The God Of Small Things

Ashish D. is not his real name, and this overweight disgrace to my neighborhood could thank me for my discretion in keeping him anonymous.

The man takes his morning walk an hour later than I do. This means that he’s just starting off on his perambulations when I’m on my way back. He’s a regular, just like I am, but I never paid him much attention over the years. You know how it is – we see people, yet their existence registers as more of an abstract concept than an actual fact.

I’ve never so much as exchanged thoughts on the weather with him, and the only thought I ever spared him was an idle wondering…. how can a man walk like that for years and never lose an ounce of that gross flab? And why, if these nominal saunters have proved so utterly futile, has the oozy blighter not done something more constructive about his improbable girth? I mean, he has surely got a clear title deed for a 3BHK flat in Heart Attack Country and he’s bound to take up residence there anytime. Doesn’t that BOTHER him?

Anyway, one day the fact that he does figure on the landscape was driven jarringly home to me. The realization came in the form of a loud, agonized canine yelp. Jerked from my pleasant dawn reverie, I cast about for the source of the sound. A weathered dog was making tracks for the opposite side of the road as fast as three legs would allow it. Three, because the other one was drawn up against its belly in a tortured spasm of muscle and bone.

Ashish D. threw me a brief grin of vicious triumph as he took after the injured animal, brandishing the heavy stick he has picked up to launch the morning’s festivities.

“Saala kidela _____ (worm-raddled %#@>),” he cursed, enjoying every second of it. “Come sniffing at me once more and I’ll……”

He emphasized this sentiment by chasing the dog and giving it another lash of the stick, which caught the hobbled beast squarely on the back. The dog was out of its mind with pain now and was squalling like a bagful of BEST bus brakes during the peak hour crunch.

I was stunned into complete, impotent inaction. D. delivered three more blows to the animal before a window flew open above us and an irate woman leaned out.

“Oye, stop this immediately. My husband can’t sleep!” she screeched in hellish accompaniment to the dog’s vocal efforts. The dog in question used the lull to crawl beneath a paan shop and cower there for dear life.

D. flashed a spitless grin at her, favored me with a fading version of the same and discarded the stick. Then he waddled off, his mind obviously already switching gears to the stock market or some other good-time stuff. The beleaguered mutt crawled out from under the paan shop, scanned the surrounding topography and found it fortuitously bereft of fat middle-management prototypes headed for Stroke City.

Fade to black…

No, of COURSE Ashish D. bears no resemblance to any of us. WE wouldn’t kick a defenseless street dog just because we feel so hugely superior to it, would we? Nor would we tell a street urchin to scram when he or she sucks up for a spare coin just because the sight reminds of too uncomfortably of how our own kids would look if the Powers That Be had not somehow transpired to set them above such a lot, would we? OTHER folks do such stuff, right? Sick folks. Folks like Ashish D. Right? Huh? Right?

What circumstances spawn such moral bottom-feeders in the first place? A desire to rid the city of unsanitary elements such as stray dogs? The trauma of having been bitten in the butt by just such a cur back in childhood? I don’t think so.

I close my eyes and see a different scenario – one littered with bugs that squirm and scamper for the shadows when sunlight hits them. Behind my closed eyes, I see a Ashish D. who is not as secure in his precariously overloaded skin as he pretends.

The economy is see-sawing wildly, inflation has eaten into his once unassailable bank accounts and he may just have to pull his bounder son out of that fancy ‘international’ school next year. His wife, no less bloated on excesses than he is, treats him like the last dirt on earth – just like his dad did before him. His boss has chuckled forlornly every time Ashish has hinted at that promotion. Ashish smells his essential powerlessness over the world he inhabits with every wheezy breath he pulls into his blubber-cased lungs.

He does not like this smell, and he needs to rid himself of it.

What old Ashish therefore does is treat each waking hour as another opportunity to bolster his sagging pride by taking pot-shots at the various hapless targets that the world has placed at his disposal. Therefore, the beggar on the road is cursed and waved away like a leper who has dared to cross the Holy Temple’s threshold. The street kid is treated to a look and words of utter loathing and revulsion. The maid is threatened with sudden unemployment every time she goofs up. And the street doggie gets a kick in his scrawny backside if he is presumptuous enough to make an appearance during Ashish’s fruitless morning waddles.

He does not have what it takes to tell his wife what HE thinks of HER. He doesn’t have the courage to tell his boss to shove his job up the old waste-pipe and look for a better prospects. His dad died of an apocalyptic, ghee-induced stroke years ago and is unavailable for settling scores with.

He is the overgrown schoolyard bully, even now desperately trying to salvage his self-esteem by preying on those who seem weak enough not to put up a fight. And, of course, he’s going to die in un-heroic circumstances before his time; he isn’t man enough to save his own ass. If that isn’t enough to sign the death warrant of every stray dog within kicking distance, what is…?

Mumbai – A Bohemian Rhapsody?

Kamlesh (not his real name) arrived from Delhi with stars in his eyes and a spring in his step. That had me wondering, since he had a grueling second-class train ride behind him. To land in the blast furnace of Mumbai after a non-AC train ride from the sweltering capital in such ebullient spirits is no mean feat.

I had told my wife that I would spend that Saturday with my Delhi buddy. She had been agreeable to the point of indifference, which probably meant that she had planned to join an extended hen party at our neighbor’s place anyway. Women are never averse to more things to complain about at such events.

Anyway, I helped Kamlesh sort out his luggage at Dadar TT and flagged a taxi to take us home. He asked the driver to stop along the way so that he could pick up a couple of beers, and I once again wondered at this laissez faire on what was supposed to be a company-sponsored business trip.

“Mumbai!!” he exulted when he’s stashed his bottles on the back seat. “Sin City! Man, I’ve always wanted to check out Mumbai, and now I have three whole days for it!”

Sin City?! I mean, sure, there is a lot of shady stuff going on in Mumbai that the media just love hollering about. But that doesn’t make the other metros Abodes of Sanctity either. In fact, if I recall right, some Bollywood offering or the other attempted to showcase the slimier side of Delhi’s ‘social’ circles. I asked him to explain.

“Oh, I know, I know,” he said dismissively. “People who live next to the sea never go swimming. You Mumbaiites are so engrossed with the daily grind that you miss out on all the fun that this city has to offer.”

“Well, I do go to the movies with the family,” I countered defensively. “Not that I want to… it’s a sort of recurring weekly hijack. And I take them to every new mall that blots the landscape, too….”

“Pah!” said Kamlesh. “Movies! Malls! See what I mean? You’re missing out on all the REAL action. But then, you’re married.” He said that as if referring to some unfortunate physical defect. I’m sure that there are folks who would agree with him on that. I’m not one of them, and my dander was up anyway.

“Okay, so what do you hope to do in Mumbai after you’re swilled those beers?” I asked him, mindful of not raising my voice. The taxi driver could not have understood much of the conversation, but he had hear the name of his city spoken in less than reverend tones and was glaring daggers at us through the rearview mirror.

“Have fun,” said Kamlesh smugly.

“You may wish to expand on that,” I said reasonably. “You know nothing of Mumbai and you’ll need some local guidance.”

He pondered this. “True,” he said. “Okay, I want to smoke some good Afghani dope, get hold of one of those bimbos Mumbai is so famous for and generally lose ten years of my life in three days!”

I was taken aback. I had never seen evidence of Kamlesh’s bohemian tendencies before. I believe he pushes magnetized mattresses from Japan on unsuspecting customers in Delhi for a living – I mean, it’s not as if he’s in advertising or anything like that. But that was not the point. He had apparently judged this city as degenerate and was all set to exploit the degeneration.

“I hope you don’t expect to find that particular fun package where I live,” I said, though I suspected he would if he looked hard enough.

“Forget home, then!” he countered passionately. “I’m not interested in wasting these three days in some backwater suburb! Drop me off at a hotel in some happening locality. I mean it, pal… I want to make the most of this trip!!”

“What you have in mind is pretty perilous for someone who hasn’t been in Mumbai before,” I said evenly. “But have it your way. Just let me know before you leave for Delhi again. It’ll be interesting to know if you got what you wanted.”

I got off to take a separate cab home and asked the driver of this one to take Kamlesh to Colaba. I added that he might find it worth his while to help my friend find a hotel there, and to supply some classified information. The man nodded sagely and off they went. My home was deserted when I got back and I resigned myself to watching Oprah or something equally soporific on the telly for the rest of the day.

Next morning, I got a call from Kamlesh while I was at work. He wanted me to bail him out at Kamathipura police station, where he had been taken after he was found high and sozzled at one of the better brothels there. The cops had also retrieved a small amount of hashish from him – thankfully not enough to mark him as a peddler. I took the local to Grant Road and went to the chowky.

Kamlesh’s wallet, gold ring, watch and Ray Ban goggles were gone. His right eye was blackened and his shirt was torn in various places. He himself was a chastened man and none of the effervescence of two days ago was in evidence. Five hundred bucks and a strident lecture from the PSI later, he was out of the chowky. I took him back to his hotel, where he showered and changed. Then he took a taxi to VT, from where he would catch the first available train to Delhi. I didn’t expect to hear from him again too soon.

A hooker glanced a silent question at me as I approached Grant Road station to catch a train back home. I waved at her with weary good cheer and went my way.

Yes, he was right. People who live next to the sea never go swimming… but that’s not all there is to it. In Mumbai, we live with an understanding – supply does not necessarily equal demand. I hope Kamlesh finds his peace with that fact eventually, or else he won’t be safe anywhere at all….

Goa Vacation Survival Guide

So, you’re going on a Goa vacation. You’ve made an online booking in what may be the last of the decently priced hotels in Goa, have your flight tickets in your hand and are raring to go. Goa beach culture – here you come!

Good for you. I salute your prudence and good taste. To be sure, there aren’t many options that compare to a Goa vacation. You’ve made an excellent choice. I love Goa, and recommend it highly over India’s other beach-based tourist destinations. Kerala’s Kovalam? Gimme a break. Mumbai’s Juhu? You’ve GOT to be kidding me. Lakshadweep? Hey, I thought you want to be where the ACTION is!!

So, your plane lands at Dabolim Airport. Or your train pulls into Margaon Station. Or your bus wheezes to a halt a Panjim. Or you’ve survived a self-driven car journey and are trying to figure out if this IS Panjim or just another of those towns with pseudo-Portuguese names that you’ve passed through. Read the hoardings and see what area the joints they advertise are at, dummy. Don’t tell me you can’t see all those Dantesque monstrosities that vie for your attention. Eat that lobster platter. Drink that beer. Take that pleasure cruise down the Mandovi River. Move into that Goa resort, because no other resort even comes NEAR in terms of ‘tropical ambience’, hospitality, facilities, cuisine (don’t bother looking for the room rates, though).

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The Purpose Of Life – Yes, Again!!

Enough has been written on this subject to wallpaper every square inch of the planet if the printouts were laid out edge to edge. The Internet space this material occupies could, if put to more fruitful use, host enough information to the true nature of politics to put that revered business model out of the running forever.

And yet, there are no answers – only vague suppositions, amateur conjecture, the dubious assurances given in the Bible, Koran and Torah, and the impotently dry intellectualism of philosophers and latter-day pop gurus. Nobody has really been able to tell us, with immutable logic and indubitable power of conviction, why we crawl across the planet.

No, I don’t have the answer either – but I have two eyes, a like number of ears and a backside that learns reasonably well from experience. Even with limited knowledge, the power of observation and deduction can carry one pretty far. In fact, because everyone has at least a modicum of these faculties, we all know at least SOME baseline facts about the nature and purpose of human life. The problem is that they’re so unpalatable that we look for better explanations.

The best (and worst) I can do here is to stand on my soapbox and spill these facts out in broad daylight. Nobody will thank me for doing this, and I consider it fortunate that I’m NOT here for gratitude. Now, to the subject.

The last office I worked in had a creaky old lift, traveling in which was always new incentive to reflect on whether one’s life insurance policy was still paid up and current. The walls of this death contraption were generously plastered with stickers, posters and scribbles that promoted some product, service or school of thought or the other. One of these, half torn away but still faintly legible, simply stated:


“WHAT?!?” you scream. “HAPPY?!?! How mercenary! How shallow! How utterly bereft of social spirit! We are here to HELP EACH OTHER!! To make this world a BETTER PLACE TO LIVE IN!!!”

Yeah, right. Okay, your time is up. Gimme my soapbox back.

Let us examine some facts here, shall we? Yes, yes, I know it will hurt, but hey… you can’t expect a perpetual ride through La-La Land, now can you? There have to be way stations, right? Places where we can alight and have a quick cup of hot Realitea before we embark on our cocooned journey again.

Now stop whining. The facts:

* Nobody achieves anything of true universal importance in his or her lifetime
* Suffering achieves no purpose other than to displace happiness
* Nobody’s watching, applauding or preparing a Welcome Cart on the other side
* There IS no other side

I have no real reasons to give you, but I strongly suspect that whoever put that sticker up was right. We are, indeed, here to be happy, simply because being sad is such an inferior option. However, the pursuit of happiness is traditionally equated with hedonism. ‘Hedonist’ is NOT a qualification that most of us would want on our visiting cards. So, even though each of us definitely DOES want more than our share of the good times, we make sure that there’s enough misery in our lives to soothe our uneasy conscience.

Let’s define misery. No, forget the Oxford dictionary, I mean let’s really DEFINE misery here, okay? No farting around with semantics, just the bare bones. Misery is the state in which our wants are not met, and those that were being met before are also compromised. That’s misery. Misery is also other people, but only to the extent that OTHERS get what THEY want and we don’t.

Pretty self-centered, huh?

Did you just mention the bleeding-heart social activist who is miserable because his PEOPLE (or maybe not even HIS people) are being deprived of their rights? Gimme a break. The man may be crazy now, but he wasn’t born that way. He had this harebrained stance implanted into him by his parents, in school or perhaps in the Army. His natural state is as selfish as yours and mine. Anyone whose heart bleeds for others is merely on a sanctified ego trip. And even THIS person is looking for a state of personal happiness, even though he or she erroneously believes that this state is somehow linked with the happiness of others. We are here for ourselves, period.

Closer home, we are often tempted to believe that our purpose on this earth is to serve our family and fulfill their needs. Another ego trip – we just want to get a healthy chomp of the feeling of personal achievement that doing this provides us with. Examined closely, it would logically seem that we would be happier WITHOUT those appendages that we added or were added to us somewhere along the way – if we had never met that doe-eyed beauty, scraped that orphan off the road or taken that doggie home. After all, it’s not as if anyone is desperately UNHAPPY until he/she is married or accepted into the local Lions chapter. It just so happened that we did, thereby inheriting a whole new slew of complications on the final journey towards personal happiness.

Now let’s go to the original model of the human being. No, I don’t mean the protozoa crawling out of the primordial ooze. Not THAT far back, okay? Let’s examine the blighter who recently descended from the trees and found that this cave actually beats that nasty old tree hollow when it rains, shines or freezes over. Did I hear a Christian anti-evolutionist squawk back there? Put a sock in it and read your Bible, okay? We’re talking REAL LIFE here, not your grade of nebulous candy floss. Hey, barkeep, give that poor numbskull a double shot of Holy Water and make him shut up.

I have understandably not met such a recent descendee myself (though I DO get a brief glimpse of him when a traveling relative lands up at my doorstep, asking if he can crash out here for the night.) However, I do believe that the kind of brains going round then were pretty rudimentary, and therefore not too hard to pick. Simple motives.

What did it take to make a caveman happy? No philosophy about the meaning and purpose of life there. Get fed, get laid, keep warm/cold/dry, biff that fuckhead from the next cave on the head if he comes sniffing around your mate, and a swim in the river would go down pretty well, too. Bingo, happiness. Purpose of life achieved in full – let’s file that report! No concerns about the state of the nation, the absence of a red Ferrari or the fact he can’t pay for bambino’s summer camp this year. Just because we’re complicated matters of personal happiness beyond all salvage today doesn’t mean that it is no longer what we want, and what we live for.

Yes, we’re here to be happy, but there is a problem there. Happiness is a highly subjective term, considering that some folks are happiest when someone is whipping their hide to shreds while they’re chained to a post. In fact, some folks are only happy when they’re in the midst of a state that most other humans would pay considerable amounts of moolah to avoid.

Yup, happiness is subjective. By the same coin, so is sadness. Some folks are only sad when they’re in a space that others would equate with happiness. These worthies find the state of being without problems intolerable. If none exist, they bend over backwards and sideways to create problems. You get the picture – happiness and sadness are subjective, and YOUR take on them is by no means the global standard.

Okay, now for your original objection. We are here to help each other, is it? Why are we here to do that? Does our help somehow change the equation? You’re going to die, and so will the dude you’re helping. His life’s purpose is the same as yours – to be happy, period. No more and no less. So now you’re going to fulfill HIS purpose is life, are you?

Even if your help somehow results in him becoming the president of your country some day, everybody in this country is going to die too. You may not have noticed it, but human life comes with a limited shelf life. Whether or not you help someone else or not, that fact will not change. So, what precisely ARE you achieving? Totting up credits in Heaven for yourself? Well, even if that’s the case, you’re still being selfish, aren’t you?

The purpose of human life is to make this world a better place to live in, you say? Playing God again, are we? This planet is going to hell in a handcart. Nobody on it is going to make a dime of a difference in the Universal context. My guess is that in a thousand years or less, it will be no more than a smoldering cinder cluttering up space. Nobody will have got off it long enough to impact any larger scheme of things. The Earth is essentially a doomed, localized infection, of absolutely no significance to God’s plans for the Big Picture.

So, don’t worry and be happy, already. You’re running out of time.

How ‘Middle Class’ Is The Indian Middle Class?

One hears Indians humbly claim that they’re just plain, ordinary ‘middle class’ folks all the time. By that, they seem to mean that they’re somehow struggling to eke out an existence, that they can afford no frills and that they deserve the hallowed ‘blue collar’ status. In what context do we hear this claim?

Well, suppose Mr. Desai next door has just bought himself a spanking new Toyota. He’s thrilled to bits. Mr. Narisetti from next door is not thrilled to bits. He wishes he could buy a car that outclasses Mr. Desai’s, but instead says something like this – “Well, you know, we’re just poor middle class folks. We don’t spend money on such frivolities”.

Mr. Prabhudevan receives a request from CRY. Could he sponsor a child’s education for a year? It would only take Rs. 1200 per annum. He sighs loudly and announces to his friends – “I wish someone would give ME 1200 bucks per year. These bleeding heart organizations have some nerve, trying to coerce money from poor middle class people like us, right?”

Mrs. Sanghvi and her husband are driving through Malabar Hill. They grunt disapprovingly at the opulent houses. “Criminals, all of them!” says Mrs. Sanghvi. “Honest middle class people like us cannot even DREAM of living in such palaces!”

So what is the Indian middle class? Does middle class simply mean that you cannot buy a new car or sponsor an underprivileged child? It would appear so, but there’s more. As you can see from the last example, ‘middle class’ is also a catchall term for ‘honest’, implying that anyone who is above the middle class line is somehow dishonest. Another class of people define themselves as ‘middle class’ in this way -  “We don’t know anything about social responsibility! Why do you want to burden a middle class family with such fundas? Please allow us to suffer in peace!”

I have no comment on that. What I do want to point out here is how economic surveys actually DO define the Indian middle class. Please read on, and figure out if you’re middle class or not. Your conclusion may change your bitter outlook on life and make you feel a little more blessed -

The median family income in India is approximately Rs.4500 a month. By its conventional definition, the middle class includes families whose incomes lie between 75% and 125% of the median. Families with monthly incomes over Rs.6000 are thus above the ‘middle class’ line, and families earning more than Rs.8000 or 9000 a month are certainly among the top fifth of the nation.

So, are you middle class? Or just another whining ‘nakhrebaaz’?