Category Archives: Laughing Gas

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Hallmark Cards For India

I don’t know about you. It’s been ages since I’ve been in the greeting cards section of a store, let alone buy one. So I don’t really have first hand feel any more for what Hallmark sells nowadays. But I’ve read at some time that their business has been losing steam over the years. In these days of internet, mobile phones and digital content, I guess it’s not surprising that e- cards have taken over and their counterparts in the physical world have been relegated to endangered species status. I wonder if this state of affairs has caused a loss of morale over at Hallmark? What ho! Maybe we should help. How about a few Hallmark card ideas for occasions which are uniquely Indian? Perhaps this will boost their sagging enthusiasm?

“Congratulations ‘cause I have this really good feeling that you’re gonna win the Film Fare Best Actor award at some point in your life”

Know anyone with the surname Khan? Are you buddies with the son/daughter/nephew of anyone named Kapoor? Look no further. We’ve got what the doctor ordered for you. Send this congratulatory card in advance right away and shamelessly curry favors with your favorite mediocre Bollywood progeny all year long.

“Here’s wishing you a pesticide-free New Year!”

Put a twist on the traditionally staid New Year greeting. Here’s a card which you can send to anyone in your social circles who’s prone to imbibing copious volumes of milk, cola, water, mangoes or anything edible for that matter. Since pesticides are ubiquitous, what better way to show that you care than selecting from an extensive pesticide series which includes cards for all occasions? Wish your friends and family pesticide-free Ramzan, Christmas and Diwali and spread goodwill and cheer all year long.

 “Sorry I leaked your doctored CD”

Are you a member of the household staff of a politician or an industrialist? Have you ever shot secret video using a ill concealed mobile phone and captured your employer’s shenanigans? Did you then doctor and embellish it? Now admit that you leaked the said doctored CD to news channels. Has your employer paid you handsomely to retract your allegations? There you go. We’ve got just the card you’re looking for.

“Happy birthday to your struggling airlines! Hope your pilots don’t go on strike. Tell Sid I said Hi”

Perfect for friends, acquaintances and well-wishers to make it large and send to Vijay Mallya.

 “We may have nothing in common. Heck, will you be my coalition partner?”

There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. This is truer for Indian politics. Perfect for that day we celebrate the dharma of coalitions. Tailor made for the Valentine’s day of political parties, if there were ever to be one.

“Wish you were here”

This simple yet powerful card is perfect for many occasions. Future members of the Indian cricket team will send it to Tendulkar and Dravid. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha could send one daily to Members of Parliament. Students in government schools to absent teachers. Citizens to delinquent police officers. Harangued women to their truant house maids. The list goes on.

“Hope you get bail soon!”

Your local MLA get charge sheeted by CBI lately? Wake up one morning to find your MP on TV in handcuffs and being led to the Big House? Despair not. Our “Hope you get bail soon” card lets you demonstrate that perfect balance of concern and optimism.

A Living Will

  •  If I should remain in a comatose state for 15 consecutive years, feel free to switch off the TV
  • If I haven’t uttered a single syllable for four straight years, I’d like to be referred to as Mr. Manmohan Singh
  • Assume that in the worst of conditions, I can still hear but would highly prefer not to hear Rakhi Sawant
  • Even if I’m unable to recognize or interact with friends, I’ll still expect birthday messages on my Facebook wall
  • If the doctor declares me brain dead, I’d like to watch House Full 2
  • If my end is particularly dramatic, I’d like to be played by Ravi Shastri in the movie version
  • If I don’t respond to loved ones’ attempts to communicate, remind them of our last road trip
  • I’d like to die at home, surrounded by my laptop, iPad and cell phone
  • In lieu of flowers, I’d prefer tweets
  • If there should be a eulogy, I’d like it to begin with “I suppose, in a way, we all contributed to his end”

Buddhist believes being in the moment “over rated”

In an intriguing twist to the 2,000+ year old history of the religion, a veteran Buddhist leader today stepped forward with the startling and controversial claim that the core tenet of his faith – “to stay in the moment”  – was perhaps over-rated.

“After decades of following the noble path and meditating incessantly, it has become painfully obvious to me that the place to be is not in the now. And it’s certainly not here. I’m thinking of moving to Los Angeles”, said 70 year old Namgyal Norbu, a Dzogchen teacher from eastern Tibet in a hastily arranged press conference at the foothills of the Himalayas.

“I certainly don’t regret anything. Ever since I joined this monastery, I learned to dwell on neither the past nor the future, and instead on the endless moment. You know what? The moment really is endless. The “now” never stops. It just seems to go on and on. I’m getting all stressed about it, and could really use a break”, he explained.

When pressed on his future plans, the master had this to say.

“I’m beginning to believe that I may be open to a certain level of speculation about the future. I’m even looking into building up some level of expectations to make life a little more interesting. And while I’m at it, who knows, get a groovy bachelor pad, a hot set of wheels and all Apple products. That sort of a thing is beginning to appeal to me. Anything is possible”

When requested to expand on what caused the inner revelation, the monk responded wistfully as follows.

“You’re asking what caused me to awaken from my state of meditative introspection. That’s a really good question. I have to confess that I had my misgivings when I first sold my Ferrari and entered the monastery. Although, at that time, it seemed like the thing to do. You know, I had a great career and lots of money, but I wasn’t happy back then. There was something indefinably empty about my life. So that’s how I turned to spirituality. But here’s the deal. After thirty years of non-stop meditation and controlling the mind, I’m thinking that maybe I need to slow down. I was watching cable TV the other day, and that’s when it struck me. That there’s no way I could keep up with the Kardashians and stay in the moment at the same time”

The What Ho! Report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

The What Ho! Guide to Indian Politics

In order to understand Indian politics, you have to read and memorize the following phrases.

1.  Coalition Dharma

Once upon a time, there were elections held for 540 seats. 321 parties contested in the elections. One party won 220 seats. And, 320 parties won one seat each. Thus was born coalition dharma, a term used in Indian politics to describe the dynamics of putting and keeping a government in place. Think of it as a pact among thieves. I won’t ask. You don’t tell. Let’s all just happily get along. Until, of course, the Supreme Court sends us all to jail.

2.  Letting the law take its course

Let’s pretend that your worst political rival has just been arrested on false charges. And, it looks like he might go away for a long time, if the charges stick. A journalist calls you at two in the morning to get your reaction. What do you say?

You let the law take its own course – much like a Bollywood movie does, after the interval break. No one knows the law. No one knows where it’s going. It’s but natural that everyone wants it to take its own course.

3.  O High Command, Hallowed be thy name. Your kingdom come

High Command.  This one’s exclusive to and a favorite of the Congress party. Which sick, spineless, obsequious sycophant came up with this one? It begs basic questions such as – Who’s in command? And why is she high?

This blot on Indian political lingo evokes images of an acid-dropping long-haired hippy singing Dum Maaro Dum, while seated in front of a Star Trek style spaceship console and remote controlling one-eyed aliens from outer space.

4.  If you’re not secular, you must be communal

The Age of Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe, that sought to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted science and intellectual discourse, opposed superstition, intolerance and sought the separation of church from state. Out of this movement came the word ‘secular’ – to denote a state of being separate from religion.

The word secular has taken on a life of its own in Indian media and politics, and has now turned into a farcical comedy. A “secular” political alliance in India could include a motley crew of Communists, Muslim League, Congress and characters such as Mulayam Singh and Laloo Prasad Yadav. What on earth makes them secular, you may wonder. Is it shared admiration for intellect, reason and logic? No Sir. They are secular because they are not communal.

5.  Hand in hand with the foreign hand

In the movie, Sixth Sense, a boy claims to be able “to see dead people”. Our politicians have a similar uncanny ability to see “foreign hands”. The power of the foreign hand is not to be underestimated.

Imagine a crisis-struck government seated around the table and brainstorming options.

“Can we blame the opposition for this crisis?”

“Nope. Those guys have been comatose since they lost the elections”

“Can we put this down to compulsions of coalition dharma?”

“Not a good idea”

“Do we know what’s going on?”

“No”

“Ok. Let’s blame the foreign hand then. Anyone against this proposal, raise your foreign hand”

6.  One man’s jolt is another man’s setback

Jolts and setbacks are favorites of the newspapers.

A setback is simply any random event, used to disparage your bête-noire.

“Narendra Modi suffered a sharp setback when his car failed to pass the smog test yesterday”

Geez, what a monster. He deserved what he got. Hope he rots in hell.

A jolt is used to describe a cataclysmic event, while expressing nonchalance, astonishment and controlled outrage – all in one go.

“The UPA government suffered a jolt when the Supreme Court convicted 3 cabinet ministers and sentenced them to life imprisonment without bail”

It’s no biggie. It’s just a jolt. Gosh, what a surprise. I’d have never guessed this turn of events. Is the Supreme Court really trustworthy, I wonder?

7.  Civil Society

In the midst of a movie, I once had to admonish my neighbor for talking loudly on his mobile phone. His choices, I told him, were either to stop talking or leave the theatre. His impressively defiant response, “You have no right to tell me what to do. We live in a civil society”, momentarily stunned me into silence.

This phrase has appeared out of nowhere and rapidly penetrated public consciousness, thanks to Anna Hazare’s crusade. And, its tentacles have spread into domains where it has no place.

My advice: When on the defensive, take the moral high ground by playing the civil society card.

“What? You want a thousand rupees bribe to give me an LPG connection? That’s outrageous. We live in a civil society. I’ll give you no more than five hundred”

Write back with your favorite Indianisms from politics and media!

ps: Don’t miss 10 English Phrases which make perfect sense only to Indians and On Being Secular

For Richer or For Poorer: Valentine’s Day Circus

Valentine’s day in India is an interesting phenomenon these days. The well manicured hands of western capitalism have extended their reach here into the wallets and purses of the Indian populi. Whether it’s either a teeny bopper announcing his/her advent into adulthood or 20-somethings finding their way around post-adolescence or older fogeys proving youngness at heart through western rituals, V-day offers the perfect opportunity for all to flaunt some moves on the dance floors of society. Ok, first off, I must admit that I’m not a fan of V-day. I’ve been playing along, reluctantly all these years. It’s now time to speak up.

The evolution of V-day from its 12th century pagan origins (as the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia) through its Christianization by the semi-heroic figure of St. Valentine (who secretly and illegally married off lovers and paid with his head) into its modern avatar of a blockbuster Hallmark holiday is mind boggling. What and who did the trick?

I’d point the finger squarely at the printing press, a lady named Esther Howard and the US postal service. It is amazing how far a few printed words carried by a postman can go – literally and figuratively. Esther Howard printed the first V-day card in 1840. Today, over a billion V-day cards are sold annually, and the fairer sex will be culpable for over 85% of them. With ubiquitous email and mobile phones, the menace has extended into the electronic domain where telephone networks and the internet will groan and grunt under the weight of over tens of millions of emails and SMSes that are expected to be launched globally on February 14. India alone will account for over a million of these missives. The commercialization of V-day has gone to extremes. Raise your hand if you have experienced nausea at the sight of “Be Mine” overstuffed teddies wearing the most ridiculous sweaters on a store shelf. What’s wrong with all this, you ask? Nothing really wrong except that this indicates an inexplicable dependency on a single day to express flowering emotions or rejuvenate a withering romance – as the case may be. Does romance really need a day or time? If you’ve been waiting to make a romantic move on V-day, trust me buddy, you’re not moving fast enough. If you’re looking to turn a failing romance around with chocolates and roses, it may be a case of too little, too late. For the rest who are doing just fine, why all this fuss? That too, why in February?

I’ll admit that I have a grouse with V-day in February. February has many highlights. V-day does not need to be one of them. As a February-born, I’ve resented having to share the spotlight with V-day and its dilution of February as truly the month of romance. February is the perfect of months. It is the second month. And, it is the shortest month. We enter February adjusted to the new year, brimming with a real sense of the possibilities for the future. February drives away the winter blues and delivers us into spring in a graceful and expeditious manner. It is the perfect month for romance. I am talking about good old fashioned romance where simple things matter. What’s to complain about February? Nothing really, except V-day. Just as we grow comfortable and confident comes along the cacophony of non-stop commercialism, with its squeaky pitch of red and pink rising to a crescendo, aided by profit seeking marketeers and abetted by the population at large. I’ve long felt this to be disturbing. V-day, if at all needed (and, the jury’s still out on this), should be banished to the third quarter of the year (say between end of summer and diwali). This will have its practical benefits. By Q3, most folks will know where they stand romantically. And, the money can be spent wisely on real opportunities rather than on speculative hit-or-miss deals. Think about it.

And, oh yeah – one more thing. Those of you guys who who are into crazy expressions of love on valentine’s day like sky diving or walking across the niagara, just remember (write this down) that you’re making the rest of us guys look bad. And it’s not like you’re coming out looking like a genius either. It’s a bad deal all the way around for us guys. And ladies, please remember that sitting on the couch and watching ‘Seinfeld’ reruns is one way of expressing love.

Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point. 

Translation: The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing. Trust a French guy – Blaise Pascal – to put matters related to the heart in perspective.

Whatever you do, please don’t give romance the pink slip.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

I wrote the original version of this article in 2004, and reproducing it unchanged in 2012 here on what ho!.

If you liked this, you’ll also enjoy reading For Better or For Worse  and Till Death Do Us Part

On being secular

Everyone wants to be secular these days. The newspapers are full of important people who are anxious to let everyone know how important it is to be secular. “The minorities are such a maligned lot. They cannot take care of themselves. It is up to us – the enlightened majority, to take care of them. How else will they survive?” Why, the other day, an important secular man married a minority woman to drive home his point. Now, I hear that he is writing a book to let us know that it is working well.

This has all been very heart warming for me. A tear rolled down my cheek when I heard our Law Minister bravely breaking the law and demanding special quotas for minorities. “We will give the minorities exactly the importance they deserve!” he thundered. “What selfless bravery and nobility”, I thought as I reached for my handkerchief sobbing like a child. “Why can’t the others be enlightened too”, I cried, alarming my ten year old who was busy with her homework essay on Why it is important for all Indians to celebrate Christmas. The bad guys just don’t seem to get it. Rather than understand how special our minorities are, they seem to suffer from the delusion that all of us are equal.

On a flight back from Delhi, I was seated next to a prominent secularist. I shook his hand vigorously, thanking him for showing all of us the way. “Why don’t the bad guys get it? It is so obvious”, I protested. He looked down at me over his spectacles, with a knowing smile. “My chap”, he said patting me in an avuncular fashion, “the others don’t want to get it. All they seem to want is for every one to be treated equal. We are not all equal, you know”, he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Whatever do you mean?”, I asked in amazement with the anticipation of a worshipper about to be inducted into a cult. “The minorities need help. For years, they’ve needed us to take care of them. It is our duty to do so. That is the truth”, he concluded with a flourish. “You mean, we should be such noble people and help them to not take care of themselves?”, I shouted in amazement at the brilliance of the idea. He nodded and smiled like a Buddha.

“Why, it’s so simple. We can do even better. We should give them special laws so they don’t even have to worry about the constitution. After all, the constitution was probably written by a bigoted majority chap” I shouted, besides myself with the joy of having discovered the ultimate truth. “I know’, he said, “and we already did”, he clapped his hands, “They have their own laws”.

“Wait, I have a brilliant idea. The problem is that they are a minority. I say we let them convert all of us by paying us money. Then, they can become the majority”, I screamed, dazzled by own genius. “Done. Next?”, he cut me short. Crestfallen by my inability to come up with an original contribution to the secular cause, I tried again, “I say we make one of them the President”.

“Where have you been, boy? That started in the fifties. You’ve got to do better”, he chuckled. Gasping for a lungful of air, and desperation mounting, I cried “ Let’s pass a law that says that anyone who proclaims that all Indians are equal will be jailed. That ought to really shut up the bad guys”.

“Hey! wait a minute, we never thought of that”, said the important man. As he got into his chauffeur driven limousine, he handed me his card. “Give me a call. I think you have the makings of a great secularist, my chap”

This satirical piece was written by me in 2006. It is being published in What Ho! with minor changes from the original piece with permission granted to me by myself. Have you read What Ho! ? If you didn’t know, you’re already here at What Ho!

The What Ho! Guide to Driving in India

The Uninformed Reader might scoff at, and even under-estimate the significance of the dark art of driving in India. To her, I must point out that data collected from observation of Indian drivers has been the only reason that scientists have been nail down the exact moment in time we homo sapiens branched off from our ancestors.

Say what? What ho, let me explain. Scientists estimate that humans branched off from chimpanzees exactly 7 million years, 240 days ago, at 11am in the morning. They were able to nail this date and time down precisely by comparing remnants of chimpanzee DNA found in Expert Indian Drivers and DNA found in normal Homo Sapiens (aka lesser mortals). By analyzing the differences, they were able to compute the time it must have taken for 100% pure chimpanzees to mutate into half-ape, half-human entities – otherwise known as – yep, you got it – Expert Indian Drivers.

So, scoff not and read on.

The What Ho! Guide to Driving in India

1. Never assume anything. Assumption is the mother of all screw ups

Let’s start with an example. When driving on the Outer Ring Road in Bangalore, you might consider yourself blameless for assuming it to be a major roadway of sorts, on which traffic flows unencumbered. In an unguarded moment, you might carelessly flirt with the notion of putting metal to the pedal and speeding things up. Wrong assumption.

India is a country of 1.2 billion people, living on 3.3 million square kilometres of land. Unfortunately, the Reddy brothers own 75% of land in India, and so the area available to the rest of us boils down to a fraction of what it could be. There’s not much room to move around in this country of ours. What this means is that the average Indian has to conduct his business in public. Consequently, terms like Outer Ring Road, National Highway 4 (NH4), etc. are loosely meant to describe anything along the lines of children’s parks, playgrounds, parking lots, race courses, cattle sheds, places of worship, venues for cricket matches, etc. However, I will concede that on rare occasions, traffic might be allowed to pass through. But, that’s besides the point. The point is – don’t let names lull you into making wrong assumptions.

A sure sign that you don’t have active remnants of chimpanzee DNA in your system is that reading this will have the effect of either frightening or depressing you or both. Despair not.  There is good news. There still exist those places you can drive freely with abandon. It’s just that, thanks to our lack of attention to detail, we’ve named these places wrongly. For example, pavements, airport runways, residential streets, gated communities and parking lots are places where you can roll the windows down and experience the joys of driving on an open road. When you find yourself in one of these locations, feel free to let your hair down and have a wild time.

While we’re on the subject of assumptions, I feel compelled to go on a tangent to belabor a related point. I’ve often noticed a mistake committed by neophytes in the process of mastering the road shastra. Which is to assume that there will be sign boards at the sides of the roads, and these aforesaid sign boards will convey meaningful information. Out here in this lovely land of ours, sign boards are akin to newspapers. They are the best places to get information on movies that have been just released or the scoop on the local elections. Experts are beginning to come around to the point of view that traffic sign boards may be the sole and ultimate reason why we have a citizenry that has unusually high levels of general knowledge.

2. There is something called “Too much information”

The fact that you are driving on the road does not imply that you should pay attention to or know everything that is going on around you. Listen carefully when I say that there is something called “too much information”. There is no better place in the world that this phrase applies than on Indian roads. What this means is simply, you must not, I repeat, must not absorb any information about the goings on around you. Road nirvana, which is the zero information state, has thus far been achieved only by auto rickshaw drivers and cyclists who, scientists claim, closely resemble random particles in Brownian motion. The Nirvana state has been described as a blissful state of simply being, in which illusions of material activities around the self are obliterated into complete nothingness. Trust me when I say that your iPod may be your best friend on the roads. Put on your favorite music, crank up the volume and get set to experience moments of bliss. In fact, this article was conceived, typed up and posted while driving from work to home.

In other words, do what you feel compelled to, unmindful of anything else that may be going on around you. Stay focused on gaps in spaces ahead of you (or behind you, as the case maybe). Make it the sole purpose of your existence to penetrate those gaps faster than a photon shot through the Large Hadron Collider.

3.  Be aware of the power of stationary objects

Technically, this falls both into both categories of “wrong assumption” and “too much information”. But, this insight carries such enormous significance that I felt compelled to call it out separately so what ho! readers do not miss its import.

Surprising as it may sound, some of us are human. And, it is a natural human tendency to associate driving with motion. For the humans amongst us, driving raises strong visual images of steering an object that is moving. Under certain circumstances, it turns out that nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, there will be those situations when the best form of driving is to suspend all motion.

First, let’s understand the critical benefits of static energy on Indian roads. The case for stillness and complete lack of motion starts with the important point that a stationary object will never be blamed. This is especially true of static objects found in middle of roads. Examples of stationary objects are bull dozers, city buses, large groups of people buying and selling stuff, Manmohan Singh, traffic policemen, abandoned vehicles, small and large sized animals, and occasionally birds in addition to the usual fare of impediments such as stupas, edifices and national monuments which are there on roads for the sole reason that it hasn’t yet occurred to anyone to move them. In fact, a team of archaelogists have carbon-dated a 5-foot tall granite stump smack in the middle of NH4 as belonging to Chandragupta Maurya’s period. So, for thousands of years, we Indians have learned to navigate around animate and inanimate objects that we encounter in our paths.

Now for how to convert this blinding insight into an actionable plan. When in trouble or doubt, immediately convert yourself into a stationary object. If you’ve been slipping and making the mistake of absorbing information from your surroundings while driving, you will find yourself nervous and paralyzed with shock from time to time. When this happens – Come to a complete halt, switch the engine off and have a cigarette. Use the break wisely by catching up with the latest bhangra beat or calling your near and dear ones. Because you’ve converted yourself into a stationary object, no harm can and will befall you. The traffic will begin to magically adjust, weave and make its way around you, while you enjoy beatific solitude and the stiff drink that you so richly deserve.

So, there you go. The 3 commandments from our “Beginner’s Bible for Driving in India”.

Astute readers will point out that there are those other rookie mistakes like assuming that – to drive, you’ll need a driver’s license, should be possessed of eyesight, should be older than five years of age, etc. etc. – all of which, I’m sure you’ll agree with me by now, fall into the categories of wrong assumptions and too much information.

In parting, I must point out that you must realize that not every one amongst us is destined to master the road shastra and get behind the wheel. For those who have suffered Fate’s cruel sleight of hand in not having adequate chimp DNA in the system, all I can say is – Treat your driver like a Greek god and make burnt offerings every day at the altar.

If you liked this, you’ll enjoy reading Horn OK Please – on the delightful practice of honking on Indian roads.

The What Ho! Guide to Starting Your Own Religion

In mid 19th century, Nietzsche, a German philosopher, angrily and famously proclaimed that “God is dead”.  Nietzsche spoke favourably of nihilism, a school of thought which essentially negates godliness with its attributes of ‘idealism’ and ‘perfection’, and went on to describe a Ubermensch (“beyond Man”) – a superhuman who posits his own values and creates a life which is his own personal work of art.

As astonishing as Nietzsche’s audacity was at that time, he was neither the first nor the last to take up the cudgels against the Supreme One. Voltaire, and if we rewind by 2,000 years, Anaxogoras, who brought philosophy to the great city of Athens, had expressed pessimism about the existence of Deus Populi. Darwin, Marx and Engel and luminaries of the post World War 2 era like Bertrand Russell, took up the secularization baton and confidently predicted the decline of religion with advancement in science and technology.

There is no evidence to suggest that such rumours reached the East, or even if they did, were taken seriously. Hinduism had already gone through a wave of cleansing more than a thousand years before Nietzsche, forced in part by the emergence of godless, naturalist philosophies such as Buddhism and Jainism, and the Purva Mimamsa tradition of Vedanta, which declared the non-existence of God ‘with a form’ and that there really was no need to postulate the existence of a Creator for this universe, a thought interestingly in consonance with the Parabrahman of the Rig Veda. After a brief burst of dominance, the Purva Mimamsa school faded into oblivion, unable to hold the appeal of masses more attuned to visual allegories, practical metaphors and pantheons of deities. In fact,India led a Reuters survey on the “many gods question” with 24 percent of Indians declaring their “openness to believing in many gods and in gods of not just their religion”. The Hindu tradition has been to co-opt, not compete. It has been to embrace rather than reject, perhaps one of the reasons it survived the onslaught of competition over time.

Is God alive in the 21st century?

As far as questions go, this is an odd one. Is God is still alive in the twenty-first century? Was belief in God only a solace in times of famine? Was He perhaps a last resort for Greeks to make sense of thunder and lightning? Do we need God? Is He still our “ultimate concern” Or have we, the human species, lost God somewhere in the woods of our self-centred rituals?

Despite the plethora of predictions for centuries by prominent scientists and intellectuals regarding the disappearance of belief in God, today it is evident that the secularization thesis has failed.  Nietzche is gone. God is not. So much for Ubermensch and nihilism, although one could argue that some sort of passive nihilism was always an undercurrent of and continues to stay alive in Vedanta, Buddhism and Jainism, the great movements that arose in the East long before Nietzche learned his alphabets.

According to a Reuters poll, belief in a god, or a supreme being, and some sort of afterlife is strong around the globe. Well over fifty percent of people across 23 countries who took part in the survey said they were convinced there is an afterlife and a divine entity, while 18 percent said they don’t believe in a god and 17 percent weren’t sure.

According to a Pew report on religion in the United States, a staggering ninety two percent of people stated that they believed in God or a higher power. Even in Europe, that bastion of secularism and cradle of “western enlightenment”, over fifty percent of the population continues to express belief in the existence of God.

It is evident that rumours of God’s demise have been grossly exaggerated. The “big 5” religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism) continue to thrive, and the faithful continue to be strong in numbers.

What happened?

Proponents of secularization incorrectly imagined that scientific advancement would render superstition unnecessary and would wean us away from god(s). The fallacy in this hypothesis is that humans are not, and have never really been interested in more information on quantum physics, selfish genes and angry birds. Instead, human angst is existential and wells from questions such as “who created me?”, “why am I here?” and “what happens to me when I die?” – enquiries that science and technology have not really come anywhere close to addressing convincingly or palatably.

“Nothing in Particular”

The numbers from the Pew report of the survey done in the US, the world’s melting pot and the most influential country in the world, tell a fascinating tale. For example, there are as many Buddhists as Muslims in the United States. Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that. What’s really mind blowing is that the largest single group in the US, next to Christians, is “unaffiliated”, at 16% of those surveyed in the Pew report.  This group includes atheists (1.6%), agnostics (2.4%) and a category interestingly denominated “nothing in particular” which clocked an astounding 12 percent of those surveyed.

Now, think about that for a minute. Slightly more than 1 out of every 10 persons in the world’s most affluent country describes themselves as belonging to “nothing in particular”. They are not atheist. Not agnostic. Instead, they are “nothing in particular”. This category is the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States.

Secular movements and scientific progress have not wiped out religion. But, it appears that the organized religions of the world are simultaneously losing their grip, thanks in measure to their own brand of inadequacy in dealing with human existential angst. In short, this tale is far from being over, and might have a few twists left in it.

My take

Questions in people’s lives, addressed by neither science nor mainstream religion, are being increasingly answered by articulate and sophisticated gurus like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, new age preachers like Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins, dynamic swamijis like Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar and militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. We predict that this millennium will witness the implosion of the big five religions into a buffet of disaggregated modules, which in turn, will be packaged, re-branded and sold by enterprising entrepreneurs to niche markets. A blossoming of a thousand Arab springs in the world of organized religion, if you will.

To aspiring entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on this burgeoning market, we are excited to provide a guide to ideating, commercializing and scaling of your endeavour. Here are excerpts from our “A Dummy’s Guide to Starting a New Religion”, a Laughing Gas magnum opus, which is yet unwritten but slated to be available on Amazon before the end of next year.

The What Ho! Guide to Starting Your Own Religion

Clear mission is key

As obvious as it seems, a clear mission is key. Remember that some day, you will have millions or even billions of followers. You should aim to convert as many of them as possible to willing and purposeful missionaries, who actually understand your mission. A mission statement should be easily translatable into 105 languages.

 Bad example:

“Our mission is to assertively network economically sound methods of spiritual empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance based outcomes in the hereafter”

 Good example:

“A stupa in every zip code”

Segment the market, find a profitable niche, and position yourself to differentiate

 There was a time when only the fool and his money were parted. It now happens to everybody. Study the market and identify those most willing to part with their checks and craft a well designed story for them.

A little bit of Zen, a dash of karma, heavy doses of instant gratification and no talk of Hell, for example, is likely to do well in the lucrative sub-segments of aging Hollywood stars, high achieving entrepreneurs and corporate honchos.

The product definition checklist

 Now that you have identified your customer, define your product to meet his deepest and darkest longings. Here’s a little checklist to help you get going.

 First, decide if you will have a God, many Gods or no God.  There are large sized markets for each.

Second, state your position on the Hereafter – is there one? Or does it go dark when the lights go out? Is there a velvety cool blackness or are you reborn as a North African dictator?

Hints: Happiness and heaven are in. Hell is out.  Those looking into Western European markets should keep in mind that the survey says that 20 percent of Britons, who believe in life after death, can’t wait to speak to Lady Diana in the post bucket kicking phase.

Third, be intriguingly vague on creation. Statements like “In the beginning, there was this huge, monstrously big bang” have been known to resonate very well among the scientific types.

Fourth, decide if you want to keep things open or closed?

Should you “open source” your religion or should you keep it “closed and proprietary”. In other words, are the devout allowed to tinker with the ‘source code of conduct’, make stuff up and add as they go along? Or perhaps, you’d prefer to keep things “inside the house” and lock everything down?

Open sourcing is about freedom and flexibility, things which aids growth and survival over the long haul. Hinduism is a great example of an open source religion. There are two major problems with this, though. First – random folks will add random features that no one needs. Was there ever really a crying need for goat sacrifices? Second – open source systems tend to become so complex and confusing over time that a robust support infrastructure is required. Which means the glory (and the money) goes to the myriad swamijis, gurus and babas, who support the system by interpreting it, rather than the original founders. Keeping things locked down, on the other hand, has its benefits as you, and you alone, control the user experience.

This decision will have a bearing on your personal fortune and fame. Two men recently died within a week of each other. One championed proprietary, locked down systems and ruled that universe with an iron hand. This man, Steve Jobs, was eulogized by half the world and their pets within hours of his passing. The other invented the C programming language and helped write Unix, the precursor of open source systems. Bet you didn’t even know that his name was Dennis Ritchie. So, open source or proprietary? A lot depends on how big a dent you want to make on the universe.

Urgent and compelling call to action

Selling is a transaction that involves the completion of an exchange of (typically) money for something of value (a product or a service). The operative word in that sentence being “completion”. Sales is about ‘closing the deal’.

Nothing closes the deal better than an urgent and compelling “call to action”. Older religions have floundered not because of lack of salesmen, as is believed, but in reality because of lack of a compelling case for timely subscription.

For example, the pitch –  “Get on the train NOW, or rot in Hell forever when the world ends 60 days from now” yielded amazing results for a certain Paul of Damascus around 33AD. In contrast, the pitch “Here’s a list of eight things you can do to be happy” didn’t exactly set things on fire for a certain Sakhyamuni in 600BC.

No such thing as bad publicity

As the adage goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Jigging things up to be jihadi and crusade friendly, making wild and inaccurate Doomsday predictions, carefully timed bouts of acid dropping and ashram hopping might attract controversial attention. But they will raise awareness levels, draw traffic to your website and garner you thousands of twitter followers.

A less understood strategy to stay in public consciousness has to do with the number of national holidays that your religion will require. Our take is that a real religion should require not less than 6 fixed national holidays and 3 floating ones. Whatever you do, do not err on the side of “too few”. The greater your number, the more popular you are likely to be in India, Spain and Brazil– all very populous countries.

On the importance of nomenclature

Most budding entrepreneurs don’t grasp the significance of naming things properly, and how the name really is, at the end of the day, the only thing that makes the difference between astonishing success and abysmal failure. Instead, they rely on advice of dead English dramatists. “What’s in a name?”, you may ask. That never stopped Sergie and Larry from naming their company after a fictitiously humongous number, which as it turned out, could be easily “verbized”. Don’t believe us? Google it and ye shall see. Naming after fruits is risky unless you’re an acid dropping, ashram hopping, unbreakable, air-bending, off-kilter genius with a sixth sense who can ‘see dead products’. Names starting with Z sound cool.

Last but not the least, figure out what you want to call those who don’t sign on to your school of thought. Calling them infidels, traitors or heretics and condemning them to eternal damnation might not be the best way of making friends and winning them over.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently. Here’s to you, our brave new cult leaders of a brave new millenium. Carpe diem. Seize the check. God bless.

Disclaimer: Lots of research went into this article. But, no priests, rabbis, gurus, lamas or militant atheists were harmed during its making.

For Better Or For Worse

Marriage is a wonderful thing. Everyone ought to get married unless they have a really good reason not to, like becoming the Pope or if they are in a coma. I am married and you won’t hear me complaining. Einstein was twice as smart as any of us will ever be. And, he married twice.

Even so, what exactly prompts people to get married has remained a deep, dark mystery much along the lines of why women feel the need to own one hundred seventy pairs of foot wear. Research on this topic can fill a room the size of the telephone exchange in Dayanadhi Maran’s house. Of the reasons hypothesized about the willingness of men to tie the knot, the most realistic one seems to be that they have exhausted all conversation topics, and are forced to resort to marriage proposals to avoid awkward silences which led to the ancient jungle saying “Lulls in conversation with women are dangerous”. Women seem to get the urge to merge for all sorts of silly reasons like being in love, but the most plausible one could be that they have managed to locate that one specimen in the male population who is not a complete jerk.

It boggles the mind when you think of how marriage even began to be accepted as a concept, and how men were convinced to play along. It is widely suspected that a man’s tendency to avoid reading anything resembling a manual or asking for directions may have direct bearing on this situation. Imagine a man opening the marriage manual to find “Warning: Do not use this under the influence of alcohol to obtain free food” or “Step 3: Next, you will now engage in the process of getting married in a ceremony that will last longer than the second world war”, or “Step 27: Now open the diaper and, without inhaling any surrounding air, carefully wipe the rear end of the baby”” or “Step 28: Repeat Step 27 fourteen more times a day for the next two years”. There is no record in history of any man ever having read the manual. If there were to be such a man in the future, it’s likely that he would disapparate from the altar faster than an Indian batsman from the crease on an overcast day at Lords.

Funnily enough, for all their cooperation and willingness to get hitched, men have been held, through the ages, solely accountable for marital woes and much maligned as the primary reason for a general state of dissatisfaction among the female population at large. Research tells us that women spend one hundred and forty four hours a week, on average, either in contemplation or in discussion of the faults of men. Truth be told, men are not really at fault for anything. In fact, we have a rock solid alibi, summarized in two simple sentences.

  1. Everything is controlled by our genes
  2. Our genes do not care about us. They are selfish and care only about themselves

Millions of years back, a few molecules decided to join together to form amino acids, and later evolved into DNA. Not coincidentally, around the same time women began complaining about men’s attitudes. Until DNA came along, men spent most of their time snoozing blissfully to the soothing sounds of test cricket commentary. It’s not entirely clear as to how men and women decided to get together to start this thing called the human race – whether it was through divine creation or Darwinian evolution. But one thing is clear – that LSD and liberal amounts of other mind altering substances were definitely involved.

In spite of the DNA, millions and millions of men overcome their genetic predisposition, marry, stay married, raise kids, attend piano recitals, visit furniture stores, loiter aimlessly around department store changing rooms and public urinals, and live happily with their wives without nary a sideways glance at, to pick a completely random example, Angelina Jolie.

To get to the bottom of why women have problems with men, we conducted a survey of men’s faults. In that survey, the most common conversation went as follows:

Q: What do you think about men?

A: When will men understand that women think that they are incredibly idiotic and insensitive, and what will they do about it?

Readers will note that the tone of the response is distinctly unfavorable. They didn’t respond with “Men are highly rational and predictable” or “What can women learn from men about getting through life without potted plants?”. Instead, the surveyed women chose to take a negative stance.

It is our sincere intent at Laughing Gas to correct such erroneous perceptions about men, and we fully expect to be unsuccessful in this regard. So, we’ve prepared a short Q&A that we hope will (however inadequately) address the common complaints against men.

Q: Why are men so insensitive? Why is working on your laptop or fiddling with your cell phone is always more important than what I have to say? Why do dads have to be the cool heroes to kids and moms the stone hearted villains? Why is that I always have to do all the cleaning up around here? Why can’t we have a conversation about my feelings? Blah blah blah… Why is it that you never pay attention while I’m talking? Are you even listening?

A: What?

Q: Why do men have a problem listening when we talk?

We do not have a problem listening. In fact, we are trained to listen carefully for any signs of imminent danger. After a short intense scan of auditory signals in the vicinity, we stop listening if there is no problem detected. According to research, the average woman has a minimum of 42 feelings per minute while a man experiences feelings more at the rate of 3 per annum in the best case. So, when a woman tries to communicate feelings to her man, it always leads to confusion in the man’s brain, which usually has just one feeling at that time “Man, the game is about to start”. Strategies have been developed by men for such situations which involve engaging in hugs and mute conciliatory gestures while maintaining direct line of sight to the TV. Long story short, men have no idea what to do about feelings. They are doers. They are problem solvers. When confronted with an ambiguous situation without a clearly identified problem, their immediate instinct is to suspend all signs of life, hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over, and carefully monitor the conversation for key words such as ‘lawyer’, ‘gun’ or ‘kitchen knife’.

Q: Doesn’t it matter to you that someone important to you has something important to say about how they feel? Don’t you care about our feelings?

A: What?

Q: Why do men have a problem reading manuals?

A: That’s because manuals are written for idiots by idiots and contain stupid warnings like “Don’t use your high definition LCD TV as a floatation device”.

Q: Why do men refuse to ask directions?

A:  Men are explorers by nature, and operate under the assumption that there is always one undiscovered route to the neighborhood mall. If it weren’t for men’s thirst for adventure, the Spaniards wouldn’t have discovered South America and the Incas wouldn’t have been wiped out by small pox. There wouldn’t be globalization and five rupee bottles of chota Pepsi. Also, in ancient times when men had to protect their tribes, if man A asked man B for directions, it was naturally assumed by man B that man A was a weaker type who read manuals. This led to man B assembling armies and pillaging man A’s villages and taking away his women.

Q: Are you suggesting that men’s flaws are in fact virtues? Are you implying that men are the sole reason why the human race has not yet become extinct?

A: Don’t forget the five rupee chota Pepsi bottles.

Q: How could we have been so blind? We are really sorry that we’ve been inconsiderate and have hurt your feelings over millions of years. How can we even begin to comprehend the enormity of our mistakes, and correct the errors of our ways? Your hearts must be wounded, and your souls scarred by the pain….blah blah blah..

A:  What?

Also read Till Death Do Us Part from the Jaundiced Eye collection

The What Ho! Guide to Economics

Long long ago, there lived a farmer named Jack. He had a beautiful wife and two lovely young children. Jack was very proud of his family and worked very hard every day in his field to raise crops and vegetables so they could live comfortably. In a few years, he built a nice little house for them. All was well and they lived happily and went to church every Sunday in the finest of attire. One day, unhappiness came to visit Jack’s house. He came back home to find his wife brooding and sulking. He enquired gently at first and then sternly but his wife sat silent and sullen. Finally, she said, “Why is that you work so hard and we are still so poor? The rich have bigger houses and finer clothes and lead an easier life”

Jack thought over his wife’s words. And he continued to ponder it the next day as he ate lunch under the shade of a benevolent tree in the middle of his land. As he pondered, he fell into a deep reverie. As he lay asleep, a fairy came in his dream and asked, “Why are you unhappy, Jack?” Jack recounted his conversation with his wife to the fairy, upon which she asked, “Ask me a wish and it shall be granted”. Jack was overjoyed and wished that all the riches in the world would disappear so his wife would have no reason to envy opulent neighbors. The fairy said, “Your wish is granted”. Jack profusely thanked the fairy to which she said, “Why don’t you wait for one day and come back here to thank me?”

In the evening, when Jack went back home, he found his wife and children in tears. Their finest China plates had been reduced to ordinary earthenware and their fine Sunday attire lay in tatters and ruins. His wife sobbed, “What have we done to deserve this misfortune?”. Jack stayed silent, not wishing to reveal his part in the way things turned out. The next afternoon, when the fairy came to visit him, he said, “I have erred grievously. It is not by removing riches that I can make my wife happy. It is by having more that I can make her joyous. Can you change my wish so that workers like me get the highest of prices for our goods? Our coffers will then fill to the brim from the money we get from the rich”

The fairy nodded and granted his wish. When he attempted to thank her, she said, “Why don’t you come back in a month and thank me?”

That evening when Jack went home, he found his wife overjoyed. “This afternoon, I got twice as much money for our produce than yesterday. Look at all this money. If this continues, we will be able to build a house twice as big and have clothes twice as grand”. Jack smiled, but chose not to reveal his role as something troubled him about their new riches. A few days later, he observed that everyone in the village was overjoyed at getting enormously higher prices for what they sold. He felt happy but stayed silent. After a few weeks, the prices were so high that no one was able to buy anything anymore no matter how much money they had. His heart sank when he heard his friends mutter, “Who has cast this misfortune on us that our goods are so expensive that we cannot sell them anymore”

When the fairy came to visit him at the end of the month, Jack begged her to change his wish. “It is not by making the rich poor, or making more money that we can be happy. It is only through organization that we can ensure that every one is treated fairly. I wish for a great giant to appear and ensure that all goods are produced on time and sold at fair prices, so we do not have to worry about such things”  The fairy replied, “So be it. Come back and thank me in one year”

When Jack went home that evening, he heard the astounding news. “There has been a revolution. A giant has appeared in our midst, and he has opened something called a factory. He wants all of us to go to this factory every day and do what he says. And, in exchange, he will give us money and take care of us”. The next morning everyone on the street went to the factory and the giant gave them their instructions. “Do precisely what I tell you and nothing more. If you do as I say, you will have nothing to worry”

This situation carried on satisfactorily for a few months. Everyone in the village went back to their happy and contented states of well being. They did not worry about tomorrow. The giant took care of everything. All they did was to show up and follow instructions. After a few months, discontent began to seep in. The giant had grown bigger, and his head grew even larger than the rest of his body. As his head grew larger, it made the giant hungrier. So, the giant kept more and more of the money and food for himself and distributed the meager rest to the people. One day, the head of the town was heard to remark, “We do all the work. But, the giant is keeping everything for himself. This is not fair”. Soon, many in the village formed a group that they called the union, and the union went to the talk to the giant about his unfair ways. The giant laughed at and ridiculed them for being foolish. “I take care of everything so you don’t have to worry about tomorrow. Do not forget that”, he retorted. But, the people were not satisfied and continued to argue with and yell at the giant. Soon, the factory stopped producing what it used to and fell into a state of disrepair. The giant lay listless and hungry and the angry people now got even less than what they used to. Things came to a pass one day when Jack’s son, who had just turned eighteen, told him, “I curse the man who created this giant. He has caused us nothing but misery”. Jack was saddened to hear his son’s words.

When the fairy came to visit him at the end of the year, he told her, “It is not organization. It is authority that makes things works. I wish for a creature which can control this evil giant and make him distribute profits equally to all the people”. The fairy smiled and said, “I will grant your wish and let us meet again in ten years before you thank me”

That evening, a magical creature arose in the land. It had a thousand eyes and a hundred arms which looked like tentacles. It had no legs to stand on or a face to look at. It seized the giant, cast chains around its neck and legs and brought it under its control. The people rejoiced, for the tyranny of the giant had been ended. The magical creature called itself the “government”. The creature told the giant to keep working as it always did and, in exchange, it promised to keep feeding it so it wouldn’t have to worry about tomorrow. The giant had no choice but to play along. Years passed by, and the giant became lazy and grew so big that it couldn’t work as hard as it used to. Indeed, it lost all its desire to do anything. It didn’t matter because the magical creature kept feeding the giant no matter what it did.

Jack grew older and feebler. As he sat on his rocking chair in the porch, he wondered about what he had done. There was no more of happiness. There were giants and magical creatures and they didn’t care much for the people. The people had lost their trust in the way things worked. They complained loudly and bitterly about the magical creature, which had promised so much and had let them down. So Jack wondered where the solution lay.

Ten years passed, and the fairy came to visit Jack as he sat on his chair. And he said, “I think I have the solution. I wish for an army of pixies, goblins, gnomes, dwarves and elves which can slay the giant. I wish for the magical creature to lose its magical powers. It is not organization. It is not authority. We need to free the little creatures so they can fight the government and the giants”. “The fairy granted his wish and asked. “Do you wish to thank me now or would you like to wait a hundred years?”, she asked. Jack replied, “I will not be alive in a hundred years. I wish for you to meet my grandson and ask him what he thinks”. The fairy smiled and agreed.

A wondrous event happened in the town that night. An army of pixies, dwarves, elves, goblins and gnomes descended on the town. They carried little wands, swords, daggers and spears and other weapons. They rushed at the giant, and each took turns to maim and dismember him until just the body and the head was left and the giant lay barely alive. Finally, a handsome young warrior on a horse rushed in with a great big sword and slew the giant by cutting his head off. The villagers cheered at the downfall of the giant and his lazy and uncaring ways. The army of these little creatures did not stop with the giant. They ran around slaying whatever they could get their hands on, and eating whatever they could find. Indeed, these little creatures did not want to stay little. They wanted to grow up and become giants themselves. They fell upon each other and bloody warfare and mayhem was the order of the day. The villagers watched in fear and trepidation as they did not know what the days portended. The creatures were selfish, and all they cared about was feeding their bellies and fattening their calves. Such was the nature of these creatures. It became the responsibility of the people to nurse the wounded back to health or give them proper burials. Soon, the people grew tired of being undertakers and digging graves to bury the dead. One day, it was known that the handsome warrior on the horse and magical creature had joined hands secretly to slay all the other creatures. Carcasses piled up on the streets and their stink filled the entire town.

A hundred years passed by, and Jack and his son passed on. The house came to Jack’s grandson, who was a thinking man. Jack’s grandson was also named Jack. One day, Jack sat in his car wondering where things had gone wrong and how people’s lives had come to be filled with such misgiving and dread. And as he sat wondering, the fairy came to visit him. She told him about his grandfather Jack and the wishes she had granted.

“Would you like to make a wish, Jack?”, she asked.

Jack – the grandson – was surprised. But, he was a quick thinker. He replied, “My dear fairy, I’ve been thinking all these years about the things that have happened since good ol’ grandpa Jack’s days. I think that the old man had it all wrong”

The fairy was surprised. She stayed silent as Jack continued.

“It’s not about hard work. It’s not about being organized. It’s not about being fair. It’s not about any of these things. It’s not about wishing good things for others. It’s a dog eat dog world, and it’s every man for himself. It’s about being selfish to the core, and wishing good things only for yourself. I’d like you to turn me into a creature completely lacking in any skills or talent. A creature that is so devious and manipulating that he becomes fabulously wealthy as a result of his utter lack of concern for society at large”

The fairy was taken aback on hearing this. She wondered how she could make Jack’s wish come true. She racked her brain a thousand different ways. Finally, she waved her wand and transformed Jack into the creature that he’d asked to become.

That, boys and girls, is the story of how Suresh Kalmadi came to inhabit this planet.