Saturday, December 31, 2016

Recall of the wild

Get thee to a national park

(Published on December 31, 2016 in Business Standard)

There’s nothing as delicate as a spotted deer stepping through grass. Perfect ears swelling from slender stems, tiny hooves, liquid eyes, it picks up its feet like a dancer. Apex predators are fab, but there’s nothing boring about deer.

I had plenty of opportunities to admire deer because T1, the tigress, was evident only from her pug marks. She had walked the dirt track alone not long before our jeep made its way into a tangerine dawn breaking over the wilderness of Panna National Park, in Madhya Pradesh. Now only a line of jeeps, squashed together like bugs, gave away her location deep in a thicket. She was cuddling with her cubs, and she wasn’t coming back out. I wouldn’t have either.

We drove up one of the escarpments and, at the lip of a gorge, with the sun blunting the chill, we drank hot tea from a flask and looked at the shining golden grasslands. A bit later I was gaping at an abstract painting created by a tangle of slender trees, vines, and leaves mirrored in a quiet swampland. Panna is a varied landscape of grassland, hill, scrub, forest, and rock, nourished by the Ken river. You can’t believe the damage that that glassy ribbon can do. The last time I was in these parts was just after it had raged in flood, leaving fridges dangling in trees. You can still see the high-water mark in uprooted trees, cloth trapped in branches, stone shredded to rubble. It makes you want to conduct an appeasement ceremony immediately.

To enjoy the wilderness is to be rebooted to factory settings. Your eyes have to readjust their focal length from arm’s length to way, way across the bank, where the stone-still slab of a crocodile lies snaggle-toothed in the sun, or to where a crested serpent eagle perches in a complication of light and shade, considering its options. I’m always astonished by the skill and ease with which naturalists spot creatures in the wild. I can look straight at an animal without seeing it. But it’s not about having unique eyes, it’s all about learning—re-learning, really, to see. And it’s not just about eyes.

The challenge is to get your head out of your digital arse. The wilderness will bore you to tears until you re-inhabit your own physicality, nurture attention, and recalibrate your expectations of choice. But if you can do that, if you can see the drama in light and colour and form and movement; feel temperature and wind and texture; smell the riotous bouquet of resin, droppings, flowers, grass, and sunlight, hear calls and birdsong and movement, and taste the odd leaf—well then, the wild is the entertainment gift that never stops giving. (You can, of course, have a bit of both if there’s coverage, you rarely have to go cold turkey anymore. It’s a process.)

2016 has been, to quote Dame Helen Mirren, a “big pile of shit”. Murder, terrorism, war, noxious cultural tectonics, Brexit, Trump, Syria, demonetisation—all of it littered with the corpses of beloved musicians who soundtracked large parts of our lives. You can get hammered and set stuff on fire, or roll over and die, or you can remind yourself that the big pile of shit only seems to comprise the whole universe if you keep your nose to it. The virtual world is interesting, and creative, and important, but there’s a lot to be said for giving it an occasional sincere kick in the pants.

Climbing back into your senses in a wilderness is about the best cleanse there is for the toxicity normalised in modernity. It reminds you that you have a stake in speaking up in defence of the environment—a lonely battle if there ever was one, conducted by deeply committed and deeply vulnerable people who remind you of that iconic photograph of the student before the tank in Tiananmen Square.

When I was a kid, my tennis coach had one mantra: Come back to the centre of the court after every shot. Meditation aspires to the same thing. And being in the wilderness is a vivid enactment of it. We are animals, with animal instincts, animal needs, and animal dependencies, designed to live very differently from the way many of us do. Thank god for creature comforts, and thank god we have ways of protecting ourselves against the brutalities of nature. But it’s easy to forget that we come from it, and that its value is central, not peripheral, to our well-being.

So if you’re casting about for resolutions in the new pile of shit coming up, I recommend this: visit as many wildernesses as you can. They’re better than any spa, and you never know how long they’ll last. Happy new year.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Patriotism for dummies

A) You can’t force patriotic feelings. B) See A).  

(Published on December 3, 2016 in Business Standard)

These days there are so many reasons to hold one’s breath and count to ten that if we did it every time, we’d all get hypoxic and faint dead away. On the upside, that would save us from having to read things like the interim order just passed by the Supreme Court regarding the national anthem.

To recap, briefly, Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Amitava Roy issued an order making it compulsory for theatres to close doors and play the national anthem before every movie screening across India, and obliging audiences to stand for the duration. They said that this will inculcate patriotism and respect for the anthem. The order said that the anthem cannot be commercialised or dramatised.

What, you ask, are we still flogging that old horse? 

Apparently nothing says proud, free nation like corralling citizens into rooms to force them to love their country. It will create a virtuous cycle—every time Indians go to the movies in India, we will be reminded that we are Indians, in India, and that we love being Indians in India, and then maybe we won’t mind so much about being fully grown adults locked up in a room and told what songs to listen to.

“Be it stated,” reads the order, “a time has come, the citizens of the country must realize that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to National Anthem which is the symbol of the Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality. It does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights, that have individually thought of have no space. The idea is constitutionally impermissible. ” [Sic to all of that].

They used to play the national anthem before movie screenings, back when the Republic was young and raw, and people were still learning the tune and all the words. It was a good way to shore up a fragile new national identity, and it must have been an exhilarating reminder of our freedom.

But unless you’re worried about a couple of oldies here and there still harrumphing about how things ran better under the Raj, today you can safely assume that everyone is aware that we live in a self-governing country. Plenty of people, of course, do not feel that they have enough of a stake in the nation called India, and who protest and resist, quietly or loudly, verbally or through action, briefly or for lifetimes. They are constitutionally entitled to do that; the Constitution is set up to protect the rights of a minority of one. Indian democracy has always been a kaleidoscope of these pushes and pulls, agreements and disagreements, loves and hates. To say that now, suddenly, the time has come to realise that we live in a nation, after 70 years of nationhood, is jarring. To say that different notions and individual rights are constitutionally impermissible when it comes to the anthem is difficult to take seriously—worse, it’s antithetical to the Constitution.

The order flows from Article 51(a), the citizen’s fundamental duty to respect the flag and the anthem. But fundamental duties are not enforceable. Justice Misra interprets respect as everyone standing in a closed movie hall. A previous, much more sensible Supreme Court judgement by Justice Reddy said that respect simply means not disrupting the anthem. The difference between these two interpretations is a little something called choice.

There are two rules for patriotism: A) You can’t force patriotic feelings. B) See A).
If making a reluctant Indian stand were to miraculously fill her with love for the nation, Justice Misra might be on to something. But since it is impossible to force patriotic feelings, all this order will achieve is to make her think that the nation is repellently bossy. And that closed doors are a fire hazard.

There are many reasons why you may not want to stand for the anthem. Maybe you love your country but don’t like public displays of affection. Maybe you feel bullied because all you’re trying to do is watch a movie. Maybe you haven’t decided how you feel about nation-states. Maybe you don’t like being told what to do. Maybe you’re a true patriot, promoting democracy by defending the idea of choice. The point is, standing or sitting or doing handstands in the aisles has nothing to do with how you feel about your country. Let the standers stand; let the sitters sit. That’s democracy.

What would really suck is if, every time you’re at a movie, the anthem served not as an exhilarating  reminder of your freedom, but as depressing reminder that a part of your freedom has been revoked. But Indians before us have been though that, and they came up with an excellent response. It’s called civil disobedience.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The audacity of scope

Big dreams need better planning than this

(Published on November 19, 2016 in Business Standard)

It’s always fun to read about putrescent extravagances like the rumoured Rs 550 crore wedding that Karnataka mining tycoon and political crony Gali Janardhan Reddy just organised for his daughter. This one featured a Rs 17-crore bridal sari, Rs 5 crore invitations, and 50,000 guests including Karnataka BJP president BS Yeddyurappa, who is to financial propriety what kryptonite is to Superman. It’s superfun to read about it while standing in a five-hour-long queue for the ninth straight day to exchange Rs 2,000 suddenly worthless rupees for the day. It’s the kind of thing that brings a smile to one’s face in these dark times, even if it is kind of a psycho killer smile.

The Indian government commendably wants to honour one of its campaign promises by sucking out black money and corruption. But in the hyperbolic style of the Modi government, it is trying to do it with that most powerful of economic tools: metaphor. It’s a mahayagya, said Modi, a ‘festival of honesty’. It’s disgraceful to sell state policy through religion, but if you’re going to, remember that like all festivals, this one is a temporary respite until we get back to routine; and like all festivals, it’s going to make you feel good rather than actually change your life.

Targeting black money is a fine idea, and props to Prime Minister Modi for wanting to address the problem. Forget, for a minute, the critique that demonetisation is a high-impact, low-yield exercise that will do nothing to stop corruption. Give the government the benefit of doubt. Even then, when you decide to inconvenience 1.2 billion people, you’d better have thought your plan through, because intelligent planning is the difference between dreams and nightmares. The government has shown unforgivable irresponsibility in not foreseeing or planning for most the basic of problems. We now have new currency that ATMs are not configured to dispense, not enough lower denomination currency in the market to make change for Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes, and people are being tagged with indelible ink used for elections. Nobody is prepared for the crippling cash lockdown in 95% of the economy. And it is killing people.

As a relatively hale, time-rich, urban banking customer with four ATMs at five minutes’ walking distance, I can get by thanks to the plastic in my wallet, and standing in line endangers only my mood, not my livelihood. But 55 people (and counting) have died as a result of demonitisation, and many more have gone hungry. You would think that the only time state-directed action kills its citizens is as collateral damage in times of war, or when citizens have been handed a death sentence by a judicial process. Here, people are dying because creditable ambition is backed by incredible incompetence, because an exercise that needs years of planning has been unleashed in six months. What is this unseemly haste about, if not elections? The government’s argument that secrecy was necessary to avoid giving hoarders a heads up has been debunked by reports that many of the right people knew, including allegedly Messieurs Ambani and Adani.

The really striking feature of this demonetisation exercise is India’s tolerance for shabby governance. The more empowered you are, the less you’re willing to put up with stupid or inefficient policy. The less empowered you are, the higher your pain threshold, by necessity—and the more business and politics will take advantage of you. It speaks to the extent to which ordinary people despise the corrupt rich that so many are willing to put up with their present hardships to support the government. Good governance would value that spirit, and would plan as hard as possible to minimise that pain, instead of making a self-interested and frankly legally dodgy splash; floundering; and being reduced to making it up as it goes along.

“No honest tax-payer will lose a single rupee,” said power minister Piyush Goyal. That’s not true; hundreds of millions of honest tax-payers who legitimately pay zero tax, will be losing the money they might have made instead of standing in line.

There is no doubt that black money and corruption have screwed this country hard. There is no doubt that it has to be addressed. I would love to see this exercise succeed. But not at the cost of lives. The days of Pathankot, of JNU anti-nationalism, of beef murders—those were the good old days of calm, controlled, beautifully executed cock-ups—compared to the giant cowpat we now find ourselves in. Modi’s demonitisation isn’t upsetting the economic applecart—it is blowing it up, and screwing the shards into our eyes. Here’s hoping that it will get sorted sooner rather than later, with no more loss of life.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Not another pollution column

Yes, another pollution column

(Published on November 5, 2016 in Business Standard)

A friend hoped I wasn’t going to write on pollution this week, because he’s seen about 793 pieces on the subject in the last four days. Well, here’s no. 794.

Delhi’s pollution problem is encased in what author Douglas Adams called a Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) field—a device that can run for 100 years on a single torchlight battery because it is powered by people’s total refusal to see what they don’t expect or want to see. Ours is a huge and life-threatening problem, but it requires so much patient, consistent, incremental, consensus-building work to fix, that it is too crazy boring to think about. So we haven’t. 

It’s been like that for years. At the turn of the century the Supreme Court prodded the Delhi government into making one huge leap to CNG, dissipating the ominous black cloud that hung over the capital; but over the years, that progress has been rapidly overwhelmed by more people, more vehicles, more construction, more dust, and crop burning in surrounding states. Today, despite CNG and a popular and growing metro system, the air problem is just getting bigger, worsening every winter. Yet we just go about our lives buying more diesel cars, shopping harder, building more things without tamping down dust, and burning leaves and wood, as if it simply isn’t true that we’re at risk of debilitating disease, or death, just by virtue of breathing. And it’s not like you can opt out of breathing.

Nobody wanted to think about it. It’s as simple as that.

But nothing focuses the public’s attention like wretched health. Everyone’s SEP field is failing. Today, every Facebook and Twitter timeline is filled with screenshots of air quality monitoring device readings, maxed out on the post-Diwali airborne sludge that we have no choice but to breathe. People are exchanging information on where to get face masks, how this air purifier compares with that one, and how long they’ve been coughing and sneezing. People are gasping their way to the doctor only to be told, purifiers-schmurifiers—the only way back to health is to leave Delhi and live somewhere else.

Just pause here for a minute. The air is so toxic that doctors advise people with vulnerable health conditions to simply leave Delhi. There’s no way to say this gently: you have to be a complete moron to believe that development at this price is any development at all. It’s a source of enduring amazement to me that when Delhiites speak of quality of life, mobile phones and cars come up; domestic help and groceries delivered to the door come up; but almost nobody will mention clean air and clean water. What will come up is the ability to holiday in a place with clean air and water.

People without kids can rant and rave, wear face masks and agitate for clean air; or go barefaced into the yellow miasma without caring when or where we drop dead. But for those of us who reproduced, and are responsible for someone little and vulnerable, and for all of us who have ageing parents, we really don’t have an option.

Would you be okay with locking your kids into a smoke-filled room? Would you agree to force them to smoke several packets of cigarettes a day? Would you be okay with putting a hand over their mouths so that they have to struggle for breath? Because that’s what you’re effectively doing by putting up an SEP field around Delhi air. If your answer to those questions is no, you have a duty to stand up and demand that everyone—government and citizens—work together to find a solution.

This is a long-standing public health emergency in the capital of India. That is, at best, embarrassing—but we no longer have the luxury of focusing on the best. When the AAP came to power, I had hoped that it would make cleaning up Delhi air its top priority. This season, as PM 2.5 levels in Delhi rocket off the charts, the health minister tweeted something to the effect that he would set up a committee to form other committees to look into it—I’d suspect him of gallows humour if governments had a sense of humour. The AAP’s failure to take serious anti-pollution steps ranks as its biggest, most damning failure.

Delhi can recognise and demand a minimum quality of life; or we can decide that we don’t mind living in an unliveable cesspit as long as we have shiny new malls and great cars and money—that, like cockroaches, we can thrive in filthy conditions.

But if we don’t get real now, we won’t have a choice. We’re completely out of time.  

Friday, October 28, 2016

The god-awful state of secularism

When it’s the thought that counts, but not in a good way

(Published on October 22, 2016 in Business Standard)

What’s left of our rationality took another tooth-loosening blow in Mathura the other day. One morning, according to newspaper reports, several dozen Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, and other Hindutva activists showed up at the Bindu Seva Sansthan Ashram, and made round eyes and scary teeth at its leader, Swami Balendu, because the Swami had organised a meeting of—wait for it—atheists. The activists felt that the godless have no business meeting in their extremely goddy town.

So far, it’s your garden variety, lunatic fringe problem. What really matters is that the police officials who accompanied the activists backed them up, saying that the Swami and his godless guests were on their own in case of a law and order problem. It is not clear, from the reports, whether or not there followed a moment of silence during which everyone looked at their feet and wondered what, then, the police is for, exactly. Going with the flow, the Mathura administration withdrew the permission they had previously granted for the meeting. Atheists were harassed and warned not to write about all this on social media. Needless to say, the meeting was cancelled.

That marks a new low in the tedious god-bothering that is spreading like a nasty fungus across the land. Zealous religion has always made a nuisance of itself—people shutting down art exhibitions, burning books, breaking things, roughing up other people, rioting and so on—but now we’re manufacturing stupidity at a dizzying rate. Back in the good old days, it took paintings of nude gods to enrage the sanctimonious. Now, disavowing religion is enough. Rationality is enough.

That’s because if there isn’t a god to dictate your life to you via a priest/prophet/rabbi/some other amanuensis, you might actually start using your brain and coming up with thoughts of your own, thereby disempowering those who like to control your politics.

And this is political—it has nothing to do with spirituality, that private, individual thing that requires no external validation or agreement. When administrative mechanisms—like the police—align with a majoritarian religious agenda, facilitating social veto and citing law and order problems as a reason to not maintain law and order, we are well on the way to losing our collective marbles. And to being a horribly pious, violent, fearful, brainless, boring country.

The Samajwadi Party’s pathetic law and order track record in Uttar Pradesh is a fabulous self goal, since it allows thuggish elements—including, but not limited to, the Sangh Parivar—to take swift advantage of the power and developmental vacuum, currently with an eye on the 2017 polls. But then, the attack on rationality is not limited to one state’s poor law enforcement. It’s coming directly from the Centre.

Religion has always been treated with kid gloves in India, thanks to the Congress’s weakness for its vote-gathering potential. But it is being weaponised by the Sangh, and loaded on to the super-efficient delivery mechanisms of nationalism, education, and government dictat. The Sangh doesn’t understand the first thing about freedom—the freedom to question, to express yourself, to worship or not, to ridicule, to debate. It hates independent rational thought, because its very specific vision of India is one in which everyone is emotionally blackmailed into remaining cooperatively in their ordained place in the power pyramid, in return for having more money in their wallets.

Street muscle and mixed messaging is therefore very efficiently ripping secularism out of the Constitution. Some things, we are being told, are beyond question—including the list of such things. Hinduism. Nationalism. The armed forces. Power. Rich people. Money. The national interest. Development. The national honour. All of these newly sacralised things were vigorously questioned by the same people, when they were not in power.

So it’s wildly funny to watch the Sangh invoke the Constitution to demand a uniform civil code on the grounds of equality. I happen to agree with the idea of a UCC, but only as long as it rips religion out of politics. Keep the state out of the house of worship, the bedroom, the hospital, the funeral, the wedding, and the family, except to ensure individual rights and law and order; let people opt in to religion or nationalism or the family structure if they wish to, and ensure that the state backs up their guaranteed individual rights if they wish not to. Lift the inviolability of ‘family’ law and expose it to the scrutiny of the Constitution. Strike down triple talaq as well as the laws on cow slaughter; abolish Muslim polygamy as well as tax breaks to the Hindu joint family. Uphold the right to worship anything, and the right not to worship anything. Be truly equal.

But that’s as fanciful as the idea of god, because in Sanghese, equal means ‘some more than others’.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Patriot games

In which cynicism preys on sentiment, and everyone loses.

(Published on October 8, 2016 in Business Standard)

On a recent television debate, actor Om Puri stuck up for Pakistani actors working in Bollywood, and said that nobody forces soldiers to sign up to the Army. The ensuing tide of vitriol caused him to apologise for those remarks:

“‘I am guilty and I deserve a punishment. I want to be tried by the army, I should be court-martialled. I want a constructive punishment,’ Puri said. ‘The army should teach me how to use weapons and send me on the same site where that brave man was [sic] sacrificed himself for the country. I don’t want to be forgiven. I am pleading to the nation I want to be punished.’”

It’s so over the top that it sounds like a satirical comment on the idiocy of having to apologise at all. Like: “I’ve been a bad, bad elf. Please allow me to stand in the corner in a dustbin, banging my head repeatedly against the wall, while our demigods in uniform punch me in the kidneys. Broadcast it live. Hey, do you have rusty nails, burning coals, broken glass, anything? I’d really like to crawl through that.”

But maybe Mr Puri was being genuine. Either way, the takeaway is that the most pressing national issue is to figure out whether something can be read as an insult to the nation, and then, depending on the answer, read it as an insult to the nation anyway, and throw an eye-watering tantrum until people coddle you just to shut you up—or, more malignantly, because otherwise you will blacklist, beat, or kill them. You don’t want that, because we are also a country in which law-abiding citizens are told that the police will not be held responsible if criminals do them harm.

That’s what happened to actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who had a role in a Ramleela in Uttar Pradesh. The Shiv Sena said a Muslim can’t act in a Hindu story, and the police said they couldn’t do anything about any consequent trouble, so the organisers asked him to pull out. Law is ceding ground to de facto power: social behaviour is increasingly being regulated by social threat or violence. The Sena must be thrilled to be spreading its communal poison beyond Maharashtra, but the BJP can take credit for softening up the territory.

After all, it’s UP—ground zero for the cow/beef vigilantism sparked by Mohammed Akhlaq’s murder last year. In Dadri this week, a man jailed in that case died of illness. His body is laid out in public, wrapped in the Indian flag. Is the message that he served the nation by murdering a Muslim—whose son serves in the Air Force? It’s a grotesque, criminal fudging of issues, cynicism preying on sentiment.

What of the people whose job it is to play watchdog, to separate truth from the smoke and mirrors? In India today, if you’ll pardon the expression, too many news anchors have abandoned that role to function like the government’s PR department. When Arnab Goswami says that questioning military action indicts one’s patriotism—that there should be no room for nuance in this black-and-white issue—he is no longer a journalist. But then news anchors have long jostled for patriotic cred, when they should have been reminding India that patriotism is not a requirement for citizenship, nor is playing along with calls for unity—however patriotism and unity are defined in that moment. And in this moment, patriotism and unity are being defined as unquestioning worship of the armed forces. Self-styled patriot anchors are leading witch hunts when they should be pointing out that the armed forces are as fallible and open to question as anyone else, and that questions are not the same as insults. Instead, they have helped popularise the term ‘martyr’ for a soldier killed in action, apparently innocent of the religious connotations of the word. A dead jihadi is a martyr. A dead Indian soldier is a professional who served the state and is publicly mourned.

That’s the stunning achievement of two and a half years of this government—a political bait-and-switch, selling a promise of economic development, and delivering a triumphalist machine that sacralises country, nationalism, majoritarianism and tradition, to achieve Hindutva goals. Secular institutions and ideas are being given non-negotiable religious weight. Religion has handcuffed rationality and put a gun to its head, and individual rights are being socially delegitimised.

When insecurity makes sweet, sweet love to mindless team spirit and overblown regard for power, the child of that union is hyper-nationalism, and it’s a spoiled brat whose parents rush to fulfil its every wish. This emotional pap is very handy at election time—you have only to look at the posters coming up in Uttar Pradesh, of the Prime Minister pictured as a warrior.

But there’s another way to fight for your country: You can just refuse to give up your brain.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Unsent letters

Mad at Pakistan? Writing it down helps cool the brain

(Published today in Business Standard)

Dear Pakistani state,

In diplomatic terms, as we all know, you’re a sovereign power, an ally of both the US and China, and an important player in the fight against terrorism. In reality, though, as we all know, you’re a regional nuisance, and a massive pain in the neck of the world.

You could be best known for your ancient historical sites, your music, wildly popular television soaps, good food, and wonderful writers. But your defining cultural export, today, is religious fundamentalist terrorism.

You behave like the jobless, emotionally unstable neighbourhood resident who spends his days drinking and thrashing his family, and his nights setting fire to the neighbours’ cats. When called to account, you lie about it loudly, while stroking your nukes.

All this makes you difficult to like; a BBC poll a couple of years ago placed you second to the bottom on a list of favourably viewed countries. But then, you aren’t in a popularity contest. You’re too busy acting out childhood traumas, like the perennial adolescent who can never get over blaming his parents. Go ahead and make blustering speeches at the UN—everyone remembers you for stuff like Mumbai 26/11, and hosting Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. You keep talking about how Pakistanis are the greatest sufferers of terrorism, but not only do you gladly harbour vipers like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, you enthusiastically defend them; and your poisonous terror training camps attract jihad-happy wannabes from all over the world.

You get away with sponsoring terrorism in India because the option to this endless, blood-soaked tit-for-tat is for India to go full-on postal—and we don’t want to do that, because we’re not mental. Your low-grade tactics are enough to keep us bleeding, but not enough to provoke war. You know perfectly well that it if came to that, if it came to full-on postal, mental, stupid, unnecessary, conventional war, you would lose.

Yet, you suggest that India is killing its own soldiers to make Pakistan look bad. It makes you sound nuts—but after years of playing the aggrieved whiner, all you can really do is pretend that you like riding your hand-reared tiger-turned-maneater. No matter what the world says, no matter what the evidence, no matter how much it costs your own country, you’ll keep going back to your nasty little theocratic-geopolitical project, glorifying death, spreading terror among innocents, provoking contempt and fury, and bringing the consequences of your bloodlust down mostly on the shoulders of your own citizens. Because you don’t seem to know any other way to be.

Cheers, and go stick your head in a bucket, 

Dear India,

Well, it felt good to say all that. Now for us.

All you patriots raring to ‘teach Pakistan a lesson’—I really can’t think of a more self-defeating way to honour the dead soldiers in Uri than to send a ton more live ones off to get killed. Quit screaming for them to be sent to slaughter just because you’re feeling righteous, sitting in the news studio or on the internet in your civvies. You’re confusing having a tantrum with looking manly. If you’re feeling patriotic, go to a military recruitment office and sign up your own butt.

To the military: We appreciate everything you do for us civilians. Nobody’s perfect, and soldiers risk their lives by definition; losses are inevitable. But we need to know that you’re doing your very best by our soldiers, from equipment to infrastructure to intelligence to training to command. From what we’re hearing in the aftermath of the Uri attack, it’s not clear that this is true—and if it is, then your best is not yet good enough. Pathankot is still fresh in our minds. The point is not to berate the military—what do I know, sitting on the internet in my civvies? But I can, in my civvies, justifiably ask what the military is doing to maximise our soldiers’ chances in a dangerous part of the world.

As for our politicians: Nobody is forgetting that you don’t help with your handling of Kashmir, where you seek to quell with brute force, instead of working to win over an understandably disgruntled population. Now that the Prime Minister finds himself squeezed between rashly muscular electoral promises and considerably more nuanced ground realities, we can only hope that he will find an ‘Indian’ enough virtue in a measured response, even if it exposes his rabid hyper-nationalism project for the hollow, dangerous sham that it is, even if it turns hothead political friends into hothead political enemies.

Pakistan lives to provoke, but we have much more to gain from standing down from a position of untenable aggression and putting our own house in order instead.


Peacenik citizen

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The extempore has no clothes

But that’s the least of our problems

(Published on September 10, 2016 in Business Standard)

On the subject of Jain monk Tarun Sagar’s much-glorified extempore speech to the Haryana Assembly, I’m okay with the naked bit. Monastic nudity is a powerful statement about detachment and spiritual striving, and it takes enormous commitment to walk around naked in a clothed world. Good for him. Course, it would be a much more convincing philosophical stand if Jain nuns also walked around naked, since they are also spiritually striving humans, but then religion is very clear about what it thinks of women and their bodies. Whatever—I’m okay with Tarun Sagar going starkers. But that’s the least important part of the whole thing, and it only clouds the issue.

It is nothing short of pathetic for a religious figure, no matter how little or how much clothed, to a) be invited into a house of secular democracy against the rules, and b) deliver a speech about how politics must be subservient to religion—like a wife to a husband. Instead of a howl of protest from lawmakers, whom you might expect to most cleave to their own powers, we got only oily enabling, in the form of a raised dais for Tarun Sagar. By the way, he was invited to speak by the education minister. #Facepalm.

When hapless Vishal Dadlani tweeted his disgust of the whole matter, packs of god-botherers immediately jumped down his throat and filed a police case for hurting religious sentiments. Instead of lawyering up and standing for the right to criticise religion and religious leaders, a right which needs to be repeated often and loudly, he put out a statement of cloying contrition and praise for Tarun Sagar’s ‘magnanimity’ in ‘forgiving’ him. While that’s disappointing, I don’t judge Dadlani—it takes so much time, energy, and resources to fight stupid court cases, that you can’t begrudge anyone for choosing not to sacrifice their peace of mind.

But surely somebody has to? Surely that’s what the state, which serves the Constitution and is meant to uphold the law, is meant to do? Fat chance. You couldn't hear yourself think for all the sanctimonious tut-tutting from Arvind Kejriwal and co. And while the opposition cried foul on Tarun Sagar’s speech, it was about what he said more than the fact that he was allowed in. At the end of the day, every single political party is a devoted boot-licker of religion and religious leaders. So don’t be counting on the police or the local MLA to help you out should you find yourself faced with an army of religious zombies clutching FIRs.

But it’s infuriating, and saddening. When did India become the place where religious leaders give speeches that politicians say cannot be criticised? Where a whole area in Mumbai has to restrict its diet because of one religious festival? Where the game Pokemon Go is slapped with blasphemy and hurting religious sentiments because it features virtual eggs at virtual places of worship? Because yes, that happened, hitting world headlines. Just remember, Hindu nationalists, that just because the world shakes our hand and invites us to parties and signs deals with us, doesn’t mean it isn’t pointing at us and laughing.

We’ve hit a whole new level of religious crazy. It’s not elevated, it’s not sacred, it’s not spiritually evolved, it’s not worthy of reverence and respect—it’s just flat-out crazy. And our leaders are too invested, too calculating, too venal, and too irresponsible, to call it out. As a nation we seem to be pivoting away from rationality and problem-solving, towards the anti-intellectual path of docility and problem-avoidance. Why are courts even admitting complaints like the Pokemon Go case? Aren’t we supposed to be interpreting law to expand rather than constrain freedom, and promote rather than undermine scientific temper?

But that principle seems like a long time ago, before religion became a pillar of state policy—unofficial, unsaid, but fully expressed. To sow religion in politics is to reap low-hanging fruit. it’s just too tempting for politicians to ignore.

Meanwhile, all the unctuous hypocrisy about respecting all religions is plain damaging. I don’t, particularly—religions strike me as overhyped spiritual-political pacifiers, administered by spiritual-political pacifier salespeople. I have no beef with them either, as long as they don’t try to impose themselves on me, and stay within regulated noise limits. But until Indians can not just criticise but lampoon religion, make comedy out of religious leaders, write or film factual and analytical work on religions and their leaders, respect people instead of religions, and develop a healthy skepticism of ‘stature’ and holiness, we will be at the mercy of whichever soft-headed bigot or autocrat manages to gain power.

Keep religion out of politics, for (as they say) god’s sake.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

House of horrors

(Published in Business Standard today.) 

On Wednesday this week, a tribal man in Odissa started walking from a hospital, where his wife had died, towards their village 60-odd kilometres away, carrying her corpse on his shoulder. This wasnt their tribal custom. It wasnt a protest. He wasnmaking a point. He simply had no other way of bringing the body home. He didnt have the wherewithal to negotiate the bureaucracy and fees necessary to avail of an ambulance, and the hospital said it couldnt help him, so he just wrapped his wifes body in a cloth and started walking home with his teenaged daughter by his side. They had covered 12km in six hours before someone intervened and summoned an ambulance.

According to various news reports, the hospital denied that it stonewalled Dana Majhis requests for help. The district collector said that as soon as she heard, she released Rs 2,000 under a government scheme set up to ensure that the poor can cremate their dead, and why didnt he wait? The day after the story broke, the  Orissa state government finally launched its scheme to make a vehicle available to the poor to transport a body home

When Majhi set off on his excruciating walk, he wasnt trying to prove anything, but he did: he proved that even in the face of bereavement, the most natural reflex of Indian officialdom towards the poor is apathy, dismissiveness, denial, severity, passing the buck, finger-pointing, and perhaps a spasm of belated official guilt. It is not attention or service to its people, and it shows an almost pathological inability or unwillingness to empathise. Faced with the distress of the poor, the state either snaps at the sufferer, or shrugs its shoulders, or both. This same Indian officialdom has a completely different natural reflex in the face of money and clout: in that case, it excels at embarrassing servility and unnecessary pomp. 

Dana Majhis walk home is a shrivelling indictment of our humanity and of our priorities.

The outrage of the week, according to the internets most active outrageists, was reserved for the fact that after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said that Pakistan is hell, actor and member of parliament Ramya said that Pakistan is not hell. For this, she has has been accused of sedition (because how dare she appreciate enemies of India). That tells you everything you need to know about how far from rationality we have allowed ourselves to drift. But leave the lunatics aside for a minute. 

What strikes me again and again is how, in the face of physical and emotional atrocity, the poor present their cases. I cannot count the number of times Ive watched a television news report, or a film, in which someone who has lived through the most egregious horror, reports it to the camera with an affect so flattened by shock and grief that they might as well be reading a script about someone halfway around the world. We may be a nation that suckles at the melodrama-filled breast of Bollywood, but our most aggrieved people are deadpan, scorched by horror.

And there are so many horrors. One category is politically engineered. I remember a documentary on the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013screened two years ago and since then effectively bannedin which villagers described their experience of the Jat-Muslim violence that preceded the general election of May 2014. Person after person described how their spouse or children or other family members were caught, beaten, stabbed, cut to pieces, doused with petrol and set alight. They pointed to the spots where these things happened, and spoke from a place of such emotional devastation that it could be mistaken for composure. 

But another, more pervasive category of horror, is the permanent crisis of dealing with life from a position of abject poverty and disempowerment, and being either swatted away, or entirely ignored, by those whose job it is to help. This is the horror that isnt tucked neatly away behind a denied certification from the Central Board of Film Certification, but that laps at the door of every home, office, and institution in the country. This is where sufferers of personal loss like Dana Majhi are further bloodied by being denied a little dignity, yet do not have the emotional resources to do anything but simply get on with it.

And the third category of horror is that this is the kind of country we can be: increasingly obsessed with commanding the worlds respect, and still unable to confer any on each other. When we speak of that, it doesnt matter whether it is melodramatically or with composure. What matters is that we speak of it. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Happy 70th to us

We’re young, so why do we feel so outdated?

(Published on August 13, 2016 in Business Standard)

Well here we are, another year older. A country at 70 is just a spring chicken, and most of our citizens are young. The world is constantly describing us as rising, emerging, growing, exciting, and promising. So why, then, does it so often feel as if we’re being governed by old men, wielding old ideas, for old goals?

Did you think, o people of India, that on our 70th birthday, after the tech boom and the Internet revolution and our own mission to Mars, after Sunny Leone and live-in relationships and globalisation, we would find ourselves sitting around yelling at each other about cows? Me neither. On the other hand it’s also after the 2014 election, so actually, me too.

There were two upsides to that election. First, the thin skin of modernity that we had grown under the tired UPA government was ripped right off. Now we’re staring at our ugly obsession with cows, temples, jingoism, and chauvinism, wrapped up in the see-through cling-film of ‘development’. This usefully demonstrated that a significant number of us are still rooted in cultural and political paradigms that are anti-democratic and anti-constitutional. That makes part of me want to throw up, but another part of me is grimly delighted. Only when the facts are so in your face can you stop pretending that they don’t exist, and maybe start addressing them.

Second, like the tragicomic act that is Donald Trump in the United States, we have seen our political leaders give full-throated voice to our basest, lowest instincts, widely felt but officially under wraps. The leaders making these statements are not just fringe groups and maverick affiliates, but members of Parliament, cabinet ministers, and party leaders. We’ve seen them call for murder and exile, for rape, for beheadings and incarceration, for death and chaos, for hatred and animosity. This is not new to Indian politics, but it is now official. How do you explain the fact that the Prime Minister, on Twitter, follows and felicitates some of the trolls whose job it is to repeat and amplify the ugliest of these calls? In what universe is a leader like that the hope of the nation? So now we are well acquainted with the quality of our leadership.

In the US, Trump has led the charge to say unsayable things, held to be unsayable because they are noxiously anti-human, anti-pluralist, and anti-peace. In India, the BJP has led the same kind of charge. But in India, we have another category of unsayable things. They are unsayable, inexplicably, because they promote dignity, equality, and human rights. Saying them would discredit the rotted bits of our foundations, so that we can rebuild better. Our hope for a more peaceful, equitable future depends on our saying them.

We should be saying that religion is the worst of all political tools, and that tradition is not sacrosanct by virtue of being tradition. It can and should be subject to critique and law. God-bother and cow-bother as much as you like privately, but when Haryana raises and maintains a security force devoted to cow protection, and starts to give out government identity cards to gau-rakshaks, that is akin to validating vigilantism, and privileging one religion. It is also very funny—the amount of serious time we’re spending on cows and cow poop and cow piss makes me weep with laughter.

We should be saying that this culture of which we are proud, the one that has stood for eons, the one we are showcasing to the world—this culture of ours is vile in many ways. We are vile in our racism, our obsession with caste purity and pollution, our insecurity about social position and power, and our easy comfort with all kinds of unconscionable inequalities. We are vile in our sexism, in our aggression, and in our casual cruelties. We are vile in the ostentatious, hollow piety we use to hedge against our venality, corruption and greed. We are vile in our anti-intellectualism, and the stupid, muddle-headed thinking that results. We are vile in perpetuating oppression and screaming treason at those who point it out. We are vile in our treatment of Kashmiris, of citizens in the Northeast, and of the disempowered everywhere amongst us. We are vile in our acceptance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s rule by proxy.

Saying things like this is not the end of our relationship with what is good in us—it is the point where we can begin to nurture what is good in us, and start to be better. I can’t wait to see what the very silent Prime Minister has to say from the ramparts of the Red Fort this year.

So happy birthday, India! Maybe life begins at 70.