“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 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.
‘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.
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.
There is a great cosmic trick that time plays on man where it can take great leaps and yet move little, and the years that make men old have little effect on the progress of their soul. It is alsoo thta the path of the observer guides his feet to the same river to fill his cup, no matter where he may wander, and that is how I came across Ali. Ali is less a boy and more all the forces of nature at play- a whirlwind of the breath elements of the universe with thunder in his eyes and the careless spark of life in his laughter, seeding the hearts of all he meets with thrill and wonder- and a reminder of the possibilities of this physical world. Athletic, handsome and kind, Ali narrows his eyes when considering a math problem and doodles his name endlessly when learning a new passage from his chemistry textbook. Amid the thought-rush of his flood swept mind, is this his way of reminding himself who he is? Ali is a dreamer, and there comments of his mind are often thus- Ali is in a forest, one of his beloved natural reserves from Northern India. Ali is in love, and still clueless in his relationship of three years. Ali can talk to animals, and bids gentle command to four-legged friends. Ali is a hero. Ali is alone.
Like all born into the nation born from the Union of Indian States, few decisions for the boy’s life were left to the boy himself. He grew up lucky though, and wanted for nothing, not even for choice, in his formative years. Ali’s great love for the forest developed out his father’s love and he dove deep into the emerald lakes of his new passion with the fiery might he does anything with, reveling in the unlimited depths of his new interest. Unknown to him, this love was a seed planted in the depths of his longing, the tree of which would sprout with unexpected, but inevitable fruit in the years to come. Ali learned to take photographs, graduating from expressing his desires in crayon and colour pencil scenes of tiger sightings, and soon he began his journey to mastering the written word to journal his experiences in the wilderness. Even as his ISCE life ran parallel to his development as an artist, Ali rarely paused to wonder when these two contradictory lifestyles would intersect. Ali rushes in; too used to forest leaves that rustles as his brethren winds blow, bringing relief to starlings in their Sal perch, and the scent of prey to his beloved striped beast, Ali is unprepared for the walls and other man made obstructions, which is why when he hits one, at the end of his final year at school, he is, for the first time in his life, halted.
Where does the mighty river flow when it turns across a bend and finds it’s bed is gone, and it must now wear the dress of man and walk on his tight knit streets and galis, and climb stairs cut from the same stones that once gave the river it’s song? Ali was all set to be an engineer. He didn’t want to be, but knew to be nothing else. Nothing could go wrong if he followed the path tens of millions of other his own age took every year. The wind could blow in any direction, he was told by those he trusted. But he knew that then it would not be a wind.
I’d like to tell you that Ali chose wisely. That he listened to those who knew better. That he went into a college of engineering, made his fifty thousand rupees a month for the first 3 years and over a lakh after, until he was 27, when he married, had children, traveled the world across many summers. That would be an easy story to tell, we’ve both heard it a thousand times. Happy stories. But I’m happier to tell you that’s not what happened. The river did not trickle into the streets of man. The wind did not become a whisper. No, like these elements Ali too carves his path through the rocks, over the mountain and under the hill, whatever it takes. How happily will his journey end? Will his path lead him to the wilderness he thought he would have to leave behind? He doesn’t know, because he still feels lost and it shakes his heart sometimes. But it shouldn’t, because Ali dreams awake, and all of life is a wonderful adventure for those that do. These are the boys, made men, made wind, that breathe life into the hearts of those that glance jealous glances from the unwinnable games of men, and win the admiration of the keener-hearted, who, inspired, spur them onward on a road they could only wish they could see, but cannot, for there are no roads where Ali now treads. But there will be one behind him, one that I shall follow, along with a thousand others whom Ali inspires. There are few places in this country for dreamers. That’s alright. They are here to make their own.
Back in the apartment, 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.