Friday, April 18, 2014

​Is there a saviour between the devil and the deep sea?

(Published in Sify.com, on April 18, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/is-there-a-saviour-between-the-devil-and-the-deep-sea-news-columns-oesiL3dbhac.html)

Yes, there is a Modi wave. And while I’m not enamoured of the man, I can’t help thinking that anything would be better than the Congress coming back to power.
Not only has the UPA’s period in governance broken all records for corruption and scams, but it has also led to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being immortalised for all the wrong reasons.
Here is a man who was once famous for pulling India out of economic isolation, for opening the markets up, and for allowing private players to enter an industry that was bleeding the country’s salaried class dry.
Now, he is famous not only for being ridiculed as a “lame duck” and for being caricatured paying his obeisance to “madam”, but also for admitting to his “trusted aides” that he had no power.
With Sanjaya Baru’s book The Accidental Prime Minister flying off the shelves at just the wrong time, and former Coal Secretary P C Parakh’s book on the Coalgate scandal raising questions about Singh’s ability to control his ministers, one is left with the impression that the man who fuelled India’s economic resurgence is a man without confidence in himself.
Despite the argument that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was not technically in power, it is apparent that the family will always be the puppet masters for as long as the Congress is in power.
It is also apparent that the next time round, it will not be Manmohan Singh, but Rahul Gandhi, a man with little political experience and less control over what he says – a man arguably more famous for political gaffes than any other Prime Ministerial candidate – who will handle the reins.
The problem with Narendra Modi is not simply the fact that he was in power when riots broke out in his state – riots have occurred frequently, and in several states in India; there is always a debate about who started it, and who suffered, but the fact is that a mob cannot be controlled.
The more important questions are – is someone who has only operated at the state level, and has no experience even as a minister at the centre, really capable of handling an entire country? Will the freedom of the press even exist if this man comes to power?
Unfortunately, the Congress does not have the best reputation with guaranteeing the press its freedom either. No government can claim to support the freedom of the press when a cartoonist is arrested for sedition. Ironically enough, at the same time that Aseem Trivedi was arrested, a party worker had put up a poster with the faces of P Chidambaram, Rahul Gandhi and Karthi Chidambaram on the Ashoka lions emblem.
The real problem we have to address is that there is no viable alternative to the Congress or the BJP. We don’t have a leader.
Despite the momentum the Aam Aadmi Party gained, Arvind Kejriwal’s stint as Delhi Chief Minister proved to be a fiasco. Perhaps someone who is habitually in the opposition is bound to protest even when he is in power. It happened in West Bengal, where Mamata Banerjee’s first weeks in power left everyone bewildered. The city was painted blue, and Rabindra Sangeet kiosks were installed in traffic islands.
When the anti-incumbency sentiment runs as high as it does, the country is bound to turn the other way. The axiom about known devils and unknown angels doesn’t quite hold.
Whatever I know or don’t, I’m sure that I don’t want this country to be led by a man who doesn’t even get to pick his own ministers – which, if Sanjaya Baru is to be believed, was indeed the case.
It troubles me that the Congress has asserted itself only in the matter of nuclear deals. The provisions of the Indo-American deal were a troubling reminder of the Bhopal Gas tragedy. The centre’s handling of the Koodankulam protest leaves much to be desired.
Yet, one wonders where the solution is. Choosing stability is not an option any longer, because of what UPA-II did during its tenure. The alternative is scary.
We are a country with a huge populace of politically aware citizens, with enormous resources, and astute thinkers. But can all these qualities possibly be found in someone who is willing to lead, and capable of leading from the front? Can someone get into politics without being corrupted by it?
It is hard to say what will happen over the next five years. But it is important that all of us decide to get more politically involved, and change the connotations of the word ‘politics’. It shouldn’t be about ‘wooing’ voters; it should be about winning voters. It shouldn’t be about ‘appeasing’ minorities; it should be about ensuring equality, which is what a democracy guarantees. Reservation has no place in a democracy; prejudice against someone’s sexual orientation has no place in a democracy.
Is there place for idealism in India? For us to start afresh? A start was made in Delhi. Can we repeat that across the country, without screwing up?

Don’t be my baby

(Published in The Friday Times, on April 18, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/dont-be-my-baby/)


Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times

You know the world’s doomed when a cop who spots evil in a nine-month-old kid, and seeks to nip it in the bud, is punished instead of the potentially murderous toddler.
I’m not sure when my fear of babies began. My two younger brothers may have contributed to it. So may a story I was told when I was in kindergarten – about a mediaeval seer of sorts, who snapped the neck of a boy while doing the rounds with his apostles. One of his followers objected, horrified, and the seer explained that the boy would grow into a cruel bully, having people tortured and killed, and he had not only spared the world by disposing of the boy, but also spared the boy a truckload of karmic revenge. The disciples were impressed. So was I.
Something about babies freaks me out. It has partly to do with one of my peladophobia – fear of bald people – and partly to do with my fear of disproportionate limbs (Google doesn’t have a name for this). As if it weren’t bad enough that babies have multiple chins, enormous heads, and tiny limbs, they also have empty, staring eyes. I sympathise with that cop, I do.
This seemingly incurable case of paedophobia has been aggravated by frequent travel – irrespective of the duration and direction of the flight, and irrespective of the class I fly, I’ve completed only two journeys without an infant wailing a stone’s throw away. Believe me, I know why they don’t allow weapons on board.  I’ve often wished that larynxes grew over time – ideally, after children hit puberty, and are too ashamed of their hormones to keep yapping. And, of course, their voices do hit a slightly more bearable pitch at that age.
I think the best thing about children is that they grow up. Unfortunately, most grow up to become parents. And this is the one class of humanity I’m even more terrified of than I am of their spawn.
You know those birds that will attack you the moment you go anywhere near their nests? Well, the most aggressive member of that species is the mother whose baby’s cuteness you don’t entirely appreciate.  This mother may drag her infant along when she’s taking part in a violent protest (and you’re screwed if you’re a cop trying to be fair and having the kid fingerprinted). Or, she may park it on an aeroplane for free, sans pacifier, because hey, why deprive her fellow-passengers of the sur of its ten-hour-long concert? Or, she may bring it home to toilet-train on your carpet, and display its creativity on your mahogany table.
The second most aggressive member of that species is the father, who didn’t realise what he was getting into until he inhaled the scent of his first nappy. You see him watching helplessly as you exchange glares with the mother. You see him getting ready to fight when you ask the mother if she can take her kid out of the cinema because you’re missing out on the dialogue. You see him sit back in relief when the mother snaps, “But she’s a child!” You see him stand up when you snap back, “She is, you’re not.”
As the kids grow up, you have two options. You can either sit through the child’s array of mispronounced nursery rhymes as its parents beam and sundry aunties ask you why you have not bred, and look on as it scribbles on your table, blesses your carpet and snaps the strings of your veena. Or, you could pretend you love kids, absolutely adore them, and keep them away from your table, carpet and veena by devising a game that involves running in an empty space. In most houses, the empty space is the garden. Occasionally, I’ve tried my luck with the terrace, but have not yet succeeded in staging a fortunate accident.
The problem with taking the latter route is that you may be just too convincing. A friend of mine lost his weekend to babysitting his nieces while his sister-in-law got her hair done, and his brother went shopping. I have been conned into escorting a little cousin to choose a birthday cake, because his father sighed, “I think he wants a break from me. Don’t you love hanging out with her, buddy?”
However, one day, I decided to stand up for myself. One of my cousins who has gone forth and multiplied suggested we “all” go to a movie in the mall. “Yes, Rio 2 has just released!” I said, and watched my nephew’s face light up. As my cousin opened her mouth to say she would give her son ‘fun time’ with his ‘favourite aunty’, I cut in, “But, I don’t like kiddie movies, so I’m going to sit this one out. Frozen was bad enough.”
As I saw the look on her face, I knew I’d cracked the code. I was finally ready to become an evil parent.

Let's stop blaming rape on gender and poverty

(Published in Sify.com, on April 11, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/let-s-stop-blaming-rape-on-gender-and-poverty-news-columns-oelqVTafbad.html)

It isn’t the first time someone has suggested that women would do well not to get raped by tempting people who are powerless to resist.
If one were to read the words of wisdom imparted to us by our elected, appointed and self-styled ‘leaders’, ranging from politicians to so-called godmen, one would think women are silly for not taking the following precautions before setting out – wear a dowdy burqa, spiked gloves, carry pepper spray, and just so you don’t take a chance, pee on yourself instead of liberally dousing yourself in perfume that is designed to entice men.
What angers me about Mulayam’s statement about boys being boys, and committing “mistakes” every now and again is not just that the onus to safeguard themselves from rape is back on women; it is that the blame is being placed on the gender of the rapists, rather than on their individual perversity, cruelty and savagery.
This is also why I find it dangerous when our liberal brigade calls for us not to condemn rapists forever, because their actions cannot be separated from their upbringing – their straitened circumstances, their alcoholic fathers and abused mothers, their lack of education, their witnessing the abuse of women from childhood and believing this is the norm.
Ironically, the lot who call for the abolishment of capital punishment have been divided into two camps – those who think the upbringing of convicted rapists must be studied, and those who think capital punishment can be reserved for rape.
Yet, the entire camp is united in its condemnation of Mulayam Singh Yadav in suggesting that the “mistakes” of “boys” should be forgiven.
All of us know “boys” who haven’t made “mistakes”. Similarly, all of us know people who grew up under straitened circumstances, with alcoholic fathers and abused mothers, without education, witnessing the abuse of women from childhood, and understanding that this is neither the norm nor any way to live.
All of us know people like this who have given their children different lives – by sending them to schools, staying away from alcohol, and raising families as well as they can even amidst the poverty.
And all of us know of rapes that have involved not just one class of misguided boys – we know of rapes in elite boarding schools, and date rapes in expensive clubs. Hell, recently, an open letter by a victim of rape in a Harvard hostel went viral.
All of us know of highly educated men and women, trusted to have the final word on justice, who believe that marital rape is not a punishable crime.
All of us know of medically trained men and women who think it’s a good idea to do the ‘finger test’ on rape victims, further traumatising people who have just lived through a waking nightmare.
While we all find it easy to rage against Mulayam for the stupidity of his statement, there are many, many others who make a living off being contrarian – people who write columns and articles about the assumption that rape needs to be examined more carefully, that it is financial circumstances which lead to the instinct to rape.
We need to understand that there is no reason, and no justification whatsoever, for rape.
Rapists are cruel, savage, and perverse. They are not boys making a mistake. They are not poor people who simply don’t know any better. They are not misguided men showing remorse.
Remorse does not matter. Forget the damage to someone’s physical self – you could restore a rape victim’s virginity and make her ‘acceptable’ again – but nothing can undo the emotional and psychological damage caused to a woman who has been sexually abused. Not remorse, not justification, and not even the death of the rapist – except for the small comfort that there is one less evil person in the world.
Every time there is a rape, I wake up to Twitter and Facebook timelines crowded with posts from men who could never be rapists, apologising for the fact that they are men.
We need to stop blaming rape on gender.
We need to stop blaming rape on circumstances.
These two factors are as absurd as blaming rape on the clothes that a woman wears, or her perfume, or the fact that her hair is loose, and her face is made-up, and she ‘asked for it’ by not addressing her rapists as her ‘brothers’.
Rape is unforgivable. Someone who is capable of going out and doing this to another person does not deserve to be reintegrated into society. Even less does he or she deserve empathy or understanding of any kind.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

In Search of Atheism

(Published in Fountain Ink, April 2014 issue, retrieved from http://fountainink.in/?p=5168&all=1)

Universally, the chief indulgences of adolescence are cigarettes, sexual fantasies, atheism, the Russian nihilists, alcohol, marijuana, and ennui, usually discovered in that order. I have often cursed god for denying me its main luxury and arguably longest hangover – atheism.
To the Western mind, familiar with The Beatles, Osho and Steve Jobs, Indian spirituality is synonymous with sex and narcotics. Sadly, the truth (in lower case) is less exciting. Religion makes the headlines in India either when there are communal riots, or when “godmen” – as “gurus” with a large following of bored housewives, unemployed men, and foreign tourists style themselves – are arrested. In its more mundane moments, religion is about dragging oneself to places of worship, sighing about destiny and making wisecracks about the epics. I, for instance, am quite fond of saying it shouldn’t surprise us when “godmen” are arrested – the Hindu epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are all about sex and land acquisition, which are the charges regularly levied against these bearded millionaires. While I admire godmen for their business acumen – nothing guarantees returns like the quest of the middle-classes and tourists on welfare money to find themselves – I’ve always delinked them from my idea of religion.
Despite my best efforts, I have failed in my search for a gripe against Hinduism. The problem is that no one knows its rules, and every self-proclaimed expert is contradicted by another (if not by his or her own self). This is perhaps because Hinduism is not so much a religion as the collective beliefs of the most coherent people who lived in the land south of the Indus River, from which the word ‘Hindu’ derives. If these people chose to tell whoever documented their religion that they followed a certain set of rituals, chances are that they would have been believed. I know I would have messed with the heads of the curious outsiders. When Oprah Winfrey did her rather disastrous rounds of the country, I wished someone had told her the apple was the holy fruit of India, and that one must bow down to it and walk ten steps balancing it on one’s head before going on a journey. That would have made for good television. But I digress. The easiest aspect to take issue with would be the caste system. However, there is no Hindu scripture which speaks of caste as inherited. The four varnas – Brahmins who were educators and priests, Kshatriyas who were warriors, Vaishyas who were traders, and Shudras who took care of the menial work – seem to have started off as job options. The main beliefs in Hinduism find parallels in the Greco-Roman, Nordic and Egyptian faiths. Like them, it preceded Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and therefore wasn’t given a chance to develop grouses against them. It doesn’t even contradict Darwin’s theory of evolution. In fact, the ten avatars of god, collectively known as the Dashavatar, have Vishnu (the Hindu equivalent of Zeus, if you will) taking forms that seem to reflect evolution – Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, Varaha the boar, Narasimha the half-lion and half-man, Vamana the dwarf, Parashurama the warrior, Rama the righteous man, Krishna the player, Buddha the ascetic, and Kalki the destroyer of evil. So, to me, evolution was orchestrated by the gods.
Worst of all, Hinduism is convenient enough to accommodate the most lethargic, and hedonistic, souls. I’m not aware of any stipulated fasts. Hinduism doesn’t ban any mind-altering substance. The gods don’t seem to have thought much about sexual orientation or appetite. In the ancient literature of the region that is now India, people often cross-dress, and transition from one gender to another. In one of the sub-plots to the Dashavatar, Vishnu took the form of a beautiful woman called Mohini. Shiva, another god, lusted after this female form, and they made a baby before Mohini re-transitioned into Vishnu. The idea of Karmic causality makes life easier, partly by saving one a lot of gloom over “why me?”, and partly by sparing one from the obligation of helping others (unless one wants to collect brownie points for reward in a future incarnation). There’s apparently a concept that ‘Hell’ is in fact earthly life, and things can only get better. I’ve never been troubled by existential angst or the big questions about what happens after death. I’ve never cared about where the world is headed. From my sketchy readings of Hindu scripture, it appears the Dashavatar see themselves through a cycle, followed by Pralaya – a great flood that will engulf ten of the fourteen worlds – and then go through a re-run. The cycle persists until the Mahapralaya destroys all fourteen worlds. And then the grander cycle is rebooted. Yes, one would think Samuel Beckett thought up the tenets of Hinduism.
My lack of motivation to rebel against a religion with esoteric rules would not really trouble me, if it weren’t for the fact that theism is terribly out of fashion among India’s liberals. Either you’re with Richard Dawkins, or you’re with the religious fundamentalists. The impact of rationalism on religion came home to me when I overheard a conversation among elderly women at my gym. During the recent floods in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, a boulder had fallen at an angle that channelled the waters away from the sanctum sanctorum of a temple, where the idol stands. “What do you say to that?” one lady asked another. The other giggled, embarrassed, “What can I say? Maybe there is a god. Or...I don’t know. Maybe it’s just coincidence.” Now, this is the Indian equivalent of a group of churchgoing Italians surmising that the Madonna’s tears may be caused by a plumbing problem. I also hear that the theory of reincarnation, which I have always taken for granted, has caused enough doubt in the minds of Indians to make Dr Brian Weiss’ Many Lives, Many Mastersa bestseller in this country. To say one is not an atheist is to say one condones the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque by a right-wing Hindu group, or the retaliatory bomb blasts by Muslim terrorist outfits.
I often find that people struggle to reconcile my irreverence with theism. I don’t capitalise the word ‘god’, because I’ve always thought of Vishnu as a dude. The image of him that comes to my mind is from the illustrated children’s series,Amar Chitra Katha, which comprises stories from various Hindu epics and scriptures. In the imagination of these artists, he is a blue-coloured, rather handsome chap, reclining on a multi-headed snake that coils itself into a bed and offers him shade with its many hoods, while his wife massages his legs and thousands of celestials stand in attendance. He has style. One can almost see him smoking a pipe, as a celestial waits with a refill of tobacco. As for Shiva, I think he would be amused himself that people worship his penis (pardon my Sanskrit, but that’s the lingam for you). Once, a Muslim journalist friend had to travel to Amarnath, where a lingam that is believed to have formed naturally from the ice draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually. The Amarnath pilgrimage goes on for two months, the only time of the year that the high reaches of Kashmir are accessible.
“The roads were still slippery, and I was scared I’d die trying to reach the fucking lingam,” he said, and then looked guiltily at me, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, the participle was appropriate,” I replied.
“I’m just irritated because my butt hurts,” he added.
“Dude, what the hell did you try on the lingam?”
“Ewwww! I meant because of the mule ride! Damnit, don’t you Hindus go to Hell for saying things like that?”
Probably not. I’ve never thought of god as vengeful, keeping track of my good deeds and bad deeds. I suppose he has a secretary who jots them down, and makes me pay for them in another life – karmic causality is, as I said, convenient. The existence of god doesn’t rob me of freewill either. I don’t think of him as a puppet-master so much as a set-changer in a play that stars me.  The only thing I’m sure of, with the religion I follow, is that it allows me to say I don’t know.
I do envy the certainty of people who know god doesn’t exist – who believe that the theory of evolution nullifies the idea of a god. But I don’t envy the dilemma that presents itself to this lot. While some are sure we evolved from single-celled organisms, and the process was set off by a series of chemical reactions, they tend to draw a blank when asked what they think set off the chemical reactions. Some of them concede the existence of a “Power”, but not a “God-God”. Does the term “power” make people feel more comfortable than the term “god”? Does making him a nameless, faceless, genderless object – or even better, concept – make their ideas more logical? Does it shift their ideas out of the realm of superstition?
When I’m asked about my theory of the form god takes, I honestly tell people it draws from the Amar Chitra Katha. If I had to imagine the heavens, or the higher worlds, the first image that pops into my head is Douglas Adams’ planet-manufacturing room from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I suppose the gods and celestials are roundabout our height, but if they wanted to add some razzmatazz to the show, they could grow into giants, somewhat like the angels Philip Pullman describes in the His Dark Materials trilogy. When I tell them this, my interlocutors are somewhat horrified. “You think the gods look like people? That they are people? That the stuff in The Ramayana and The Mahabharata really happened? That someone split one foetus into a hundred babies? That there was a ten-headed king?”
I’m not sure of the specifics, but I do believe they happened. Perhaps the ten heads were a figurative representation of Ravana’s expertise in several fields. Or perhaps he was a rare breed of conjoined decaplets. Or perhaps someone decided to mess with troublesome kids who wanted a story, and told them a fantastical one. Maybe the hundred sons born to Queen Gandhari in The Mahabharata were not so much a split foetus as births outsourced to surrogates. I like the ambivalence of not knowing where we came from, or where we are headed.
Recently, an atheist friend of mine spoke about her daughter’s ideas of god. She was shocked when her child said, “Mummy, I’m going to ask god to make me your baby again next time.”
“Really, you’re going to ask god? How do you know god is there, sweetheart?” she asked.
“Because I love him so much, he has to be there, Mummy,” the child replied.
The anecdote took me back to my own childhood ideas of god. All my life, I’ve heard stories that validate the existence of god, and songs that assume the existence of god.
My maternal grandfather’s journey to a hilltop temple, when his wife was struggling with a complicated delivery, is often recounted in my family. He had left after the doctor told him that, at best, either his wife or the child would survive. It was a temple for Hanuman, the Monkey-God. As he sat praying, a horde of monkeys descended from trees on to the roof of their home. He returned to find his wife and daughter alive and asleep. Every significant event in my aunt’s life – her engagement, wedding, hospitalisation and death – were marked by the presence of monkeys. I would eventually visit the same hilltop temple my grandfather prayed at. As I thought of my aunt, whom I was inseparable from as a child, a couple of monkeys appeared and tugged at my jeans. I was thrilled, until they found the peanuts they were looking for in my pocket, and made off.
All the forms of Indian music I have known – Carnatic of the South, Hindustani of the North, and Rabindra Sangeet (a collection of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, set to music by the poet himself) – are devotional. Their spiritual element often coincides with the idea of Divine Eros in Plato’s Symposium. In many songs, god takes the form of a lover and vice versa. I would later discover that Tagore did not subscribe to idol worship – for at least part of his life, he was an agnostic. I now know dancers and musicians who are atheists, but are able to separate their art from their beliefs.
I did have an experience that assured me once and for all of the active presence of god. It occurred at the famous Venkateshwara Temple in Tirupathi. If I didn’t dislike the word so much, I may have described it as a ‘miracle’. The temple is usually crowded, and ushers push pilgrims on to keep the queue moving. One often has to wait hours, sometimes even days, for a glimpse of the idol. One rarely gets to spend more than a few seconds in the sanctum sanctorum. Someone in my family had managed to get permission for five people to sit in on a puja – a ritual – that would last forty minutes. I was chosen as one of the five, since the equivalent of my A-level examinations was around the corner, and my family has traditionally bribed the Tirupathi god with time, money and rituals. I had caught a chill, and could barely focus on the puja I had wormed my way into.
I’m really sorry, but my mind isn’t here, I thought mournfully, addressing god, as I do when I’m annoyed either with him or myself.
I felt the impulse to swallow, and sensed a lump dissolve in my throat. My chill seemed to have gone. I looked at the idol in surprise, and for a moment, everyone around me seemed to disappear, and I felt a warm radiation emanating from the sanctum sanctorum. I waited for the chill to come back, and I waited to find out I had been hallucinating, but neither happened.
I rarely tell this story, because I know the counterarguments. I could play the Devil’s advocate myself, really. Atheists and agnostics often want to know what makes one believe in god, but they don’t usually want to listen, or be convinced.  I’m familiar with the scepticism on their faces, and the objections they will raise. I myself don’t know enough theology or theosophy to debate, and I doubt anyone else does. A belief, by definition, pertains to something that isn’t proven. I don’t feel the need to prove the foundations of mine.
My mock-depression at having been unsuccessful in becoming a card-carrying atheist would have remained material for the odd quip, if the floods in Uttarakhand hadn’t forced me to delve deeper into the idea of theism. It wasn’t so much the occurrence of the floods itself, as the reactions I saw on my Facebook and Twitter feed, that provoked the contemplation. It was the fact that, among the people whom I respected enough to ‘follow’ or knew well enough to accept ‘friend requests’ from, were those who saw the floods as a triumph for the scientific and rational elite. There were those who came up with witticisms about the plight of the pilgrims who were trapped in the floods. One of the ugliest tweets I came across went, “It’s ironic that the relatives of the pilgrims are praying for their survival to the same gods whom their families lost their lives trying to visit”.
Now, I don’t frequent temples. I have even felt violated by the security checks at some. At Ayodhya, where a shack has been set up to mark Ram Janmabhoomi (birthplace of Lord Ram), at the site of the Babri Masjid demolition, I was patted down so thoroughly by security women that I felt assaulted. At the Akshardham temple in Delhi, I was so upset by the intrusiveness of the checking that I walked out without entering the sanctum sanctorum. The only other place where I have been so thoroughly checked has been at an auditorium where I was emceeing an event which the President of India was to attend. Apparently, god is as sensitive a target as the President. The only temple I visit nowadays is the one at Tirupathi, and that is usually to fulfil my end of a bargain – I often strike deals with the god in there. “Please let me be able to recover all the data in my computer, and I’ll climb up the hill,” I promise rashly. As I get older, there have been times when I’ve wondered if I’d rather not lose the novel I’ve been working on than put my legs through an uphill climb spanning three thousand and six hundred steps.
Even so, I find it horrifying that anyone could be so callous as to think it “served the pilgrims right” to lose their lives or health in a natural calamity. I find it horrifying that it could be so easy, when one’s convictions are different, to mock those who risk so much to go to faraway temples that are barely accessible. Can we gauge so easily why people should want to rush to Kedarnath in the monsoon, or why they should want to go to Amarnath when the weather is hostile and there are terror threats? Can we judge them for the risks they take, without knowing the reasons for their taking those risks? When they do go to these places and something goes wrong, does it prove that their gods don’t exist, or that they don’t care enough for their devotees, or that they are powerless to protect these pilgrims?
How, I wonder, can people who believe themselves to be rational be so smug as to gloat over the misfortune of those whom they deem less rational than themselves? We are quick to identify indoctrination and religious extremism. However, atheists can edge towards fundamentalism, too – secular fundamentalism. To some atheists, all theists are fundamentalists, and guilty of religious intolerance, and the world would be a better place if they were lost to floods.
It is dangerous to confuse the two. Often, I find that followers of any religion tend to be more respectful of the beliefs of others than atheists are. A Muslim friend refused to ask his Catholic girlfriend to convert and marry him in an Islamic ceremony. “Her god means as much to her as our god means to us,” he told his family. They accepted the argument. When I was doing a story on the LGBT community in London, I came across the Metropolitan Community Church, which caters to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Christians. I attended the Sunday service, and was offered communion. It didn’t strike me that this was the custom of another faith until a colleague asked me about how I reconciled it with my own religion.
I’m not sure whether it is the presence of god, or the conviction of people who believe in god, that moves me in certain places of worship – well, in all the places of worship where I’m not groped and treated like a prospective human bomb. In the grand churches of Europe, I’ve found myself marvelling at how much faith it must have taken for people to hang precariously from these roofs, painstakingly etching and painting scenes from the life of Christ. At the mosques built by Mughals in India, I’ve wondered at the Quranic carvings on high walls and inside domes, looking up at which can give one vertigo. In ancient temples, built block by block in an age bereft of technology, I’m struck by the patience of people who waited decades for their vision of a monument to materialise. I’m intrigued by the link between human effort and faith. Perhaps the gods come to these places because we will them to. Perhaps every time a child paints a version of god, perhaps every time we mould a block into our idea of god, he or she enters it too.  
Nomenclature is another challenge. Am I a ‘believer’? The word sounds too life-affirming for my dystopian self-involvement. Am I a ‘practising Hindu’? I’m not sure what I practise. I find it hard to convince atheists that the fact that I am a Hindu does not make me a bigot. My spiritual convictions are complicated by the fact that I don’t believe in the ‘oneness of god’, or that all religions essentially say the same thing. As far as I know, they don’t. Most of them say drastically different things, and our perceptions of our respective gods are drastically different too. We have different origin stories and different ideas of the Grand Finale. Perhaps we’ll find out who was right when we die. Perhaps we won’t. Either way, we won’t come back to tell. And even if we do, the atheists won’t believe we’re back, since they know we only disappear into a vast nothingness when we die.
The only thing my search for atheism has left me convinced of is that I am never going to be an atheist. The rigid definition makes me uncomfortable. The absence of options makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know how I define my religion, but I know I’m open to several truths. I know I’m open to discovering that my truths were lies. I know I can laugh at the irony of the ‘miracle’ that I experienced at Tirupathi having been accessed through the privilege of knowing the right people. I know that I don’t need validation through labels – I may not be a Scientific Rational Intellectual, I may not be an Intrepid Questioner of Faith, I may not be a Proud Atheist. I know that if it is rational to question a set of ideas, it should be equally rational to acknowledge that people have a right to their own answers. I know that I would rather sympathise with people who have lost their relatives in floods that empathise with those who know better than to believe in god.
My search for atheism is a dud. But it has given me the only answer I needed – that it’s all right not to be right.

How to be a pucca desi

(Published in The Friday Times, on April 4, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/how-to-be-a-pucca-desi/)

Eight years ago, I disappointed my circle of acquaintances, and let my country down. I had already done the unthinkable by choosing to study in the UK rather than the US. Now, I did the unforgivable by moving back to India despite having a couple of job offers at hand, the option to extend my visa to look for an even better job, and the prospect of eventually putting my passport through the shredder for a shiny new one endorsed by the queen.
I am not entirely sure what it is about my country that I like, but I know I love it. I love that my passport proclaims that I’m Indian. I don’t mind that I have to declare everything from my income to my chaddi size every time I want to visit another country. I certainly would mind swearing allegiance to any flag other than my own.
Perhaps my apparently incomprehensible desire to go back home had its roots in the horrific idea that I would have to do my own laundry, wash my own dishes, and recycle garbage on a long-term basis. But, more likely, it was because I knew, deep inside, that I could never be a proper desi.
Over the two-decades-and-an-awkward-fraction that I have spent observing passport-flashing relatives and family friends, I have figured out that a desi has a rigid list of duties – as rigid as the desi spawn’s weekly schedule. The regular South Asian, brought up in the degenerate opulence of old money, seven servants with apprentices and understudies, and access to malls, could never fulfil such criteria as:
a)      Constantly talking about how little money you make: Your children could go to independent schools, and you could have a Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Bentley and Audi parked in your two-storey garage, but if you are a foreign-settled desi, you must whine about how the desi next door has two of each parked in his four-storey garage.

b)      Wearing traditional clothes in the third world: So the heat is peeling the skin off your back, and all your cousins, nieces and nephews who live in the lavish luxury that only rupees can provide are lounging about in jeans and T-shirts. But you must prove you’re in the home country by wearing your third-world-wardrobe. Quite like setting your watch to the right time zone, this is a crucial part of your journey. Ideally, you must also wear all the gold you own. That’s how you fit into the society you left. The first world has taught you that life is all about fitting in.

c)       Washing your clothes (but not your bum) in mineral water: The proper desi must sniff delicately at a proffered glass of water, frown, squint his or her eyes, look apologetically at the host and giggle that he or she has lost his or her immunity. The host could lead you to the water cooler and point at the label that declares this is purified, sterilised, mineral water. But you must shake your head, and explain that you paid for excess baggage, to lug along a suitcase filled with foreign bottled water. You can only drink and bathe in this water. Your dishes and clothes can only be washed in this water. Being foreign, you don’t need water in the toilet anymore, though.

d)      Eating rotis with fork and knife: As Oprah will tell you, there are some people in the third world who still eat with their hands. Just like there are some slums in the third world where the hovels don’t come with en-suite showers. The only thing that separates the civilised from animals is cutlery. God forbid you should get into the habit of tearing at rotis with your hands on holiday. Next thing you know, your children are making their French toast not-so-French. Shudder. That roti will eventually yield to the knife and fork. It may take you two hours, but that’s a reasonable price to pay.

e)      Doing unto your child as your parents did unto you: Remember the dance classes that you were enrolled in the day after you stood up on shaky legs for the first time? Remember the music classes you were signed up for the day your “gaga” first became “Maa”? If you’re a proper desi, you’ll know the only way to keep your culture alive is to do the same to your kid. This compensates for throwing away the mug in your bathroom. If you still live in the third world, you’ll remember what a nightmare that pre-school dose of cultural education was.

As you’ll no doubt agree, unless you’re a proper desi, some of these are too much trouble, and some are simply in poor taste. And so, I settled for being the pariah – the ‘foreign return’.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Why blame Yami Gautam, SRK or Salman?

(Published in Sify.com, on April 2, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/why-blame-yami-gautam-salman-or-srk-news-columns-oeckCocahed.html)


Again, the world is angry. Yet another actress has endorsed a fairness cream. Twitter vented its rage against the fair-is-beautiful concept by targeting a woman who has joined its list of mercenaries – Yami Gautam.
I spent a fascinating five minutes looking through the hilarious advertisements the Vicky Donor actress has starred in – one hasher semi-flirting with a skin doctor, another has her holding up a colour palette to her face, and a third has her (unconvincingly)explain what seems to be a speech defect. As if her ghost-like glow and the risible dialogue were not punishment enough, the poor woman had to endure a day of Twitterati-gone-wild, at her expense.
Last year, Nandita Das starred in a campaign to endorse dark skin, and was lavishly praised for it. Routinely, actresses with dusky skin have done well for themselves in Bollywood – Sushmita Sen, Bipasha Basu, Rani Mukherji, Priyanka Chopra – and so have actresses with light skin.
If we’re going to get angry with them for endorsing the products they do, or even use personally, we might just as well campaign against their using makeup and expensive personal trainers.
The people we should be angry with are not the stars endorsing the products, the companies spotting gaps in the market, or even the idiots lining up to buy these purported shortcuts to beauty.
It is not quite a women-versus-men issue, because men have been targeted by the fairness cream industry too, endorsed by no less an icon than Shah Rukh Khan.
Balding men have never been more insecure than they have in the last decade or so, with everyone from Salman Khan to Harsha Bhogle growing younger over the years.
It’s easy to campaign against everything that fosters unrealistic expectations with regard to physical appearance. You could point angrily at airbrushed and photoshopped images of supermodels and actresses. You could rage against hair dye, and the fact that people would rather expose their scalps to chemicals than embrace the grey.
However, the fact is, all our lives would be drastically different if we stopped using anything that makes us look, feel, or smell different.
The absurdity of the human condition is that hardly anyone is entirely satisfied with how they look, or how other people look. Our lives are built around aspiring for what we can’t have. And so, while half the world goes on holiday to tropical climes – or makes an appointment with a sunbed – to acquire a tan, the other half experiments with peels and unguents to acquire a lighter shade.
I’ve never walked into a salon without being asked whether I would like to straighten my hair. I’ve never gone to a party without being told my curls are gorgeous, or being asked where I got my perm.
The fact is, there is a prosperous industry out there, hoping to exploit what they hope are our insecurities. If you have straight hair, you will be told a perm will suit you. If you have curly hair, you will be told straight hair will suit you. If you’re white, you’re told you need a tan. If you’re dark, you’re told you need fair skin. Everything from your genitals to your nipples is the wrong colour. And every time you listen, someone makes money.
To me, the idea of rubbing a cream on your face and hoping to go from Shade Nandita Das to Shade Kareena Kapoor is as absurd as burying yourself up to the neck in sand to cure a deformity. But, clearly, there are people who do both. And thereby feed a lucrative industry.
Thankfully, they also foster a spoof industry, whose latest hit is this not-suitable-for-work video.
If we’re going to take issue with the idea of aspiring to perfection, it’s silly to hate on the actors who are playing a part. It is we who are turning them into role models. It’s silly to blame the fairness cream industry. It is we who are giving it an increasing share in the markets. It is silly to blame Vogue and Hollywood. It is we who want to see pretty things on pretty people.
And if there are some among us who plan to stand in for floodlights at the World T20, we aren’t picking up the catalyst because of Yami Gautam. We are picking it up because of the value we place on ourselves.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Spice Jet fiasco: So, you think you can dance?

(Published in Sify.com, on March 21, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/spice-jet-fiasco-so-you-think-you-can-dance-news-columns-odvkgLbfccb.html)


Okay, so, Spice Jet did a fun thing. A bunch of airline crew decided to occupy the very narrow aisles, wave their arms about, swish their hair at passengers, and do a jig to celebrate Holi.
This was apparently so amusing to the rest of the crew that the pilot decided to step out of the cockpit, do some heavy duty videoing and photographing on his mobile phone, wearing sunglasses to shield himself against the flash (I presume), and eventually joined the jig. A flight attendant stood by, beaming like a mother at her child’s kindergarten performance.
This one time, passengers were allowed to whip out their phones en masse, without being told off by a posse of flight attendants. You know, flight attendants, those smiling dictators who will try their best to keep you away from the toilets when your bladder is about to burst, if the flight is five minutes away from “beginning its descent”, and forty minutes from landing? Who will insist that your mp3 player has to be switched off because it is an electronic item, when it seems to you that the infant bawling away is more likely to interfere with radio frequencies?
And all this happened as most of the world is frantically scouring the seas for the remains of an international flight that has been missing for over a week.
Ummm, do we see why this was probably not the greatest idea anyone has ever had?
Sure, Finnair has done it. And sure, Air Asia and Virgin Blue and Southwest Airlines have had impromptu celebrations.
But I don’t remember ever seeing a pilot filming the action.
I am not an anxious flyer. I take at least one flight a month, on average, and quite enjoy takeoff and landing. Of course, I can’t say I’m entirely unaffected by reports that pilots tend to fall asleep on duty. I don’t like reading that pilots are severely overworked.
Like most other passengers, I do occasionally think about what would happen if the flight were to crash land. But rather than gory visions of my own death, I worry about the prospect of my laptop and mobile phone being ruined, and my passport, which finally has enough visas to grant me hassle-free entry into most countries, being lost. In other words, I don’t seriously believe that I’m in any real danger while flying.
I would like to think that the worst things that can happen on board are noisy children, neighbours who spill into one’s seat, and someone with a cold and cough disseminating germs with the pride and benevolence befitting an act of charity.
While everyone rages against the Directorate General of Civil Aviation for playing spoilsport, I don’t see how the DGCA could look the other way when a pilot has been filmed outside the cockpit.
While Spice Jet claims it had extra crew on board to ensure that passengers were safe, and that there was no compromise on alertness, it hasn’t mentioned the pilot. Was someone monitoring the flight? Was the co-captain inside the cockpit? Is it safe for the door to the cockpit to be left open mid-flight? And were these extra crew members on board going about their regular duties, oblivious to the action on board? From the video, it appears that everyone was gawking at the dancing stewards and stewardesses.
It is clear that Spice Jet has not sought permission from anyone before carrying out this little experiment. I am not sure this is the case with any of the other airlines in question. If these so-called treats for passengers were unplanned, and done without the permission of a regulatory board, every one of the airlines in question could be taken to task for compromising on air safety.
With increasing competition among airlines, and – if the pink papers are to be believed – a looming crisis, with passengers on the constant lookout for cheaper alternatives to flying, any innovation could set off a trend. Given that there is some cause for celebration, and a religious or national festival every few weeks, the in-flight live entertainment may well become a staple.
I would not want to be on board a flight on which the management has decided to entertain me, at the cost of my safety. God knows there doesn’t seem to be a lot of regard for it as is.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Your wedding, my funeral

(Published in The Friday Times, on March 14, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/your-wedding-my-funeral/)


Recently, I retired from attending weddings. I had several reasons, of equal importance. For one, weddings are always at an inconvenient time – late at night, or early in the morning, when everyone is too sleepy to figure out that most rituals don’t make sense. For another, weddings are the perfect occasion for strangers to throw personal questions at each other – “What do you do for a living?” “Are you married?” “Are you going to have a love marriage or arranged marriage?” “Are you single, or is there someone special?” “How did you two meet?” “Where do you live?” Then, I hate shopping for gifts; you never know what price range to pick, you don’t know what someone will like, and chances are that it will get recycled anyway, when the couple unpacks an excess of crockery and wall-hangings. Wedding season kills your cricket-watching time. But, worst of all, once you involve yourself in a couple’s wedding, you’re involved in the rest of their lives – next thing you know, you’re attending birthday parties for each of the spawn.
Unfortunately, however misanthropic you are and however eccentric people peg you to be, there are some weddings that simply cannot be avoided. They may involve close friends; they may involve people who are crashing at your house because they’re distantly related to you and want to save on accommodation when they arrive en masse from their rural warrens (and cursing the aunt whose sister-in-law’s niece married into that family will not solve your problem); they may involve people you don’t want to offend because you know they will make all future meetings awkward, because that’s how they’re built.
This wedding season has been especially traumatic. It has gone on for four months thus far, and coincided both with my retirement from journalism and several cricket tours I’ve been waiting for.
Among the reasons for my quitting journalism was that I was tired of meeting people, and pretending to find them interesting. Sadly, these are the primary duties of a wedding guest. When the hosts don’t know what to do with you, they introduce you to other guests. Not only do I hate making conversation, but I have the added disadvantage of having no answers to most questions. I don’t work. I don’t “freelance”. I write a couple of columns and I write books. When I’m asked what my book is about, and I say, “Marriage”, it invites either a barrage of personal questions or a load of uninteresting information about random marriages. Often, it invites the question I dread most – “Does writing pay?” My instinctive response would be changed by my Autocorrect to, “Do I ducking ask you what your ducking salary is?” Without recourse to that, I resort to vague answers and monosyllables.
This tactic has a dangerous side-effect. The quiet ones in any group draw the non-stop-talkers like an open wound on a homeless drunk draws maggots, flies and stray dogs. I once thought my ability to attract the most boring person in a given group, and have them drone on about every aspect of their lives was a curse. Eventually, I realised trying to check the cricket score on my phone, tweeting one-liners about weddings and updating my Facebook during a reception would be quickly identified as symptoms of a listener-not-talker – the perfect victim for a talker-not-listener.
Once, a talker-not-listener held on to me, quite literally. She clutched my right hand, as my dinner plate weighed down my left, and spent a quarter of an hour filling me on a family history I had not asked for. Finally, the twentieth time I looked at my food longingly, she said, “Oh, oh, oh, sorry, please tell me if I’m keeping you from your dinner.”
Which brings me to the food, the main draw at weddings. That doesn’t work for me. I’m no foodie. I’m usually repelled by wedding food, because the sight of people queuing up to get mass-manufactured gloop dumped on their plates reminds me of soup kitchens. As you try to work your way through the mess of incongruent tastes on your plate, you must also make conversation – or fend it off. Your alternative is to join the smokers.
It is only in the subcontinent that you will find people in their thirties sneaking away to smoke in a corner where the “adults” won’t find them. As a non-smoker, I have to choose between headaches induced by passive smoking, and headaches induced by passive conversation.
However, among all the Catch-22 situations weddings impose on you, this is the cruellest – nothing turns you against the idea of marriage like a hectic wedding; but, the longer you stay unmarried, the longer you’ll be treated as an errand boy/girl, while cousins ten years younger than you sit sedately, spouses in tow.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When cricket becomes political

(Published in Sify.com, on March 10, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/india-or-pakistan-cricket-is-above-one-nation-news-columns-odkkxQjecfe.html)

The India-Pakistan game always has emotions running high – high enough to be both comical and tragic. Some years ago, an old man in Pakistan reportedly shot the television and then himself after his team lost to India. Every time one team loses to the other, houses are tarred and tyres burnt. The winning team’s country celebrates with fireworks and sweets.
The tragicomic aspect of the last game was even more heightened, with Shahid Afridi doing a near-repeat of Javed Miandad’s 1986 last-ball six in Sharjah. Pakistan and most of Kashmir – all of Kashmir, if the Kashmiri Sikhs, Christians and Hindus don’t count – went berserk.
Celebrating Kashmiri students were penalised for sedition by Meerut University. My Twitter and Facebook feed switched from exultations and praise of Shahid Afridi to condemnation of the government (and the university authorities) and attempts at memes of the “Is it sedition if I think Veena Malik is hot” variety. I’m not entirely sure anyone except Veena Malik thinks Veena Malik is hot, but that isn’t the issue here.
Omar Abdullah naturally got into the act, saying it was wrong for “misguided” students to be punished. All supporters of Pakistani cricket, which appears to be synonymous with Kashmiri independence, began to attack him instead, for using the word “misguided”. Evidently, cheering like maniacs for one group of men in a certain colour of shirt was a thoughtful, political statement.
It would all be rather hilarious, if the troubling question of religion did not come into the picture.
Several years ago, when I was a student in London, a Pakistani asked me whether Muslims in India supported the Pakistani cricket team. I thought he was joking. When I realised he wasn’t, I asked, “You mean, like Azharduddin? Or Tiger Pataudi? Did they support the Pakistani cricket team, is that what you’re asking?”
Undaunted, he said, “Arre, the common people, not the cricketers.”
How do you explain to someone who belongs to a country created on the basis of religion that India is the ‘other’ country – the one that was divided, not created?
The situation was complicated further by the fact that I myself don’t really care for supporting nations rather than teams. I have a favourite for every match, and often it depends on how sporting the players are, and how well the team does, rather than which country they belong to. I would not call myself a fan of Indian cricket. I am a fan of the game. There are a couple of teams I would support against India. And I don’t care who wins the India-Pakistan game, unless there is likely to be a riot roundabout where I live.
One of my favourite moments during an India-Pakistan series was a young Irfan Pathan saying, at a press conference in Pakistan, with all the innocence of a teenager, “Allah was on our side today. All praise to Allah.”
It was not a political, or religious, statement. But it was a simple attribute from a simple cricketer, to a god he believed in. And it was significant in that it threw a spanner in the exclusion of Indian Muslims from Indian cricket victories.
One of the aspects of the Kashmiri independence movement that troubles me is its exclusion of Kahsmiri Hindus – the Pandits – and, indeed, all other Kashmiri religions. Kashmiri Sikhs and Christians are essentially spoken of only as proof that it isn’t a Muslims-versus-Hindus question, but a Kashmiris-versus-Indians question.
That argument has an inherent fallacy – what makes Kashmiri Hindus less Kashmiri (or more Indian) than Kashmiri Muslims? What makes Indian Muslims less Muslim (or more Indian) than Kashmiri Muslims?
At its core, every separatist movement is an admission of our inability to resolve ideological differences – communal, linguistic, or cultural.
It is widely acknowledged that the idea behind the two-nation theory was wrong. If anything, it was politically motivated. It was sparked off by two men who both wanted to be Prime Minister. Decades after they are both dead, we are still paying the price for the solution they came up with, to achieve their ends.
People who think cheering on a cricket team will be taken seriously by anyone except troublemakers are indeed misguided. And when one faction throws the bait, the authorities really have no choice but to nip it in the bud. Condemnation in the media for coming down heavily on students is less ‘bad publicity’ than a campus riot would be.
If India is to survive, despite our differences, despite the politicians who are keen to exploit them, and despite the confused youth who are susceptible to being led by anyone clever enough to exploit their vulnerability, if we are to survive as a nation that doesn’t spit out its minorities, as a nation that is inclusive, our spirit has to go beyond such meanness.
In the end, what exactly is a minority in India? As a Hindu, I’m in the Indian majority. But until I was in my mid-twenties, I spoke no Hindi, which puts me in a linguistic minority. I look different from most people in the state to which I belong, and speak a different dialect of Tamil, which puts me in an ethnic minority.
It makes no sense for cricket to be tied with nation, and even less, religion. We have to decide whether the cheap thrill of supporting a certain colour of shirt to annoy a group of idiots is a worthy bargain for losing our secular identity.
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