.”
Really? Why don’t I get a mould made of my middle finger with the Notre Dame Cathedral on top? Or how about I get a mould made of your butt and stick the Eiffel Tower where it belongs? Are those funky enough to merit a place on your fridge?
And then there’s this vicarious voyeurism: “Hey, let me know how good Frenchmen are in bed.”
Whoa, how did you figure out my life’s ambition is to walk around Paris with a placard that says: ‘TOURIST. RESEARCHING SEX SKILLS OF FRENCHMEN. VOLUNTEERS PLEASE APPROACH’?
The silver lining is that about three out of the five hundred people on your Facebook will send you a list of must-see places and tell you how to navigate the public transport. For those three, you can walk into a souvenir shop and buy knockoffs of the Mona Lisa, feeling no resentment.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Digital Pains

(Published in The Friday Times, on September 17, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/digital-pains/)



Remember when we didn’t have email and Facebook and mobile phones? We couldn’t pretend we were on important calls to avoid relatives. We were forced into long conversations on the landline before the era of caller IDs and blocking options. We had to actually go to birthday parties, instead of tagging old pictures with sappy messages and writing on Facebook walls.
If you were born in the Eighties, you know what this is like. And if you’re misanthropic – which is really just the politically correct term for ‘anti-stupid’ – you know why you thank the multiple inventors of the internet and social networks every day, for minimising the obligation of face-to-face interaction with people.
If you have a reasonably good memory, you also remember the days when you had to book a trunk call to reach people who lived in other cities and countries. Everyone had to yell on the phone, and then wait for the sound wave to travel to the other person, so that conversations usually went like this: “Hello?...Hello?...Are you there?” “Hello?...Can you hear me?...Yes, you can!” “Ah...I thought I...Yes, what?” “Sorry?...Can you hear me?” “Hello? Helloooooo?” “HELLO!” “Yes! Finally!” “What? Final exams, did you say?” “HELLO! PAH!”
Some of your relatives still tend to yell over the mobile phone when they make long distance calls.
Now, all was well when the generation we think of as ‘adults’ – the generation which is anywhere between fifty and ninety now – thought Viber was a sex toy. However, a combination of émigré children and affordable smart-phones has awakened them to the financial advantages of ‘getting tech savvy’.  Nothing excites a middle-aged South Asian more than the prospect of saving money. Except the prospect of ‘actually seeing people in America!’
And so, one day, I stumbled out of my room for coffee, and heard an aunt holding forth on how she speaks to her daughter, while the others listened in fascination and asked intelligent questions like, “Spike is the same as Viber?”
“No, no,” the aunt said, patiently, “Not Spike. It’s Sky-pee. That’s for the computer. Viber is for the phone.”
“I think it’s Skype, not Sky-pee,” another relative interjected, “And the best is Google Hangouts. You can use it on both phone and computer. My son installed everything in my phone before he left.”
Who would grudge a loving mother the chance to ensure her offspring are eating roti every day, and also using the pressure cooker she sent along, undeterred by the prospect of her kids being questioned by the FBI in case there was another cooker bomb explosion?
However, I take issue with the confidence they gain from this. Next thing you know, they’re on Facebook. Thankfully, I don’t have a Facebooking mum. When she was contemplating it, I said, “Obviously, all my friends will add you. And then, there’s this socialite circle. And your patients.” She shuddered and refrained.
Unfortunately, not all ‘adults’ are asocial.
When uncle-aunty types add me, I tend to put them on the Restricted list. But, every now and then, I write a Public post, so that people will not figure out they are on Restricted. Every time I post a quip under Public, they read it and diligently counter the flippancy with aspiring wisdom.
One day, I quoted Seinfeld: “I'm tired of pretending I'm excited every time it's somebody's birthday.
What is the big deal? How many times do we have to celebrate that someone was born? Every year, over and over. All you did was not die for 12 months. That's all you've done, as far as I could tell.”
Pat came the response from a friend’s father: “Imagine living a life where every day is just as joyous and you receive gifts, cards (not any more in these days of email) and good wishes from friends and family. As well as a day of celebration, a birthday is also a time for reflecting on your life and reviewing what the intervening years have brought you. In the meantime, why not live each day as your birthday? Why miss out on an excuse to celebrate life? If it sounded philosophical, it was not meant to be!!!”
I’m not sure what irritates me more about the last statement – its inherent contradiction or the multiple exclamation marks.
Worse, they poke. How do you react when you find the biology teacher of whom you were terrified in school has poked you? And how do you react when you find your aunt has gone and poked your father-in-law, who has poked her back, and they are now playing Candy Crush Saga with each other?
The way I see it, we only have two choices – either all social networks need to set an upper age limit; or, we need to stop young people from crossing the seas.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kashmir floods: Of prejudice and petty politics

(Published in Sify.com, on September 13, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/kashmir-floods-of-prejudice-and-petty-politics-news-columns-ojnj17ibfjfaj.html)


Every day, even as the newspapers carry reports of the destruction wrought by the flooding of the Jhelum river, they also carry heart-warming stories of rescue.
So far, the Indian Army, Indian Air Force, National Disaster Response Force and Indian Navy have managed to evacuate and save tens of thousands of people. Across the state, Kashmiris in unaffected areas have opened their doors to strangers. Volunteers are using the social networks to source as much help and donation as possible, and ensuring that they reach the victims of the flood.
However, there are several virulent posts in the social media that make me wonder whether we cannot leave our petty politics behind even at a time of disaster.
Of course, there have been several condemnable incidents in the Valley – of army vehicles being pelted with stones even as they carried supplies, of boats that were kept on stand-by for soldiers being grabbed by mobs, of helicopters loaded with relief material not being allowed to land at the governor’s residence, of an NDRF trooper being attacked by flood victims.
A local Kannada newspaper, called Vijayvani, carried a story about a family of nineteen people who were reportedly stopped by a mob and forced to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” before being allowed to cross over to safety.
In disaster-hit areas, people are bound to react in panic. Publicity-mongers will take advantage of a situation to get themselves noticed, and sadists will take advantage of people’s despair to get their kicks.
However, I am worried by the anger I see on internet forums where the situation – or the stories emerging from Srinagar – are being discussed.
One of the most common sentiments is that the people of Kashmir are being rescued by the Armed Forces, against which they have railed for so long, and that there is some sort of poetic justice in this.
Now, it is undeniable that the Armed Forces have done a stellar job of rescuing as many people as they can, just as they have done time and again, every time a disaster has struck anywhere in India. They have formed human bridges, taken out boats to almost inaccessible areas, and there have been individual feats of supreme mental and physical strength, such as the case of Wing Commander Abhijit Bali heading out to save his family and neighbours, and swimming 20 kilometres back to his base.
However, we must recognise that the heroics of the Armed Forces in responding to a crisis situation are completely unrelated to the debate over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The AFSPA is frightening in its provisions, which ensure immunity to the men in uniform for a vast range of quite horrific acts.
In any conflict zone – Kashmir, Sri Lanka, parts of North East India – people are often caught between the authorities and the militants. In most cases, they are resentful of both, but more outspoken about their resentment against the authorities.
To connect the rescue operations with the protests against AFSPA is as unwarranted – and bereft of all logic – as the justification of the forced migration of Kashmiri pandits on the grounds that atrocities are being committed against Kashmiri Muslims by the state.
Facebook posts about the family that was allegedly stopped by separatists were followed by disheartening debates – disheartening because they show that even at a time of calamity, we cannot leave behind our prejudices.
In a country like India, which was forged out of hundreds of little kingdoms, and where people have various identities based on religion, ethnicity, language, caste and culture, we must accept that we will never truly be free of conflict.
Several separatist movements have been successful, evidenced by the fact that most of our states are fragments of what used to be larger administrative areas.
However, the ugliness comes in when we refuse to allow each other’s opinions and insist on an absolute truth.
The fact is, there is rampant militancy in any conflict zone, and stringent measures are often necessary to curtail them.
But, since it is impossible to identify with certainty in all suspected cases whether someone is a militant or affiliated with militants, there are bound to be ‘mistakes’. Unfortunately, these so-called ‘mistakes’ cost human lives and livelihoods.
There can be no doubt that an act with draconian provisions should, at the very least, be revisited regularly. The consequences of the act should be analysed, and the relevance of its stipulations determined.
The relationship between the Armed Forces and the people of Kashmir is a complicated one.
It is unfair to both the people and the Forces to see it in the context of the rescue operations during the ongoing flood.
And for us to focus on politics at this time rather than show basic human compassion for victims of the flood is reprehensible.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.