Published Book or Work by:
TROY'S BOYS: IS INDIA WILTING UNDER WESTERN PRESSURE?
|Published by Medalion Enterprises
|Title: India – Troy’s Boys
Subtitle: Is india wilting under western pressure?
Author: Abhijit Dasgupta
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
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Copyright©2005 Abhijit Dasgupta
First Edition, 2006
Published in Canada for worldwide release.
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About the Author
This book, by veteran Indian editor and journalist Abhijit Dasgupta, who has been
part of top, mainline dailies across India for the last quarter of a century and was
only recently pleasantly surprised when he could file a story from a cyber cafe in
the back of beyond of an Indian village, gives you a fascinating reality check on
the changing lifestyle of the urban rich and the famous; of the huge churning in
the morality metre of the middleclass and, of course, the mobile-flaunting, jeansclad
young, once-jobless blackmarketeer you confront outside cinema halls.
A delightful read for all those who dread India for its snakes, cockroaches and
tummy-upsetting hotel food.
A must read for those who revel in surprises!
INDIA: Troy’s boys
By ABHIJIT DASGUPTA
The rope no longer performs magical tricks nor does the snake sway to the tunes
of the charmer. There are no carcasses seen on the pavements lining the
millions of roads in one of the biggest nations, India. India slightly embarrassed
by its richness in poverty, remains a puzzle to most, an anachronism to even its
own, yet it is still the same land which Sir Winston Churchill once described as
being a mystery wrapped in an enigma. But that’s only the view from the outside.
Deep inside in every town, in every glittering metropolis, a giant churning is
taking place; a movement which is taking the country forward, shaking off its
ageold shackles of superstition, morals and unproven wisdom. For eons, India
had remained the land of arts and religion; very soon, it is likely to surpass
stronger more contemptuous Western nations in logical progression.
It is true that Indians don’t live in trees any longer. The old rope trick has
vanished from the Indian stage, snakes are seen only in remote villages while the
charmer has lost his tune and a casual walk across one of Mumbai’s boulevards
is bound to throw up a BMW or two, not without their proverbial, opulencesmattered
post-modern swaggers. That’s the view from the outside which does
not quite reveal the huge melting pot in which the country finds itself now.
I have so many childhood and early youth memories of my country that this
change seems more engaging and worth a sociological study. It would provide
more than a fascinating glimpse into one of the oldest cultures in the world
perhaps, the oldest. I am now 45; exactly the age when you should be
worshipping Janus, the two-faced Greek god who looked forward even as he
could see what had gone behind him. But that has changed.
Streets, hosepipes & men slipping all over
Even three decades back, in the early morning, I remember how the streets used
to be washed with long serpentine hosepipes by Corporation sweepers who
connected the thick, hollow rubber line to the nearest pavement sprinkler and
how the roads looked, soon after, as if they had got their early, morning bath,
soaped and sober. How people, wearing rubber slippers, busily walked these
shining lanes, sometimes went tumbling down, hastily cursing their clumsiness
and trying to make it look as if it was all so normal while the boys on the streets
rolled over in pure joy. That was captivating innocence on the dingy, soon-to-bedirty-
again streets, thick with traffic and office commuters.
Then, again in the mornings, when housewives and their maids, got up early,
crushed coal into the mud ovens and lined them up on the lane outside, the sizes
of the ovens indicating the number of family members. How the smoke from all
these chulas (brick ovens) thickened and curled skywards in the morning heat
and dust and covered the entire lane with a thick smog. Nobody complained of
burning eyes simply because gas ovens had not yet made their forays into
Calcutta now called Kolkata.
In order to write anything about the changing face of India, it is important to get
an idea of what it was like even twenty-five years ago, when the slow, at least
apparent progressive lifestyle began in the last years of Prime Minister Indira
Gandhi. Not many outside the subcontinent know what it was like and the wrong
impressions that permeated and generated gossamer stories of a land infested
only with rats, nude sadhus (saints) and ghosts, not to mention riots by religious
bigots who need to be weeded out before any point could even be made. I have
lived in Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai and even visited the gangster hub and
second largest city on the subcontinent, Mumbai, numerous times. During this
time I have never seen beggars’ dying outside international airports as this was
nothing more than fiction which had been justified as fact in many a travelogue
written by over-zealous white men and women trying to make their publishers
back home happy. I have lived and worked mainly out of Calcutta, on the eastern
fringes of the country bordering Bangladesh and whose lifeline is the river
Ganges, called Hooghly in these parts. The romance that the city still has for me
is not borne of only childhood memories but of actual happenings and concrete
evidence that we were socially more relevant at that point in time than we are
now with pavement – dwellers in Levis jeans and Rayban glares. The Calcutta
that seems to have come of age to many is now socially irrelevant and lacks the
romance and sense of adventure which made it a pretty iconic city to live in
where Alan Ginsberg pitched tent and did drugs openly in the sprawling lush
green Maidan as much as within the cosy comforts of the many admiring, affluent
though fawning, obsequious gentry. All that has gone.
Of flyovers, bistros & discos
The old Calcutta has given way to Kolkata, a city of upcoming flyovers, elegant
lounges, incorrectly named bistros, waterworlds, amusement parks and four-lane
one-way traffic. There are now FTV cloned fashion shows every evening and a
middle-class who hates that very nomenclature. The middle-class, which was
once the backbone of an intelligent, culture-happy Calcutta, has almost vanished
and now it is routine to take your family out for dinner at a super-deluxe loungerestaurant
even if that means working yourself up to a stress level which saps
energy as well as grinds you to a sudden halt when you should have raced
forward to greater prosperity. Heart attacks and stress-induced illnesses are now
the primary killers in India, of which Calcutta is just one of those also-ran cities.
I have always been an avid reader of Rudyard Kipling, who lived and
institutionalised imperialism in India through his works, and scathingly wrote
about Calcutta in the late-19th century: “Palace, byre, hovel_ Poverty and pride_
Side by side.” Remember, at that time, Calcutta was the second city only to
London in the entire empire and the Europeans, after having tried their best to
educate the native Indians about hygiene and other uplifting movements in life
had almost given up. With the shadow of the nationalistic Indian National
Congress, which had just been formed, looming large on the horizon and
threatening may just be sparks because of the existence of a 150-year-old
colonial fiefdom. Total independence was to come at least 60 years later in 1947,
but the British had seen the writing on the wall and were in the process of giving
up the colony while making the best of the loot. Indifference to Indian upgradation
and lifestyle was thus the last thing on their minds and it showed.
Pestilence, it was, which India inherited in the early Fifties; the palaces were all
but gone while poverty and pride was definitely rearing its ugly head for a good
number of years after that.
This was an India to which most of those who are now touching 50 or
thereabouts were born. I was born just a couple of years and a decade after
Independence was wrested from the British in 1947; and for a large chunk of our
generation, we managed through a critical period till our late youth compromising
with both palace and hovel, pride and poverty, not without their obvious
insecurities. We inhaled with great pleasure the sweet smell of the jasmine as the
vendor passed by in his cart on the lane below while the hamhanded
industrialisation and Licence Raj (another name for institutionalised corruption in
which the government handed out sanctions for business and other profit-making
ventures for a secret fee) were moving hand in glove with a greater and real
anarchy throughout India, giving way to the internal Emergency proclaimed by
Mrs Indira Gandhi in June 1975. The chaos within India was showing while the
largescale arrests and drowning of protests were stymied by a dictatorship which,
in the name of democratic functioning, produced, what in the very short run,
would push India back by centuries. I was barely in my teens at that time but,
with some native, homegrown intelligence, learnt to survive with both with pride
and poverty, side by side.
Remember that piano?
Part of the pride and romance about being what I was, included a huge British–
era piano, a staple at any rich or upper class Calcutta household, but which could
not be played with the flamboyance, elegance and flair required by the
instrument because there was not enough space in the now-cubicled rooms to
allow for an audience or, even, anybody to pull a stool in front and run their
fingers across the length and breadth of the huge music-machine. The piano, in
the early 70s when Calcutta was torn by anarchy and bloodshed stemming from
a bulk of misguided youth believing in a violent version of Communism, lay
covered by tarpaulin, which was always wet at one spot where the water dripped
unceasingly from a crack in the damp, crisscross lined century old-ceiling. My
grandfather’s father had built the house and there had been no attempt by
anybody over the previous 100 years to renovate or even think of pulling down
the old Gothic styled building to pave the way for a decent, spacious, new
highrise with, what was to happen later, matchbox apartments. .
Come the Nineties, and this was to happen throughout Calcutta. Old houses
were pulled down at random and skyscrapers, some of which collapsed within
years, sprang up in numbers, the moneyed people moved into them, handing
over some pittance to the previous owners who could not handle the
maintenance of such ancestral palaces any longer. The skyline changed as the
land sharks took over. In Calcutta now, apart from a few British-era buildings
which have been earmarked as heritage zones, almost all the palaces have been
razed to the ground and the city simply seems to look upwards, pining for what
only it knows.
When we were boys, we had a number of silver linings in the canvas of
bloodshed and so-called revolution which wracked the city. My friends and I
played cricket and football, depending on the season, but with one problem
which jeopardised our games every evening. The ball, carelessly tossed around
with boyish playfulness, invariably got lost in the thick, green and black
undergrowth of the backyard and either it was too dark by then to do the
searching or the neighbouring, loudmouthed factorymen hid away what for them
was a nuisance.
The terrace also had some flower pots, their painted patterns washed away by
time, and the thick foliage which rose from the ground below touching the terrace
us great joy when some trees flowered on their own, the bloom giving rise to
small pink buds which we plucked and sucked for the juice. The juice was as
Six per cent only for roads!
Now, post-middle age, I don’t wake up any morning to jasmine or the flowering
trees. The number of cars has increased many fold (Calcutta has only 6 per cent
road space of its entire area), so much so that traffic seems to have overtaken
the city, pushing away vendors and their carts and the old man who used to carry
a chest full of cakes and pastries to be sold to eager children in households, rich
and poor. Now it’s MacDonald’s and Kentucky’s. I have forgotten what it feels like
to walk without slippers on grass wet with dew.
The problem with Calcutta and, indeed all major Indian cities, is that this
phenomenal change has not been a result of normal, easy progression. While
money has indeed lined the pockets of the middleclass which, sadly for a once
culture-literate, progressive national capital city, has not been able to handle this
sudden rise in cash flow with the method and intelligence it deserves in order not
to spoil you. The rush of money into a poor city has been like the sudden flow of
adrenalin in a terminally ill patient; the haste that ensues can only bring the
doctor home. This is obvious, in every nook and cranny of the country, the rich
has become richer and the poor almost obliterated, not by good governance but
by the sheer incapability to survive. From the top floor of any highrise in India,
only the drone of traffic filters above while the buzz of ant-like people walking in
various straight lines, together looking like a maze, resembling a jigsaw puzzle
It is the haphazard urbanization of India, continuing into this century, which could
be playing havoc in the years to come; as explanation, one must remember that
the rapid urbansiation was not due to any social cause but purely economic in
nature. The urban chaos in India was the perfect refuge for the village-dweller
who slipped easily into being one of the million unknown wage-earners. In the
village, that is difficult; your neighbour would know how much you owe your
neighbour living on the other side. Tragically, in India, this little knowledge can
spark vicious riots if the castes come into play as it has on numerous occasions.
At least 28 per cent of India’s population now lives in cities and many more of its
citizen’s move in and out of them for temporary work. In some southern states,
nearly half the population is in cities. In 1991, India had 23 cities with one million
or more people. A decade later, it had 35. Something which was not put on the
storyboard by well-heeled planners in the first place. This is a country of 600,000
villages but it is the city which is bound to reshape India. And in a country which,
since ancient times, has been mothered by the village, this transition and power
equation change may be devastating and tragic.
Everyone and everything in India is in such a rush. This is not the India we grew
up in and the contradiction hurts not only individuals but also the country and its
culture, I am sure.
The hero as anti-hero
My father, an amiable government clerk but very wise in his vision and ample in
his reading, the type of person who could easily sit for any management
examination and emerge with flying colours and grab a plum job even before
getting his degree papers in hand, had once told me when I innocently but with a
great deal of curiosity queried about the bloody, senseless revolution all around
us in the early Seventies.
. “You see all the violence around. The movement, the revolution, the bodies
lying all around Calcutta...how will you understand what romance, love, nature
and life is all about? When your next-door neighbour is dragged out in the middle
of the night to be shot in cold blood in the Maidan in the name of police
encounters, how will you appreciate literature, how can you enjoy a game of
cricket under the winter sun?…God has taken your generation for a
sucker…These revolutionaries are not killing human beings, they are marauding
a city, a culture. They have destroyed our race and, one day, the repercussions
will kill the nation,” he had said, without trying to sound like a preacher. For him,
then in his late 50s, life had been over and he saw no reason why he would have
to deliver sermons to a generation which he knew was growing up to be
confused and doomed. But at times, I saw him trembling when there was a
murder or an encounter in the neighbourhood. He would have tears in his eyes.
My mother would intercede with tea. At times, my father would refuse the tea and
walk up to the terrace. “What your generation needs is a villain as hero...It’s a
vicious cycle, it’s bound to happen,” he would mumble, as he climbed the stairs
to the open terrace. His wife would take his tea to the terrace room where Dad
would softly ask his wife, “I hope your son hasn’t got links with them?” The “them”
was an obvious reference to the revolutionaries who had infiltrated every house
and bylane, planting moles against the police and government agencies.
His wife my mom would smile and shake her head. Content, Dad would pace the
terrace, tea cup in hand, shaking his head from time to time.
His words rang true in some short years.
Amitabh Bachchan, the star of the millennium, according to a recent BBC poll,
exploded on India shortly with his pan-Indian Hindi film, Zanzeer (1971), quite
aptly translating into The Shackles, which gave the entire angst-ridden youth of
India a role model, totally different and a greater necessity than the chocolate
face heroes ruling the roost before him. But the Seventies were not the time for
honey and dew in India and Bachchan and his script-writers wrested the
advantage in a fashion that can only be fantasised about. Hindi films in India are
a barometer of change; countless sociological texts and research have been
written and done on the impact of this genre on the India psyche. Almost all of
them have come to one singular conclusion. Hindi films define the majority of
It is this national appeal, except perhaps in pockets of South India were the film
gods are different though the dividing lines are slowly vanishing with huge crosscultural
exchange, Bachchan, by far, 35 years later, remains the most popular
Indian alive. When he was nursing an intestine operation, one billion Indians
offered prayers at countless temples throughout the nation. But Dad was so right;
Bachchan’s staple was the anti-hero, almost a Dirty Harry-Clint Eastwood type of
character which he portrayed in film after superhit film: violence for a good cause
to defeat greater violence with an evil motive, revolvers to match swords if that
justified goodness and killing villains without mercy if that was what the nation
thought they deserved. The justification of the anti-hero as the archetype of the
messiah was at hand.
In the early 70s, it was the anger of an entire nation which broke its shackles with
Bachchan. Indeed, at that time, a romantic, good-looking, singing, dancing,
wooing hero seemed quite an anachronism. The anti-hero has been India’s
guiding image since then. Obviously, the anger of the early 70s has not
dissipated. It rears its head through riots, through brother killing brother over
religion, and in a country, though a single nation in geography books, which is
anyway split crisscross in every sector like those lines which drew unhappy
etchings across that damp ceiling overhead.
Of English and cricket balls
Strangely, it is the English which has still, to a large extent, kept this country
together with a game and a language. Cricket, a bat-ball game resembling
baseball, and the Queen’s English. Wherever you travel in India, you are bound
to come across young boys playing cricket with makeshift bats and balls,
breaking window panes, creating traffic jams, but with nobody objecting
seriously. When India play Pakistan, there is war on the TV screen and huge
groups of passersby or even those without access to a TV set, can be seen
clustering around to have a look at public screen at the electronics goods shop in
the neighbourhood. And knowing English is still a huge privilege and is a tongue
which is spoken with great variations, sometimes without much respect to
grammar, throughout the nation. Cricket players like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul
Dravid are gods in their own fashion and schools teaching English have
mushroomed throughout the cities and even semi-urban areas with an influence
which is hard to ignore. So much so, that after years, there are various nooks
and corners of the subcontinent where pockets of protest are simmering over the
disuse of the mothertongue. But since India has over 200 dialects spoken
throughout its land, those protests cannot effect a plausible, effective change.
But the urbanite is not sophisticated or modern if he can’t hold a fork in the
manner that an Englishman at a formal dinner would, no party now is complete
without the dance floor blaring hip-hop, trance or retro, and, if you are a dodo at
speaking the language, forget about moving into the upper echelons of society.
This is common throughout India, in every city and every small town vying for
My own English reading seeped in early and I still remember those days when I
stayed up through nights finishing Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series because
those books needed to be handed back to the school library first thing in the
morning. In this, I befriended my mom. Initially, when I was very young, Ma used
to read out to me; slowly, I got hooked on to Enid Blyton, Noddy, the Hardy Boys
and the rest. But never Mills and Boons. I don’t know why, but never.
The one Enid Blyton book which I longed to be part of was one that belonged to
the Famous Five series, complete with Timmy the Dog, the one in which the
adventures included a caravan in the English countryside. I asked Ma all sorts of
“What is a caravan? Do they have bathrooms inside them? Who drives them
when you sleep? Is there a driver and an engine like in cars?” Ma answered as
best as she could. She did not have the faintest idea of what the English
countryside looked like but she got prints of Gainsborough paintings from
neighbours and relatives and some from her own collection which showed rich
English meadows and hills and the lovely, verdant green. The young me, even at
that tender age, just wished I could be there. Going to London and visiting the
English countryside have remained one of those various carrots with which Fate
played come-hither games with our generation. Some have won; others, like me,
still wish I could see where Shakespeare was born. Anything with a hint of
English is still the best leveller, more than half a century after the tribe left Indian
shores. If there is one facility which the Indians are most emotional about, it is
their knowledge of English. Like everything else in the country, we tend to
become emotional about almost anything; what a Westerner would forget in a
minute, an Indian will brood over through the night. If somebody points out an
error in the usage of English as a professional tool or strategy in society, then the
brood could even turn into a nightmare.
Young bride walking
Talking of the changing Indian lifestyle, one incident, pertaining to a very painful
episode in a friend’s life, comes to mind. This was way back in the early Eighties
and my friend had just got married. This was an arranged one in which the bride
and groom first see each other at the wedding altar. He was happy, we had
glasses of whisky washed down with shredded lamb and salad and the
celebrations had continued in a state of recurring happiness and daze, whenever
the alcoholic haze cleared, that is. Then my friend went off to a seashore resort,
some 200 kilometres from Calcutta, for his honeymoon; those were days when
flying off to Singapore or Hong Kong to do some by-the-way shopping were not
even dreamt of. Honeymoons were spent in nearby resorts and only the real rich
could afford Kashmir in the north or Mahabalipuram in the south.
It had been, as was mostly the case, an arranged marriage, yet again something
which is alien to Westerners to whom getting married without having even seen
your bride or groom would be some sort of a disaster, if not sacrilege. In the early
Eighties, arranged marriages were the norm. It still is, but the honeymoon
destinations have changed. It is invariably Singapore for the middle-class,
Switzerland for the real rich and Kashmir, when it is peaceful, for those who have
saved throughout their working lives only for this one vacation.
My friend, an engineer from one of the best known colleges of India, however,
got into a mess. His wife, the lovely Jahnavi, another name for the River
Ganges, was a somnambulist, someone who walked in her sleep without
realizing that she was doing so. This disease is as uncommon as it was deadly.
My friend, Anirban, and Jahnavi, without barely knowing each other, had gone on
their honeymoon in high spirits and the much greater aspirational wish of any
man trying to possess a woman and a woman slowly stepping into her role as an
all-giving Indian wife.
What I later heard from Anirban was straight from a movie. Those days, West
Bengal, the province of which Calcutta is the capital, went without power for days
and on luckier occasions, for hours. Digha, their chosen destination, was no
It was past midnight in the hotel room in Digha. They had fun, played with the
waves and then returned to the room way past 8 in the evening, tired and spent.
Anirban, after a heavy dinner of chicken and spiced rice, had dropped off.
Jahnavi, who had shocked Anirban, but only slightly, a week back by telling him,
as a matter of fact, that she never slept with a stitch on, was fast asleep too. The
huge sea and the might of the breakers had left them with tired bodies. They
slept soundly. Anirban snored softly; Jahnavi had earlier told him she did not
They had not made love that night.
Suddenly, Anirban woke up. It was hot. The power had gone, there was no
generator and the zero-electricity hours in Digha, by consensus, were
unpredictable. He sat up on the bed, cursing the hotel, the government, and
finally, himself. The heat was unbearable. Did they at least have a candle at
He called out to his wife, “How the hell can you sleep in this heat?” He got no
answer. He stretched his arm towards Jahnavi; his hand caught emptiness. He
put on his glasses, always handy by his bedside, and tried to focus towards the
glass window through which the small, rectangular verandah could be seen. The
verandah, through the glazed window glass, was a shadowy mass under the full
moon but he could clearly make out its emptiness. There was no one standing
Jahnavi wasn’t anywhere. The door was locked; so she hadn’t gone out either.
It was then that he heard the splashing of water in the bathroom. Anirban heaved
a sigh of relief. His wife was taking a bath to beat the heat. He thought of lighting
a candle and started searching for one, opening the door to let the moonlight
enter. Walking out on the verandah, he saw a room service boy, sleeping deeply
and silently. He nudged him.
“Hey! Do you guys have a candle? You ought to...Get me one. We can’t sleep in
this heat. Might as well have a light inside...Get up, you!” He was almost
apologetic. The boy shifted sides and continued sleeping. Anirban realised that
he had to be more active.
He used only part of his strength to shake the boy awake. “I asked for a candle.
It’s pitch dark out here. Get me one. Please. Make it quick!”
The boy yawned. “The lights will come back in half-and-hour, sir! Can’t you wait?
I am sleepy and I don’t know where the candle is. They are with Manager, sir,” he
gestured towards the official’s room downstairs.
“I don’t care. Here, you get up and run. Get me a candle!” Anirban was now
losing his patience. “And a hand fan if you can. The mosquitoes...” He did not
end the sentence, hoping the boy would have made out by now.
The boy stood up, and on seeing Anirban’s massive, erect frame, thought it wiser
to move. He walked slowly towards the staircase leading to the manager’s room.
Anirban grunted and then returned to the room, keeping the door ajar. His eyes
were now used to the darkness and he could see almost everything inside the
room in blurred outlines. The moonlight, washing the room in parts, helped.
He knocked on the bathroom door. “How can you bathe in such darkness? You
could have called me. There can be bloody cockroaches inside...” He was sure
that the very mention of the insect, of which his wife, like almost all Indian
women, was scared to the point of death, would have Jahnavi rushing out.
Nothing of that sort happened. The splashing of water continued without a break.
Anirban was slightly puzzled. “Jahnavi!” This time, louder. “Jahnavi!”
There was no answer even now. The water continued to make noises inside.
Anirban shrugged. “Okay. Have a nice time. Keep some water for me in the tub.
I’ll have a splash too. Is the water too hot?”
There was no answer.
“I have asked for a candle. Don’t come out unless that joker brings one. He was
sleeping outside. That idiot, wasn’t budging. I have asked him to get one. Hang
on for five more minutes. I will tell you when...”
Abruptly, as if a small fountain had just dried up, the splashing of water inside the
bathroom stopped. The howl of the sea outside increased with the silence. The
door opened slowly, but steadily. From inside, with the moonlight bathing her
naked, glistening dark body, Jahnavi came out, indifferently drying her dripping
hair with a towel. She tiptoed across to the bed and turned, just once towards the
door, even taking a few steps towards it, making normal motions around the
room, as if taking her time till she would be sure that the entire length of her long
hair had been dried before she hit the bed again.
The tresses fell along her neck, past the shoulders, covering parts of her small
breasts. The towel continued to be rubbed against the wet hair. The rest of the
body was shining silk but dry. As usual, she had finished that part in the
bathroom and, as at home, come out, just to finish the hair part.
Add a lotus at the base and you have Botticelli’s Venus, Anirban thought for a
fleeting moment, before he inched forward lovingly to take his beautiful, naked
wife in his arms. Jahnavi walked past Anirban as if he didn’t exist.
Anirban watched, sweating profusely in the heat, sensing something was wrong.
The moon was now bright on Jahnavi’s face. He now knew why he was uneasy.
Even as she walked around, doing all that normal things women do once they
have had a bath and are at home, Anirban recoiled as he realised that his wife
was still in deep slumber. Her eyes were closed.
“Sir! The candle...! “
The boy, gaping and shocked, was standing at the door with a candle which
suddenly lit up the entire room with a strength which could have felled Anirban.
The honeymoon was less than brief.
They were divorced a few months later with my educated friend, an engineer who
boasted of culture and knowledge, initiating the divorce case against his lovely
wife for cruelty. Jahnavi did not fight the case.
And whenever I remember my friend and his lovely wife and the tragic divorce, I
remember a story Anirban told me, sobbing all the while, about their wedding
night, something which all of us friends shared but which now comes through as
eye-opener for me when I study the social system of our country.
Anirban had a sharp, almost aquiline nose with a bright, blue mole on the left
side of his mouth. He was a delight for females though in the Calcutta of our
growing youth, no female came forward to propose to him.
Jahnavi had loved the mole and the nose, he told us. On their wedding night, as
they made love as if it was the first time they were doing so, his wife had licked
the small, little mound beside his nose and just above the mouth, and said,
releasing both of them together in a wave of delight, “ Gawwwd...I am coming...”
Her slender fingers, which dug deep and clawed into his broad shoulders, left
stinging stripes in the morning. Interestingly, and socially relevant as I see it now,
Jahnavi belonged to those first generation Indian, middleclass women who made
love in English. She never went to a psychiatrist or medicine man when ill. That
was India 25 years back.
Strangely, they are still in touch. Jahnavi was cured completely after her second
husband, whom she married a decade later, took her to a psychiatrist and
followed all scientific steps to help her. Anirban, still recovering perhaps from the
shock of that dreadful night so many years back, has not married yet still deeply
in love with Jahnavi even now. They do small talk at parties.
Sometimes I wonder why our nation, with all its frills of missiles and shopping
malls and NASA-educated scientists, has not been able to educate the common
A stranger is a friend you have never met before; in India, the transition from a
stranger ( read: arranged marriages) to a friend ( husband or wife) takes more
than the usual time and even when the change does occur in a positive fashion,
it is either too late or by that time, familiarity with indifference and lack of emotion
may have already taken its toll. That being said, in India, you will find more happy
toothless, older couples than young, vibrant middle-aged or younger husbandwives
having a ball.
Never a canter
This country is a crystal ball into which any gaze can be revealing even for those
who don’t know anything about predictions. You just need to get into the history
and psyche of this massive nation. India is an emotional nation-state; a spark
may create a conflagaration, a smile can be converted into a marriage. But
nothing happens easily out here and never ever in non-dramatic situations.
Nothing flows easily into a consequent action; it’s always either a hop, step or a
jump, never a smooth canter.
Therein lies India’s charisma as well as its ghost. Contradictions are what the
makes the Indian stage so dramatic, painful and, at most times, darned
My young daughter, Ujjaini, studying English (ah! again!) in one of the premier
colleges in the Indian capital of Delhi is always fighting with me whenever I have
something good to say about Delhi where I have worked for almost five years
and then ran away because I couldn’t keep pace with its hectic ant-like daily
business journeys at the workplace and even almost political deaths and backstabbing
at social gatherings. Nothing is laidback in Delhi and almost un-Indian in
its approach to life. Laidback is something you cannot call Delhi.
Argues Ujjaini, a name I gave her after a visit to Ujjain, the legendary pre-Christ
capital of thriving middle India, “The first thing you can be sure of if you’re coming
from any other part of India, apart from Mumbai, is a massive culture shock
which I got when I first came to Delhi. The culture-shock which is enough to give
a normal conservative person the worst nightmare of his or her life! Chain-
Smoking and high rates of alcohol consumption both by adolescents and adults,
MMSs, zooming crime rates against women, very low safety precautions for
night-wanderers, accidents happening by the dozen every second in some part
of the city or the other. It truly is a nightmare, well, yes; I have nothing
complimentary to say about Delhi as far as the general people are concerned. It
truly is a beautiful city, with lots of greenery, well-maintained roads and almostsmooth
traffic, this coupled with the 100-odd super malls or so coming up and the
various lavish multiplexes and high-rises, we can say that Delhi has advanced
quite a bit in the superficial realm of looks and outward show and might even be
giving competition to many foreign countries in the years to come. Where the
people and morality are concerned, there cannot be any other city lower on my
chart than Delhi.”
Scathing, critical and full of sledge-hammer blows, Ujjaini continues, “But don’t
jump to conclusions and brand me one of those outsiders who see nothing good
in any other city than his/her home-town because at no point of time am I saying
that partying, having fun and freaking out are bad. I am a young ,fun-loving girl
myself, who visits discos, hang out with my friends and basically freak out
and avail of the 'little' liberties that being away from home permits. Neither is
there anything wrong with being a little contemptuous sometimes and showing
your attitude to people by virtue of being residents of the capital of India. What
I'm critiquing here is the complete lack of moral and ethical behavior indulged in
by and large the majority of the youth and almost the entire adult population,
shockingly enough. We have not been able to take the better qualities from the
West. India indeed has changed from what we have been reading in books and
seen in films.Yes, the image of India as the country of the snake-charmer
and elephant has been reduced to large extent but it would be wrong to think that
the image of India with little street-urchins on the streets begging for food and
money or very (in) conveniently treating the footpath as a lavatory. We have
been able to take from the West as far as the external facade of the country is
concerned (and that too only represented by the upper classes) there are still
miles to go before India 'awakens' to the advancement required to it to be a
country to be emulated, not emulating. Consider this, if India had really come at
par with all the western countries we sometimes equate it with, would you really
e asking whether India has been able to 'reach' or 'aspire' to that status?” b
But she continues to study in Delhi because that is where education is happening
and from where a degree means much more than anywhere else in the country.
Also, being a Delhi-ite has its own virtues; for one, you cannot afford to be bovine
or too innocent. Delhi teaches you to be streetsmart and gears you up to look the
world square in the eyes. And, for that, if morality and other social considerations
are given the go-by, then so be it. The urban youth of India has now taken this
philosophy to heart.
“Nobody gets up here to offer the seat to a wizened old lady (let alone a young
lady) in crowded buses. People have forgotten that there exist words such as
‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’ in the English dictionary. People here are so selfabsorbed,
superficial and so caught up in the petty concerns of their own lives
that they could care less about anything else in life. If wearing Marks and
Spencer clothes, smoking, attending parties, socialising, throwing empty kisses
in the air and hugging every old and new associate you meet on the roads are
signs of emotion, strutting around in the exquisite malls and having live-in -
relationships, one-night-stands with whom ever you meet, is not advancement.”
Ujjaini is a vocal young lady of Delhi, that’s for sure. But, however, she may be
quite right. We do not seem to have absorbed the better side of Western society,
picking and choosing the wrong things at the right time when the country was set
to zoom ahead. But the new youth, I feel, will not let happiness and a politically
correct social lifestyle to be their staple where all can join hands for a good life,
warped as they are in their own selfish, so-called modern lifestyles where the
guiding principle is “I, Me and Myself”. And that is the killer.
One for the road, only
Interestingly, taking off from where Ujjaini left, I rummaged the files to check out
some figures of alcohol consumption among the urban youth which is not
something that our country has imported from the West. India was the land of
Sura (wine) in ancient times when the West was living in caves; however, once a
drink in hand became the sign of machismo much like the Marlboro ad, it became
a defining statement. Beer continues to be the favourite drink among the urban
youth. Increased purchasing power and changing lifestyles have contributed to
its double-digit growth with sales touching 100 million cases last year. Beer
drinkers may not switch over but women and young people who have been
consuming vodka and rum may try these flavoured drinks. So next time you visit
an Indian nightclub and see young men and women dancing away with beer
bottles in hand, don’t be surprised; this is only an extension of the “I, Me and
Myself” concept. Drink, don’t overindulge. Sounds good but not to our generation
which drank to get drunk and had a ball of a time. Competition and work desk
rivalry have also robbed the Indian urban youth of the little pleasures of gay
abandon. And this phenomenon is Pan-Indian.
The flute with the organ
I remember another ditty from my childhood in Calcutta which could well serve
the purpose of this book about the changes that have taken place in a short span
of some 35 years.
We had a boy-servant from the state of Orissa, adjacent to Bengal, of which
Calcutta was the capital, and who was, despite severe warnings from my
parents, my best friend for many years. I had lost him somewhere down the line
and in the quagmire of years. His name was Kalu.
Kalu, I remember, was a squat, dark, bare-chested boy with large eyes just
below joined, wide, bushy eyebrows which stretched right across his forehead.
Kalu also had a limp, one of his legs being slightly shorter than the other.
Whenever he walked, he seemed to slip, which he did not, but which, in the
event, infused his movement with a sense of drama. His single eyebrows and his
limp were the young servant’s calling card.
Nobody even bothered about child labour those days. Kalu came to our
household when he was barely eight and did all the hard labour that even an
able-bodied man would not do without a very expensive fee in the West. Neither
Kalu nor his family objected; it was normal, and most natural, for a boy of that
class to earn his family’s bread by doing household chores. That was the
Calcutta, and indeed, India, of our childhood. You won’t find a single boy-servant
in the urban cities nowadays; and even if they do, they will either work shifts or
charge a fee enough to make the lady of the family cringe and offer to do the
hard work herself. Not that the tribe has vanished but they cannot be dictated to
any longer in a land where drivers of even small cars are given mobile phones by
their employer so that they don’t get lost in the labyrinth and parking lot maze
where it is impossible to find your car after a good evening’s heavy shopping.
In the afternoons and during holidays, both of us went up to the terrace which
was the only thing left in our household which reminded everybody in the locality
that we were once bigtime. The terrace, square-shaped and with a tap, shaped
like a small fountain which sprinkled water when the rusted red star-shaped knob
at the base was forced rightwards, was more than a century old and a huge joy;
from that terrace, the entire part of central Calcutta, complete with the toy-like
Howrah Bridge from afar, and the sprawling Maidan with the 350-foot-tall
landmark Ochterlony Monument sticking out like a pencil could be seen. Among
these two landmarks were buildings, new and old, some showing open terraces
with clothes left to dry on lines drawn across, and others, towering above the
rest, showing which way the city was heading, which was skywards. But, sadly,
On the terrace was a small room with one window which opened on to the street
below and a small cot in which nobody slept. Kalu played the flute. It was a small,
perforated little bamboo instrument which I never saw Kalu without and the
young boy from Orissa carried it like it was property which the entire world was
bent on snatching away from him. Even when he washed dishes, Kalu kept the
flute, diligently sticking it away in the folds of his strapped loincloth and pressed
tightly against his lean stomach.
Both of us played our own instruments; Kalu had his flute, and I with my mouthorgan,
which rather ceremoniously was called the harmonica. I had within the
first few years, mastered quite a bit of the mouth organ, so much so that any
relative coming over was invariably welcome to a free concert. Nobody wanted to
hear Kalu play his flute.
Kalu played a wistful tune which he had picked up from his father who also
played the same instrument in the fields back home. The servant did not
remember his mother but the old, wiry man did come dutifully at the beginning of
every month to collect the fees, leaving his boy with a few rupees to spend. Kalu
almost invariably used up some of the money in keeping his flute in order. There
were plenty of shops, trading in flutes, tablas, organs, sitars and sarods, in the
labyrinthine lanes of our neighbourhood. Kalu had befriended one of the owners
and went from time to time to check his flute. It was in fine fettle.
Once in the room, on the terrace, both of us began together, the flute and the
mouth-organ, pressed to young mouths, breathing music into the air around
Pigeons gurgling in their small little cubby holes along the parapet and on the
other side of the terrace, and all around, fluttering their wings and all on flight at
once as soon as the music would start, their silence disturbed by noise, the
stillness of the afternoon broken by two young boys making music.
After some time, the pigeons, unhappy circling the sky, would return. And settle
down in their cubby-holes. Back to the comfort of their happy gurgling, their
fluttering wings not keen to fly any more.
“They are listening to us. Our only audience,” I used to tell Kalu. And we would
laugh together. We bonded well. Kalu and I. The servant and his master. Both
covering up for each other when the need rose. And helping each other as
Its cartoon time, folks!
My son, who is just in his teens, does not need any Kalu for company. Since we
have moved from our ancestral house, he doesn’t even have any idea of what
fun on a terrace could possibly mean. When I asked him whether he had ever
heard of pigeons gurgling in cubby holes and flying in circular groups in the sky,
he did not show much interest. The sky and terrace, if ever he had gone up to
check, I am not sure, would have been all about whether the cable connection
with the TV antenna was in place. He, was named Vinayak after the fat, elephant
head god of prosperity, Lord Ganesha, has only one connect: the Beyblade for
now as it was the Cartoon Network some years back while, when he was just a
toddler, it was He-Man or may be, just to lend some concessions to his father,
Superman. But never in frozen cartoon strips; it always had to be the moving, TV
screen. All borrowed from the West, mind you. No homegrown pigeons and
bamboo flutes and wistful tunes of the field for him. As it is the same with almost
all children in the urban pockets of the country.
During my previous visit to Mumbai, I was astonished to see young boys and
girls working in fast food joints as delivery boys, something which I had heard
worked only in the West. But for the youth now, open as they to western values,
this is not seen as a slur on dignity; rather, this is a smart way of earning money.
It’s smartness that’s iconic nowadays. Indian tennis star Sania Mirza stars in a
commercial endorsement where a young rookie realizes that while the star
enjoys every bit of the cold drink, it contributes nothing to her success. This
commercial has now become a rage in India; be smart, not gullible, work hard,
and you will be successful. It’s interesting that unlike us and our forefathers,
India’s new youth has stopped trying to take short-cuts.
This is the Indian youth archetype now, considering that the nation is one of the
youngest countries where, significantly, two-thirds of the population is under 35.
Obviously, it is this segment which will decide what is going to happen next.
Quite understandably, it is this group which looks to the West as an example and
also makes full use of the consumerist society that India has changed itself to in
order to manage a decent if not luxuriant and conscious-choice lifestyle for itself.
Smartness is iconic
Interestingly that is bringing back many Indian expatriates from abroad; those
who have seen enough of the West and now want to come back home to an
enterprise-oriented, decent living, encouraged and inspired by the consumerist
society where they have lived abroad. On the flip side, the most that Indian films
can still boast of is going to the Oscars, never mind even if you do not get
passing mention in the foreign media; the highest accolades are reserved for
starlets like Mallika Sherawat who has just signed up with Jackie Chan and will
be visiting Cannes as a member of the Indian delegation and India’s greatest joy
comes from possible trumped-up winners at Miss Universe pageants. A pat from
the West and everything is okay with this cocooned world of ours.
It is this same youth which has waited for Maxim and now got it. As Sunil Mehra,
the editor, sets out his policy. ‘We don’t do breasts. We don’t do nipples. We do
cleavage; that’s our cultural template,’ he said. Just for informational purposes,
Playboy, without the brand name synonymous with nudity, is to be launched in
the country soon, a decision which apparently has been taken because market
analysts feel that the Indian male is still not fully comfortable with total nudity.
Playboy without its name, Maxim pitching for only cleavage, India celebrating a
Does the jigsaw fit?
, Social Sciences
, Young Adult
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