Monday, June 26, 2006

The hard lives of superheroes

Krrish is here, and Superman is flying in faster than a speeding bullet. The superheroes look like they will win a few battles at the box office.
Like most guys I know, I love superheroes. Like most guys, I don’t know why. It’s been many years now since I was in school. I am way past the age when I could allow myself to believe that a nip from a radioactive spider would do me wonders. Yet here I am, a journalist and a hardbitten cynic, getting all excited about alleged descendants of aliens.
Is it fascination with the powers they have that still engages the adult me? Or is it fascination with the double life that every superhero, inevitably a tortured soul, must lead? Or is it perhaps some strange satisfaction in seeing one’s version of 'good' triumph?
Perhaps it’s the combination.
The typical tale of every superhero is one of pain. He is always the ordinary guy who comes to have extraordinary powers. He always becomes a superhero in very difficult circumstances. Superman became superman because his planet was destroyed. Batman had it easier; only his family was destroyed. Spiderman’s grandfather died before he became Spiderman.
Every superhero uses his powers to protect the values he believes in. This brings him into conflict with others who have different values, and with his own self. Every superhero is always lonely. For, the superhero must suffer pain and loss to keep his secret even from the few who love his ordinary avatar. He knows he will live a life of danger – does he have a right to endanger those he loves?
Thus Peter Parker, the lonely, shy, gawky, bespectacled boy who is Spiderman, walks away from Mary Jane. Bruce Wayne, the brooding, solitary man who is Batman, must risk looking the rake before his love Rachel. Superman keeps running away from Lois and is eventually ditched by her after a decades long courtship. The Hulk, arguably the angriest superhero of them all, has it all bad – he can’t be with his girl because of the power he has. Our own Krrish is luckier in the end, because he is from Bollywood, but he too lives his entire life until superher-dom in a cloud of loneliness.
Of course the superhero soldiers on with his job of saving the world. That’s why we love them. They have problems, like everyone else. They suffer reverses. Yet when they are down, they find strength within themselves. They have courage to do the right thing. In the end, they always win. It is in this mythical ‘coming good’ of the loser, and the eternal victory of good over evil, that we rejoice.
The philosophical question – what is good – is not so easily answered.
The superhero always stands for the status quo. He stands for preserving the existing order or restoring the old order. He isn’t on the side of revolution. Continuity and incremental change are more to his taste.
Would any superhero support an uprising against the government? Or a new religion? I think not. Those are things villains do. They are the agents of change. They may do evil, but they are potentially catalysts for good. That's why the Kauravas went to heaven, like Ravana.
Obviously, there’s more to superhero stories than meets the eye.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

CPI(M), Casteist Party of India (Mandal)

I'd always thought CPI stood for Communist Party of India, and CPI (M) for Communist Party of India (Marxist). However it now seems that I was mistaken: CPI is the Casteist Party of India and CPI (M) is Casteist Party of India (Mandal).
Communism looks at society in terms of class. It recognises only two basic classes, the bourgeois and the proletariat. Accepting a religiously ordained system of social stratification like caste is quite clearly against the most fundamental principles of communism. Yet that is what both these political parties have done, apparently after much thought. In deciding, time and again, to support the Mandalisation of society, they have betrayed both their hunger for power, and the ideals they pretend to espouse.
Perhaps they were concerned about the fact that their leadership since Independence has been predominantly high-caste. In that case, they should have done something about inner party democracy. They should also have fought to demolish the caste system itself. Instead, they accepted it as a historical reality. By accepting the paradigm of caste, they became followers of Manu and Mandal rather than Marx.
The caste system is an anachronism that needs to be removed from Indian society. This can only be done if the terms in which people identify themselves and one another are changed. Therefore, to begin with, all surnames that indicate a person's caste should be dropped. The so-called communists, instead of supporting certain castes at the expense of others, would do well to start by dropping the caste identifiers from their own names. They can also campaign to motivate others to do the same.
The terms of the debate about equality of opportunity need to be changed. No sensible person would argue against equality ofopportunity. However it is difficult for any sensible person to accept that only people from certain castes are backward, especially considering the absence of empirical data on this. Instead of framing the argument for equality on caste terms, a more modern way to do it would be to devise and apply deprivation indices to the population. If the communists are indeed concerned about the backward classes, they ought to have no problems with all backward people being identified as such, regardless of caste.
If after identifying the backward in a scientific manner, it is found that a certain percent of the population, say 27 per cent, need a helping hand from the government and society, they should be given all help. It may be that they are all from the same castes currently recognized as OBC or SC; no matter. My argument is with the nomenclature.
Development experts should chalk out the best strategy to ensure that each of them can develop their talents to the fullest. This will probably entail good school education and a revamp of the entire school system in India. It is a mammoth task, but it needs doing.
This prescription is of course no panacea. However it has what I consider a significant merit: It is not derived from any 'ism'.
When a person is seriously ill, he or she only wants to get cured. He does not care whether the doctor curing him is Hindu or Muslim, allopath or homeopath. He is likely to try everything. His interest is in whatever works for him. Similarly, a backward person will be interested in whatever helps him deal with or overcome his situation. The solution may come from socialism, communism, capitalism or religion – to him the theory matters far less than the cure.
Yet the people who have to provide the cures can't think outside their boxes. They are allopaths or homeopaths, communists, or capitalists, or fundamentalists, or something. These types often genuinely believe that their cure is the best cure – or even the only cure – and try to apply their medicine to all situations. They are angry when it does not work, or others disagree.
It would benefit humankind if all the believers of all the 'isms' learnt to apply their minds to solving problems, instead of trying to prove the superiority of their pet theories in addressing every problem.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

That Studied Look

There’s nothing on earth that a ‘study’ hasn’t already studied. There’s also nothing that a study has proved, that another, appropriately funded, cannot disprove.

A study recently proclaimed that drivers of white cars are ‘status-seeking extroverts’. Black cars are apparently driven by aggressive, rebellious types. So for the first time in recorded history, we have a satisfactory explanation for taxi driver behaviour.

However the bit about white cars seems a little iffy. White cars cost less than the other colours, which is a damn good reason for people to buy them.

The best personality is apparently that of pink car drivers. These are ‘gentle, fun-loving and affectionate’ people. I would have rushed to get my car painted bright pink to proclaim my fun-loving nature, but I’m afraid it might send the wrong signals.

I guess there’s only one solution. We white car owners must fund a study to prove that we are the nicest people on four wheels.

There are a few other issues to clear as well. For example, a study on the ‘Reactions of felines to bearded men’ proved that cats don’t like bearded men. The methodology consisted of holding cats in front of photos of bearded men and checking their response. If I remember correctly, they had done this to a few thousand cats before the animal rights people got in on the act and stopped the study on grounds of cruelty to animals. Every bearded man with a pet cat therefore has a moral responsibility to contribute one day’s salary towards research that proves that their cats love them.

The air-conditioning properties of the beard have also been studied. A gentleman who shaved off the beard from the right half of his face, while leaving the rest intact, found that the bearded side felt warmer.

Now somebody’s gone and done research to prove that keeping the cell phone in the trouser pocket makes men impotent. This came after research that proved that keeping the cell phone in the shirt pocket sends the heart into a tizzy, and holding it next to the ear fries the brains or something. The thing to do, therefore, is to tow our cell phones behind us on a leash, or start carrying handbags (and driving pink cars).

On the other hand, there’s also great scope to use this impotency property of mobile phones. Considering the billions of dollars being wasted on finding a ‘male pill’, it might be simpler to just ramp up the dose of whatever electromagnetic waves knock sperms out, and market this as the ‘pill mobile – two-in-one fun’. Imagine, India could get its population under control.

The way features are being added on to mobile phones, it’s only a matter of time before something like this happens. There’s already a phone for women that keeps track of their periods and all. I’m not sure how it operates but if it’s selling, it must work.

Of course, mobile vanity is touching new heights as well. These days, if you don’t have a phone with advanced features, people look down upon you like you’re a worm. Anyone who uses the phone for talking is treated like a second-class citizen.

A friend of mine, who has an ancient phone without colour screen, polyphonic ringtones, GPRS, or any of the other things you don’t really need, recently had to put up with some munna mobile quizzing him on his cell phone’s properties. His answer elicited such shock-horror that he had to tell the guy he already had a separate digital camera, and was waiting for a cell phone with a built-in washing machine and microwave.

Paris and Delhi

An old friend wrote from Paris the other day. “Life is wonderful”, he said. “There’s not much work and I stay at home a lot. I watch TV and cook biriyani. I am very good at both. My wife has stopped shouting at me. She shouts at the dog instead. Her taste buds remain French. She would rather have baguette than biriyani.

I am very worried about my driving licence – I don’t have one. These French, I tell you. They charge 1,000 Euros for a driving licence! That’s more than 50,000 rupees. I got my first licence in India when I was 16, and it cost 1,000 rupees. I didn’t even have to go for the test. The money was paid; the licence was home-delivered.

Office is okay. I got out of Kiev the day their presidential election riot was happening. I was worried the flight may be delayed. They now send me brochures and marketing data from Kiev. I suspect it is machine translated. It says things like “turbine excellent give electric wind”. Since I have to sell it here, there is no problem. I don’t know Ukrainian and speak very little French, and my customers don’t know Ukrainian and speak very little English, so I explain the turbine’s operations in sign language. They read the specifications and see the product and figure out the rest.

Everything else is fine except that the biriyani is beginning to show around my waist. I have started morning walks, but it spoils my day to see that the neighbour’s dog has chosen my car to do his poo-poo. It’s always there, just next to the front door. I think I will shoot that dog. Lucky for him I’m from India and not some other part of Asia. Otherwise I would have him on a platter.

You should visit Paris in summer. Life is wonderful out here”.

I wish I could take up his invite.

Life is great in Delhi too, I replied. It’s full of activity. There’s office and there’s home and there’s the adventure of driving between the two. Apart from that, it’s pretty uneventful. I find no time for cooking. And I have cancelled my cable TV connection. There was no time to watch TV. I eat vegetarian food. The fish market is some way off. There’s no time to go shopping for fish. I am suffering from fish deprivation.

For the rest, all is well. I have to make my tax plans. The deadline is near. I go for walks too. I don’t even eat biriyani. Yet my belly insists on looking like it’s well fed. Walking is great, there’s a park just behind my house. In the morning you can see a procession of joggers flowing through it. If you are careful you might avoid bumping into anyone. Today I saw a man in a blue office shirt and cream trousers jogging. It was very funny. I wonder whether he was jogging to office?

There’s only one problem with living in Delhi. Pesky insects are everywhere. It’s growing hot too, but the insects bother me more. There’s a line of ants next to my bed. I have been watching them for two days. Every time I sweep them off, they are back. I have tried to confuse them with turmeric but again they are there, climbing, driving me up the wall.