Show me the money

For over ten days now, all of India is talking about money. A nation where over 32 per cent people live below the poverty line, and where some have not even seen big denomination currency notes, this itself seems like dark comedy. Dark comedy becomes a reality when the demonetisation move ostensibly introduced to get rid of black money mocks itself with a bureaucrat seeking and getting a bribe in the new currency notes.

On November 8, Prime Minister Modi decided that all ₹500 and ₹1000 notes were not to be legal tender from midnight onwards. This pushed even those who did not have black money to rush and offload these stacks.

A lot has been said and discussed on the subject, and it is rather obvious that the PM's populist move, and the false premise of how such money is used for terror funding, is not going to work this time.

What the overnight tamasha has done, though, is to challenge the social dynamics of class. Suddenly, anybody not categorised as poor is assumed to be rich.

I did not suffer because I did not have too many old notes with me. Just ₹15,000. The just is deliberate when you consider that four people in India would survive on this much for one month. As though this is not humbling enough, there have been stories of deaths, violence, illness, quarrels, hunger, of marriages postponed, of empty markets, half-stocked stores...people are affected.

I thought I was the affected, too. On the first day, I landed up at the bank. This was most unusual for me. I suspect I wanted to experience the moment. A friend I bumped into said, "Why do you need money? I thought you lived on ideas."

"Yes. But what if right now that idea is money?"

In the queue I did not see any poverty. In keeping with its international reputation, the bank was plying us with tea and coffee. We, the few people ahead and behind, were jokey and relaxed. We were more concerned about Americans under Donald Trump. But live jokes can't be played in a loop. After an hour and a bit, I gave up.

My banking is these days restricted to using the ATM. One is in control there and not waiting before a teller who will scrutinise your cheque to authenticate whether your money is indeed yours.


The doctor did not have a credit card swiping machine. His secretary pointed at a bundle of notes that were used to return as change. I didn't have the cash and I had got this appointment after a month. "You stay quite nearby, don't you? Then you can issue a cheque."

"Oh, that would be nice. I'll be back soon."

"We have that much trust in you."

I wondered why I was trusted. This was my first visit, we did not know each other. Trust in social situations is based on class factors - I wore a fragrance, was reasonable dressed, seems educated, and spoke in English. Would this courtesy have been extended to a person who would speak in Hindi or Marathi, who would be shabbily dressed?

We, all of us, judge people on superficial aspects. It isn't always wrong to do so, but is it a foolproof yardstick?


Eight days later when I managed to get the new notes, I had my first encounter with the streets. At a small store where I made some purchases, I told the seller that I had the ₹2000 notes and he would have to get me the change and, no, I would not accept the old currency. In the next ten minutes he had tapped people around his store and brought me the change, some in ₹10 denomination. 

He was accepting old money because he had no choice. "I wait in the bank for 4 hours to exchange and then come here. Can't afford to lose clients."

"But there is a limit to the amount changed..."

"We try all sources...different banks, different people."


At the signal, a eunuch approached me. "Dus, bees rupaiyya de do, sab achcha hoga..."

For 10-20 bucks I was being promised utopia. I had no change and said so.

"To phir 500 de do, saree khareed loongi aur tumko yaad karoongi..."

For 500 bucks, I'd be remembered by a eunuch. 

This was an unusual barter, especially since I have an inbuilt need to be forgotten. 


Any such upheaval brings forth genuine sympathy, and then there is a segment that will ride on it. On public fora, such displays reek of opportunism where this becomes one more chance to build up a samaritan profile. 


"Come near me..."

Few people realise that you could fear the familiar. The places and spaces you've been to before might have memories that claw at you. We stand by the door because of trepidation, unsure of our ability to walk beyond...

Anyhow, here is one trance-like walk:

"We've been here before, don't fear me
Don't stand by the door, come near me
We've been here before, don't fear me
Don't stand by the door, come near me"


The Naked and the Political

A naked man addressing politicians in the assembly should raise eyebrows. But in India this is cause for reverence. It is the same India whose moral police has problems with the way people dress up.

So why is it okay for Tarun Sagarji to be nude before MLAs at the Haryana Assembly, discussing subjects ranging from female foeticide to Pakistan? Because he is a monk of the Digamber sect. This sect believes in being 'sky-clad', and one accepts the different forms of worship and the reasons for it.

However, one does not see other Digamber Jains go around without clothes. Besides, if it is the Muni's religious uniform, then he should be adhering to it in the religious confines. The Assembly is not one. Religious figures of various stripes should not even be permitted in these halls, let alone become political leaders, as indeed some are.

The whole point of abstaining from clothes is to divest oneself of comfort and arrogance, of specific markings and attachment.

Would these ministers listening to him in rapt attention offer the same respect to any other member not clothed according to their moral prism? They would be sniggered at, and if a woman we to dress 'inappropriately', whatever that means, then she would be objectified.

As happens often, much of the reaction is not to the monk, but to a response to him. Music director Vishal Dadlani is said to have "mocked" him when he posted on a site: "If you voted for these people, YOU are responsible for this absurd nonsense! No #AchcheDin, just @NoKachcheDin ."

He belongs to the Aam Aadmi Party, and his chief Arvind Kejriwal was quick to say: "Tarun Sagar ji Maharaj is a very reverred saint, not just for jains but everyone. Those showing disrespect is unfortunate and shud stop" and "I met Shri Tarun Sagar ji Maharaj last year. Our family regularly listens to his discourses on TV. We deeply respect him and his thoughts."

Ideally, Mr. Kejriwal should be questioning religious people being in a political space. But, he is himself at the mercy of them. Nobody should care what he or his family personally believe in, but by stating it as a response he conveys clearly that he is a part of the rotten system. Vishal apologised and says he will quit politics.

We cannot blame only the Hindutva parties, for even the secular ones kowtow to religious leaders from every faith and use them to influence the electorate even though they have precious little real influence.

I am not against religion or anybody practising it. We all need spiritual sustenance (and not everybody can handle their drinks well!), but, seriously, god is in her/his heaven and therefore perhaps nothing is right with the world.


Speaking of which, this photograph of Olympics winning athlete P.V. Sindhi on her way to thank the deity. Again, this is personal.

But India's showing at the Olympics is not something to crow about. The few exceptions only underline the apathy. Besides, the athletes have complained about neglect and paltry conditions. It is their talent alone that stands with them despite everything.

If they think the talent is god-given, then it should be looked after by the gods too. Or at the very least the gods should do something about Indian officials.

Indians are big on 'mannat', asking for favours at various shrines and dargahs. In that sense, we are all greasing palms, if not of babus then babas.


Speaking of babus and government servants, here is Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Chouhan carried by policemen when he was on a tour of flood-hit areas in his state. Was the water too wet?


The Defence Minister as Local Bully

Did the Defence Minsiter of India have to sound like a gully bully to make a point about the rightwing version of patriotism?

Unfortunately, his lesser crime is being highlighted and not the one that's truly dangerous.

Let's get done with the lesser one first.

He took a potshot at actor Aamir Khan's comment sometime last year about his wife feeling insecure about living in India anymore. One may or may not agree with such sentiments or their expression, and the canny Khan almost took back all that he had said, but dragging it in reveals a gameplan. And that gameplan is to ensure that those who critique the government are boycotted. Aamir lost his endorsement deal with Snapdeal and Parrikar said, "Some of our people are very smart, I know. There was a team which was working on this."

The Defence Minister is admitting that the BJP has a team that will see to it that your work and livelihood can be snatched from you if you utter a word against the government or the country: “I am only trying to point out…if anyone speaks like this, he has to be taught a lesson of his life. That was a very arrogant statement, we have to love our nation.”

The BJP has been in power for barely two years now and the party's supporters have shown us just how much they love the nation by stilling voices — verbally or by putting an end to the owner of the voice.

Randeep S. Surjewala, spokesperson of the Congress asked, "Can this be the 'Raj Dharma?" Under no circumstances must this become common lexicon. The Indian republic does not need any such terminology. We have had enough references to epics that, in a sense, confirm the Hindutva Rashtra dream.

What is far more worrying is that Parrikar has justified the use of force and weapons by the armed forces with the taunt, "I do not want to train the Army to use the lathi." Earlier this month, following the killing of Burhan Wani in Kashmir, the police and the army used pellets that grievously injured and blinded civilians. This goes against every norm of civilised society, not to forget human rights abuses.

The army knows how to use the lathi when forcing out confessions. There is nothing innocent and tame about the lathi; the person who holds it wields control. A mob running amok pelting stones in anger is often first shown the lathi that transmogrifies into a gun. Perhaps, it is a gun already.

The minister further stated:

“Where to use the Army is a civilian decision. However, whenever the Army is used, full power has to be there, otherwise do not use the Army."

In sensitive areas, the Army is used as a political tool. That is as far as a civilian decision is concerned. But if you arm the Forces with teeth and the power to use weapons at any time, then it is about militarising a region and not for civilian support.

When called upon in civilian areas, the job of the Army cannot be to shoot at sight but to maintain the peace. It should also have mastered target training and not hit at random people, including children. One major had the audacity to ask on national television, "What was a child doing there?"

Children, women and men are free to roam the areas. Even if some militants occasionally use them as shields, the figures of killings just do not add up.

More importantly, it is time ministers stopped using organisations to promote patriotism politics. The person who is killed on the land he tilled and lived off had a very close association with and love for it. Every individual who lives in the country is a nationalist, especially the one who wants the betterment of the country and questions it.


How Social Media Dishonoured Qandeel Baloch

Qandeel Baloch sometimes looked like Amy Winehouse; her death was as tragic as Amy's. Both were on drugs. Winehouse was on the hard stuff; Baloch on the harder one.

Addiction to social media is narcotic. I do not mean the persistent need to check the walls and timelines or click on likes, or even to voice an opinion or an inanity, but the recreating of life online — to be completely subsumed by the persona one has birthed as well as the perceptions. In fact, Baloch was no more her own creation. She was an opinion. As she had said, "Love me or hate me both are in my favour. If you love me I Will always be in your heart, if you hate me I'll always be in your mind."

In the real world, she was killed by her brother — sedated and then strangulated, as her parents slept in the other room, sedated too. This murder falls into the honour-killing category. And immediately, we hear of the yawn-producing argument that these murders should be called dishonour-killings because, they ask, where's the honour.

Such ridiculous assertions forget that by doing so they suggest the victim would have brought dishonor as much as the perpetrator has, when we are in fact talking about misplaced ideas of honour, prevalent in almost all societies.

In Pakistan, the victim's family can forgive the man. Baloch's father has refused. He wants to wreak vengeance upon the son. One article even quoted the parent calling out, "Qandeel, Qandeel!" Strange, because that was not the name she was given at birth. She was Fouzia Azeem. Qandeel Baloch was the pseudonym she chose for herself. To escape, among other things, memories of being forcibly married off by her parents when she was a teen.

It was her new life that took care of them. Baloch was the only earning member. Her brother says he killed her because of the stuff she posted. But it could also be because his male ego could not handle being dependent on a sister, that too one who was unapologetic about her self-portrayal.

The latest news is that her mother says the brother was taunted by his friends regarding his sister's shenanigans, somehow softening the opinion against him. Nobody seems to want to take responsibility for judging her. She is now, as she was then, just a daughter, a sister, a trigger for the self-righteous.

Qandeel Baloch was not as unusual a phenomenon as is made out. The pretty provocative at 26 is often what rebellions are made of. I watched an interview in which she referred to herself as a social media sensation. That was her identity.

It is no different from the social media celebrities around who primarily feed their followers minutiae of their lives — the animals they rear, the food they eat, the places they visit, the clothes they wear. They flash these as a badge of frankness, when what such trivia does is to act as a camouflage for their opinions and feelings or, more likely, lack of them.

They feed on events and trolls. The more trolls they get for a stray comment the more they begin to market their boldness. Being in-your-face is projected as honesty. The cliques to which they belong — and they sure as hell wouldn't survive without them — ensure that their machinery is well-lubricated with their fan-like leech behaviour.

The Qandeel supporters were different. They might have enjoyed her exhibitionism, but they could not possibly invest in her emotionally because they felt they were not equal. As long as she could be patronised, it was okay. In some cases, she reminded them of their own struggles. But, yet again, there was a kid glove treatment.

I watched The Ali Saleem Late Night Show where she appeared alongside Pakistani comic actor Rauf Lala. The latter had the audacity to leer at her and make it seem like doing so was a part of his acceptance of her. He resorted to the typical subcontinental trope of, "You are like my sister." She shot back, "Can't you say daughter?" He agreed, in the same leering manner, "Ok, ok, like a child I've rocked in my lap."

If you think this was just another character from the entertainment industry, then you are wrong. I've witnessed much sniggering by Pakistani liberals online. Upon her death, they might have surely spoken some shit about how horrible honour killing is and how she was merely a misguided youngster. Short of calling her a floozy, because they are so desperate to be politically correct, they meant just that.

Qandeel, obviously, had a different opinion of herself and her agenda. In a Facebook post a day before her death, she had written:

"I believe I am a modern day feminist. I believe in equality. I need not to choose what type of women should be. I don't think there is any need to label ourselves just for sake of society. I am just a women with free thoughts free mindset and I LOVE THE WAY I AM."

But this love for herself was the result of going regularly viral due to the 'love' of others. Did the liberal society ever grant her the status of feminist? Even Mathira, a model and actress known for her item numbers, had mentioned in an earlier interview about her drawing the line somewhere as opposed to Qandeel, who apparently knew of no such line.

Qandeel did a bad version of twerking, she wore transparent clothes and seduced the camera. The viewers were added bonus. And she sang. That's what she wanted to do. That's what nobody was interested in. Unless she sang wearing night clothes in bed just before signing off in a video she shot to share with strangers.

Did anybody notice her voice? Clearly not. Even in that 'understanding' interview with Ali Saleem, the host made her run on a treadmill and sing. To be fair, he made the other guest do so too, but Rauf Lala had no singing ambitions. Qandeel did.

But she was just time-pass for those on social media who even as they while away the hours in their echo chambers look down on people like Qandeel who do the same.

They refuse to accept her not only on her terms, but even on theirs, should she have made it. She had to be kept in her place, even as they pretended not to show her her place.

In the end, the social media voyeurs were witnesses to the murder of Qandeel Baloch.


An earlier one on Amy Winehouse


Snapchat or Drought?
India's Elite Makes a Case for Tanmay Bhat versus Lata and Sachin

“Snapchat or drought?” demanded Arnab Goswami on Newshour. That one cryptic query bears witness to how reductive debates are and what freedom of expression has come down to.

A standup comic Tanmay Bhat put up a short video where he impersonated Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar in a mock battle. Impersonation and mimicry are a staple of comedians and if done well can caricature the subjects and throw in more than just laughs.

Tanmay Bhat does nothing of the sort. It’s the kind of thing your friends might slap their thighs over as you crack off-colour jokes at the pub, and that too only if you are paying for the drinks.

However, everyone has their rights. He to do what he did, and I to find it objectionable. But, there are people who will fight for his right to be stupid but not yours to be offended by such stupidity. And how do they justify it?

It so happens that the MNS party and the like issued threats calling for the removal of the video, and of beating up Tanmay. The police too got into the act.

All of this happened after the controversy broke out. It is ridiculous to assume that those who object to the video want it censored or the comedian arrested or harmed in any way. (I am putting it up, too.) If they want a bloody disclaimer with that line, “I may not agree with what you say but I’ll defend your right to say it”, then I’ll just ask them to shut up since they think there will be fewer clicks on their liberalism were they to defend another’s right to have a differing opinion.

I have one major objection to that video, and it is Tanmay as Sachin poking fun at Lata’s age – her face looks like it has been in water for eight days apparently – and urging her to die. To anybody who has elderly parents, this should hurt deeply. It isn’t about the pop taunt of “hurt sentiments” – it is closer to the bone. You are a hypocrite if you go online to outrage over an old person being ill-treated by her family or post pained captions on seeing pictures of old age homes but think that Mr. Tanmay Bhat’s act is just fine.

The funny thing is that the Tanmay camp finds it offensive when there are girth jokes about him. Fat-shaming, they say. It is and it is offensive. Wonder why they do not find age-shaming offensive too. Clearly, a level-playing field satisfies nobody.

They say people are just obsessed with this icons business and both are Bharat Ratnas. The irony is that even suppose they are ‘protected species’, just what are these urban legends like Tanmay Bhat? One does not see social media denizens support the right of a Johny Lever or a Kamaal R. Khan for similar ‘humour’; they are, in fact, dismissed as crass. This proves that it is not about freedom of speech but about elitist cliques.

For those who think Tanmay Bhat as well his AIB group are independent-minded rebels, do not forget that they had sent their queries in advance to be vetted for their roast on Bollywood celebrities and apologised to the Church. [I had written about AIB Knockout's fake fight for FoE]

Somebody even posted that those “hounding Tanmay” would return after a couple of days to their old task of “harassing Muslims”. This is just so pathetic to even put them on par. The hounding is done by some political parties/idiots; minority harassment is social behavior in its varied forms.

Also, all manner of caste and regionalism has come into play, and while these aspects of the ‘hounders’ (including weirdly enough the people spoofed) are highlighted, the comedian’s caste etc. are not dragged in. One says it is because Lata and Sachin are Brahmins people are protecting them, another says Marathi pride should be hurt by drought in Maharashtra and not a Snapchat video.

Nobody can deny that casteism is prevalent in India, but in this case is it being milked dry to support bad humour, reducing the genuine debate over it. Ask these same people to do a Snapchat funny video of our other Brahmins – TV anchors and newspaper editors (who should naturally stand for their FoE) and they have no answer.

I suspect some even think that the comedian was making an anti-casteist statement...except that the Brahmin Lata trills to Sachin, "Vinod (Kambli) is better than you". Kambli is from a backward class community. And if we really want to get into this, then it is again the Bhat way to get a high-caste to legitimise him. 

The worst is dragging in the drought. Media people who were pained about the time wasted on such stupid debates as against the drought went on to host shows discussing Tanmay Bhat. Do they even have a spine, forget a conscience?

The drought vs. Snaphat idea is opportunistic and insensitive. Nobody is censoring the drought, so give it attention, and not only when it is ‘happening’ to do so.

Then there were those saints who said if you don’t like it don’t watch it. They seem to have reached a Zen state where they know without watching whether something is likeable or not. And if switching off is the answer to deal with what we find offensive, then I guess we can apply if to hate speech and government policies too. In fact, these zombies probably do, except for they Twitter/Facebook forays where they lend their shoulders to the martyrs they create.

Director Mahesh Bhatt posted this quote by George Carlin:

“I think it's the duty of a comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”

Yeah sure. Our PM has been doing this for a while now. And the joke is on us.