Articles of Faith, India, Revisited

‘This happens in India,’

I close my eyes, and the vast rush of Africa thrills like I can feel the mighty wind of the savannas in my hair.

Vivek would be in Zambia, shooting lions for National Geographic, he said. The picture is a difficult one for him to illustrate in the fog of the pre-dawn bender he’s just concluding, sprawled across the floor in the hall of a featureless 6th floor apartment in Chembur that he shares with his coworkers- engineers in their third year of work at a local truck company. The view from the floor to ceiling windows on his right, the one he wakes up to every morning is all flaming chimneys and the factory spires of a chemical and fertilizers plant that could give Isengard a run for its money. Zambia feels very far.

‘This happens in India,‘ he says, with a wry smile flickering on his lips. I think his eyes may have twinkled- once for something very old. His dreams have dried, wilted somewhere on a superfast highway he never stopped on. As I look at him now, with his bimonthly professional haircut now at least two weeks defunct and sagging in a sweaty mess upon his brow, I wonder what his thoughts were, during his most weightless moments- the excursions of his mind.

He tells me about the magazines. Born to language teachers, Vivek was no stranger to literature but the only books that seem to have made any impression on him were copies of National Geographic he received for his birthday from his uncle until he was 14. They were the most beautiful insight into the world beyond the small Uttarkhand hill station he’s from.

Ranikhet. The lush, verdant cantonment town of around 20,000 people sounds like it’s been lifted right out of a story by Kipling- a place littered with relics from our colonial past, full of lakes and streams and any number of waterfalls; a place where at dusk the sun sets last on the western-most peaks of the Himalayas, bathing their summit in a soft golden light that lingers until the rosy glow of the ‘pahadi’ twilight cedes completely to the thin, starry veil of the frigid night. This was the view from his childhood bedroom window, one shared across time, in humility, by Jim Corbett, Keki Daruwalla and many others. The hours Vivek spent scouring the pages of his uncle’s magazines had nurtured his perspective into a vision through which he wanted to capture the beauty and relevance of his surroundings, and utilize them as a means to express himself.

He was, after all, ambitious.

Crop 1880's PHOTO INDIA VIEW OF RANIKHET

Ranikhet, circa 1880

‘Andhon mein kana raja,’

Vivek grew up in a colony built by the East India Company to house military staff, his parents taught English and Hindi courses in government schools nearby. Being a first rate student, he was sent off to a district army boarding school when he was 11.

Run by an Anglo-Indian brigadier, the institution was tailored to provide a standardized education gleaned from the remnants of the British method dating back to the colonial era, complete with the Tom Brown setting and a singular focus on discipline. Being an army establishment, visiting officials and dignitaries would come to the school and give talks about patriotism and national defense, few of which Vivek ever attended. For all its talk about nationalism and retaining identity in changing times (something that used to lead Vivek to long arguments with his father concerning his job as an English teacher), it was a finable offense to be caught speaking in Hindi at the English medium school, and Vivek was a serial violator. As was usual in his circle of friends he would take off from the school premises at first opportunity to any one of a number of ‘jharnas’ nearby where he’d shed the navy blue blazer and striped tie school uniform, somehow extraneous without a Buckinghamshire backdrop to go, and swim in the clear cool waters of the ebullient streams of the hilly North.

Vivek says he cut his teeth on ‘reality’ in 9th grade and gave up his aspirations toward photography. Towards the end of the first half of the 2000’s, with the globalization tempest in full swing across the country and MNCs launching operations and markets in every major city, young Indians were beginning to find a host of new ways to use their education. Vivek saw his cousins and older friends find respectable, if conventional, employment and address their responsibilities towards their families and their upbringing far faster than used to be the norm. During the same time he also saw the varied ambitions of his classmates sieved evenly into medicine and engineering, as coming of age in a country spinning with the new energy of massive foreign investment clearly set practicality against, well, impracticality.

It isn’t hard to understand how these circumstances impacted Vivek to give up his longstanding dream, but the abrupt ruthlessness he did it with was startling. Earlier, he had spoken earnestly of having always known he could perform, in academics and much else, better than his peers. ‘Andhon mein kana raja,’ he said dismissively, but this was coming from a star student and athlete whose picture had been on those ‘state topper’ banners you see on roadsides until he finished high school. He would be ‘the best’ at anything he tried, and his success pushed him to adjust to the idea that if he wanted to, he probably should rise to the top of every list he signed himself up for. Perhaps he came to see employability through the same competitive lens that he viewed education with. Either way, he dedicated the next few years of his life to raising himself, further, to the absolute limits of the education circus and decided to go to Kota, Rajasthan- a coaching hub- to prepare for. All he had in mind at this point was his career.

Army School Certificate

Army School Certificate

…he was one of those peculiar kids solving questions from textbooks 2 or 3 years above his grade in school

Kota is a horrifying city. If you go there, you will be terrified,’ he tells me, ‘You don’t do anything else there (but study). It is the hub.’ 

Vivek is adamant I understand the gravity of his decision to go to Kota. His parents, seasoned educators, knew exactly what he was getting into. For a student of Vivek’s caliber it was the only logical step to take before appearing at the All India Engineering Entrance Examination, the results of which would determine the course of the better part of the rest of his life. He ranked in the top 1 percent in that exam, at number 2017 amongst 300,000, a feat that got him into NIT, one of the best rated universities in India.

In the year he spent in Kota, he says he realized that there was nothing special about him. Nothing about what he had achieved and what he had given up stood out among the trials and sacrifices of the many thousands of other students he met there. He called Kota a place where ‘machines are made, programmed to do things that would make them the best in the world.’ He reminded me of a Chinese student I had met in Edinburgh. This guy was doing a Masters in chemical engineering, studying plastics. A little surprised, I’d asked him how he’d come to develop an interest in plastics. He told me it was no such thing- he had given an exam and the government had decided to allot him to a subject according to his score. I asked him what it took to get into arts, and why he hadn’t gone into that ‘field’ if it was easier, as is the case in India. He said that it is nearly impossible to get into arts because only the highest scoring students qualify.

Vivek is something of a mathematician; he was one of those peculiar kids solving questions from textbooks 2 or 3 years above his grade in school. Today, they have him figuring out itineraries and overseeing sales and shipping at AMW trucks.

He and his colleagues are paid well for what they do, but probably ‘more than we deserve,’ observes a fellow NIT graduate who lives and works with him. Vivek’s situation clearly touches the heights of the ‘best case scenario’ as far as education and employment go. The prospects are endless, if slow to mature, and the potential is undeniable.

It is disappointing to observe that Vivek’s story just kind of middles and while he did earn the security he was looking for, it’s difficult to say he enjoys it very much. I have this empty feeling that there’s an army of hard working, hard drinking Indian geniuses in this country chasing after spare parts and processing email inquiries that would otherwise have been shaping the face of our nation at unexpected and groundbreaking avenues. But the national fear of failure persists and breeds within most a reluctance to experiment, to wander within themselves and explore not only what truly makes them happy, but even what they can be most productive at. It isn’t hard to boil down the issue at hand to the tyranny of circumstance, national or otherwise; or to our half-baked system of education- the one that was imparted to us by our colonial masters to educate us to a degree that would enable us to be more dynamic in our servitude. But must we?

Vivek in his flat

Vivek in his flat

…we’re only wetting our lips from a cup when there’s an ocean of possibility we remain… ignorant of

It is fruitless to blame the British at this point; they’ve been gone for a while now. The real problem is that other one- circumstance.

The fact is that things are no longer dire. Actually, things have been getting better and better, and I’m not one to pick a fight with the statistics. But however better off we might be than whatever we’ve been comparing ourselves with, it is my unshakeable feeling that as a nation, we stopped too early, and still on our colonial tracks, at the earliest signs of actual prosperity and said, well this is it, we’re here. India has always been bridled with the best, but we found contentment too many trials too soon, and we put a label on it and declared it right and practical. Vivek could have settled for the peak at his bedroom window, but fueled by the belief that he could invent a future for himself among churning things, he chose a different one- a faraway one that can barely fit itself upon the landscape where it now stands.

But that is not my problem with his situation. My problem with his situation is that he got there, and it’s boring, and it shouldn’t be. Not for him. But it’s the same story all over. By charting our perception of success and satisfaction on maps of experience drawn generations before us, we’re only wetting our lips from a cup when there’s an ocean of possibility we remain, in congress, quite ignorant of. But who’s to launch a debate on the mass perspective of a nation that gets by?

Vivek tells me that the only instance of failure in his academic life occurred when he was 4. Tasked with drawing an apple for some kind of exam, he drew a beautiful one and coloured it black, despite having spent the night before practicing the same endlessly with his mother, in the right colour. ‘I still don’t know why I did that,’ he says, it seems to be something he’s wondered about on occasion. Had it been some kind of act of preemptive mutiny, an early premonition of a rebellion that would never materialize? The black apple hangs in his childhood home, a vision of possibility framed unwittingly by his mother on a wall in his room, a constant reminder of untaken paths to ponder over whenever he can steal a couple of weeks off work and take the train home. Ominously, he says he will ‘return’ to photography and the other things he’s put off when he’s 40 or 50. It’s a feeling a lot of us know.

I feel like I have shared sweet smiles with the gone children, a generation of men and women who never had a chance to wander at leisure and examine their souls. It is a generation doomed to the turmoil of uncertainty concerning its decisions and the guarantee of the now classic executive mid-life crisis that goes with a moderate monthly salary. They are deaf to the calamity of their situation. ‘This happens in India,’ and dreams are lost, regurgitated in a youthful mist that vanishes a little more every day. But between every shaft of the harsh glare of the sun is shade, and we thrive there.

Vivek is asleep on the floor, surrounded by empty glasses and a bottle of rum he couldn’t quite finish. I lift his jacket, a Pepe Jeans sleeveless fleece, from the sofa-cum-bed adjacent to the window and throw it over him. Shimmering in the shaky glow of the flames from the fertilizer plant, a Union Jack glares at me dimly from the back of it.

The night speaks in tongues; I switch off the lights and leave.

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Bob Dylan WFMT Chicago radio – May 1963

http://tinyurl.com/qymqjd3

The song and dance man at 22 (I think), being interviewed very early in his career by some guy who totally knew where this was going to go. Dylan responds to the interviewer’s enthusiasm with an openness and honesty that you wouldn’t believe the guy possessed seen 4 years later in Pennebaker’s documentary. Somehow it’s always very late in the AM when I do anything on this blog so I’m gonna go back to my Stallone flick and hopefully sleep at some point and you can go ahead and listen to the tracks I’ve compiled for you (start with the second). It was very important for me at one time, although just right now I’d rather join the SS and give up processed sugar again.

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis

Which sounds like something from Game of Thrones but it’s not.

Thanks to original uploader, long lost and forgotten

View to a

Here’s our featured guest post by Rosheena Zehra. You can find more of her work at her blog here

It’s a fine bright day and the classroom discussion is about being stuck in an empty bus with only the driver, the conductor and a seedy looking passenger. The participants of the conversation sit and laugh about the number of times they have been stranded in similar situations, the fear they felt and how they are glad it all ended in a way that has allowed them to sit and chat about it in a classroom today. It’s indeed funny how the possibility of rape is part of the normative order to the point that there is no choice but to include it in our lives, garbed in the form of humour. We live a reality where it’s an achievement to survive every day without the threat of physical and sexual violence. Good, you were not asking for it by dressing in a particular manner. Pat on the back. Good, you were not out after dark. Pat on the back one more time.

It is a strange world where the eyes of a seven year old rag-picker at the nearest Community Centre have a disturbingly ill-placed maturity staring back at you.  They tell me there is no hope left for the world, but sometimes I choose to believe otherwise.  It is sad to have children lose their innocence before their due time. When a friend tries to adopt an orphan child from the same community, one of the two contenders of the struggle is the possibility of education, a stable roof over their head and regular meals on a daily basis- a phenomenon previously unheard of. However, it loses to its far stronger adversary – the addiction of sniffing a specific item of stationery.  Soon the orphan slum-child refuses to eat with you, or take the clothes you give, or attend your lessons.  He already accepted his fate somewhere during the course of his eight year old existence, and now refuses to see any other reality beyond it. They tell me there is no hope left for the world.

A country where land mines are part of the daily reality of school children is yet another achievement. Ladakh- it’s a bitter realization that there exists a world where courting death on an everyday basis is a lived reality, where warning signs of land mines are just as normal and mundane as the nearest sign post around the corner.  Kindly stay close to the main road, to avoid being blown up into chunks smaller than your pinkie. Have a good day!

A little world of comforts- which in turn gives rise to more illusions prepared, garnished and served on the silver platter of neo-colonialism, patriarchy and First World privileges- is sufficient to make us feel good about ourselves, probably even indulge in a feeling of self-importance. However, beyond this world of palatable truths lurks a reality somewhere out on the streets -that place we have never been to, completely untouched by the naiveté of the existence we are often deluded into leading.

We Are Everywhere – Jerry Rubin and We Are Everywhere – The Irresistable Rise of Global Anticapitalism

There are two books here. Yes, with the same name and pretty much about the same thing. Each worth going through- do so with caution. Caution caution caution. Sounds like

We Are Everywhere – The Irresistable Rise of Global Anticapitalism

Very 2000’s-sy, which is to say that thanks to the flashy editing and clean, uncluttered type, this book very nearly sucks and is almost unreadable because it looks so fucking boring, but there is some very good writing in there (check out the article by Kate Evans on page 290 and the one immediately after it by Medha Patkar and other stuff I haven’t had time to go through)

We_Are_Everywhere_The_Irresistible_Rise_of_Global_Anti-Capitalism_2003

We Are Everywhere – Jerry Rubin

My kind of book, all stitched up and with pictures of kids posing with guns, using guns, getting shot by guns; though no idea what it’s about. Some stuff on Black Panthers, lots of naked hippies, writing like

“Can we take your handcuffs off, Jerry?” asked the sergeant.

“Will you behave?”

I growled.

They got the message and stood back. “Cutting our hair is like taking off your black skin!” I barked to one sergeant.

“Jerry, I wish you could,” he answered. “You don’t know how much trouble my black skin has given me”

What contempt the black bourgeoisie hold for us white hairy niggers! They have fought so hard to become an equal in the white man’s society and we are trying to give up out white skin to become a nigger.

We don’t appreciate what they want so much.

The barber made good on his whispered promise and left much of the hair on my head.

Sheared, humiliated, beaten-yet still proud of ourselves for resisting…

We_Are_Everywhere_smllr

Hear – Advised on Urbanity

And here’s our first guest post- a poem by Alia Sinha, a student of Media and Culture at the TATA Institute of Social Sciences

Listen,
Before you spill your secrets to strangers
Or to me
This is the wrong time to be thus-
Wandering with swollen ankles and
Looking through curtained windows
For love.

Towers are crumbling into light splinters as
Helicopters crash in fields of wheat
While all along
Sorrow plays out in pink brassieres
Sold on the sides of streets

Here steel-shod golden eyed
Electric-lit
Monsters stand
Breathing mad music into sweet wine
Breathing sweet melodies into the night
They cannot roam with you
They can only grieve or charm.

Once
Dreamers owned these once-forests
Fire they cried. They were not wrong.
But so what?
Weep no more for the sensuous or the tender
Only remember
Once
They were strong.

Meanwhile torn-eared hyena be
With gilded fur and moony eyes
With delicate shoes
With throaty cries
Grin yellow toothed for cameras,
and acknowledge irony.

SIGHTS: MTV, LOWER PAREL; TAKING Part 1

“I say. You know this does utilize well” Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Acting on the information I know, I’m carrying a green Giordano blazer; It must be 35 degrees but not where I’m going; and headed to classy South Mumbai. I’m going to the Palladium, a gigantic mall where all the world class fancy tiling and foreign boutiques can’t seem to shake the evil stench of Neutrogena or mask the pallor of regurgitated creme fraiche – but I admit, the AC is top class and draws the potential from the city’s dress sense- Calvin Klein and Aldo, not exactly Versace but Tommy, and thankfully little in the way of Fab India. A foreign pianist plays elegantly on the Steinway parked next to the customer care counter. Brahms? Yes, yes, I think so… well, fuck knows.

Anyway I’m at the wrong place, the venue for MTV’s Youth Marketing Forum is next door, at an equally cushy ‘indie’ (in the way such things tend to be) furniture store, the Good Earth. I find the place- last stop in an enclave of exclusive decor stores and enter. Upstairs, against an arty little cafe filled with foreigners (good design, obedient art hanging against each table- very money), I find the door- it’s a large sized space with a stage set up against the wall, taking on the guise of a teenager’s bedroom with Bob Marley posters and stuff like that, and a huge LED wall playing an MTV graphic over and over. The cameras are just finishing setting up and there’s a crowd of some 200 people ambling in- I take a seat. Cyrus Brocha is mediating, assuaging the angst of those collected- no one seems to know what the thing is about. So we wait. The room is hot, the blazer is on my lap.

Aditya Swamy, MTV business head, comes on stage in an unimpressive, if shiny, gray suit jacket (that  is not quite Zegna and I wonder why, I’d be surprised if he can’t afford it) and begins to talk about some project they’ve been working on called ‘Curious Minds’.

“We’re in the business of young people,” he proclaims, and somehow the thought disturbs me- being the first hint of something I will figure out in the next few hours. The project turns out to be an international survey of some 11000 kids to gauge their priorities, desires, aspirations- information they used to hire experts for. I wonder at the change in tactics, but the graphics change and Swamy exits, leaving the stage for something I was not expecting.

So what they have come up with is Aryan Khanna, a 16 year old bastard child of consumption that seems to exist in a state of perpetual exhilaration. He has a little laptop with all his friends a on it and a compulsion to engage in spirited appreciation and sharing, centered suspiciously around electronic dance music defecated by MTV India’s most recent imports. As he air drums, guitars, etc to the music, sharing the passion of his consumption with his friends (all blown up on the LED wall for everyone to learn from) I realize I have walked in to something a little different from what I think it was supposed to be. Seated in the third row, I look at those ahead of me, on the reserved seats- Swamy, Brocha, other, nameless execs are studying the kid in engrossed detail. Suddenly I realize that MTV has no interest in catering to a market- it aims to create one– and this silent freak show of a human being that can’t enter a room without wearing Beats headphones and dribbling a basketball like it is so essential that every moment of his life, even the time it takes to cross over the room to his couch, is spent doing something, using something- is not only their imagination of what youth, all youth, look like, but also concept they’re trying their damndest to bring to actuality.

I think of S, and A, my friends that work here that invited me, is this the world like they see it? What are they building here?

A swarthy, glazed eyed European comes on and begins to drone about MTV having it’s “finger on the pulse” and begins to talk about youth. “Young people around the world are surprisingly similar,” he interprets from the statistics they’ve established from the survey. They’re “all travelling in the same direction.” The numbers are insane, perverse and the powerpoint slides conflict each other. They suggest a mechanical world that thrives in isolation, where consumption is achievement and social commitment and nuance boils down to “if you don’t share that funny thing, you’re out of it.” They’ve know, they’ve assessed the “market”.

Some guy comes on- it’s a politician, Shashi Tharoor. “India is owned by the young,” he says with a straight face, blown up incredibly on the large LED directly behind him. I wonder at the signs, the superimposition of Shashi Tharoor on Shashi Tharoor, what the hell does it mean? I’d be tired but this guy is electric and owns the room in 10 minutes with his irreverent banter with Cyrus and masterly command of memes. He has a voice like rough silk and is talking about the participation of youth in the election, saying exactly the right things- it’s easy to forget this guy was in the news recently- where the best case scenario, the one that the courts eventually believed, was that his wife had killed herself after learning of his infidelity and that’s all he had to do with it.

Inevitably, conversation turns to the Aam Aadmi Party, which he and Cyrus take turns bashing it until he turns and is serious, suggesting that while people may be sick of corruption, “there are no quick fixes, no easy solutions.” That’s what she said?

The interminable vision of a tyrant – a Czech guy comes on, he’s selling Tomorrowland some kind of EDM festival like a hundred others these motherfuckers seem to hold in Goa. Nothing new about this, nothing definitive- just one more. Taking in his short, stocky frame and the spotlights glinting off his white, shaven head, I think of the Portuguese, flooding the shores of our nation (if in khakis this time), wave after bloody wave of incursions that had cost us grievously then. He reads my mind, “We ARE coming” he says, describing his determination to win over the competition. No one contests, nobody cares. Yes, it’s finally sinking in- it’s all happened before and they’re back – this is the new Jalianwalla Bagh- Goa- a city we’ve set aside for them to see how far they can go. Describing Tomorrowland’s relationship with MTV, he slips, and he calls MTV a “big commercial monster” before he corrects himself, “of course I mean monster in a nice way.”

What I feel is dread. I realize I’m with the wolf in his den, where he thinks he’s among his own and speaks freely. I try not to blink when our eyes meet and say nothing. This will be over soon, I have only to sit still and make no sudden movements, and I shall pass unnoticed. All through the day I have been hearing the corporation talking, like from a huge machine head, delivering machine thoughts, perfectly rational in its mind, to an audience of mediums that will convey the message- and in the process, create the environment the message is to be delivered, and received in.

Collectively, we will await avatarati- our passage from this state of consciousness into the one they’re creating- a mass produced, perfectly referenced one that would be very viable indeed. They’d know. They took the goddamn survey, didn’t they?