A sort of magazine I came across looking for pirated copies of Semitoext(e) books, after finding them all on Flipkart for over 1000 rupees each (recently I got some twenty books altogether for similar money). Some repeats from Hatred of Capitalism but interesting entries from John Giorno and Kathy Acker amid other, unspeakable things.
A great introduction to Thompson’s body of journalism (if you can’t get a hold of The Great Shark Hunt), originally appearing in Rolling Stone magazine- issue April 1971- about the American civil rights movement in that period.
He stood behind us as N. tried to teach me roulette or whatever it was in the same way that he tried to teach me the bus routes or anything- mumbling endlessly to hear his own voice. I despised him completely, but maybe I didn’t know it then. He watched the screen as N. played, clearly, or not so clearly he was waiting for the low stakes unit to be free so he could use it. N. would walk away at times to see the television thing or something and I would slide in so the seat was saved for us. The man stood there for a very long time, 10 or 15 minutes right behind us without any inclination to communicate. It was interesting. Somehow he got to speaking, I forgot how. I think he made a recommendation to N. and they got to talking from there. He warned me against gambling, said he’d been at it for 12 years, or was it 14, and said it leads nowhere. I asked him why he did it, he said he came when he had nothing to do, and was there most nights. Well dressed Eastern European with a Muslim finish- Albanian, Bosnian, he must be, I thought. There was too much in London for me to wonder what he did, if I did I do not remember. I told him I had no interest in gambling, was only accompanying N. because it was 2, 3 maybe 4 am and what else was I supposed to do.
An oriental girl massaged some guy’s neck on the corner machine for a pound a minute. I was staring at the television where the roulette wheel was streaming live from the floor on the ground level. Or something, I don’t remember what I was watching but I was watching intently. Something hit the back of my head. What the fuck? I look around, there’s a pen on the ground beside me. The Albanian is waving a hand a couple of rows behind me- it was him. He had wanted to break my concentration he thought I was being drawn into the game. Or maybe he just couldn’t see the screen. I moved away.
Hours later, I am bored and I’ve just had a cigarette on the little balcony overlooking a minute portion of the bustling night. I’m looking to write, I think it’s a good time to. I find a sofa with a guy sleeping in one corner, I take the other side and settle down with my book and find my pen. The Albanian guy is coming up the stairs, he spots me and says hello. I’m ready for some conversation and I depend on people to sense that and I guess he does; he looks exhausted- an hour or so later he’ll ask me how old I think he is I am 3 years off but that’s his weariness I was accounting for. We talk, I don’t remember what, what I do comes up. I tell him I’m a photojournalist, I’ve been telling everyone that. He doesn’t discount it. He makes me an offer. He has a story he says, and he’ll tell it to me in full, God knows we have time, if I can tell where he’s from. Bosnia, I’m wrong. I know he’s not Albanian. He gives me 3 chances. Says he knows instantly where I’m from, I feel fucked and know if I don’t get it right I’m not getting what I guess I was brought here for. Serbia. It’s the same thing you know, he says, Bosnia, Serbia. Why, how do I think he’s from Bosnia? Semiotext(e)? Why? I just do, I’m usually never wrong, and never with South East Asians. I tell him I’m from the wrong part of the world to be able to tell him where he’s from. I wonder, today, months later, if he was going to tell me the story he told me had I not made it out. He gave me a clue, he was Muslim- Algeria, I said, he said yes, I said no and he showed me id. It said Algeria. I couldn’t believe it and couldn’t have guessed it. I was eager to hear the story- this is what he told me.
When he was 18 he faked some papers and joined the Algerian police against his father’s wishes, I think he said it paid well. This was the late 80’s. The Islamic party had been elected unexpectedly. The country was still reeling from the French, who had fucked them and slaughtered them and the people wanted to get as far away as possible now. A civil war kicked off and people were killing people again. His unit would dress up as Mujahideen and slaughter villagers and outskirts people to inspire hatred towards the Islamic party, it must have worked. He said it got real bad. ‘Brother killing brother’, made real how he said it. A country fighting to become what it wanted to.They found out and started killing police. All government workers- teachers, politicians, whatever. They started killing off his unit. Three attempts on his life, they tried to kill him but couldn’t somehow and he left. I don’t remember the details, did someone try once to slit his throat. I think someone shot that man. I don’t remember. I think it was a boy. Another attempt had two cars full of armed men raining bullets on his car.
I think he left his family behind. He never admitted to killing anyone himself, or being involved in the dressed up in disguise killings he was telling me about. He moved to London without a thing and he’s an accountant or something now. Won 60 grand at the casino once. Or was it 30? He said they start watching you if you go over 40, and then they want you to leave and they’ll kill you on your way home if you don’t. It’s a mafia business, he said. He told me his name. I’ve forgotten that too. I only met him once, and all the things he told me are lost to the world now, through me. But all that remains is sacred, because it happened. He said his friends who were there were having a meal and some French guy, 20, came in and everyone was wild and the French guy kept saying ‘but I had nothing to do with it’.
But that’s not the point. I faltered, and no irreparable harm was done, and no amount of Baba O’Riley can bring back the moment lost into nothingness, my careful signing hand, too busy to choose- I refused it then and it left. ‘No take it with you’. Last cigarette to remember it by, but it’s borrowed; the 24 hour pharmacy does not sell them downstairs, but they sell chocolate. All wrapped up like a shiny pretty thing, all dolls. But not that thing I like. And the fear I felt in the afternoon when I was thinking, that’s also gone, gone too and I’m safe here, for now because no one’s been asking me to leave. When I do leave I’ll have to leave without it, his story, so many stories because I’ve lost them- I was a witness and I’ve moved on. Now one lone mosquito stirs the air in this room and is my only concern. I don’t remember what happened in Algeria or how it affected me. I don’t remember the names of the people or the political parties and hardly recall anyone’s motivations and who got killed and who nearly got killed or how- though someone told me, I’ve forgotten. I keep these things as I keep air. I keep many things as I keep air, not the least of all many other people. What was his name? Come on Baba O’Riley, tell me his name too. I just don’t remember.
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 saw his son before I ever met him, Shaukat Sheikh, Irshad was making some phone calls in and NGO office and I saw the MISSING poster on the desk, held it out against him and took some photos. We were at Ambojwadi, embroiled in Ganpatpatil Nagar, far, far, far from other concerns.
The second time I ran into Shaukat, I was smoking a cigarette outside Irshad and Shafi Law’s office in Antop Hill, I don’t recall why I was there- it was becoming a bit tiresome when they’d call me all the way out for 5 minutes of information and I’d end up staying the entire day.
I recognized him immediately, even in the dark gulley. His tall, emaciated frame and that hawkish face; those alert, shining eyes. I’d photographed him at his home a few weeks ago in Golibar, Santacruz to cover the disappearance of his son in a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) fraud.
Shaukat was passed over for relocation when his area was allocated for redevelopment by a building agency, Shivalik Ventures, on the basis of an SRA criteria that allows free housing to slum-dwellers that have resided in their respective area since 1995. However, several others that did not meet the criteria were allocated housing, a fact Shaukat attributes to forgery and corruption, instigated not by the residents, but the promoters of Shivalik’s agenda in the slum.
Amid threats to life and family, he launched a series of RTIs (Right to Information query) into the builder’s practice, and it was revealed that the promoters had added fictitious names to the list of beneficiaries which forced a re-evaluation of the list by the Vigilance Committee of the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority.
On August 1, 2012, Mohammad Sajid, Shaukat Sheikh ’s oldest son disappeared on the way back from coaching classes. It was his fifteenth birthday.
It took 2 months for the police to recognize the case as a kidnapping, though fouler play is suspected still. I remember asking Shaukat if he thought the investigations of the police, the formation of a special investigation team on the order of the High Court, could possibly result in the return of his son. He told me at this point he’d rather just know what had happened to him.
A mysterious phone number showed up in three of Sajid’s school books. Sajid didn’t have a mobile phone. None of his friends had mobile numbers. Was this a relevant fact? The police refused to investigate the number, highly unusual given the context. Shaukat’s own digging revealed little.
There, in Antop Hill, he was visiting Shafi and Irshad to tell them of his court hearing the next day, where he expected the judge to put a deadline to the stagnant police investigation. He asked me if I could make it to the High Court the next day, I promised I would.
Shaukat is a simple person, who smiles kindly at jest. His lawyer, Wesley, a pro bono Human Rights guy, is joking with him, trying to work off his nerves before they enter the courtroom. He tells us all to turn our phones off; he asks me to button my collar, as it would be more formal. I oblige. He tells them not to speak, and let him handle it with the judge. I strike a conversation with his assistant, a dreamy eyed law school undergraduate. We’ll talk about noodle wrapped chicken at Mohammad Ali road. We enter.
This is a maritime courtroom, I just climbed onto a deck. Other than the light streaming in from the high windows on the upper level, the large room is lit simply by overhead lamps hanging from the clean, painted aluminum ceiling. Some cops stand around, they all wear shoes of the same ugly tan orange leather. There is the spirit of assembly, we’re all waiting for the judge to arrive; Shaukat is sitting a few spaces to my left on one of three benches on the dock, his wife to my side and Wesley, the lawyer, hovers behind him reviewing his notes.
The stacks of paper the court clerks handle on the long desk are voluminous. It appears to be pretend order, many steps to a dance of no tune. I’ve seen it in other government offices- stacks of damp, age old documents decaying in towers- they look like they haven’t been touched since being put there, and it’s difficult to imagine they would serve any purpose in the condition that they are. Metric tonnes of never digitized records that no one can handle now without tearing from cover to cover at the slightest touch. It’s all information they never knew how to process anyway- funny how they always want more.
The judge enters, preceded by a couple of bailiffs in cute red turbans, and court begins.
About half an hour into it, Shaukat turns to me and signals ‘2’. His case number is 8, there appear to be 2 left. Before I know it, it’s time.
I thought he’d lost his nerve in front of the judge, a sharp faced, fair skinned man with perfect English and an authoritative voice, but really he seems to be working himself into a respectful, subdued insistence that works really well on the judge. The main conflict here with the defendant is the reluctance to acknowledge the case as a kidnapping. The judge gives the police a week to conclude their investigation and orders immediate police protection for Shaukat and his remaining family- a 24 hour 2 man detail. Shaukat’s wife’s phone goes off. It’s a half minute of terrifying nonchalance until she realizes it’s her’s and rushes out of the room, ushered by annoyed but sympathetic court clerks and cops.
The judge is inquiring the cause of the delay in the results of the investigation, the state appointed defendant isn’t being convincing.
Does Shaukat understand what’s going on? Wesley is beaming.
It’s done, we exit the courtroom. In the busy hall, we clutch a corner against a bannister, one of the many that seem to be holding the place up and huddle around Wesley as he explains the verdict, telling Shaukat about the protection detail and the deadline. Shaukat asks if they’ve recognized the case as a kidnapping. They haven’t. Wesley explains that the court will await the police report. Shaukat, no one present, has any faith in the police.
What’s that look on Shaukat’s face? A crumbling look. Placcant. Complicated. I’ve seen it before, at school when a child would be told what they could not do, without hope or the possibility of reasoning or dialogue. A worthless affront by a system that doesn’t care; it surprises and frightens me to see that as it was for us as children, it will be for us as men, led unquestioningly by a useless cavalcade of better dressed, better educated fools.
Shaukat stood up against oppression and they took his son away. He turned to the system for help, the system that had betrayed him in the first place and it did nothing. Now, years later, it appears that the court will grant Shaukat recognition for his persistence. Acknowledgment of his loss? No, not yet. And no justice either, perhaps never that.
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.
‘They hold it in,’ she says gravely, matter of fact-like, looking me in the eye past my camera as the other two nod. ‘They prefer it to the shit they have to take from the bastards on the way to the (community) bathrooms. They’re too afraid and they don’t go,’ she says, talking about the girls in her slum. She’s in her 60’s, having moved to the city from god knows where with her family, she’s a resident of Ambojwadi, a vast slum frozen in various stages of development in North Mumbai.
I’d be there a few days later and take the 15 minute walk from the residential gulleys to the designated toilet area myself- it’s a large field with some scattered shrubs in the way of privacy and little else. Don’t forget your lota. I stood there after a night of bad Chinese, having slept on the floor of a small NGO office, and looked out in the haze, west towards the sea, fancying the facilities 2 miles yonder, off Madh Island on the exclusive Aksa beach.
The ladies notice the tear, the only betrayal of emotion, and I’m coughing too much to be recording anyway. It’s cold in the open here in Azad Maidan, my third night at Medha Patkar’s Andolan. I put my gear down and make to leave to find my place for the night. They ask me to visit them in the slum sometimes, I tell them I’ve been getting a lot of invitations but they say no, don’t go with the people you’ve been talking to we’ve seen you talking with, they’re thugs. They sense it’s been a rough day for me and invite me for a coffee to cheer me up.
Most of Mumbai grinds to a halt when the local trains stop at 1 AM, it’s now nearly 2. Outside the park, solely in the company of a van full of sleeping cops, I wait with them in the eerily quiet, empty city for a bicyclewalla to roll by, chiming his little horn.
The women are excited and it’s thrilling- they talk about everything and I feel like family. When the coffee guy does show up, he’s a little surprised when they women insist on paying for it but pours out the sugary drink in little white plastic cups from the steel box on the back of his bicycle with aplomb when they explain its their treat. He says something, something rich and large, but superficial and makes no sense. Maybe he was just lonely. We go back inside.
A guy in a cap, someone I’d spoken to earlier invites me to a person-wide space on the tarp he seems to have saved for me, it’s the only space left that I can see- there’s a lot of people sleeping in the park tonight. This guy is in a small group, some three men in their mid-thirties, awful and dirty but who isn’t? We make small talk, they inquire about my work, my gear, about the price of it- I quote them a third of what I’d paid, but here in the dark it still makes their eyes widen.
A guy, Javed whom I’d also interviewed, bedded a row down from me, catches my attention with a wave and comes near, ‘You want a coffee?’
Javed is one of the guys the women called a thug. He’s small but firm, and I had a very unpleasant experience with him a few hours ago when he took my East German Braun lighter and asked what I’d do if he didn’t return it to me.
‘Now? I’ve just had coffee’
‘Come on, it’s good coffee. It’ll keep you warm.’
I used to have this thing, something I’d say to myself every now and again like a fucking mantra- never say no. So I take my gear and join him.
We talk about weed. He tells me of the crazy shit they have in his area and invites me to visit to have my mind blown. We’re crossing the street towards the station, no cyclewallas now but Javed is confident we’ll find one on his return journey on the other side. In the 2 AM desolation, the city is vast and the broad lanes that were incredible with traffic just a few hours ago are deserted and wide in the pungent glow of the orange streetlights.
Javed crosses nimbly, jumping over the side railing on the street, where we wait behind some dividers which is normally a taxi stand. A couple of drunks join us, materializing out of nowhere. We all wait for the coffee guy.
Javed turns to me.
‘Those guys are gonna rob you tonight. That’s why I brought you here for a coffee, to warn you. Why do you think they offered you that space? What are you crazy, trusting just anyone?’
I knew he was right, I’d seen as much when they’d targeted a poor drunk sod in front of me, attempted to relieve him of a canvas bag he’d been carrying. I hadn’t thought anything of it then, which is insane in retrospect, but that’s how it was.
The cycle rolls by, we have more shitty coffee. We go back.
I return to my space, there’s no other. They welcome me back and adjust so I can be as comfortable as the situation allows. I settle down.
I turn to Javed in the distance in the dark; he nods, I nod back. I’ve caught it- the fear, the paranoia. Welcome to the jungle; trust no one and never sleep. I’m sitting next to the guy with the cap. He recommends I lie down, I don’t. I turn to Javed again, in the other row, I can’t tell him from the other bodies until he laughs, sniggers, smirks. It is acknowledged. I want to sleep. I need to. I want to sleep.
January, I’m leaving Azad Maidan and crossing the busy intersection that separates it from the CST terminal, making it halfway before a two-way wall of traffic forces me to take shelter on the divider. I guess I could have taken the underground walkway- being early in the year and still cool, I wouldn’t even have had to wade through the thick murky heat of the pressurised subway for the 2 minute walk to the station, but having spent most of last week working and sleeping among 10,000 odd people at a Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao relay fast, I’m not exactly adamant at the prospect of spending any more time than I have to in human company. Funny thing then that I’m about to board a local.
I get onto the cargo and goods compartment of a train heading to Kurla. I don’t see him get on, but this beautiful kid swings past me as the train pulls off and attaches himself to the handlebars at the door- he’s wearing a large, torn red jacket vivid in the bright yellow light of the winter sun. The morning is soothing, and the boy sailing at the door and his jacket billowing behind him make an image that can take me anywhere.
The men start bothering the kid, I think for a moment one must be his father but realize that he’s not. There’s suddenly a hint of concern, the same that accompanies a street animal in peril and little more. The sudden lapse of apathy is stifling, almost unnatural in this city- the kid feels it and leaves at Dadar, disappearing into the peak rush, forever lost from the hearts and minds of all present in that compartment. A dark old man tells me he was on something, I’d have thought glue but he said it was something they snorted. They, running around getting high and wandering the trains all day long. I thought he was someone’s son, and he had dust on his face and dirt clinging to his bare feet and legs like it wouldn’t ever come off. He was at ease though, on the open ledge, flying as the train did, and I really could see him go.
This post is a part of the #Vote4Children Blog-a-thon on Youth Ki Awaaz. Find out more at: http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/vote4children
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.
‘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.
‘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.
…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?
…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.