Sunday, December 12, 2021

Existential Hacks from a Confirmed Cynic

We are all told not to be so hard on ourselves or on each other. Naturally, that applies only as long as we are living our best lives which means being productive all the time; eating right and eliminating sugar, red meat, dairy, maida, coffee, tea, alcohol or anything at all that might be a reason to live; working out at least 6 hours a day to flaunt an envy – inducing physique because everybody knows that all talk of body positivity is only for fatties with low self – esteem; married, preferably to a member of the opposite gender and same caste; raising the perfect family that includes son/sons with daughters being optional; making enough and more money that gives you the license to be licentious and get away with all manner of excess; having over a million followers across social media and winning national and international awards for excellence every year to validate an entirely pointless existence. 

 We are told to slow down and take the time to smell the roses. Of course, anybody with a brain knows better than to slacken the pace because that would mean allowing one’s competitors, rivals and random fellow racers to get ahead in the game of life, leaving the slowpokes choking on their dust and the acrid taste of failure. As for smelling the roses, unless there is a reel with the potential to go viral, to be made in the interest of keeping it real which is the credo the new breed of humanbots aka Instagram influencers live by, it is an overrated pastime, that is unlikely to change your life in a significant way. 

We are told that we ought to be happy and content with what we have without constantly striving for more of everything. Now, it goes without saying that such a laidback, zen approach is the enemy of ambition and getting ahead in the rat race, unless you are a Godman who has successfully found a way to monetise the spouting of ideological, pseudo religious claptrap. And it is possible to be happy and content with what you have without forever hankering for more, just as long as you already have amassed everything worth having using fair means or foul. 

 We are told that there is no need to be perfect all the time. Or even the best. That it is okay to age gracefully or not have a plan. To trust, surrender and let it all go, allowing life to flow and unfold in a manner that might ensure that we receive all the things we ever wanted and more. Unfortunately, that is a fool’s move which may just see you lose everything and get hit by a truck because you chose not to see it coming. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Somnambulism to the Rescue!

Everybody wants to be a part of the solution to life’s many problems. Nowadays, that usually means calling out someone or something on social media adding to the cacophony surrounding celeb/celeb children’s misbehaviour or the trending cause célèbre. It is the simplest way which requires next to no effort to feel like something meaningful has been done even if it hasn’t. And of course, every activist out there feels they have not earned their stripes if a vigorous attempt has not been made to ‘disinfect’ popular art by calling for the ban or boycott of films, music or books that are deemed offensive for whatever reason. The tone has to be strident, passionate, outraged, excessively intolerant and reeking of righteous fury to be considered acceptable. 

 Naturally, none of these things are ever likely to be effective in fixing whatever it is that needs to be fixed but never is. The reason is simple enough. We have all allowed ourselves to become increasingly divorced from a reality which was never less than dull, dreary and depressing on the best of days. Being an adult mostly means looking for increasingly creative means to escape the humdrum of monotony that is part and parcel of life to cope with the demands of personal as well as professional problems and pressures that pile up in a never – ending conveyor belt of unceasing awfulness. 

 So we disappear into make – believe worlds which have become easy enough to access through the internet, smartphones, gaming devices and tech toys that offer so much by way of entertainment that is such a relief after the drudgery and dismal sameness of the real world. Virtual reality is so much more fun and it is easy enough to immerse ourselves in films, binge – worthy television shows and world – building games that are a wonderful way to kill time which otherwise seems to stretch on forever in tepid tedium. 

 Which is why we are so much more comfortable raising our voices when something is deemed offensive or unacceptable in the arts or celluloid. We cry ourselves hoarse when crimes against women are treated flippantly in a film or women are inappropriately portrayed. Whereas in real life when we witness injustices perpetrated against women, it is easier to pretend that it is her fault and therefore not our problem. We viciously attack a celeb kid who has been arrested for possession of drugs but we couldn’t give less of a crap about the dangerous drug dealer types destroying the neighbourhood because everybody knows that if you do interfere, chances are you will wind up in a body bag minus your limbs or worse. Hence it is hardly surprising we are all tigers in La La land while being pussy cats everywhere else. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Benefits of being Besotted with IPL

The second leg of the three – ring circus aka the Indian Premier League (IPL) is currently happening in the UAE. Naturally, this will be the only thing, folks in these parts will be talking about till the big final scheduled to be played on October 15th, although endless discussions about King Kohli’s bombshell of a decision to step down as T20I and Royal Challengers Bangalore captain (what’s up with him?) will also be entertained. I think this is a good thing and the reasons are manifold. 

 At this point, we all need a little something to get fired up about and take our minds off Covid which continues to tax us sorely, global warming, the situation in Afghanistan, an ailing economy, the definite possibility that we are entrapped in the Matrix since we have been reduced to living our lives solely in the virtual medium and other horrors of insomnia inducing magnitude. 

Let’s face it, it is fun to get caught up in the frenzy of sport even when engaged in a heated argument online with haters who foolishly assert that Chennai Super Kings fans jumped onto the CSK bandwagon only because they are hung up on Dhoni when every individual who bleeds yellow knows that the reverse is true. And there is nothing like out – trolling the trolls for burning through vast stores of endless frustration and pent up rage which might otherwise manifest in harmful ways. 

 When your team wins or your favourite players rock your world with other – worldly prowess you tend to bask in the lingering afterglow of their success which enables you to feel much better about the fact that you spent the day curled up in bed with a box of doughnuts because you simply could not summon the energy to do anything at all that might be construed as constructive. 

A thumping victory in addition to making you forget the sheer awfulness of existence also puts you in a more forgiving frame of mind whether it comes to yourself or the construction workers who insist on dumping their trash outside your house despite your repeated admonishments not to do so. You resist the urge to hire hooligans you can’t actually afford to knock some sense into their heads and take the Gandhian path by snitching to their supervisor and casually mentioning that you are a distant relative of the local MLA, wagging your finger in a friendly manner. 

 Of course, when things don’t go well for your team, you deal with elevated blood pressure, added stress, and an exacerbation of existing problems. But you risk it anyway, because sport teaches you that in life, you have to take the bitter with the better. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

When Wokesters attack Jokesters

Gene Weingarten, Washington Post humorist, wrote a column where he lists his intense dislike for certain cuisines and food products like Balsamic Vinegar, Hazelnut, Anchovies, Indian food, Old Bay seasoning which he compares to “dandruff from corpses mixed with rust from around the toilet fixtures at a New Jersey rest stop” among other stuff. 

 Now, this reminded me of my childhood at a boarding school in Yercaud, where it was fashionable to diss whatever was served to us, even if it was actually decent. For instance, a wit once remarked that the Sabudana kheer/ Javvarisi payasam tasted like Frog’s eyes. Naturally, an even more caustic wit responded with “Does that mean you have tasted Frog’s eyes?” We all doubled over with a hysterical case of the giggles! Now that I am all grown up and sophisticated, obviously I had to wonder if Weingarten had been rooting about in graves and loos, sampling the grossness on offer and I collapsed in gales of laughter, impressed as always with my own sense of humor. 

 Not many found Weingarten’s piece funny though. In fact, most insisted that it was not only offensive to Indians but downright racist because Weingarten had written that Indian food was “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice” and then compounded his error by adding: “if you think Indian curries taste like something that could knock a vulture off a meat wagon, you do not like Indian food.” 

 The great Indian diaspora was up in arms and the charge was led by a fire – breathing Padma Lakshmi, who wrote that the column “is unintentional anti – humor, regurgitating an unimaginative, racist joke with no punchline.” Ironically, Padma Lakshmi’s memoir- Love, Loss and What We Ate was accused of bias by Sharanya Manivannan who wrote “The casteism, classism and colorism on display are guilelessly entitled, with neither self – reflectivity nor shame”. 

 The outrage built to such an extent that the Post felt compelled to issue a correction over a silly joke and Weingarten apologized. He had written disparagingly about a cuisine which he knew little about. But honestly, not all Indians like or even have sufficient knowledge about all kinds of Indian food. I am no fan of whatever it is they serve in Bangalore in the name of sambhar and know next to nothing about North – Eastern cuisine. That says a lot about my preferences and ignorance but I don’t think I deserve to be raked over the coals for it. Neither does Weingarten. 

 Of course, it is not nice to hurt people for a few laughs but it is equally awful when those committed to making us chortle in these dark times are accused of racism and forced to apologize by humorless posturers. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

The Stirring Stories of the Stupendous Six

Kavitha Rao’s Lady Doctors does an excellent job of unearthing the stories of the forgotten pioneers, who paved the way for women in the highly sought after medical profession, braving unbelievable odds to not only achieve their ambition of becoming doctors but raising their voices against a host of societal evils to bring about much needed change. These ladies came from widely differing backgrounds but they were all rebels who dared to embark on a highly unconventional course that met with resistance every step of the way. All were scorned on the basis of their gender, some were forced into child marriage, dealt with abusive husbands, fought the restraints imposed on them by caste and custom, but all soared to hitherto unattained heights and threw open the gates of knowledge and empowerment for women everywhere. 

 Anandibai Joshi was India’s first woman doctor. With the support of her husband, who tended to beat her into realizing his vision for her, she flouted caste rules and went across the ocean to study. A conservative at heart, she adhered to ancient traditions and her religious beliefs indicating a fierceness of spirit that makes it clear that her achievements were her own. And in her gentle way, she spoke out against the tyranny women were subjected too in the domestic sphere and with heartfelt passion insisted that society would benefit from the contribution of its daughters. 

Kadambini Ganguly was a working mother, who was the poster girl of the progressive Brahmo Samaj and enjoyed the support of an understanding spouse. Yet, this mother of eight who was the first to practice as a doctor was branded a whore by a conservative paper. The fiery Rukhmabai Raut dared to walk away from a child marriage, refusing to live with her husband, braving the courts and societal censure levied by the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak to pursue her love of learning. Haimabati Sen, widowed at a tender age and cast aside by all, endured poverty and every manner of hardship to make something of herself. 

 Muthulakshmi Reddy, a legend in the South left behind an incredible legacy. She fought a valiant battle to win women the right to vote, abolish child marriage and the Devadasi system and embarked on a number of social welfare schemes that led to the establishment of the monumental Adyar Cancer Institute and Avvai Home for forsaken and destitute girls which continues her excellent work to this day. 

Mary Poonen Lukose, the first Surgeon General and trailblazer’s exemplary work saw the foundation of the health care system and high literacy percentage Kerala can rightly take pride in. While India has no dearth of heroes whose praises are sung on a daily basis with umpteen statues and monuments raised to commemorate their deeds, it is shocking that this legion of extraordinary gentlewomen has been relegated to the forgotten nooks and crannies of history. Rao deserves a medal for her painstaking efforts to scour through the scanty material available on their lives and deeds to reconstruct their magnificent deeds and phenomenal achievements. Thanks to her efforts, memorable portraits of the lady doctors emerge and with a deft touch, Rao also highlights many of the problems pertaining to caste, domestic abuse, and gendered discrimination women face to this day. 

 Modern women will definitely empathize with the struggles endured by the founding mothers of medicine in India, particularly with regard to the harassment they faced, lack of faith in their abilities, being forced to give up hard won honors to soothe ruffled male egos, and walking that tight rope balancing their duties on the personal and professional front which usually called for Herculean effort on their part. It is sad that the more things change the more they remain the same, but thanks to the stupendous six, women will never lack for inspiration to spread their wings, head to the stratosphere and whatever lies beyond. 

 This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Why do Women Put up with It?

Even as the global pandemic continues to leave a trail of destruction, reports reveal an increase in cases of domestic violence across the world, most likely brought on by the emotional toll and isolation of successive lockdowns. Every time, we hear about someone who is in a poisonous relationship, the most frequently asked question is, ‘Why didn’t she leave especially since she risks getting killed if she stays?’ It all seems so simple to those who don’t have to deal with violence. But then again, if a woman were to walk out of her marriage or a messed up relationship, she is damned for being inconstant and incapable of sticking it out for the long haul when it comes to matters of the heart. 

 There is always someone who will then launch into a diatribe on ‘modern’ women who have nothing on the model wives of yore who drank nothing but water sanctified by their husband’s feet, dirt – encrusted and desperately in need of a pedicure though it may be. Then they will compose lengthy Whatsapp forwards to be widely disseminated about how the ravages of Covid may be traced directly to feminists synonymous with wanton women who are responsible for the deterioration of our revered customs which had shielded us thus far from mutating viruses, demons armed with nuclear weapons and assorted apocalyptic scenarios. And all because ‘feminazi’ types refuse to accept that it is a husband’s prerogative to slap his wife around. After all, it is well known that to spare the rod is to spoil the wife. While this kind of reasoning prevails, is it reasonable to expect a woman to save herself and ignore age old precepts binding her to the ironclad dictates of tradition? 

 Experts agree, that it is surprisingly difficult to bail out of an abusive relationship. The reasons are manifold. Often, it is the mere suggestion of leaving that causes the violence to escalate making it a dangerous choice. Victims who have taken a battering emotionally or physically are left feeling that they have no control over their lives. It is common for those who have been brutalized to feel as though they have been reduced to something less than human and suffer from a diminished sense of self-worth. We underestimate the capacity of emotional abuse such as gas lighting to undermine an individual, leaving victims convinced that they are somehow to blame for what happened to them. That it was some error on their part that resulted in a beating or a barrage of verbal abuse. 

 Money is always a factor. Many victims are financially dependent on abusers and are reluctant to break free with no resources to fall back on. Most are simply afraid, cowed by sustained physical assault. Others seem to believe that selfless love is enough to counteract toxic masculinity. Some feel compelled to defend their aggressors because they can be charming and sweet when not inclined to put their woman’s head through a wall. It may even be construed as an act of kindness, if an ice pack is tossed over to ease the throbbing of a wicked bruise. These don’t begin to cover what all the victims are undergoing or the myriad reasons they opt to stay. Only one thing is certain. It will take compassion, concern and all the support in the world to help victims of abuse make it to safety. Not criticism or censure in the name of culture. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express