What celebrity takedowns in India and China have in common

There are some interesting similarities in how Bollywood princeling Aryan Khan and Chinese pianist Li Yundi were taken through the wringer for trivial offences.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Rabbit Hole.

A screengrab of Aryan Khan being escorted by the police. Via Republic TV (YouTube)

Aryan Khan is the eldest son of the Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan. The 23-year-old’s tousled hair plumes up from his broad forehead just so. His golden skin hints at breakfasts on sun-kissed terraces, his chiseled body at long sessions with a personal trainer. His style is what the women’s magazines call effortless, and they are right since his good genes and expensive wardrobe never required any effort from him at all. His pouty-lipped face is beautiful, but it’s the kind you might find yourself wanting to slap.

On 2 October, the little prince was gearing up for a big weekend on a luxurious cruise ship, which offered burlesque performances, whiskey-tastings, and a rave party. But also onboard the ship were undercover agents of the narcotics control bureau. By the time the night was over, the officers, weirdly accompanied by a functionary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had confiscated 13 grams of cocaine, 22 MDMA pills, and 21 grams of marijuana, and arrested eight people. Aryan Khan was among them.

The offspring of celebrities are subject to intense scrutiny in India, and those of Bollywood celebrities most of all. No drugs were recovered from Aryan, but the court refused him bail for more than three weeks. Indian media had a field day with this story, producing countless op-eds for and against Aryan’s detention, articles on what he ate while in jail (humble pie, of course), and dissections of Shah Rukh’s flippant comments on laissez faire parenting from two decades ago. Indians couldn’t contain their collective glee, masked under tut-tutting about the drug menace and rotten rich kids. Drugs — is that what he spent his parents’ money on? Make an example of him! Let him rot in jail! Cancel his father! Boycott Bollywood!

Unbridled delight from many quarters greeted the news that Aryan did not make bail. Via Twitter.

While this circus dominated Indian social media, another one started in China, also involving a pouty-lipped golden boy with implausibly perfect hair. On 21 October 2021, the Beijing police posted a picture of a piano on its Weibo account, with a coy caption — “This world has more colors than black and white, but one has to differentiate black and white. This is absolutely not to be confused.” It went viral immediately, and the wild rumors were soon confirmed. The police, aided by tip-offs from neighborhood spies known as the Chaoyang Masses, had arrested “Piano Prince” Li Yundi for hiring a prostitute. The People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched the hashtag #LiYundiDetainedForProstitution, which was apparently viewed about 790 million times and accumulated hundreds of thousands of shocked and sarcastic comments.

It doesn’t take much to wish ill of a celebrity. Via Twitter.
Ok byeeee. Via Twitter.

Things would only get worse for the renowned pianist. Chinese music and arts associations wrinkled their noses and cut ties with him for his “extremely negative social impact” and the reality TV show Call Me By Fire literally edited him out of footage (not unlike the way Party members who fell from grace in the Soviet Union were edited out of photos).

Why are these two celebrities being treated so harshly over relatively minor offenses? Authoritarian regimes have long used the heavy hand of censorship to hide their failings, but they’ve also developed newer, subtler techniques. As political scientist Margaret E. Roberts, author of Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall, described, one such tactic is flooding, or “censoring through distraction” by overwhelming social media with information that crowds out or draws attention away from things that make the government look bad. Authoritarian governments like China and its imitators deploy this tactic regularly.

In the Li Yundi case, the New York-based media outlet NTD pointed out that the “orchestrated campaign” against the pianist appeared suspiciously close on the heels of a series of unpleasant events, including the Evergrande liquidity crisis, the Shenyang gas explosion, and the outpouring of public sympathy towards Ou Jinzhong, a fugitive who died in police custody under suspicious circumstances. Similarly, in 2014, mere hours after an earthquake killed 400 in Yunnan, Chinese media was flooded with stories about the “confession” of disgraced internet celebrity Guo Meimei, a good three years after she came into the limelight for her unseemly spending and sexual relationships.

The Indian government is in on the game too. In the midst of an economic slowdown last year, India was riveted by the suicide of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput. The promoted narrative was that the self-made young man from the backward state of Bihar was driven to take his own life by his succubus-like actress girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty and the cruelly elitist Bollywood in-crowd. Pro-government media channels covered little else for weeks and the offending girlfriend was sent to jail on flimsy drug charges, leading to much jubilation. #JusticeForSSR still trends on Twitter every now and then, especially when the news doesn’t quite go the government’s way. The arrest of Aryan Khan, the son of the Muslim “king of Bollywood” no less, served a similar purpose. As the journalist Barkha Dutt pointed out, the case was the “perfect deflection” from other issues, including the arrest of a minister’s son for allegedly running over and killing eight people who were protesting against new farm laws.

But why are celebrities in particular such attractive targets for authoritarian governments?

To begin with, we are obsessed with celebrities, our fascination fuelled by the internet and gossip rags, which dangle their images and lifestyles in front of our faces, out of our reach. We get to “follow” them on social media, our noses pressed to the glass as they sell us the dream, the escape, the experience. Except that nothing really changes for us no matter what we buy. They are the haves, with money, fame, and influence that often seems disproportionate to their talent (if they have any at all), while the rest of us remain part of the toiling, faceless masses. Celebrities are objects of desire, but they also represent gross inequalities. Understandably, our fascination with them has a strong undertow of envy and resentment. We crave what researchers Steve Cross and Jo Littler call “leveling through humiliation.” Let’s face it, nothing gets as much traction as a celebrity brought low.

This brings us to schadenfreude — a German loanword describing the joy (freude) we feel at the harm (schaden) others suffer. This unworthy emotion is universal and part of the human condition, but many believe the internet has taken it to a new level, allowing us to join a jeering online mob to tear down a celebrity from the comfort of our own home.

Some governments know how to exploit this. Not only does a celebrity takedown help distract the public from the government’s failings, it also satisfies them by appealing to this sense of schadenfreude and reminds them who’s boss. At a stroke, the celebrity, the object of envy, becomes just like everybody else, maybe even worse off, restoring a sense of fairness and balance, whilst the punitive state appears righteous, egalitarian (everyone must follow the same rules!), and all-powerful – that is, so long as the takedown seems well-deserved. It’s a cheap and effective way to distract, entertain, and overawe the restless masses while also bringing in line the entertainment industry — which both India and China have recently targeted as a corrupting influence.

In addition, these takedowns can deepen inter-group divisions, but strengthen intra-group affiliation. This is particularly useful for the Indian government, which has always used the politics of polarization to its advantage. Unsurprisingly, supporters of the populist Hindu right wing government are gleefully celebrating the comeuppance of “Bollywood druggies,” while the liberals are wringing their hands about the two-in-one persecution of the film industry and Muslims.

However, people in general are neither as gullible nor quite as bloodthirsty as some governments might hope. We want celebrities to pay for their crimes, but we love them too. We want to give them a chance at rehabilitation and redemption. Schadenfreude can dissipate and be replaced with empathy for the wayward celebrity, especially when the punishment goes so far that it no longer look like justice.

In China, many people are now questioning whether Li Yundi needed to be cancelled as thoroughly as he was. Even a few prominent musicians expressed their discomfiture, including one who told the South China Morning Post that “people should show more sympathy instead of gloating over his misconduct.” Another said he should be given “an opportunity to correct himself,” since other musicians abroad also “reformed themselves” after doing “stupid” things in their youth. In India, there has been a similar outpouring of sympathy for Aryan Khan and several journalists have criticized the harsh treatment meted out to him.

The other problem with excessively punishing celebrities for minor infractions is that the government’s zeal can backfire in unexpected ways, highlighting its own shortcomings and wrongdoing.

When tennis star Peng Shuai accused former Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault, far from providing accountability, the Chinese government responded by censoring her story, blocking searches and deleting posts that even hinted at the scandal. Yesterday, the Daily Mail reported that she has since vanished, likely into the Chinese security state. This would be bad enough in itself, but the Chinese government’s efforts to protect Zhang appear all the more egregious when contrasted to the heavy-handed way it treated Li Yundi. The state broadcaster CCTV, which had so much to say about “social conscience, morality, and dignity of the law” when Li was involved, was now deafeningly silent. This exposed the Chinese government’s hypocrisy and dented its credibility as a moral authority.

Aryan Khan escorted by the police after his drug arrest,
It’s not so difficult to catch hypocrisy! Via Twitter

The Aryan Khan case has caused more serious problems for India’s government. The opposition-run government of Maharashtra state — where the film capital is located — has taken up cudgels against the federal government and accused lead investigator Sameer Wankhede of corruption and other misconduct in the cruise ship raid. The federal government is now facing uncomfortable questions about its role in orchestrating a “fake drug bust” and about some of its own leaders having criminal ties. Some commentators have gleefully noted that the whole episode has “taken the lid off the holier-than-thou attitude adopted by the BJP.” On Indian social media, there is now more sympathy for Aryan Khan…and a fair amount of schadenfreude at the squirming of the BJP government. Ask a Hindu, and they might call it karma.

India Is Emulating China’s Worst Traits

And most Indian citizens are loving it

This piece originally appeared in Rabbit Hole.

Image: Pixabay

If you’re in India and you’d like to stay out of jail, you do not want to befriend Greta Thunberg, the teenage environment crusader. It’s no secret that she is feared and loathed by powerful and not-so-powerful men the world over, but most of them just spew a bit of vitriol and move on. In India, though, the world’s largest democracy where freedom of speech is a constitutional right, you could get arrested just for talking to her about problems in your country.

On the night before Valentine’s Day, 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi was arrested and hauled to jail. Her alleged crime: she tried to “defame” India and create “unrest” by corresponding with foreign citizens, including Thunberg, about the ongoing agitation in India by farmers against three new agricultural laws that they believe – rightly or wrongly – will bring them financial ruin. Disha had apparently made a couple of edits to a “toolkit” on Google docs that summarized various points about the protests in northern India and what could be done to support them. For this, Disha was accused of conspiracy and sedition, a terrifying, nebulous colonial-era law. Around this time, the Indian government also got into a standoff with Twitter, demanding the social media giant remove content that it deemed – entirely arbitrarily – anti-national and inflammatory. When it encountered resistance, the government reportedly threatened Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp employees with jail time if they didn’t produce data relating to the farmers’ protests.

We obsess over China’s success, even as we seethe over its military incursions into border territories and gleefully celebrate supposedly punitive “boycotts” – official or unofficial — of Chinese goods and apps.

Still, so far, despite the Hindu supremacist government that has been clamping down ruthlessly on journalists, activists, and anyone else who talks back too much, it’s been impossible to truly silence dissenters. The judiciary is far from efficient, but it’s not hopeless. Disha’s case illustrates this. 10 days after her arrest, she was granted bail, with the judge categorically stating that “the freedom of speech and expression includes the right to seek a global audience.” Another check-and-balance is the media. While mainstream media organizations are often wary of criticizing the government because they might lose advertising revenue or run into various other problems, there are resolutely defiant independent publications and journalists who do not hesitate to speak truth to power. But it’s unclear how long they’ll be willing or able to risk their lives and liberty to do their job. In 2020, 67 journalists were arrested and detained for their work. In 2021, nine journalists faced criminal charges (seven of them were sedition charges) for their coverage of the farmers’ protests; at least one reported being brutally beaten in police custody.

It’s not a huge shock, then, that India was downgraded from a “free” nation to a “partly free” one in Freedom House’s 2021 report. According to the report, the current Hindu nationalist government has failed to serve as “a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China” and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are “tragically driving India…towards authoritarianism.”

But here’s the thing: the majority of Indians see nothing “tragic” about these developments and, in fact, celebrate the turn the country is taking.

According to a nationwide survey in January 2021, Modi, who’s in his second term as prime minister, remains popular despite a weak economy, rising unemployment, a disastrous overnight “demonetization” of high-value currency notes, the persecution of Muslims, internet shutdowns, and a COVID policy that harmed migrant workers. Vast swathes of the population are willing to suffer for him for the simple reason that they believe he is acting in their long-term best interests. With his image as part-Hindu sage, part strongman, part inspirational self-made man (if he can do it so can you!), the majority of people continue to believe in him and have been willing to endure whatever pain has come their way – including their hard-earned money suddenly becoming worthless – for the greater good.

It’s not just about Modi and his cult of personality, however. Many Indians are in favor of autocracy as a form of government. A 2017 Pew survey, for instance, found that 55% of Indians supported a “governing system where a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts” and 53% were in favor of military rule. Out of the 38 nations surveyed, India was one of only seven where more than six in 10 supported technocracy. China serves as a useful model for this, and in conversations across the country — with taxi drivers, suburban moms, and CEOs — a common line of thought often emerges: Democracy has gotten us nowhere and India needs an autocratic government not only for protection from “aggressors” like China but if she has any hope of becoming like China.

India has for centuries been a fundamentally undemocratic and restrictive society that has been uneasy with its much-touted diversity.

When you live next-door to someone and share a garden wall with them, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons. Your houses may not have been that different when they were built, but now you see their new pool, their shiny cars, their landscaped garden. You don’t currently have the resources to build the pool or buy the cars or redo your garden, but there are certain things they do that are within your reach: they spank their kids for saying certain words, they don’t tolerate arguments, and they have some pretty serious internet rules. Those things you can do.

This is how India looks at China today.

As China has forged ahead and India has bumbled along, taking some steps forward and some backward, we look enviously at the Shanghai skyline, the futuristic bullet trains, the thrumming economy. We obsess over China’s success, even as we seethe over its military incursions into border territories and gleefully celebrate supposedly punitive “boycotts” – official or unofficial — of Chinese goods and apps. We also know that deep down China doesn’t really care much about what we do, and we wonder how it has grown so much greater than us.

As of 2019, China’s GDP per capita was approximately 2.4 times larger than India’s. But back in 1990, India’s GDP per capita was actually a bit higher. 30 years ago, Western newspapers like the New York Times spoke about both countries as “enormous, largely rural, developing,” but now we only seem to have “enormous” in common. While China has modelled what is often lauded as a formidable alternative to the Western neoliberal model, India’s claim of being the world’s largest democracy now seems motheaten and irrelevant to a significant chunk of its own population. Democracy to us now signifies dysfunction rather than power. If we must emulate and indeed compete with someone, goes a popular refrain in India, it’s better for it to be China and its $15 trillion economy than the West with its recessions and political upheavals.

Unfortunately, bolstered by an electorate that is desperate for “decisiveness” and direction in any form, our government is less interested in emulating China’s industrial and trade policies than in copying some of its ugliest traits.

And the strategy is working, albeit in strictly populist terms.

The way Indian society is structured and functions is a major reason for our starry-eyed view of China, and particularly the credit we give its authoritarian government.

India has for centuries been a fundamentally undemocratic and restrictive society that has been uneasy with its much-touted diversity. The past 70 years or so of electoral democracy hasn’t changed that. One reason is the caste system, rooted in ancient scriptures, which divides Hindus into four hierarchical groups (within which are many subgroups) with strict codes on occupation, marriage, and social mobility. In this system, as it exists today, individual liberties are seen as inimical to the good of the community (which is demarcated by caste and religion), and where the writ of all-knowing elders and family enforcers runs large. Being brought up with these values predisposes many Indians to revere authority.

China tightened controls on NGOs, the internet, and religion — well, so did India! Xi put activists and journalists in jail — so did India! Social media shutdowns and restrictions? Coming right up, including the recruitment of “online snitches”!

Secondly, India is a vast land of dizzying contradictions, and has historically been torn between autocracy and democracy. The last time we were under a dictatorship was when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared an emergency in the 1970s after she was found guilty of electoral fraud. For nearly two years, the media was stifled, political opponents were arrested, a mass sterilization campaign was unleashed, and the Constitution was amended to suspend fundamental rights. It was only when Indira Gandhi allowed elections to be held again that democracy returned, and she was ousted by the people. Yet, her appeal as a “strong” leader was not entirely extinguished and she returned to power in 1980 and took a hard line against a Sikh secessionist movement, before being assassinated in 1984 by her own Sikh bodyguard.

Finally, India is a relative newcomer to democracy. Under 200 years of British rule, the subcontinent was divided into provinces that were directly administered by the colonial regime and hundreds of largely autocratic princely states with treaties with the crown. When the British finally hung up their boots in 1947, they left behind not one but two dominions that were split along religious lines— India and Pakistan. In the years since independence, the fissures of caste and religion have been exploited relentlessly by various political parties, leading to a deep disillusionment with the idea of a democratic India. The Westminster model of government that we inherited has lost its sheen, while the Chinese alternative seems to represent exciting possibilities.

This sentiment has peaked under Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was elected in 2014 and then again in 2019. The sheer force of his personality eclipsed almost everyone who’d come before him. He promised that his strength and muscularity – his “56-inch chest” – would help India barrel ahead and assert her Hindu identity. He was not bothered with caste, he said, but sought to unite Hindus into a force to reckon with. He could do this, he implied, only if he was not obstructed by other leaders and political parties who were more concerned with appeasing religious minorities (which comprise about 20% of the population) than they were with propelling India forward. In 2015, Modi made a rousing speech to a group of CEOs in Shanghai that was widely publicized in India, in which he called India and China the “two great and old civilizations of the world.” Relations with China in the years since have frayed, due to the escalation of border disputes, but many still see similarities between the two countries and dream of India pulling off a China-like ascent.

This is mostly due to the perceived similarities between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose brand of authoritarianism is often credited in India for China’s success. These similarities can be seen in their policies.

China tightened controls on NGOs, the internet, and religion — well, so did India! Xi put activists and journalists in jail — so did India! Social media shutdowns and restrictions? Coming right up, including the recruitment of “online snitches”! Anti-government protesters arrested using facial recognition software? Check. Intrusive coronavirus tracing app? India has it too!

The Chinese people thrive and drive China forward despite and not because of their lack of political freedoms. The human costs of autocracy are heavy in China, but we do not often get to see them due to oppression and censorship.

Much like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the BJP is a master of propaganda. There has also been a move towards conflating the BJP with India and Indian identity, such that to speak against the party is to speak against India, to question the party’s policies means you are “anti-national” and dangerous, to criticize its laws makes you seditious. To many Indians, such configurations are necessary – maybe even a necessary evil – to forge the kind of cohesiveness and nationalism that China is seen to have leveraged for its economic rise.

But in their eagerness to copy China, many Indians don’t bother to examine the facts, or they’d know that China’s success story began under Deng Xiaoping with a move away from Maoist authoritarianism. It stemmed not from shutting down but opening up, whether it was the economic reforms of the 1970s or liberalization in the 90s. In addition, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has pointed out, China invested heavily in education and health early on – while India was and is sorely lagging on both fronts. This is what allowed China to enjoy phenomenal growth, not its authoritarian style of government.

While China has cut administrative red tape, India remains mired in bureaucracy at every level, which severely hinders economic freedom. One metric is the ease of doing business: China places a very respectable 31 out of 130 countries in the global ranking, but India, though it has improved in recent years, is still far below at 63. Then there’s corruption. Transparency International found India had the highest overall rate of bribery in Asia. China, too, has long had significant problems on this front but launched a serious anti-corruption campaign which it said punished over a million corrupt officials (though this campaign was also used to eliminate rivals and dissenters).

Another misconception is that China’s prosperity is due to its autocratic system. But Chinese people may have certain traits that lead them to succeed, like a propensity for hard work and enterprise. For instance, this article points out that “every Asian country where people who are ethnically and culturally Chinese comprise a large enough percentage of the population” happens to be highly prosperous – including Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia. In addition, even in countries where they are a minority, like the Philippines (1%), the Chinese “control a disproportionate share (60%) of the private economy.” Not only does this admiration of Chinese dictatorship threaten the survival of democracy in India, it is founded on a misreading of China’s development story.

Most Indians also have no clue how diverse China is. People there hold a variety of opinions – including a desire for the ordinary freedoms enjoyed by people in democracies around the world, as evidenced in the Hong Kong protests and the valiant whistleblowers and journalists who “pick quarrels and provoke trouble.” The Chinese people thrive and drive China forward despite and not because of their lack of political freedoms. The human costs of autocracy are heavy in China, but we do not often get to see them due to oppression and censorship.

India has its own unique problems, of course. As B. R. Ambedkar, one of the framers of the Indian Constitution noted presciently more than half a century ago: “In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.” This means that political equality means very little when there are such deep social and economic inequalities in India. These remain inadequately addressed, feeding a sense of grievance that power-hungry politicians have tapped to their advantage. However, the solution to our problems lies not in autocracy but in playing to our strengths even as we work to overcome our weaknesses.

Many Indians voted for Modi not because of his right-wing politics but because they wanted change – better infrastructure, education, healthcare, jobs. They were sick of the previous weak governments and their track record of nepotism and corruption. His promises of building a temple on a major Hindu religious site contested by Muslims appealed to sections of the populace, but so did his promises of development, boosting manufacturing, supporting start-ups, alleviating poverty, and cleaning up India’s filthy streets. Many put their misgivings about Modi’s chauvinism aside because they thought he’d bring prosperity.

Nearly seven years later, we do have the temple, but on almost every other parameter there is much to be desired. We are now constantly preoccupied with identity politics even as our freedoms are slowly being eroded.

What India really needs is a sustained effort to address her weaknesses and leverage strengths that neighbors like China do not have. For instance, while China’s ageing population has been described as a “ticking demographic time bomb,” India has one of the youngest populations in the world. This “demographic dividend,” however, will pay off only if we urgently tackle the gaps in education so as to improve the quality of our human capital. The adult literacy rate is only 73.2% (compared to China’s 96.8%). Besides, unless you can pay through your nose, the general quality of schooling and even college in India is abysmal —one indicator of this is that 80% of India’s engineers are basically “unemployable” because they lack necessary skills. It doesn’t help that job opportunities — skilled or unskilled, rural or urban — are few and far between. The government needs to step in to fund existing rural employment schemes and provide greater assistance to struggling sectors like small to medium enterprises. It’s sobering that less than half of India’s working age population is employed (in China, about 65% have jobs). If these issues are tackled effectively, India’s youth could lead the country forward.

Another advantage India enjoys is that she has cultivated more powerful friends than China has. However, many countries, especially the US, are unlikely to remain kindly disposed if India continues to follow a China-like path of oppression. It is in India’s best interests to take democracy seriously. So far, all that the repression of the past few years has given India is a bad name.

Copying China’s worst traits instead of her positive qualities, whilst losing sight of our own strengths, isn’t going to help us compete with her.

There are also economic reasons for encouraging rather than silencing the “argumentative Indian.” It’s well known that a disproportionate number of Indians – like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and IBM CEO Arvind Krishna, to name a few – get leadership jobs in the US while many East Asians encounter the “bamboo ceiling.” According to recent research, this has a lot to do with cultural factors: while East Asian cultures encourage “humility, harmony, and stability,” South Asians are more assertive and willing to debate, which are qualities that are valued in leaders in America. The irony is that in India, this argumentative streak is generally discouraged and many talented professionals seek their fortunes abroad. This so-called brain-drain can be countered, at least partly, if India and its institutions become more open to debate and innovation. Rote learning and blind acceptance of authority are hallmarks of most schools and colleges in India, which is a source of endless frustration for many talented students. Add to that authoritarian families and an autocratic government and the atmosphere becomes even less conducive to nurturing and retaining talent.

Finally, the government’s sectarian policies and heavy-handed response to dissent is not sustainable in India even if a majority of people support it. Minorities make up a large portion of the population in India, even larger than they do in China. Out of a population of 1.3 billion, there are 200 million Muslims, 27.8 million Christians, and 20.8 million Sikhs. Targeting these groups rather than the problems we face as a nation is bound to be economically and socially counterproductive even if it brings short term political gains. Copying China’s worst traits instead of her positive qualities, whilst losing sight of our own strengths, isn’t going to help us compete with her.

Freelance gigs from hell: What they say and what they mean

When the definition of ‘professionalism’ keeps changing!

Now, by and large I’ve had the good fortune of working for fair and professional employers, but there are always some who seriously make you question whether the flexibility of the freelance life is worth the curl-into-a-ball-crying migraine of chasing people for (usually paltry) payment. Gaslighting, belittling , shaming… it’s all in the arsenal for some folks who really do not want to part with their cash, and are outraged, simply outraged, that you are motivated by anything other than the spirit of volunteership and charity. In my experience, there are some warning signs that a potential gig-granter will be more trouble that they’re worth.

“Why do you think this will take a month to complete? The work is really simple. It shouldn’t take more than a week.”

Translation: Your professional opinion doesn’t matter and I have no respect for what you do. I’m hiring you only because donkeys don’t know how to type, but what hey, science could change that in a few years. And when donkeys learn to type, they WILL be faster than you.

“More than salary and benefits, we give you the chance to grow.”

Translation: We give you the chance to grow anything but your bank balance! WHy don’t you start with your hair/beard?
“Uh, we know this may be below market rate, but we offer a constant stream of work to make up for that.”

Translation: Yes, we admit you’ll earn pennies, but hey you can do it for years and years and years… what’s not to like?

“Really good to see the links to all your published features and stories, but we still need a 1000-word sample from you.”

Translation: Freebies! Yay!

It’s an editing position, but we will also expect you to create brand materials, write video scripts, mentor trainees, and engage on social media for the business.”

Translation: Freebies! Yay!

“Our onboarding process is really easy. You can start work right away. Oh, payments, yes. Upon completion of the project, you need to e-mail an invoice to our finance department, courier a physical copy to our Mumbai office, and give us a scan of your passport for identity purposes. Checks are cleared in three months or so.”

Translation: Working for us is the reward, getting paid by us is the punishment.

“We can set freelance rates after you share your salary history.”

Translation: Imma looking for a reason to lowball you, sucker. If you were poorly paid you will STAY that way.

If any of your discussions go like this, have some self-respect and say no even if it means surviving on dried crusts of bread that are softened and salted only by your tears of desperation.

The soul-crushing misery of hunting for a job at 40

Once upon a time, you struggled to get a job because you had no experience. Now, people dismiss you because you have too much experience. Your big, fat CV with its wealth of experience says only one thing to many employers: OLD, OLD, OLD. Ageism is real, folks!

Searching for a job at 40 is harder than searching for a job at 25
Upside: Unemployment has made an artist out of me!

And now, because I am so old and so experienced, let me do what old and experienced people do and give you some advice: the sweet spot for job hunting is somewhere between 2 and 7 years. So once you hit that, the following options are best: (a) cling on to your job for dear life because what use is self-actualization when you’ll die anyway. Try not to die hungry, at least, (b) cling on to your spouse and make sure they cling on to their job (c) try to win the lottery, (d) don’t dismiss a life of crime offhand, (d) downsize and live in a shipping container under a bridge and grow your own wild nettles (e) get a facelift and anything-else-lift; shave some lines off your face and some lines off your CV and hope for the best, (d) start your own company and hire only young and cheap workers — wasn’t it, ‘Do unto others as others do unto you?’ No? It was something else? Never mind!

I tried to write a novel

Me: Let me write a novel. A murder mystery about a young mother. I can do it. I will win a prize. Or maybe not. I’ll self-publish if I have to. Let me just write this thing. The children will watch TV. I will not feel guilty.

Inspiration level: 100%. Motivation level: 100%

“The last time I gave birth in this hospital, the nurses had been lovely, reassuring me gently when I baulked at having an enema inserted and my privates shaved. They’d allowed me to suck on chips of ice and instructed Ashish to rub my back as I whimpered in pain. They’d whisked away the bloodied and beslimed blue alien I gave birth to and returned in my arms a tiny pink newborn girl with a soft cotton cap on her head. Hours later, the room had been festive, festooned with pink balloons and filled with proud relatives.

[MAMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA, Where is my PONY bottle? I need my PONY bottle. Why are you so mean MAMAAAAAAAAA]

Me: Stop it. The bottle is in the fridge. Now WATCH TV. EAT CHIPS. EAT SUGAR. Just be quiet.

Inspiration level: 75%. Motivation level: 85%

“And today, here I am, getting ready to give birth again, 3cm dilated after a steady drip of drugs to coax the baby out from the comfort of my womb. Some of the nurses that flit in and out of the room look familiar, but I can no longer be sure. The smiles from my memories are absent; they can barely look at me. “You don’t know the whole story,” I want to shout but I don’t because my lawyer has told me to not say anything that could make me look worse than I….”

[MAMAAAAAAAAA. Can you wipe my POTTY? Mammaaaaaa. I’ve done POTTY]

Potty is wiped.

Inspiration level: 65%. Motivation level: 60%

“….already do. Instead I say, “Can I move around a bit, please? It helps with the pain.” The nurse gazes at the monitor, her face impassive. After a few minutes of silence, she says, “We don’t allow too much movement during the induction process. We need to see how the labour is going.” She is polite but there’s an edge to her voice. “Please,” I say. “They let me move more than this last time, I had an induction then too.” She finally looks at me, and offers the facsimile of a smile. “Maybe you hadn’t….”

[Mamaaaaaaa he’s peeing on the floor. Mamaaa SUSU, there is SUSU on the floor.]

Susu is cleaned.

Inspiration level: 65%. Motivation level: 60%

“… killed anyone back then. I’ll be back in half an hour.” She briskly adjusts the sheets around me, and walks towards the door. “Can you at least put on the fan for me?” I yell after her. She does not reply, as she shuts the door behind her with a sharp click.

[Mamaaaaaaaaa]

Me: What?

Daughter: I love you

Son: I love you.

Me: I love you. How about getting some Paw Patrol on?

Inspiration level: 35%. Motivation level: 25%

“The room is silent except for occasional beeps from the machine. Nothing seems amiss, except that there is no Ashish to hold my hand. My mother has not answered my message…”

Mamaaaaa. Ma’am told me that you need to help me research on festivals. Can we do it now?

Me: No.

Daughter: Please can we do it now? Please? Please?

Me: What’s wrong with watching TV?

Daughter: It’s bad for my brain.

Me: I’ll be there in 10 minutes.

Inspiration level: 15%. Motivation level: 5%

“hjhjahzjahzjah”

Three-year-old son bounds in and sits on lap. Punches the keyboard a few times.

Inspiration level: 0%. Motivation level: 0%

Moral of the story: It’s impossible to write a novel with two small children in the house.

When Black Magic Works

Keep a close eye on your enemies… and friends.

A version of this post first appeared on Rabbit Hole.

All it takes is a lemon and a porcupine quill, apparently. Screengrab from Facebook

They had been best friends since college, as close as sisters, maybe even too close. They’d giggle over private jokes, swap party dresses, cry with each other through dark hours. Towards the end, though, good fortune was shining on only one of them. Vaishali Singh Kansal, a glamorous Indian entrepreneur in her 30s, owned a clothing line and enjoyed a happy marriage. SJ, on the other hand, was navigating financial struggles and a divorce. The last time the two women met, SJ wasn’t acting like herself.

“She came to stay with me as usual and said she wanted to try on some clothes. It had to be in my bedroom, and not hers. We were comfortable changing in front of each other, but this time she insisted I step out. I remember joking that she should tell me if she was growing a new limb or something. The second odd thing happened when it was time for her to leave. She had forgotten a giant crystal locket on my dresser. She called me back from the lobby and asked me specifically to bring it to her. She didn’t want my husband to do it. When I tried to hand it over, she didn’t want to touch it. I had to drop it straight into her bag.” Kansal was puzzled, but ignored the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, just as she’d ignored the mutual friends who warned her to keep her at a distance, the housekeeper who muttered “that woman isn’t right,” the normally friendly pet dog who growled at SJ and rejected treats from her.

What Kansal found the next morning while cleaning under her dresser was impossible to ignore: a charred lemon. Practically everyone in India knows that the lemon is a potent conduit for kala-jaadu, black magic — so much so that, even in Bangalore, the country’s tech hub, lemons are banned from the legislative assembly. Wildlife researchers sometimes protect their cameras from thieving villagers by strategically placing vermilion-stuffed lemons near them. A lemon is what you curse, burn, or mutilate and leave at an enemy’s home if you’re too chicken to follow the proper tradition of chopping off and depositing a black rooster’s head. “I realized later it was all pre-planned,” said Kansal. “She and her mother were always performing rituals and talking about the evil eye, or some black cloud hovering over them. They wanted to transfer their bad karma to me.” The spell didn’t work, but Kansal has cut off all contact with SJ and is still shaken by the sheer malevolence embodied in the charred lemon and untouchable crystal. “It scared the hell out of me. I don’t understand why someone so close to me would do this, but what I do understand is that people use this vicarious form of darkness to fix their own problems. I don’t believe in black magic, but there are bad individuals who have the urge to do harm. Stay away from such people!”

he lemon Kansal says she found. Apparently, when she cracked it open, she saw it was burned from the inside.

Even for a non-believer like Kansal, the performance of black magic hovers in the murky grey area between evil intent and evil action. She can’t help wondering what SJ, drowning in bitterness and jealousy, might have done to her if she had been allowed into the house again. Might she have slipped something into a drink? What else did she have hidden in her bag? And then the unspoken fear: What if the magic had worked?

It did, apparently, on Ankush Bhasin, a clean-cut young father who works as a coach driver in Melbourne and also financially supports his extended family in India. His troubles began in 2019 when he refused to funnel more money to his sister’s in-laws in the bucolic Indian state of Punjab. His sister’s mother-in law, who often consulted with occult practitioners, was furious. She wanted the money to fund rituals that would help her daughter-in-law to conceive. “She cursed me and said I would take to my bed, be ruined. I didn’t believe in black magic or any of this bullshit then,” Bhasin said. “I didn’t believe it until it happened to me.”

On 1 June 2020, his daughter’s first birthday, Bhasin was cutting grass in his garden in Melbourne when he felt an unbearable pain in one knee and fell to the ground. “My knee cap was broken in three places. It was as if someone had cracked it like an almond. Even the doctors were confused. They said they’d never seen a case like it.” The next few months were not much better. Bhasin suffered a series of financial losses and then broke his second knee cap, equally mysteriously. At night, dead relatives would visit his dreams, whispering doom in his ears and sometimes pressing down on his chest until he woke up gasping for air. He is still bedridden and awaiting knee replacement surgery. “I never believed in these things,” he repeated. “If something happens once or twice, you do not care, but when things start going from bad to worse one after the other, you do start to believe.” His family in India consulted a pandit (Hindu priest) who confirmed that Bhasin’s woes were the result of black magic. Lifting the curse would mean undergoing a series of purification rites, but he says the real thing can only happen in India. “There are pandits in Australia too, but they are fake and just want to rip you off.”

In a 1975 essay, the author Jan Morris observed wryly that Indians “love to reduce the prosaic to the mystic.” This is true, but we also love to reduce the mystic to the prosaic, especially if we’re educated middle and upper class Indians. Much has been written about how worship among Hindus is inherently transactional. We wax eloquent about the scriptures and spiritualism, but our elaborate religious rituals, sacrifices, and fasts are usually performed to bribe the gods into bestowing upon us some worldly reward or the other — a baby son, financial success, a long life for the breadwinning husband. Like in much of the rest of the world, Indians are becoming more religious, and our god economy is continuously growing and evolving to cater to everyone from superstitious villagers to Silicon Valley CEOs. You can even buy wealth- or luck-generating prayer ceremonies online, priced depending on how many priests you hire to officiate in them.

A tantric’s Facebook promotions!

But human beings don’t just turn to religion to benefit themselves. We also desire to cause the downfall of an enemy or rival. Let’s face it, success is sweeter when someone else fails. Schadenfreude is part of human nature. To this end, the standard sacred Hindu texts — the shastra — are not of much use. Enter tantra, an ephemeral term that loosely covers mystical practices and penances, sacred and profane in equal measure, aimed at harnessing occult powers to heal, harm, foretell the future, or control the weather. The most extreme practitioners, known broadly as tantrics, know no taboos. Some lurk in cremation grounds and feast on dead bodies, wallow in their own faeces to summon sex-crazed demon-goddesses, mutilate babies at sacrificial altars. Brahmanical Hinduism is obsessed with purity and the hierarchies of caste, gender, and virtue, but tantra has always been open to anybody willing to get down and dirty enough.

The average Hindu views tantra with a mixture of fear, revulsion, and respect. It is generally understood that if you really want something done, especially if it is morally questionable, tantra is far more powerful than ordinary religion. As the religious historian June McDaniel put it, “when the tantras speak, the traditional Hindu texts…run away in fear.” Yet, many potential customers also run away in fear because of the macabre rituals associated with tantra. As a result, many shrewd practitioners have popularized a sanitized and modernized version of tantra aimed at the affluent urban sections of society.

I live in a well-heeled little city near New Delhi, amongst people who are nothing if not cosmopolitan. The local social media groups I’m in are filled with discussions about the best new K-dramas, keto recipes, the benefits of Montessori playschools, the most authentic shawarmas in town. Every now and then, though, someone mentions black magic. Does it exist? What should you do if you suspect you’re a target? There are two main types of responses: recommendations for reliable occultists and sympathetic sharing about similar experiences (mothers-in-law are frequently blamed). Every fifth person, it seems, has been the victim of black magic, although no one ever confesses to having it done. There’s a third, and rarer, type of response too: the dreary rationalist admonishment. “How can you believe in these things?” The usual response to these naysayers, though, is not to reference the formidable powers of shadowy deities, but to claim that “Tantra is science!” Like I said, we love reducing the mystic to the prosaic. One way of doing this is to try to legitimize our deep-rooted beliefs in the supernatural by invoking scientific concepts like the laws of energy or quantum tunnelling, and also occasionally mixing them with anticolonial arguments about the hegemony of Western science and the importance of honoring indigenous knowledge systems. In this framework, occultists are not mystics, but healers and therapists – and often have quite nice offices in malls.

Sidhharrth S. Kumaar is a pharmacy graduate but he has made his mark as a numerologist, astrologer, and expert in the “occult sciences.” His columns on these matters are often published in leading Indian newspapers and he is much sought after for his advice on dealing with curses. A well-spoken man who looks nothing like the ash-smeared ascetics in National Geographic photo features, Kumaar assured me that he uses his powers only to heal the afflicted, and to empower people with the right spiritual tools. He also told me that, alarmingly enough, you don’t need special training to cast a hex. “Anyone can perform black magic, provided that their negative energy is strong enough. All they need is some sort of medium or object in which to transfer it.”

Keep a close eye on your friends!

Kumaar confirmed that crystals and lemons of the kind that SJ used on Kansal are popular because of their ability to “absorb negative energy,” but anything else can work too. “People use clothes, lipstick, shoes, or even edibles to cast a spell. One client was given a chocolate by a man and she suddenly fell in love with him to the point that she became suicidal. Luckily, I was able to help her out and she made a full recovery.” According to him, not everyone is equally affected by black magic. “Some people have greater spiritual immunity than others and so the magic doesn’t cause as much harm.” Kumaar recommends bolstering this psychic immunity by bathing with saltwater and keeping healing crystals in the house. Above all, he advises steering clear of experimenting with the occult to hurt others. “People sometimes ask me to use black magic to make a business competitor fail or to make a girl fall in love. I always refuse such requests. Black magic always backfires. That bad energy comes back with greater force on anyone who tries to harm others. The bad karma gets transmitted from generation to generation. I have seen many such cases. It’s a kind of science.”

But, black magic does not have to be a “science” to cause chaos, injury, and maybe even death. It just has to be believed, or sensed.

Rajani Jain, an elfin and chirpy food vlogger, told me she was immediately unwell and felt a “presence” hovering near her when she inadvertently stepped on a black magic parcel that had been left festering on the side of the road. “It wasn’t even intended for me and it had this effect,” she said. In faraway Mexico, where black magic and witchcraft are also imbued in the culture, the anthropologist Anthony Zavaleta fell physically ill at a black magic site strewn with the defiled photos and belongings of men, women, and children that someone wanted to hurt. He had to let Christian healers “cleanse” him of the maleficence that had slicked on to him.

Obviously, as Kansal and Bhasin have attested, the horror is magnified when you know you are the target. How would you feel if you found black magic items — pumpkin flowers, vermilion, limes, a scarf you thought you had misplaced, maybe a rat’s foot — just outside your gate? You might go mad trying to guess which of your “friends,” relatives, or acquaintances may be holding a grudge against you. You might feel sick, vulnerable, persecuted. And what then, in the throes of your paranoia, might you be capable of?

Black magic works if you do it right. Just skewer a photo of your target to a lemon and leave it somewhere they’ll find it. At the very least, they won’t get any sleep that night.

The Bible speaks of how the “evil eye,” malignant envy, is one of the things that “proceed from within…and defile a man.” However, those who think themselves targets of the evil eye or, worse, black magic, can also be defiled and twisted by fear and suspicion. They see these curses as a real threat to their survival, and retaliation can be commensurately ugly. This phenomenon, of course, is not unique to India. In her research on witchcraft in France, for instance, the ethnologist Jeanne Favret-Saada noted that “unwitchers” justify extreme actions against suspected witches. They believe that they are “on the right side of good” and the enemy is  “on the side of excess or evil” for having made the “first move in the magic aggression.” From then on,” she wrote, “whatever he suffers only serves him right.” In September, an elderly couple in central India were hacked to death by neighbors who suspected them of performing black magic. A couple of weeks ago, a young woman called Jyoti poisoned and stabbed her two stepchildren. She thought their mother had performed black magic on her to induce a miscarriage. Every few days, in fact, a death linked to black magic is reported in India.

Because of this, some Indian states have laws against occult practices, but even some educated Indians still quietly believe and consult tantrics. To ascribe this to mere superstition or mental illness is incorrect, although these factors can sometimes play a role. The allure of sorcery lies in its usefulness as a frame of reference for misfortune and its redress. Amid the randomness and chaos of the world, black magic is a ready explanation for adversity, and one with a relatively straightforward solution – usually paying a mystic to perform a purification ritual. The sense that bad things don’t just happen but are inflicted purposefully, returns to sufferers an illusion of control, while simultaneously allowing them to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their own choices and mistakes.

Indian society values conformity, loyalty, passivity, duty, and obedience but black magic offers a transgressive system within which people can project as well as enact their forbidden desires, and yet always be able to see themselves as victims. Sometimes, this works to soothe guilt and shame. For example, a woman who has sex outside of marriage may convince herself that she could only be seduced because her lover cast a spell on some chocolate he gave her. Then, there is envy, a humiliating emotion that gnaws at our own self-esteem. Black magic can come to the rescue here too. We may believe that a rival in business or love is only better off than we are because they cast a spell to make us fail. Or we may believe that a friend is doing better than us because they’re drawing more than their due from a shared pool of good fortune, and that recourse to the occult can correct this inequity. Black magic can empower us when we feel wronged or victimized: we can cast spells to bring down our enemies, or we can accuse them of casting spells so we can do worldly harm to them with a clear conscience.

Most importantly, black magic works if you do it right. Just skewer a photo of your target to a lemon and leave it somewhere they’ll find it. At the very least, they won’t get any sleep that night.

7 Reasons Why People Who Have Kids Are More Selfish Than Those Who Don’t

Parents. Oh, long-suffering, self-sacrificing parents. How they dedicate their lives to their children. The snot stains on their crumpled clothes and the dark circles under their puffy eyes are badges of honour. Their inability to watch Netflix marathons in peace can be likened to the great sages going without food and water to achieve enlightenment. Look, look, see how they give, give, give. Instead of romantic vacations in Ko Phi Phi, they endure roller coaster rides on Sentosa Island, instead of dining out every night, they sink most of their finances into school fees. Selfless, selfless parents.

Sorry, I beg to disagree.

If anything, parents are way more selfish than those who choose to be child-free. How do I know? I’m a parent! I have two beautiful babies, a daughter and a son, and my ovaries keep whispering at me to have a third one before it’s too late. In short, often to my own surprise, I love breeding and rearing kids. But I also know how selfish this entire pursuit is. It really struck me the other day when I was lunching with an old friend of mine. She is pretty certain she doesn’t want to have kids, but her choice is being deemed as “selfish” by many family members (and others who have no business poking their nose into what she chooses to do with her reproductive organs). Wherever she turns she finds herself looking into the baleful eyes of wannabe grandparents and friends who keep trying to convince her she will regret her choice.

If you really love children, don’t have them.

The term “childfree” invokes images of twerking in an Ibiza nightclub and eating croissants in bed all weekend (and WHY NOT), but what it actually entails is constantly battling societal pressure, emotional blackmail and the need to justify one’s own existence—it’s as if those without kids become living spectres if they don’t produce replacement versions of themselves. And they are repeatedly told they are selfish, selfish, selfish. Now,  I don’t believe being selfish is necessarily a bad thing, but if the title really HAS to be given to anyone, it is parents, not non-parents.

Here are my reasons.

  1. The world is an ugly place

Air crisis, water crisis, food crisis, Donald Trump, war, cyber-bullying, reality TV, Justin Bieber, climate change… the list goes on and on. It is morally wrong to bring innocent babies into this mess. I was acutely aware of all these things and more, but I was selfish… I wanted to feel a baby grow, to birth them, feed them. And having done it once, I wanted it again, and again… even though it is wrong on so many levels, like a hit of heroin.  I love them so much but I have done them no favours by giving them a ticket into this hellhole. Fortunately, as this article in Scroll points out, many Indians are making the wiser and kinder and less selfish choice.

  1. Babies are bad for the planet

Yes, I know they are beautiful look at and delicious to smell and hold. And there is a tiny chance that a baby will achieve great things… but let’s be honest, how many of the 131.4 million babies born each year will actually change the world in any positive way? They will add further stress to already burdened resources and end up as cogs in an increasingly meaningless and dubious wheel.  Do you know that the biggest personal contribution you can make to climate change is having less/no babies? If we were so unselfish, we would have thought of that instead of buying plastic ovulation sticks and starting a diaper fund. Oh, you’re one of those virtuous parents who uses cloth diapers, and each load of shit you clean adds to the halo around your head? Sorry, your overpriced organic cotton options are just as bad.

  1. They are unlikely to be happy

An insane number of children suffer abuse—physical, sexual, emotional. The world is becoming sadder and sadder, and so far none of the pills we’ve produced have helped very much with the anxiety and depression that so many young people go through. In India, for example, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth, who were cute little babies not so long ago. It is heartbreaking. It seems like a healthier choice to prioritise one’s own happiness and wellbeing rather than birth kids who may not have the same luck. Why play Russian roulette with the happily unknowing unborn?

  1. Poor parenting could destroy them

Families can be wonderful, but they can also be sites of abuse and murder. Too extreme? Murderous or not, how many of us can truly say that we will be good parents? Are we sure that we can give them the financial and emotional security that will give them a much greater chance of becoming productive citizens? Are we good enough role models? The chances are your parenting could add to crime statistics. It seems like a rational choice to take that uncertainty out of the mix and do the best you can do to follow the law and not transfer your insecurities, pathologies and hang-ups on to someone else.

  1. Children are not objects

SO many people have kids for the wrong reasons. Some do it without thinking (so selfish! See all the reasons above), others shamelessly and narcissistically want a “mini-me” (what if it looks like Aunty Reena with the unfortunate nose, what then?), some misguidedly want to undo the mistakes of their own parents (are children experiments for you to demonstrate your superior skills?), others think their children’s job is to take care of them in old age (invest in a retirement fund instead of selfishly burdening your kids!) Some get tired of the constant pestering and have babies to “give” their own parents grandchildren (are children playthings to be produced for people who will not be their primary caretakers?).

It is absolutely morally wrong to have children just to make someone else happy, or to fill up a void or unmet need in your life. It is selfish. Babies deserve better. What will you do if they don’t make you happy or you can’t properly take care of them? There’s no store to return them to.  If you have such an emptiness in your life, get a hobby or a prescription. Babies are not antidepressants. They are people. Respect them, even if they are never born.

  1. Being a parent doesn’t add joy to the world

When you don’t have babies, you are doing a favour to cinema-goers, restaurant patrons and airline passengers. There are a few less wails and tantrums for the public at large to endure just because you decided to multiply. Also, parents are grumpy… no surprise that a study found that having a child causes a greater drop in happiness than divorce or unemployment.

7. You can do better than merely propagating your genes

Let me give you my example: motherhood has made me extremely complacent about my hard-earned education and work experience, and I choose to spend the majority of my time engaged in raising my babies. Like many parents, I have taken a backseat to my kids. Their needs, ambitions, goals—those are the things I’m focused on. But that could very well come to nought. I may try to create a beneficial set of circumstances, but I cannot control what they do with their lives. Instead of driving myself to contribute more economically, or achieving more ambitious personal goals, or working for the greater good in some way, I am cleaning bums all day with wipes that are probably going to do all sorts of awful things to the earth. So maybe I AM contributing something despite my paltry earnings and fixation on creative purees for my infant, but what about me and what other things I’m capable of?

The argument often trotted out is that many parents (and we all know, by parents every one means “mothers”) do end up achieving great things and “having it all” but that’s a cop out. Something has to give—you’re either going on the mommy track and retiring—in a sense—prematurely, or you’re as focused as ever on your personal goals, but your kids lose out on a strong parental presence. In both scenarios, you stew in guilt—guilt for working, guilt for not working. It’s little wonder that so many mothers are depressed—which is neither good for them nor their babies.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to be the best you can be rather than sinking your all into a tiny being who you will likely screw up?

At the end of this rant, I have realised something. I love my children. But if you love all children, you won’t have them.

5 Highly Annoying Things That ‘Nice’ People Do

We all have some vicious, horrible people in our lives. But we also have some nice, well-meaning ones that grate even more on our nerves. So, if you’re a ‘nice’ and ‘sweet’ person who is wondering why all your calls go to voicemail and why all you see is a twitching curtain when you ring the doorbell,  perhaps you’re guilty of the sins below.

  1. You open requests with “It would be nice if you could…”

When did “Could you please” or “Just do it the fuck already” go out of fashion? It makes me want to spit when someone says it would be nice/good/great if I did something. It is the most sly and repugnant way to emotionally blackmail someone into doing your bidding. If you say no to such a request, you’re basically admitting to not being ‘nice’, to being a horrible person with no moral compass or human decency. How can you even say no? Sorry, but I don’t think I want to be nice? No thank you, I’m just going to carry on doing the not-nice thing I was doing? A direct request does not put the other person in this position of being nice or not being nice.

People who use “It would be nice…” think they’re being very tactful and open-ended, but really, they’re just being assholes and insulting your intelligence. Slap them down.

Example: “It would be nice if you could get the groceries on the way home.”

Answer: “It would be even nicer if you could.”

This normally causes the nice person to snap back to reality and say, “Just do it the fuck already.”

  1. You hound people to wish others on their birthdays and anniversaries.

Guess what? Facebook is the mega-aunty of the entire freaking world. Facebook’s job is to remind you that it’s your second cousin’s birthday or your ex’s wedding anniversary (screw you, Facebook). People who are not on Facebook are too cool and unconventional to care whether you wish them or not and in any case no one can be bothered to stay in touch with them.

Yet, despite these contemporary realities, some people continue take it upon themselves to call and tell you to greet a relative or family friend on their birthday. If you refuse, they might even try to steal your phone and change their voice to wish that person, who clearly will not be able to survive the day without your greetings. These are people who buy birthday presents and add your name in the gift tag even though you didn’t even remember the damn day.

I once had a relative who called to thank me for a giant bouquet of flowers that I DID NOT EVEN BUY (another relative did, on my behalf). It was disturbing, like a stalker movie in which you don’t mysteriously get flowers but mysteriously give them.

This behaviour is unacceptable because the “nice” person in her own sneaky way is trying to run your relationships for you. For some reason, they are invested in how well you get along with or please someone else, and they feel everything will collapse into a heap of regrets unless they pull the strings.

The point is, if you’re an adult, you’ll remember if something is important to you. If you forget, you will, like an adult, deal with the consequences. Either way, no one but you should try and determine whether your relationships live or die, or if there are some frosty silences at the next family gathering. A relationship built on reminders by a third party is a lie. Choose truth.

  1. You do everything for everyone, and you never complain

Lovely, right? No, manipulative and painful. You may be proud of never complaining, but your eyes always have the look of Jesus on his cross, and your tubercular cough is a persistent reminder of how you’re being taken advantage of. But try and help you and you’re outraged, you won’t allow it for a second, you stop coughing and insist on doing the washing up/childcare/filing. But when the dustpan is handed back to you, the tortured eyes and hack are back in five minutes. Guess what? You’re not helpful, you’re just addicted to being a martyr.

  1. You prefer maintaining a dignified silence to fighting

I’ve already written about this at some length.

  1. Your favourite saying is “to each their own”

Fool. It just shows you are too gutless and desperate to be liked to express an opinion. Now if you really did not have an opinion, it would be OK. It’s just a sign that you don’t think very much and that’s acceptable. However you DO have an opinion and guess what, it leaks. Your pained expressions, hurt sniffs, and sighs of disapproval don’t escape anyone. When you say “to each their own”, what you mean to say is “no better can be expected of these savages.”

 

The Fetishization Of Travel

Being a stay-at-home mother in a somewhat nebulous employment situation, I appreciate the fact that people are no longer as quick to ask, “What do you do?” It’s a refreshing change from the early 2000s, where every dinner party served as a reminder of career failure. But if anything, I probably resent the replacement conversation starter even more: “Where have you been?” If you don’t give the right answer your life failure is clear for everyone to see.

It is assumed that you are cash-strapped or your kid is a travel hobgoblin or that perhaps you do not fit into an airplane seat.

Thankfully, when that question floats out, someone or the other usually pipes up with revelations of hiking in the Andes or scuba diving in the Andamans or volunteering in Bundelkhand and sharing a hovel with former dacoits. What can I say? I’ve been to the grocery store? To Bangkok? These answers — if you manage to make them heard over the cacophony of exultations over Everest Base Camp or Saint Tropez — are still acceptable, though. It is assumed that you are cash-strapped or your kid is a travel hobgoblin or that perhaps you do not fit into an airplane seat. You are offered pity and murmurs of encouragement rather than contempt.

Try telling the truth, though, and most people look at you as if you’ve whipped out a cervical mucus sample. They wrinkle up their noses, they edge away, they suddenly discover a pressing need to make amends with a former friend they haven’t spoken to for a year. You have marked yourself as a boring person. Someone who is not fun. Who knows what you might want to talk about next? Hepa versus ionic air purifiers? Cartesian dualism? Cat poo? There’s something not quite right about you.

So, I may as well say it. I do not like travelling. If I can avoid it, I will. For me, a trip is usually like being dragged to a distant cousin’s wedding, having a sort of good time and thinking “this is not so bad” — and then coming home, kicking off the nasty gold high heels and saying, “Never again.” The packing, the waiting, the cramped spaces, the hotels, the tourist traps… once a year — once a year is my limit. I’d much rather despatch my child to play school, make some sandwiches and read an Inspector Wexford mystery – hello Sussex, bye bye NCR.

 

Airport hell. Must I really do this???
Airport hell. Must I really do this?

 

Do you think I’m hopelessly narrow-minded? Provincial? Fearful? I don’t think any of that is true. It’s just that I sometimes feel as if my horizons are made broader, the distance I’ve covered is greater and the relaxation I’ve felt is deeper on my own darn couch — I have truly felt immersed in different cultures through books and even TV shows, and never more alienated than as a tourist rooting about in her pocket for enough change for the next “authentic” experience or photo-op. Can I not just shudder at Amazonian leeches and learn about their life cycle on Discovery Channel? Must I have my blood sucked by the disgusting little critters? Can limbo dancing on a cruise ship or relinquishing my savings to the dark forces of Disneyland really connect me better with the people of the Caribbean or the United States than a session with VS Naipaul or Jonathan Franzen?

If I’d been single, I probably wouldn’t have been writing this. It’s virtually a law that you must include a passionate love of travelling in your online dating profiles.

In real life, “connecting” with the locals means you’re either intruding or presenting a business opportunity… no matter how many times one flings one’s arm around the neck of a Turkish waiter or a wrinkled Ladakhi woman or an Afghan chieftain (not recommended) and presses click. All too often, the “other” encountered in the course of one’s travels is assigned with qualities of unparalleled nobility or wisdom. Deep conversations with cabbies are noted on blogs, artful photographs are taken of smiling urchins — every air ticket should come with a guarantee of free life lessons. Really, can I just say I’ve had it with pictures of wrinkled Ladakhi women or sadhus at the Kumbh Mela and their transcendent qualities that you think rubbed off on you?

Now, of course travel does widen your horizons, and is in fact necessary for personal growth in some ways. What I have a problem with is the not-so-subtle pissing contest, the endless comparisons of travel creds. The assumption that you must keep going to “bigger” and “better” (whatever your definition of these) places to signify momentum in your life. It’s ridiculous that travel has become a yardstick by which we measure the achievements and qualities of other people, or even ourselves.

It’s not that I’ve had a hopelessly static existence. I’ve studied abroad, travelled to many countries and places in India, I’ve had a gorgeous destination wedding (not my idea, of course!) and spent a large chunk of my career working for travel publications, including a stint as a commissioning editor for Lonely Planet, that bible of evangelistic high-carbon-footprinters. I once won the first prize in a national-level travel writing contest, my disingenuous outpourings subsequently preserved in a book. Basically, I have lived with the imposter syndrome for too long and it is time to come out.

This fetishization of travel, to me, ultimately reflects a particularly shallow and materialistic view of the world and its people. How far you’ve gone matters, not how far you’ve come.

“Coming out”, of course, is made easier by the fact that I have found a life partner. If I’d been single, I probably wouldn’t have been writing this. It’s virtually a law that you must include a passionate love of travelling in your online dating profiles. You must match passports where you once matched horoscopes. It’s no longer enough to say you enjoy sunsets or walks on the beach or a cup of good coffee. It has to be sunsets at the Serengeti, strolls along Kroh Kradan, coffee brewed from beans freshly defecated by Asian palm civets. Then, my friend, you might get laid on the first date.

“Date a boy who travels” say viral blogs — boys whose “hands have explored the stone relics of ancient civilizations” (conservationists, are you listening?). “Date a girl who travels”, say others, because “she’s seen so many things, met so many people, and if she had chosen you, better grab that opportunity.” Implication: people who don’t travel are not adventurous, they’ve probably never met another human being or had an experience in their life. Really? Is going from point A to point B to point C and Instagraming every moment all that matters?

This fetishization of travel, to me, ultimately reflects a particularly shallow and materialistic view of the world and its people. How far you’ve gone matters, not how far you’ve come. Some people are already taking this fetishization to the next level. If you’re as hot as Natalie Wood here, you can offer your companionship to rich men for a free vacation. Inspired? Try specialized dating services like MissTravel. Forget the person you’ll be with, just think of the places he’ll take you. It’s as if nothing else matters. Even on social media, you’ll find that apart from the odd virulent political comment most friends will reveal nothing of their lives other than where they have been. Cocktails made of dragonfruit, feet in various scenic locales, the Eiffel tower, zebras, coral reefs, sunset profiles, suggestively unmade hotel beds, mountain vistas, delighted leaps caught mid-air… these have become the tropes of our lives, proof that we’re having a good time. It is as if we want to deny the authenticity of the mundane, it’s very existence. Life isn’t worth much unless you’re elsewhere. Pleasure must be chased, but contentment is taboo. Movement is everything, stability is stagnation. This ethos, this selective exhibitionism, exhausts me. I’ve always wanted someone I could be still with.

I understand that Indians of the particular subsection I belong to are mobile in every way and this reflects in their obsession with logging airport check-ins, their preoccupation with flight, with elevation — literal and metaphorical. But it’s all become part of a new class system, where homebodies are the lowest in the pecking order. How can anyone want to be where they are? How can anybody want to stay in the lives they’ve built? Guess what, they can. All it takes is some imagination, a Kindle account and cable TV for some of us, and I’m not going to apologize for it any longer.

I'd rather stay put, thanks very much
I’d rather stay put, thanks very much

 

I ‘Got Over’ My Miscarriage Easily And It’s Freaking People Out

“It’s happening,” I whispered to my husband, smiling in the dark. It was 1am, our daughter was asleep, and what I was feeling were unmistakably contractions. Not long after, I felt an urge to push, but instead of racing to the hospital, I went and sat on the toilet and let the inevitable happen. I was having a miscarriage, and I felt nothing but relief in that moment.
Later in the day, once the goriest parts were over and I went about my routine as usual, I felt a certain discomfort. Wasn’t I supposed to cry, to grieve, to be miserable for days on end, especially considering this was a much wanted baby that I had just lost? What kind of person was I to be so self-congratulatory about what I boasted to my husband was a “perfect miscarriage” (natural, not much bleeding, a quick cessation of pain)?

I’m not a heartless, emotionless person. The three weeks preceding the miscarriage were hell. I’d had a chemical pregnancy in May 2016 and two months later I was pregnant again. I was so anxious about it sticking; after wiping, every non-bloody piece of tissue was like a talisman as were the pregnancy tests I took every other day. I told my 2.5-year-old daughter that she could expect a sibling, took my vitamins, milked every twinge for sympathy and dismissal from childcare duties. It all went downhill at the reassurance scan I took at 6 weeks. There was just a wonky looking sac that measured behind by about 10 days. Progesterone pills were prescribed, another scan was scheduled. A week in limbo followed. Endless lurking on a website about misdiagnosed miscarriage, tears, hope, feelings of failure — I could barely function. The second scan revealed the presence of a foetus and that the sac had grown, but no heartbeat. Yet another follow-up scan was scheduled. Another week of being a shit parent, obsessive trawling of forums, tears, rage, grief. Misery all around.

 

Is dissolving into tears and sinking into a depression the only acceptable and “real” response to a miscarriage?

 

Then at the final scan, when I was about 9 weeks along, I was told there was no hope. The baby had probably died around 6.3 weeks. And that’s when the gloom started to lift. I was being released from limbo. There was nothing I could do, no amount of “research” on the internet could give me the hope I craved, I could get back to my life. I could stop grieving.
I told my husband we should go “celebrate” at a nearby restaurant, which we did. I tucked into cured meats with gusto and knocked back a few strong coffees. I felt quite cheerful. My spirits were further uplifted that very evening, when the bleeding started. No D&C, no misoprostol! This may have been a rubbish pregnancy but at least I could have a good miscarriage. My luck had not run out completely.

Once the fetus was out (I told my husband it felt like chunky vaginal diarrhoea while I was “evacuating” it, and he went grey in the face), I had no desire to look at it, to assign it a gender, to name it, to think of it as a potential person. I told myself all the clichés you’re not supposed to say to women going through miscarriage, and they helped me cope: it was just a ball of cells, everything happens for a reason, it was not meant to be, it was all for the best, at least it wasn’t ectopic/molar/late in the pregnancy, at least I had another child, I could try again. Every at least made me feel better because it reminded me that other people were worse off than me. I was still charmed dammit.

I did not take the day off at work and decided to go the doctor for the all-clear once the bleeding had subsided completely — I was not in much physical discomfort, I didn’t want manufactured sympathy or clinical prodding and the practice I go to plays Kenny G’s more plaintive saxophone renditions on loop, which I find unbearable.

Most people who knew what had happened made it a point to commend me on my “strength” but they were also a little appalled. I sometimes make jokes about it and that freaks people out too (I was quite proud of a little limerick I came up with: “My oven threw out my bun, so maybe now we are one and done.” Well, at least it rhymes). Some people think I’m faking it. Others say I’m not allowing myself to grieve. My husband actually told me to at least behave a little less clinical and cheerful about the whole thing because it makes me appear as if I am dissociated from reality.

But am I? Is dissolving into tears and sinking into a depression the only acceptable and “real” response to a miscarriage?

There’s almost a taboo around being able to “get over it.” It somehow makes you this insensitive, unfeeling person. Not woman enough.

There are so many articles about there being no one way to grieve or cope. I completely agree with that and feel great sympathy and empathy for everyone struggling in the aftermath of a miscarriage. I felt all of those emotions myself in the weeks before I physically lost the baby. But it should swing both ways. There’s almost a taboo around being able to “get over it.” It somehow makes you this insensitive, unfeeling person. Not woman enough. On occasion I found myself pretending to be sadder than I was because it was expected of me. That sucks. It’s not that I don’t regret what happened. Of course I do. I wanted that baby. But once I lost it, moving forward was the only way for me and I was grateful I was able to do it this time. It was a blessing to me that I could find that resilience, because that doesn’t always come easily to me. I definitely feel worried about ever being able to carry another pregnancy to term and sometimes I don’t want to even try again because the whole process causes so much anxiety.

But for now I am happy to have an empty womb.