Wednesday, August 19 2020

Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can. Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.

That’s Michelle Obama delivering a blistering takedown of the President on the opening night of the virtual Democratic convention—which will seal the nomination of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for the party’s nominees in the presidential election. Also notable: She did not mention Kamala Harris. The reason: Obama’s remarks were taped before Biden picked Harris. Illustration: Parth Savla.

Big Story

Meet Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury: The suited-booted Ramdev

The TLDR: Yesterday, an anti-mask video was shared by a self-proclaimed doctor—and promptly went viral. But thanks to good folks on Twitter, we soon discovered that the bad doctor is not a random quack, but a highly popular health guru with a large digital empire. We take a closer look at Chowdhury and two related trends: the growing resistance to masks, and an industry of quack corona medicine—supported by the government.


Remind me about this video?

It was shared by Chowdhury on Twitter and featured four young educated urban types who spouted the usual anti-mask propaganda. The main slogan: ‘Mask Se Azaadi’. The links were taken down by Twitter, and Chowdhury’s account has been suspended


So who is this Chowdhury?

Not a random quack: as many of us may like to believe. As Nilesh Christopher notes in his excellent article for Rest of World


“Over the years, Chowdhury has built an expansive digital empire through online nutrition training courses, certification programs, and consultancy services. He employs a 50-person social media team to man his hotline and share his videos across 170 WhatsApp channels… Since early February, Chowdhury’s dozen YouTube videos about the “myth” of the coronavirus have amassed more than 5 million views. His Telegram channel gained more than 13,000 followers in a week, and in the past two months, his fan following on YouTube has grown by one-third, to 952,000 subscribers.”


And Chowdhury has political connections. Back in 2015, then Delhi Health Minister was announced as the chief guest at a Siri Ford event hosted by Chowdhury—but the plan was cancelled after pushback from the Delhi Medical Association. 


One of his clients is KB Tumane, a Shiv Sena MP from Maharashtra, who connected him to Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan (see screenshot of tweeted photo which has also been pulled from Chowdhury’s FB page). To be fair, there is no evidence that the minister has taken any of his Covid advice.


Definitely not a doctor: Unsurprisingly, Chowdhury has zero medical credentials. His resume instead looks like this:

  • A degree in Production Engineering from Punjab Engineering College
  • A starring role in the flop Bollywood flick ‘Yaad Rakhenge’ in 2005.
  • A PR-driven jhagda with KJo in 2006 over the title of ‘Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna’—which Chowdhury claimed to have registered.
  • A Guinness world record in memory—which may be total bs—but nevertheless garnered him plenty of coverage in mainstream media.
  • The final pivot to medicine in 2013. His spurious qualification: “an honorary Ph.D. in diabetes studies from a recently deregistered university in Zambia.”


A history of quackery: Chowdhury first made a big splash when he claimed to have developed a 72-hour cure for diabetes. He then followed it up with a healthy dose of AIDS denialism. The highlight


“[A] brief video on YouTube arguing that HIV is not real, and that anti-retroviral medication actually causes AIDS. He offered to inject himself with the blood of someone who had tested positive.”


His cure for Covid: Chowdhury claims that this is just another kind of flu and “can be cured by boosting immunity.” The treatment: a three-day diet of coconut water, citrus juice, and vegetables. FYI: copious amounts of fruits and vegetables are the go-to cure for the bad doctor, be it diabetes or Covid. He’s also authored an ebook ‘Corona: The Scandal of the Millennium’ that offers home remedies, and claims that the pandemic is a global conspiracy cooked up by the WHO and China. 


In sum: The anti-mask video is just the tip of a vast and well-established edifice of fraud.


Ok, but this is just him…

A million quacks: No, Chowdhury is just one among a million quack doctors estimated by the Indian Medical Association. And it doesn’t help that nearly 60% of doctors practice without a license. But more importantly, Chowdhury-style quackery is nurtured by the government—specifically its AYUSH ministry which has a shameful track record of promoting all sorts of dubious cures for Covid. 


A vast market: We may smirk at ‘cow urine’ parties, but coronavirus denialism taps into great numbers of Indians who are susceptible to such fraud. One set is those in remote or poor communities who do not have access to proper health care. The other: “affluent and educated class in the cities, who have read half-baked internet posts and develop strong skepticism towards modern medicines.”


The pandemic effect: Rising anxiety has made the likes of Chowdhury more popular than ever. As Rest Of World concludes: “[H]e seems to have no shortage of new clients, and his fan base is growing. In these dark times, he is offering a sense of security. Even if it’s false, sometimes that’s all people want.”

Also, people are getting tired. The anti-mask video was targeted at the urban middle class, but social distancing fatigue is already spreading in rural and small town India. As one 50-year-old diabetic blithely told Mint: “I often hang out at a busy neighbourhood grocery store—without masks, nothing. Both the store owner and I are fine. Maybe we've had it already without symptoms."


The bottomline: The ugliest things reveal themselves in the darkest of times. But we—the affluent, urban English-speaking Indians—are more ignorant than ever of what is out there. That’s why the anti-mask video came as a shock. If nothing else, it is a bracing reminder of how socially distanced we are—in every sense—from many of our fellow citizens. And our corona bubbles have made us even more so.


Reading list

  • You can read about the anti-mask video over at The Print
  • Rest of World has an excellent deep dive on Chowdhury. Bad Science’s fact-check rips his resume apart.
  • If you want to read examples of his quackery, The Statesman has published a number of op-eds, including one on Bill Clinton and this on Steve Jobs. Or head over to his OTT website.
  • Undark has two excellent stories: a recent piece on alternative medicine and Covid, and a 2018 look at AIDS denialism.
  • Also a very good read: Vidya Krishnan in The Atlantic on how alternative medicine—which has genuine value—has been politicised and turned into pseudoscience.
  • Mint reports on growing Covid fatigue in rural India.


Sanity Break #1

Harry Potter with wands guns (?!). It’s so wrong and yet… We were both horrified and highly amused, all at the same time.

Headlines that matter

TikTok US has a new suitor

Oracle has joined Microsoft and Twitter as a potential buyer of the app’s US operations. As pundits note, it's a bit of an odd decision since Oracle is a B2B company that sells database software—not exactly a great match for a platform for cheesy videos. OTOH, unlike Twitter, Oracle definitely has the cash to go shopping. Meanwhile, Trump has joined TikTok rival Triller, and already has 3000 followers. Now that will bring the kids flocking in.


Speaking of Trump: Rihanna tweeted photos of someone (who may or may not be her) painting ‘F**K Trump’ on a car. She’s since been dubbed BadGalBanksy.


International travel opens up

India is in talks with 13 countries—including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore—to open bilateral air corridors. Such ‘bubbles’ are already in place with the US, the UK, France, Germany, the UAE, Qatar and the Maldives. Also planning to go long haul: Vistara which will operate three Delhi-London flights a week starting August 28—as part of the UK deal.


Temporarily banned: from Hong Kong: Air India’s repatriation flights which have been put on hold for two weeks for “carrying too many passengers infected with Covid19.” According to local media reports, the ban came into place after 11 passengers from Delhi tested positive. 


“The fact 11 passengers tested positive on the same flight shows the lab tests back in India are not very reliable…The airline has to do deep cleaning (on its planes) and make sure it won’t happen again on future flights before they can be resumed.”


IPL gets a title sponsor

Nope, it isn’t Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali but the fantasy gaming startup Dream11—which bagged the rights to the upcoming tournament for Rs 2.22 billion. It bid higher than its rivals Byju's (Rs 2.01 billion) and Unacademy (Rs 1.7 billion). Point to note: Dream11’s winning bid is 50% of what Vivo shelled out for the same honour. (Times of India


The Indian pandemic: A quick update

  • Amit Shah is back in hospital after testing negative and being discharged from Medanta on August 14. The reason: He is still experiencing “fatigue and body ache”—which are common ‘long haul’ symptoms for many Covid patients in recovery. This time, however, he has checked into the sarkaari hospital, AIIMS.
  • BBC News took a closer look at India’s death rate, and uncovered anomalies and likely undercounting. Also, we may not be doing as well as we think: "In China, Covid-19 deaths per million population is 3. In India it is 34. Within South Asia, the only country doing worse than India is Afghanistan and going by the trends, India will overtake Afghanistan."
  • A new global report warns that 6.1 million young Indians may lose their jobs if India takes six months—i.e. until the end of September—to flatten the curve.
  • 24% of 200,000-plus people tested at a leading lab across the country have antibodies. This indicates they were recently exposed to the virus and recovered (See more in our explainer here). These are not random samples but self-selected—in that those who go to a lab are more likely to test positive.
  • Government-controlled companies (PSUs) donated Rs 21.05 billion from their Corporate Social Responsibility budget to the PM-CARES fund for Covid relief. But no one knows where this largesse will be spent thanks to the Supreme Court which has given the government a free hand in operating the trust. One reason: it isn’t funded by public funds.


School openings are not going well

A number of states in the US that eagerly opened their classrooms have been forced to shut down. And the same trend is visible in other parts of the world. One reason: You cannot reopen schools when the number of cases is still high. Related reason: young people are superspreaders. Vox explains. Also, the WHO just made it official: “The epidemic is changing. People in their 20s, 30s and 40s are increasingly driving the spread.”


In more amusing news: Johns Hopkins University—which is going wholly online—will ask students to recreate campus life via Minecraft: 


“The plan is for Johns Hopkins to provide students with measurements to create an accurate replica of campus in the game, which students can access through the university’s internal platform.”


Students are not impressed. The Guardian has more.


Clueless is getting a reboot

Everyone’s favourite Jane Austen-inspired flick is being remade as a TV series (on Peacock, NBC's streaming service not a streaming platform, sadly). This one will not focus on the lead character—ditzy Valley Girl Cher—but her BFF Dionne. PR material for the show describes it as so:


“A baby pink and bisexual blue-tinted, tiny sun-glasses wearing, oat milk latte and Adderall-fueled look at what happens when queen bee Cher disappears and her lifelong No. 2 Dionne steps into Cher's vacant Air Jordans. How does Dionne deal with the pressures of being the new most popular girl in school, while also unraveling the mystery of what happened to her best friend." 


In less happy news: Netflix has canceled comedian Hasan Minhaj’s show “Patriot Act’. 

In not-related entertainment news: Rhea Chakraborty has released her first statement on the charges against her. It contains many unsavoury details which we leave you to discover. Indian Express has her entire statement.

Sanity Break #2

This gorgeous acoustic rendition of ‘Dil Diyan Gallan’ by the Tetseo Sisters totally made our day. Wanna know more about the brilliantly talented Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland? Here you go.

reading habit

Not-So-Bad Poetry Day

On the occasion of Bad Poetry Day, we wondered: what is good poetry? Is a good poem written in a particular rhyme scheme, in iambic pentameter, in clear verses, or one that throws these rules out the metaphorical window? Is a good poem easily understood by everyone, or one with layers hidden between the lines? Or perhaps, a good poem simply one that evokes an emotion.

As the meaning of poetry evolves (yes, we’re looking at the Insta-poetry club), here are some of our favourite poetry collections to remind you that good poetry still exists.


Beastly Tales From Here And There by Vikram Seth: While Vikram Seth’s novel-length poem, ‘The Golden Gate’, might be more famous, his quirky and fun collection of poetry, ‘Beastly Tales From Here And There’, is a must-read whether you love poetry or not. Inspired by animal fables from across the world, Seth gives his poetic take on popular stories such as ‘The Monkey’s Heart’ and ‘The Hare And The Tortoise’. Reading this collection not only made me laugh while marvelling at the author’s genius but also helped me rediscover my fondness for poetry.

—Nirbhay Kanoria, TCR Co-Founder


Howl And Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg: While this collection includes excellent examples of Allen Ginsberg’s work, I return to it for ‘Howl’. Considered to be one of the founding pillars of the Beat Generation, this three-part poem reads as an outpouring of emotion with long lines and vivid imagery that shocks you and takes you through the streets of a city filled with sex, drugs and turmoil. And yet, at the same time, the poem is inspiring in its ability to break cultural barriers, challenge existing norms and showcase the hope and sensitivity prevalent within a young, alternative America.

—Oishani Mitra, TCR Editor


The Last Night Of The Earth Poems by Charles Bukowski: This poetry collection is essential Bukowksi—it has the author’s signature dry wit and emotional confessions. Here, he offers a reflection on life and the awareness of death, and makes you feel alive while making you aware of your mortality at the same time.

—Prasanna Sawant, TCR Writer


Books Releasing This Week

  • Mother Land: Rachel, who moved to Mumbai with her husband Dhruv, struggles to make an unknown city her home. With her mother-in-law coming to stay with them permanently, and Dhruv going out of the city, do these two women, who are so different from each other, manage to come closer? Read this heartfelt story by Leah Franqui to find out. (August 20, 2020)
  • The Biggest Bluff: When author and psychiatrist Maria Konnikova approached poker champion Erik Seidel to learn about poker, little did she know that she would end up receiving lessons for a successful life. If you’re looking to learn about the best way to read your opponents and yourself and how to take good decisions (while learning a little poker along the way), then this book is perfect for you. (August 20, 2020).
  • Shuggie Bain: Agnes Bain wants to live a life of luxury. Unfortunately, her economic condition and a philandering husband have left her and her children poor. To cope, she takes to drinking. Only her son Shuggie stays behind while her children leave. But Shuggie has problems of his own. Find out how Shuggie tries to balance life and responsibility in Douglas Stuart’s book that has been longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. (August 21, 2020)
  • Livewired: Do you want to know what drug withdrawal has in common with a broken heart, how deaf people can listen with their skin or how we could control robots with our thoughts one day? Then your search ends right here. David Eagleman’s study of brain chemistry is guaranteed to send your brain for a spin. (August 25, 2020)
  • Superpower Showdown: In this hard-hitting book, Wall Street journalists Bob Davis and Lingling Wei compile information through interviews with officials from both the USA and China to understand how the trade relations between the two countries went downhill, and its consequences. (August 25, 2020)

We’re also looking forward to getting our hands on Those Delicious Letters, The Killings At Kingfisher Hall and Blood.

Brought to you by

Smart & Curious

If you watch just one thing today…

Make it this searingly smart animated film voiced by Ali Fazal and written, animated and directed by Ashutosh Pathak. It makes for highly uncomfortable viewing for very comfortable people like us. But that’s exactly why we all must watch it. This is the most valuable use of 3.5 minutes of your time. And yup, that’s all we have for you today. (Big h/t to our founding member Ananya Rane for passing this along)


Feel good place

Two dogs behaving (very) badly

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

One cat behaving very nicely (for a change)

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