Monday, February 07, 2011

The History Channel

While having dinner with an Egyptian friend of mine two weeks back, the conversation veered round to the recent Tunisian crises. I remarked how Foreign Policy was already predicting that Egypt and Libya would be next to see their long-standing rulers fall. My friend Ahmed considered the possibility for a moment and then replied with a reassuring nod of the head that the west doesn’t understand Egypt well enough and Mubarak would continue to rule. We had a chat yet again last week, this time on Facebook. He had just had a talk with his family and they suggested that he withdraw all his money as the banks are being looted rampantly in Cairo. I concurred with this suggestion as the downside to doing that was just the transaction fee. But I refrained from pointing out how he had been wrong the last week. The poor guy was jittery and I assumed, wasn’t in a mood to be mocked for past lapses in judgment.

One of my regrets of living in the twenty first century is that as far as sweeping political events go, the current times pale into to insignificance compared to the heady days of the thirties and the forties. The modern world is all about keeping pace with the latest update to the latest Apple product or finding out why Bruno Mars wants to hold a grenade. My feeble mental capacity finds it difficult to keep up with the obsession for newer electronic gadgets or seemingly endless reality shows churning out super humans who then disappear without a trace. I yearn for less demanding and old fashioned global events like coup-de-tats and assassinations with an economic recession thrown in every now and then.

However every few years we have one of these milestone events where all history buffs can get their bag of popcorn and start flipping between BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera and watch old school reality television. The current imbroglio in Northern Africa is one such rare opportunity. The frustrating dilemma with historical events is that they usually follow a standard template which makes me look up the dictionary to check how déjà vu is spelt. Nevertheless my opinion is still divided about whether the Egypt/Tunisia story will eventually follow a script which will be vaguely familiar to the students of world events. So I have decided to indulge in some Glenn-Beckish speculation.

Anyone with an opinion on this issue is claiming hoarse how all this sudden burst of resentment among the people is so unexpected. No one apparently knew that Tunisia was ruled by an iron-fisted but benignly named dictator, Ben Ali. Selective and biased reporting, an inadvertent hallmark of the western media, means that any unconventional news from nations with west-leaning despots are met with shock and alarm. North Africa today presents us with an outstanding opportunity to see western diplomacy’s hypocrisy at its finest. While I am a firm believer in having an adaptable, self-serving and hypocritical foreign policy, if I take off my tight fitting nationalist cap for a moment, I find the whole charade of sympathy emanating from the foreign offices of all the western governments highly amusing. Till a month ago Ben Ali and Mubarak were the darlings of the western democracies with the Pentagon regularly outsourcing their illegal renditions and interrogations to Mubarak’s delightfully cooperative security agencies. UK and Switzerland never got conscience attacks when the Mubarak family hoarded an estimated 70 billion dollars in terms of real estate and Swiss Francs. The Bush administration invaded Iraq to “bring” democracy as they thought Saddam’s 98% majority election victories were phony. But Mubarak’s continuous electoral victories with over 90% votes polled in his favour hardly raised eyebrows. I am sure there is a US State Department paper somewhere stating 92% majority as the acceptable boundary between the-people-have-spoken elections and he-is-a-tyrant-who-rigs elections.

With the people on the streets for a couple of weeks, the sight of Hillary Clinton and Obama solemnly rebuking Mubarak to take the right decision and step down and give democracy a chance is perhaps a signature moment showcasing the delightful and highly effective duplicity of US foreign policy. Without doubt, while mouthing its commitment to the Egyptian people’s aspirations, the Americans will be working furiously in the background to keep status quo but minus Mubarak. The masses, gullible as always, will have their ego boosted at having removed a hated figure while their life slips back into the clutches of yet another repressive regime.

At this critical juncture where the situation is poised to turn in any direction, I am tempted to make some predictions. I will bet my money on the ex-spymaster and newly appointed Vice-president Omar Suleiman who should take over the reins and brings things under control with the help of the ever compliant army. Mubarak will be given an unceremonious farewell which will be painted as a “dignified exit for a patriot”. Gamal Mubarak will be making late night phone calls to his ex-es and bitch about how if only his dad had handed over power to him a few years earlier, he would have never allowed any of this protest nonsense. And then he would quietly wait for a comeback and turn the tables on Omer. Hosni himself will spend his days in exile, most probably in Europe, and write long letters to a kindred spirit Ben Ali about how the Yankees fucked them both over when the chips were down. El-Baradei will find himself back in Vienna, a city where he has spent almost all his life, agreeing that parachuting oneself into a volatile situation and exploitatively painting oneself as a mass leader is something only the Gandhis can do. He will also get rid of his designer I-am-a-revolutionary stubble. The Israelis will congratulate each other in private on having accomplished yet another clinical behind-the-scenes operation and the Swiss will mail brochures about their outstanding banking services to the new Egyptian president. The Indian government will obviously continue to monitor the situation till kingdom comes. The Chinese will exploit the confusion and try to buy the pyramids.

But then the above scenario happens only if everyone plays their part. What if the powers-that-be start fucking things up? The situation may tread uncharted waters if the Egyptian masses irresponsibly show continued self-respect and a complete lack of expected riot fatigue. What if the Americans misplace their standard operating procedure handbooks on democracy prevention? What if the Israelis just decide to take some time off from worrying about their existence? What if real change happens? Incredible and unconventional though it may sound, I would still like to hazard a few predictions here too. Mubarak and all his cronies would be thrown out. Some of them would be mysteriously found in dark alleys wrapped in white cloth, an old Egyptian tradition. Gamal Mubarak will send his resume to Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan and get recruited immediately.Elections would be held and El-Baradei will realize he cannot pull a Rahul Gandhi-ish con and then retire with a grumpy face to Vienna. The new government with a sizeable representation from the Muslim Brotherhood will show more kindness towards Gaza and indulge in a bit of saber-rattling about Palestinian rights. The Americans will promptly shut them up with military aid to the tune of a billion dollars. The Swiss will mail brochures about their outstanding banking services to the new Egyptian cabinet. The Egyptian people will begin to get used to the change from hating just one man to hating a house full of squabbling and corrupt parliamentarians. Obama will take credit for the victory for democracy and check with the Norwegians if another Nobel can be obtained. The Indian government will obviously continue to monitor the situation.

And I will then regretfully flip back from Al-Jazeera to AXN and get a gin and tonic.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Proust Questionnaire

It is widely acknowledged that adding one’s mom on Facebook can bring nothing but gloom and anxiety. That axiom was momentarily proved wrong when my mother shared the Proust Questionnaire. Needless to say, I didn’t know who Proust was or why we should bother about some questionnaire bearing his name. A quick search on Wiki revealed that Marcel Proust was a French author of great renown who had filled a questionnaire twice in his lifetime (a common trend in those times) and the difference in his answers showed how his thought processes had changed with his life’s experiences.

A quick look at how Proust had answered made me cynically suspect that it was a clever attempt at impressing the ladies. However I have to grudgingly accept that as far as attempts at self-discovery go, there is a point in answering such questions and then look at them some time from now to see how things change. So I have boldly decided to pull a Proust. For some reason there is a mild difference in the two sets answered by Proust and I took the liberty of merging them.

While at first glance the questions seemed to border on the trivial, they were surprisingly difficult to answer. At the end I was left with a depressing feeling of a complete lack of depth on what I know about myself and the world. It’s obvious that more effort needs to be invested in the right pursuits.

It is highly advisable not to read Proust’s own elegant replies before one attempts the questionnaire as it is bound to influence how one may answer. So here are my own answers.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Inability to communicate.

Where would you like to live?
A country with no little guys.

What is your idea of earthly happiness?
Happiness is hypothetical.

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?
Faults which make life more amusing.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?
Edmond Dantes, Howard Roark and Bertie Wooster. Anyone who knows exactly what he wants.

Who are your favorite characters in history?
Alexander for setting the benchmark so high on what one man can achieve.
Ashoka for symbolizing everything my country should be about.
Che for walking the talk.
Gandhi for his utterly brilliant and sometimes exceedingly cunning politics.
FDR for showing how anything is possible.

Who are your favorite heroines in real life?
All single mothers.

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?
Any character which forces me to imagine in painstaking detail how they may have looked like.

Your favorite painter?

Your favorite musician?
Hans Zimmer and The Beatles

The quality you most admire in a man?
Loyalty, courage, zeal

The quality you most admire in a woman?
Patience, tenderness, spirited

Your favorite virtue?

Your favorite occupation?

Who would you have liked to be?
Who but me again. But perhaps a bit leaner and more aware would be good.

What do you most value in your friends?
Loyalty and frankness

What is your principle defect?

What is your favorite color?
Anything which occurs in nature.

What is your favorite flower?
Depends whom I am getting it for.

What is your favorite bird?
The eagle

Who are your favorite prose writers?
Wodehouse and Dickens

Who are your favorite poets?
I have read too little to decide but I always liked Tagore.

What are your favorite names?
The one which is whispered.

What is it you most dislike?
Arrogance and disloyalty.

What historical figures do you most despise?
Churchill, Mir Jafar and General Dwyer.

What event in military history do you most admire?
War of 1971.

What natural gift would you most like to possess?
Discipline and charisma

How would you like to die?
Without pain and with a smug look.

What is your present state of mind?
Lazy and disorganized.

What is your motto?
Failure is acceptable but not regrets.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2010 - The Year That Was.

January: Big boys don’t cry. I am not a big boy then. Wait, is this an apartment or is this The Apartment? A bath tub and well stocked fridge means all of life’s wishes are fulfilled. Shall I retire? The infamous trip to Hampi and all those things we can’t talk about.

February: A few good men sit down and try to define power. Chaos ensues . Crazy road trip in a crazier car. Sach ka Samna in the Wing of Fire. How to resign in a kick-ass manner? Watch and learn.

March: Luck strikes. Apparently naval architecture is yet another discipline I am not good at. Master Shifu makes a dramatic entry and changes everything forever. Is it possible that El Dorado actually exists? How do I become a member? Khrushchev makes a quiet entry. As a side note, finally a very cool office address.

April: F1. Wrote a treatise on how to make a fool of oneself. Wept.

May: Called back to the eastern front for the next sordid chapter of the long con. Started impersonating Ian Wright in my free time. The affair with Khrushchev gathers steam in more ways than one.

June: I love fishing. I would have loved it even more if I caught anything. Estonia needs to be quarantined. MBS is born and my career in international crime takes off. Master Shifu continues to destroy my ego with effortless ease. I consider conversion.

July: The con continues destroying all logic and reason in its path. Impersonating Wright yields great benefits. I propose marriage to travelling and she accepts. I swim with sharks. Literally. Khrushchev continues to mesmerize.

August: Conversations, deep introspection and a lot of food home delivered. The sales pitch is finally made. Subservience pays, the pitch is accepted. Exit Khrushchev.

September: (Disappointing) Road show at IITM. Deaths and good byes. Change of perspectives and promises to self. Leave for the much awaited magical mystery tour. Hate aircrafts. Realized how much I missed the classroom.

October: Questions, tests, ghosts, mild flirtations, humiliations, beaches, parties and pranks. Sign off from The Apartment. Solemn goodbyes. A pat on the back.

November: Madness. Sheer madness.I consciously decide to bite off more than I can chew. Chan marries and I miss the show.El Dorado comes closer. Camping is redefined. Do I know how to dance? No. Do I know how to dress? No. Do I know how to kiss? I used to. Not anymore. Do I know how to talk? No. Do I know how to give up? No.

December: Amarda gets hitched. I fly solo for the first time and ruffle feathers. The price of insubordination is paid. El Dorado is dangerously close. The wardrobe slowly begins to transform. The delight from Istanbul and the silly line about the hair. The clients arrive and Operation Vacation is launched with much fanfare. Busses, visas, resorts, shopping, crabs. Operation declared a success and clients leave. Master Shifu wishes me the best and exits.

January 1st, 2011, 11:59pm: A scratch on the bucket list. An incomplete draft of a thank you note. Jazz and Mr Daniels. What a difference a year can make.