“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?
He told me what he wanted to tell me, how he had no one and things like that. I listened for a while and smiled a lot, not sure what he made of that. Dried blood on his hand, he said he carried a corpse to the hospital- works for the railway, 40 years. I think anyway, it was very hard to understand him. I touched his foot, it was awful and charred with dirt I don’t think will ever wash off him completely. Again, how long has this man got to live? I forgot his name too. Towards the end, it had gone sour, as he spoke agitated to me, accusatory and aggressive as I began to take his picture, I realized I was a hawk and he had just made me, there was absolutely nothing I could offer this man. Blood flew off his nose onto his pants, I had brushed a fly away from the horizontal gash on it but it had returned and I couldn’t care less. Who gives a fuck about him?
I’m freezing on the ferry, all wrapped up like an eskimo; I won’t go inside. Ireland is coming, I’m dreaming.
I thought I’d make a short film in Belfast- about a group of middle-class Catholic boys that go on a bicycle trip and get lost in a Protestant neighbourhood on the eve of a riot. So I go to Belfast, the fare is cheap and the passage beautiful.
John walks me through the most fortified neighbourhood in the city, Short Strand- place looks like something from The Walking Dead- huge walls, barricades, CCTV- or, uhh, Finchley. I ask him why IRA dissidents (when the IRA got the boot in 1997 after the cease fire, it became the ‘Real IRA’ and the government became the new ‘IRA’ that now hunt the ‘dissidents’ from the ‘Real’ one) are tolerated in areas like this and he said because they have guns, and when things get bad, they bring them out and they’re needed.
I go to Belfast, it’s amazing. John keeps the photocopy of my ‘denial of entry’ as a souvenir. He takes me to a bar. A guy is getting drunk with his friends. Then we are friends, his name is Stephen. Mo chara! They have this funny thing in informal social settings in Belfast, they only ask your first name, I suppose it keeps things simple. I’m talking to Stephen about the ‘Troubles’, he tells me his mother used to work at the Europa Hotel, it got blown up when she was in it, a British soldier was helping her out, he, Catholic, rushed, or his brother did, and took his mother from the soldier because he didn’t want anyone to see her being helped by a Brit. He’s drunk and asks the bouncer to tell me stories about the IRA, the bouncer looks like he would know, and politely avoids the subject. The night is good and the place is too, but this could have gone badly. I make a note- be careful who those you talk to talk to.
At the bar they say, you don’t know what it’s like, you walk to the bus stop and get on the first bus. We’re worried about you, this is a terrible place to be curious. Someone offers me a job, I decline. Fool!
I get on the bus, I feel sick. Too many flags, too many names, abbreviations. This is 2012.
I’m learning how to look. It’s incredible, difficult. John says read the last paragraph.
Peering at the LCD, he congratulates me on the picture as he puts his shirt back on. I feel the familiar wave rise- oh, all y’all are too easily impressed. As he adjusts his collar, I catch sight of some discoloration on his neck, and suddenly it’s far too late to unsee the two slits that run across his throat. He smiles, a wide, satisfied smile with a twinge of something I can’t quite place, and says something to the guard standing behind him- we’re at a side entrance of the Bombay Presidency Golf Club. My eyes drop to the preview panel on my camera, I can’t believe I missed that. His body is a map of scars running like snakes in patterns too organized to have been a product of chance or accident. I look up, what the fuck is he still smiling about? He tells me his name. Rajesh. Ramesh. Raju. Come five minutes and I won’t remember. I take the guard aside, my mind flying to thoughts of maniacal gangland torture, some kind of incremental punitive measures ripped off all screwed and twisted from second-hand rumours of the East; there are, after all, a few hundred odd meters of roadside shacks lining the perimeter of the golf course and this is Mumbai. I ask the guard.
‘What did he say,’ he asks back, I don’t realize it’s a trap.
‘Too much alcohol,’ I reply.
‘Then that’s all you need to know’
A few weeks later, it’s around 2 AM and I’m returning from a December 6th B.R. Ambedkar service with a few gangster types (Jai Bhim!); one of them is trying to convince me that doing it with a homosexual doesn’t make you one too, since it’s ‘normal’ for the other guy. Not entirely sure how to counter the argument, I try to enjoy the chill night air and relax. The road is unlit and deserted; unrecognizable at this time, but my present company lays all fears to rest- I’ll be perfectly fine for the next half hour.
There’s a glow in the distance, at a bend. ‘They’re burning a body there,’ one of my companions points out. I realize I’m on the same road as before as we pass the entrance of the golf course. Not sure how to bring it up to the fellows, whom I suspect would probably know something about the guy I had photographed, I tell them about the last time I’d been on this road and I’d seen this guy with these scars…
‘Yeah, he does that to himself’
‘He does that to himself?’
I don’t even recognize him in this picture. Some gone boy… where did he find that face? I’ve adjusted the picture, made him gleam like a car. But that’s not the man I met that day, who’d taken off his shirt for a photograph that I didn’t know I was about to take. I don’t even remember his name.
I lost you son. I wonder where you are now if you’re even alive. But I guess in this city you can say that for a lot of people.