Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Parenting for the corrupt bureaucrat

The other day, someone suggested to me that corruption be legalised and why not? We could do away with the whole charade and honesty itself could be redefined, ahem, more honestly.
Of course, there’s a roadblock: the Constitution. Written by idealists and, worse, people who were sticklers for rules, it allows no elbow room for such pragmatic manoeuvres. So what does the poor rich corrupt bureaucrat do in the meanwhile? Ignore the pressing needs of his family to uphold a piece of legislation? Of course not. A babu has to do what a babu has to do. He has to busily seek loopholes, profit-points, deals and that odd crevice under the table. In that order. And he manages this with admirable ingenuity. He smells a leverage two mornings before it wafts in, he covers his tracks better than a guerrilla warrior, and he slips his gains under the carpet and makes it reappear as benami or wife-nami real-estate in his mofussil hometown. No fuss. He needs no coaching here.
Unfortunately, he finds parenting a stiffer challenge – children are exposed to all kinds of nonsense even in this day and age. They might learn old-fashioned values in their old-fashioned schools; they might befriend children from upright families; they might occasionally read past the fifteen Page Threes; and who knows what impact angst-ridden Bollywood movies, even B-grade ones, might have on a child’s psyche?
It’s a jungle out there and the babu has to guard his fiefdom from these nefarious influences. Thankfully, help – a proven model – is not only within reach, but it can also be implemented right from the day the little babu-ess is born.

Age 0-12

Dear babu, you’ve just heard the good news in the waiting room of the Maternity Home. Congratulations! You’re a Papa. Tip that toothy nurse a large Gandhi, thank your wife for a job well done and now: beam at your child. She might resemble a bundle of innocence, but you mustn’t wait any longer. Now’s the right time to introduce her to your worldview. Pamper her well. She’s too young and too late for a monogrammed chamberpot, but you can buy her other things. Diapers softer than moss, enough toys to shame the North Pole workshop and perhaps a naming ceremony your locality will remember for a long time. Record your efforts for posterity. She’ll appreciate your love soon enough. She will because you’re already getting her addicted to moneyed pleasures.
That’s the crux. There’re some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Brasht Babu. You. Her Papa.
Teach her this crucial lesson. Everyday, every waking hour. If you’ve done a good job, you’ll ensure that by the age of two, she can’t sleep in a non-a/c room. By the time she turns four, she believes that trains are quaint contraptions that toot while ferrying other people. Bear in mind that this is also the ripe age for a different kind of lesson: how should one treat one’s parent? Show her by example. Hire a fulltime nurse to take care of your ailing father. Chat obsequiously with him in your daughter’s presence. Agree with everything he says. Get your wife to ask you: ‘Why didn’t you correct him when he said that?’ Your reply: ‘He’s my father. It’s not for me to correct him.’
You might have to repeat this drill many times in the next few years. Some children are naturally rebellious, so the message might take time to sink in. But eventually, your daughter will be thrilled by the sobering beauty of this lesson. Her father isn’t just an able administrator and a respected man of society, but also a simple and noble man. Of course, your daughter will hear this very sentiment expressed incessantly by your subordinates, especially in those deliberately dull parties at the clubhouse where the men talk shop, the women pretend to be interested in social service and the children smile and whisper monosyllables, but none as sweetly as your little angel.
It might be smooth sailing from now on. Or maybe not.

Age 13-17

Teenage might upset your well-laid plans.
Let’s say that your daughter is going through a torrid phase. On many topics, she now trusts her friends more than you. She’s also spotted a few chinks in your reasoning. Your best defence is to lie low and maintain the usual serene demeanour. The storm will pass. Meanwhile, find innovative ways to impart the by-now familiar lessons. Throw in a story or two about vulture-like peers badmouthing you because they perceive you as a threat. It also won’t hurt to become a Lion or Rotarian. Better still, contribute a fortnight’s salary for a good cause – in your daughter’s name, of course. And if possible, write an intelligent article titled, say, RTI: Tool or Weapon? Overall, let your daughter see that you’re a good man doing a good job under adverse conditions.
But let’s not dismiss the extreme scenario. Perhaps you goofed up somewhere down the line. Perhaps your daughter feels forced to confront an age-old dilemma: should she choose earthy institutional values over airy human values? What’s her take? Family or society? She has a sneaking suspicion that you’ve made it an issue of one or the other. It might prompt her to ask the dreaded question: ‘Papa, are you clean?’ Look deep into her eyes before you answer: ‘Sweetheart, I’ve done nothing to be ashamed of.’ It’s true, isn’t it? You accepted that the systemic beast was untameable. You decided against being a pretentious crusader. You blended in. Was that such a bad thing? Of course not. You needn’t be ashamed of your humility and level-headedness; they form the backbone of your strong character.
And now your daughter sees this as well. She hugs you and apologises for crossing the line. Just a few doubts linger in her mind. Dispel them by casually suggesting that she attempt an alternate lifestyle for a while. She’ll jump to it – teens are suckers for experimentation. So go ahead, slash her allowance. Ask her to take the city bus instead of the sarkari car to her junior college. Grind your teeth and try not to think about the lewd eveteaser and his groping hands. Find other privileges to slash. Give her a scaled-down model of mobile phone, discontinue her shopping allowance, let her next birthday cake weigh less than 10 kgs etcetera, etcetera. If you’re willing to travel the distance, buy her seventeenth birthday dress from a Bargain Basement outlet. By now, you’ll surely notice tears forming in the corners of her eyes. It’s time for the experiment to end. So offer her a re-entry into her old way of life.
Your daughter will reclaim her privileges – which had seemed to cloy around the edges – with joyous abandon. She’ll also reinstate you on her pedestal. She now appreciates, fully appreciates, your untiring efforts to create a likeable world for her.

Age 18-24

Now that you’re her hero again, she’ll approach you for some serious career counselling. Her heart says Fashion Designing, but her mind screams Environmental Engineering. Could you help her resolve this tussle between teen heart and teen mind? Ah-hah! Time to unleash your philosophical arsenal. Talk abstract. What’s heart? What’s mind? In keeping with your increasingly intense religiosity, you must quote liberally from religious text – they’re so wonderfully open to interpretation – and you must also shift focus from the fact that you understand neither fashion nor the environment, except that both seem to be going downhill. But you do have a fair idea of the market risks associated with both fields. That’s where you should focus. By the end of the discussion, you must convey, in a palatable form, the distilled wisdom of your life:
Follow the money trail; both imagination and a conscience make life unbearable.
That done, trust her to make the right choice. The third choice, the one you had subtly pointed out during the conversation.

Age 25 onwards

Your daughter has been fending for herself for the past few years. She's doing well. A chip off the old block. She regularly brings you gifts. Kashmiri sweaters, Swiss watches, French perfumes – things that wrap together opulence, worldview and love. But one day, she tells you that she has a different kind of gift in mind. She’s chosen her life partner, and won’t he, her beloved Papa, meet the lucky guy and his family? Your heart flutters a little. You reach for the blood pressure pill. This is big news. Someone whom you haven’t influenced would now influence your daughter. Who was this man? How did he perceive the world? Has Life planned a last-minute complication for you?
You put up a brave front and proceed to meet this man’s family, wearing gentlemanly clothes and the haughtiness that’s now second nature to you. You smile for your daughter as the destination inches closer. There it is. The bungalow of her prospective in-laws. But hold on! A distinguished nameplate adorns the gateway. The CISF jawan at the gate salutes you. You drive past him and then a homely Ambassador with a red light on the roof. You alight and shake hands warmly with the prospective groom’s father. ‘Birds of a feather,’ someone says. That someone is the neighbourhood sycophant, a mirror image of the ones grovelling at your doorstep. You beam. All’s well. The reverence in the prospective groom’s face is proof enough.
You taught your daughter well. You’ll never lose her. In untold ways, she has become you. Congratulations!

P.S: My sincere apologies to the honest bureaucrats. Are all five of you reading this?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ramadan in Sharjah

From five storeys above the ground, I grip my laptop and watch an unfamiliar, sand-dusted city that has turned into a midmorning mirage. The shimmer of the desert has blended with the shimmer of the Arabian Sea in the distance. The traffic appears liquid, the palm trees sappy. A couple of poorly-dressed South Asian construction workers wade through steaming asphalt on oozy legs. On the other side of the road is a mosque with a flat dome and jagged minarets. I illogically lean forward in my air-conditioned soundproof office and listen for the call of the muezzin, hoping that piety will cure me of the overwhelming and untimely desire I feel. But all I hear are international office sounds. Tap-tap, ring-ring, clickety-click.
I stare woefully at my laptop screen and find it dissolving, succumbing to the mirage. Not good. It’s not only my first day in Sharjah, but also my first day in a prestigious project for a new client. I already know that the deadline is tight as curds. To get into the rhythm, I must have coffee. I recall the words of a veteran immigrant to the Emirates:
‘Have coffee, have a feast, by all means. Just don’t let an Emirati see you having it.’
So be it. I rise, button up my blazer and hunt for the pantry. I find it deserted, although the mess tells me that this world, too, is full of sinners like me. No time to waste. I rummage through the drawers for a cup and come up empty-handed. The animal in me considers making a cup out of my palm. Fortunately, a voice behind me says:
‘You’re probably looking for this.’ I turn and stare at a youngish man holding an array of Styrofoam cups and stirrers like it was a prize trophy. He shuts the door behind him and continues: ‘Cups are difficult to find. Especially during Ramadan.’
‘Yeah-yeah,’ I say, almost snatching a cup from his hands. In the next ten minutes, I slurp through a gallon of hot coffee. Having done that, I pop a mint into my mouth and exit the pantry. My face exudes serenity. My jaws don’t move – the mint must take care of itself.
Later in the evening, hours after the Moslems have left to break their fast, I leave the office and am greeted by a different Sharjah. The sand has settled. The heat has gone to bed. And the roads are packed with traffic and people – South Asian, Filipino, Caucasian and also the occasional kandoura-wearing Emirati. The air is singed with the aroma of fresh food. I head for the nearest shawarma stall and buy one from the Pakistani man running it.
‘Ramadan Kareem,’ we tell each other.
Underneath the open sky, in the reflected glare of blinding-white neon lights, I chomp hard into my shawarma and feel like a new person. Because if you’re in the Emirates during Ramadan, you will celebrate the breaking of the fast, no matter what your faith is.