Columns: Sunday Mid-Day

I wrote a regular column for Sunday Mid-Day for a while. Here they are. Click on the links for the entire column.

Imagining a tweet-based world:

Henceforth, all important communication in India should happen only through Twitter. It’s already begun. We found out what to do if people want to protest against a protest against Shah Rukh Khan (wear a T-shirt and go watch his movie), which part of the airplane Shashi Tharoor prefers (the front) and where Lalit Modi goes to get his vilified toes massaged (a spa). But, like all things in India, this is not enough. Twitter’s reach in our country needs to grow faster than the list of Tiger Woods’ mistresses. Here are a few suggestions on how. 

On Jeffrey Archer:

In the 1980s, it was impossible to find a single domestic Indian Airline flight ferrying an audience that ranged from mid-level bureaucrats to Doordarshan actors to the LIC chairman, not reading some Archer book (Kane and Abel perhaps the favourite). For full disclosure, I once had the good fortune of sitting near ex-India wicket-keeper (and hearing aid ad model) Syed Kirmani, as he enjoyed an Archer. Like Old Monk rum, or Pink Floyd, Archer swept through India’s elite bungalows, middle class flats and Rajdhani compartments. He was Chetan Bhagat before Chetan Bhagat.  
I’ve always enjoyed the privileged English world of Mr Archer’s books, the oak-panelled Cambridge parliamentarians, the brandy-drinking club members, the media tycoon’s last hurrah sailing the Mediterranean, a rarefied world of wealth, power and English reserve, mixed with a bit of soap opera and globe-trotting. It seemed juicy dirt on the rich and famous, and it was wildly exciting if you owned a Contessa (remember that?) and still ate smuggled Toblerone. 

On our love for fiction:

Hemingway once said, “We only live in a world that we make up”. Whether there is or is not, we would like to believe, and thereby have come to accept, an India beneath the one we see.  

Examples being, so and so movie legend has an unstoppable sexual appetite outside his marriage, so and so business tycoon is gay and holidays with his lover in the Andamans. It ranges from the absurd to the wildly fantastic. Recently someone said, “X journalist is having an affair with Y CEO and he has built a tunnel to get to her house”, or, “ABC flamboyant billionaire has a bed that becomes a diving board, so at the press of a button, he can slide into his pool and frolic with models” or “Y producer is so scared of an underworld hit that he has a pole next to his bed (like Batman) so he can slide into his car and escape. His car knows”. Of course, none of the narrators have seen any of these first-hand, but are completely certain of their source. “Someone who was with him told me,” is a common reply. Of course, what this source is doing close to a man sliding down into a pool or between homosexuals at a beach holiday, will poke holes into a basic fantasy, that’s unfair to destroy.

On connectivity:

I got off a plane in New York recently and I told myself, I have got off a plane in New York, this is 2010 and I must do something state-of-the-art and hip and cool because I’ve got off this plane. In New York. So I pulled out my Blackberry, no acknowledgement to the fact that I had landed 10,000 miles away from Mumbai in a new place and immediately, there within my phone, was a familiar world. A world that negated distances and rendered places meaningless. By which I mean, I could get the latest news from Indian papers or the New York Times, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, sms about life, meetings, conversations, plans, things I had missed, to and from my New York friends and everywhere else. I was connected to the world like I had never left. I was so cool. Breezing out of the airport, one light bag in a city I knew reasonably, Blackberry in hand, such a busy person and so comfortably assimilating into world cities in seconds. I thought to myself, I look like those business guys in cologne ads. Then something happened that made all this coolness meet reality. I fell into a ditch. And it served me right. 

Encounters with Apple:

Stephen Fry, the British comedian, in his introduction to the new iPad suggested that not only has Apple divided the world into believers and non-believers, (The Economist compared Steve Jobs to God, calling the latest gadget, “The Book of Job”), it has also created a world that’s changed what a consumer is. Fry says “Apple doesn’t ask its customers what they want. It tells you what you will want next”.  

And by a natural extension of that, Apple has not created a computer, it has created a way of life. 

On new-age yoga teachers:

Any sort of motivational speaker, mind, body, spiritual, healing, business, religion, etc. always come in for criticism because essentially he’s selling you ideas. And the cynic and critic in all of us think, “Oh that’s a bunch of gibberish, I could do that”, like someone seeing contemporary art. What further complicates it is that the message (if non-business motivation) is often around the self above stuff, contentment above material possessions, except, later, you see the person giving that message at a VIP IPL box seat, or flying first class or hobnobbing with CEO’s at Davos. As a friend explained of a world famous Bengali yoga guru in Los Angeles, “He came in silver thong underwear, shouted at a 1,000 disciples in an accent no one understood, thrust his pelvis, showed a video of himself and Bono, and left in a Porsche with a blonde Playboy model.”  One could argue, if that’s the art-of-living, that’s pretty good, a thong wearing Bengali billionaire with a supermodel girlfriend, but the problem is, his central message says, “Happiness above wealth”. Clearly when applied to self, the above is replaced with is.

When East is West and West is East:

I made a joke among some friends abroad saying the only reason I travel to the West once in a while is to find out what’s going on in India. It would be a ridiculous statement to make but as the years go by and the idea of geography crumbles, it is, frighteningly (or superbly, depending on your values) true. All television channels that beam into homes locally, from NDTV to Colors, beam into Indian homes now from Australia to San Francisco. 

On Maradona:

He’s wanted by 4 different countries’ police for crimes ranging from hiding narcotics while disguised as a nun to trying to run with race horses at a Derby. He’s the object of gushing praise by people as diverse as Mandela, the Pope, the novelist Martin Amis and Osama Bin Laden.  And if you’re as old as some of us are to watch it, in 1986, he created the greatest 29 seconds of football the world had even seen when he dribbled past the entire English defense alone to score a goal. Even Prince Charles remarked, “no one had torn through our defenses like that since the German blitzkrieg in 1941”. That man was Diego Maradona.

On modern India:

Rich countries don’t do daily socio-economic analysis. If you’re already rich, you don’t have to think about your country; it can take care of itself. You can think about your sexuality or discuss with your shrink if “your mind is in a good space” (whatever that means). Rarely will someone at a middle class American dinner party say, “Hilton built a new 5-star hotel in Shanghai — what a great day for America” whereas someone at our dinner parties will, (and with cause), say, “Taj is making India proud in New York with The Pierre.” When there’s sudden prosperity in a single generation from a nation of vast poverty strung along on IMF grants to an economic powerhouse demanding things at G20, everything, from a corporate merger to an Oscar for sound engineering, is seen as a national victory. If your country is in a good space, your mind will follow. 

These conversations usually start when we’ve exhausted the other three topics that enter all upper middle class dinner chats under the guise of national analysis — The size of the new Ambani home, if Rahul Gandhi is single and The Bachchan family intrigues. 

On old-school cool:

Recent news stories about George Fernandes, once Defense Minister, confirms only one thing — that he is a rock star. For consideration, this is a man, who, sadly, in the dusk of his years, has Alzheimer’s and is certifiably, as is the characteristic of this disease, losing his mind.   One would think that at this point in his life, friends and family would tend to care for such a person with a mix of respect, sympathy and duty. Not so here. 

While our single men desperately try to understand what women find cool, rushing to gel hair, buy  Blackberries and look thoughtful at art galleries, Mr Fernandes lies in bed, in his mid-eighties, barely able to speak, but has not one, but two women, in a very public battle, just wanting to spend time with him. Ranbir Kapoor should take notes. 

On tall buildings:

In the ’70s, how high you went was a symbol of how rich your country was. That’s what was made fashionable. It made sense that the Americans built the World Trade Towers, The Wrigley Building in Chicago, Sears, and San Francisco’s Trans-America Pyramid. Even the Europeans, who thrived on stone castles and old stuff got into the theme. The terrorists used that logic to target The World Trade Center, that if they could bring down two of the tallest American buildings, they could somehow symbolise bringing down her might.  And as a symbolic gesture, people in the developing world understood what harm was meant. But that symbol meant less to Americans because some time in the ’90s, they stopped associating height with might. Either they lost interest or it was not worth it anymore. So for the last 15-20 years, as the west started pushing little compact eco-friendly four-storey buildings that conserve energy, we, the new world, were left with the philosophy of building higher to show we’ve arrived. Except, no one is playing with us.  It’s like when the gambler who was winning walks away from the table just when you’ve shown up to challenge him. 

On Indian legalese:

I sent the legal language to a professor friend of mine there with a double PhD in English Literature and History and this was his email reply. “I have no idea what this says. I think it’s something to do with someone stealing a gate? I have not seen language like this since the decrees of Charles II. No one has used Hereunder or Wheresoever after 1720. Where did you find this? Which museum?”

As a senior barrister explained to me, “For years, in small towns, you could win any case just by speaking fluent Queen’s English. It did not matter what you were saying, as long as there were big words pronounced well”.  

On Indian English:

Maybe there is logic to wanting a piece of one’s colonial history that was stolen. If, that is, one wants to avoid all shifts in socio economics in the last 100 years and cling onto the simple logic of a child that all colonisers were thieves. But the same childish logic can be applied if Mr Cameron said please give us back the railways, the civil service, Luyten’s Delhi and this language we are speaking in. Now, apart from the second one which may not be bad to return, the others seem critical to who we are. Except, if we returned English to him, he may not recognise it as the one they left behind. 

Here then, is a glossary of terms from our English… .

On the Commonwealth Games fiasco:

A thousand acronyms have been scrolling across television screens. Some legendary ones are thus; CWGOC says to PMO, No CC or else Affidavit or a more baffling, CWGC to AM, TELL US; JUNIOR CLERK AT UKHC, WHERE ARE YOU? 

No these are not ramblings of a deranged person, it’s our media out to prove their diligence in exposing the deepest petty detail of wrong doing – missing paperwork, relatives of people in power getting benefits, contracts gotten through favours, sheer mass bribery, general nepotism etc. Now of course all of this is wrong, and of course at a simple level one could argue that it is the press’s job to point this out to us, but we should take a second to remember this is our country with it’s history of complications where, as an old man said to me, “Son, everyone is a thief. Or if they are not, they have been accused of being one”.  

Inspired by Eat, Pray, Love:

Now, not to be facetious about Ms. Roberts’ intentions, but many cynics have claimed her calling is oddly well-timed with the movie’s promotion where her character visits an ashram in India (and is picked up by a dashing man, which frankly, should happen more at ashrams). It fits in well with the relaxed image of Hinduism in western liberal thought (yoga, Kama Sutra, 60s music, Vishnu T-shirts) which then fits in well with an idea in the book itself, and in books like these, that contain a frightening three word sentence — self-healing journey. 
Immediately, one thinks of river trips, spas in Kerala, music involving some sort of dropping water, mud massages, someone whispering nonsense like “to become whole, release the sum of your parts”. Hindus cannot be far away. West of the Suez Canal, the word does not evoke Nitin Gadkari sweating at BJP rallies. 

On the private lives of politicians:

A similar situation unfolded some years ago in another society well-known for romance both, scandalous and pure — France. No black and white French film in the history of cinema has ended promoting monogamy. In fact, quite the opposite is widely encouraged. Like the line from a Goddard film where a typical French gentleman is asked, “Are you happily married, sir?” “I certainly am. You can ask my mistress”. There’s of course, the great legend from Francois Mitterrand’s funeral where, unspoken, a tussle ensued between his legal wife and both his mistresses, on who got to stand closest to his body (the second mistress won. She was the youngest, and naturally, most photogenic). Earlier, when an American President was accused of infidelity with an intern, the French could not understand what all the hype was about. “In my country, we don’t call this cheating, we call this life,” a Parisian with a thin moustache (naturally) explained. 

In anticipation of the Ayodhya verdict:

The case being heard is a civil case about the origins of a piece of land. Now, in a country where most property papers (including where one lives) are missing or litigated, finding out a leave and licence agreement from 3rd century AD should not be hard, our courts assume. Not to mention, with a Sensex at 20,000, a secular booming economy fueled by 600 million 25 year-olds of all religions, a mostly free, if somewhat, insane press, a billion people of every faith and literacy levels voting (take that, China), what was critical now was not to keep moving, but to stop. And look for a title deed with Babur’s signature.

To do this, courts brought in a crack team of hi-tech specialists known as the Archaeological Survey of India, whose members are often older than the archaeological sites they excavate, and whose last mark on the nation seems to have been to paint every important heritage structure a horrid pink.  

On the newest breed of expats in India:

There is, however, an entirely new demographic plopping themselves in the middle of these multinational gatherings. With the West’s 12 per cent unemployment and 0 per cent growth, as people run out of work options, the New York and  London Indian thinks on his feet and asks to be moved to the only economy his firm sees hope in. “We are trying out India for a while, just for the experience. I mean, so many New York Times articles and stuff, you know,” said our expat-accented banker from earlier. Another expat returnee whispered, “What he’s not telling you is that his only other choice was being fired. So, when he says ‘a while’, he means, for good”. 

On our love for superlatives:

God is thrown out a lot in relation to people. Sachin Tendulkar is equated whenever he is amidst runs, like at present. A number of Three Idiots film reviews ended with, Raju Hirani is God. A leading national magazine cover went even further — it had Rahul Dravid raising his bat during some match- winning feat in Australia in 2004 — and the text just said God in capitals.

Now, I don’t know much about the workings of the heavens, but something tells me, however you view the Almighty’s daily schedule, creating shady private cricket leagues or a double century or making films loosely based on Chetan Bhagat books might be a slightly lower priority for Him that created the world. 


In anticipation of Barack Obama’s India visit:

Abe Lincoln once said, “There are some great men who have this voice, this elegant composure — it doesn’t matter if they have the qualification to lead a country — they should be given one”. Obama’s qualified and has one. 

Of course, it’s troubled times. And the heroic voice, the movie star enigma, if the Republican Tea Party movement is an indicator, is not enough to excuse the stagnant economy, the endless Afghan war, foreclosures, a 10 percent unemployment rate. Of course, it’s another story that an angry anti-Obama right wing populist movement loses some of its menace by calling itself the group that drinks tea.
If one is mad about Obama’s policies and forms little opposition groups to voice and protest how they feel (as has been done across Middle America), perhaps they need a name that’s more Al Pacino and less Alice in Wonderland. Still, this mid-term elections in November, which Mr Obama will rush back to after being done with us, will decide how unhappy America is with the man everyone thought could solve everything, and whether tea partying is really the way to vote this man out of office.

Till such time though, we have his somewhat divided attention, but more importantly, him. It’s the capital city for a couple of days, and Mumbai for one.

On being rich in India:

I stumbled upon his rant in a Colaba park: “Everyone in this country is corrupt. Definitely the people spending the millions. But also the people investigating them. The people putting them in prison. You, me, everyone. People say, the CWG had corruption; therefore we need committees to investigate. All those committees will also have corruption in their own way. Someone will save a friend, someone will take a bribe, and someone will make a file disappear because of political pressure.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with this. Scandinavians are tall, Japanese people have lovely black hair and we, as a people, are corrupt. The sooner we admit that to ourselves, the happier we’ll be”. When you’ve worked insanely hard to build a billion dollar corporation, or become the country’s biggest reckless movie star, you want to do things that people anywhere else in the world would do — like build a billion dollar home or shoot deer. But here, your net worth becomes the subject of debate, opinion and discussion. And laws and arbitrary cricket boards conspire to restrict your flamboyance. 

On Barack Obama’s India visit:

Clearly, Obama’s speech writers had a specific plan for the India visit. To make us feel nice. Someone must have said in Washington, “Indians love being told they’re great”. Added to the fact that it’s Barack Obama, a man who can make a safety pin feel great, (“Never forget you’re not just a safety pin. You are the accumulation of a million pieces of struggling iron ore, whose forefathers for hundreds of years fought and died and endured hardship so today you could rise to take your rightful place in the sun holding up that sari”) there was no doubt that he would bring the joint houses of parliament to its feet (including HD Devi Gowda who can barely walk). 

Obama has done two things no one ever did before. No American President has ever addressed joint houses of Parliament. Through the year, the Parliament makes the nation cry, while he made parliamentarians cry. 


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