The Lost American Decade – 1

The Congressional Budget Office released its report on the trends in household income distribution in the United States from 1979 to 2007 this month.  The report, a dour-visaged, smug little document that bursts with tedious detail and persnickety clarification, received front-page coverage.  In previous years the report would have garnered no more attention beyond stuffy boardrooms with crusty economists, but this year, the writers of the report were suddenly front page celebs, their work lasting on the front pages just long enough between Herman Cain’s 5th Beatle auditions and tikin Kardashian’s long-rumoured divorce.

Lugubrious-looking presenters repeated the report’s damning statistics – figures that provided the perfect justification for a nation’s simmering anger: the top 1% of American households had seen their after-tax income increase by 275% over the 28 years from 1979 – 2007.  The bottom 20% had seen it increase at 18%.  The vast middle class – income quintiles 2 and 3 – had seen an increase of less than 40%, and the remaining rich guys (80 – 99%) had seen a robust 65% growth.  The report then goes on to document, in clear terms, what many of the people I speak to have acknowledge  for some time : the United States is a deeply unequal society, and one that has been growing more unequal as years pass.  The Gini coefficient is the statistical relationship between income share and population share for a given country.  For smart economist-types, it is the area under a Lorenz curve plotting income share versus population share, and it should ideally tend towards zero (perfectly equal societies) and attempt not to tend towards one (perfectly unequal societies).

The OECD recently underwent a hand-wringing exercise about the rising inequality in their countries, but even while doing so, they commented on how the US was in the back of the pack not just in income inequality, but also in most of the six indicators necessary for social justice: poverty prevention, access to education. labor market inclusion, social cohesion and non-discrimination, health and inter generational justice (Social Justice in OECD Countries 2011).  A growing chorus of reports are beginning to point out what people have begun to feel ever more acutely over the past couple of years: that America has become more unequal, and has spread the inequality unequally too.  Thus poor blacks and hispanics have a rougher time than white Americans of a similar income category, and they score consistently lower on social justice parameters.  America fares pretty poorly in the global inequality sweepstakes, coming in at 0.408 for income inequality, below India’s 0.368, and marginally worse that the Russian plutocracy at 0.399.  These BRIC giants, traditionally hierarchical and unjust societies both, are shown to be more income-equal than the United States.  At 0.408, the US has China (0.469), Brazil(0.55) and South Africa (0.578) among its list of comparably unequal friends, some consolation before the list completely degenerates into egalitarian nightmares like Haiti (0.59) and Mexico (0.516).

Needless to mention, a whole bunch of cassandras has crawled out of the woodwork: established hacks, young scribes, pundits, professors: all waving some article with an I-told-you-so moment from four, maybe six years back: their bosoms puffed, recognised at long last for their  prescience.   Respected periodicals have made American Decline the focus of ongoing journalistic memes, making me wonder whether they were, displaying classic American entrepreneurship, deciding to make the most of a good trend and ride out the crest of bad news with more eyeball-grabbing, and thus more newspaper profits 🙂

But occasional stories send a chill down my spine, leaving me shaken and afraid.   According to a recent book titled “With Liberty and Justice for Some” by Glenn Greenwald, a prominent lawyer-journalist, citizen liberty lies trampled in modern-day America, an empire forever battling against real and manufactured djinns in a far-off desert, and there is serious reason to suspect that political interest has derailed the very process of law-making, creating an unequal two-tiered justice system where “political and financial elites are now vested with virtually absolute immunity from the rule of law even when they are caught committing egregious crimes, while ordinary Americans are subjected to the world’s largest and one of its harshest and most merciless penal states even for trivial offenses”.

Many people are calling today’s youth a “Lost Generation“, and warn that just as the retreating tide drags down all boats, the absolutely poor have had a miserable time in America over the last 10 years.  Who are the poor?  The census bureau figures state that households (of 4) earning $22,113 or less a year, or alternately single persons earning 11,334 or less a year are designated as poor.  The rising levels of poverty over the last ten years have led to a total estimated number today of 46 million poor –  more than 15% of the population – a rising graph that stands at an almost 20-year high.  The swelling ranks of the poor that have been added in the last decade, bookended by two bursting bubbles and an anemic recovery in the middle are disproportionately minority (black, hispanic) and indiscriminately urban.  This has caused some commentators to use the term “Lost Decade” to refer to the naughties, a pejorative commonly reserved for the Japanese downfall in the 1990’s.

How did it come to this?  How did the decade, which began with George Bush’s fateful anointing as commander-in-chief and a rapidly swelling dotcom bubble, finally come to rest in the winter of discontent that is today: burnt, broken and utterly bereft?  Why are the swollen ranks of the unemployed (itself near historic numbers at over 9%) spilling out onto the streets and carrying out civil disobedience movements across the country?  Why do most respected commentators and even regular citizens have such a pervasively dismal view for the future of this country?  Why does one political party make politics a personal contact sport, demeaning democracy, obstructing legislation, fomenting suspicion and obfuscation in the public space, and use every opportunity to pillory the President, often to the detriment of its own image in the country?

I believe the answer is War.  Conflict is like a poison, and America’s unjust wars over the past decade have finally come home to roost, leaving a 3-4 (maybe 4-5! Who knows?) trillion hole in the country’s finances.  The effect of this jingoistic hatred, this illusion of imminent threat, not to mention this Goliath-sized tab – is toxic and corrosive.  A certain suspicion and fear has invaded the American mindspace, occupied center stage, and altered public discourse adroitly – manipulating national opinion so skilfully that noone is the US thinks it amiss that the sole superpower in the world is militarily engaged in 97 countries across the world, policing an arc of instability in the middle east with its secret bases lodged deep in pliant Arab countries.  These countries, ruled by autocratic, non-democratic Arab leaders, are unlikely to do a Mubarak, or a Gaddafi anytime soon, central as they are to the supply of cheap and abundant oil to the US.

Because ultimately, that’s what its all about, and we all know it.  As She put it so eloquently with her sardonic chuckle “Any which way you look at it: Oil is the Turtle, baby: and its Turtles all the way down.”

Next Post: War and the American Empire


Regroup, Reassess, Resume

Hello World!

Over the past few months I have been wondering about why I have hit a writer’s block on my blog, and what I can do to overcome it.  And I’ve come to some interesting conclusions:

One, changing appearance, and other cosmetic changes can add only so much to the overall experience.  Ultimately, output matters.

Two, frequency of posts is important.  As is content.  And brevity.

Three, topics must cover a broad theme, an overarching message, and must deal with a few core ideas that the intended audience is interested in.

Three is what I set out to define in this post.  What shall I write about? Where shall I begin?

From what I’ve seen, there are three approaches that I can take:

One is to write about my life and my experiences.  Admittedly, this is an alluring approach to blogposts, one that my friend Sanjukta, avid blogger and social media guru, uses to brilliant effect.  I have lived on three continents over the last 3 years: two of these countries are diverse and waking up to the immense potential of equality and universal suffrage after years of crippling social segregation and discrimination (India, South Africa).  They are both members of the BRICS, and are both nations where in the past, institutional systems enforced a strict hierarchical order of individual destiny and prevented social mobility between classes.  This restrictive past has now given way to the present, with its chaotic democracy and attendant opportunities (and pitfalls).  The third country is the United States, sole superpower and global liberal hegemon, today going through a crisis of confidence that has resulted in serious soul-searching and introspection.  Arguably, social mobility in America is today the lowest it has been since the late 80’s, and in more real terms, represents a bottom-of-the-barrel picture not seen since the Great Depression.  The Occupy Wall Street movement is attempting to create a new national discourse about democratic capitalist states- one that is exciting and much-overdue, and has the potential to challenge the very foundations of this nation.  In 2011, popular protests have erupted in two of the world’s largest democracies this year in response to an unjust status quo.  Over North Africa and parts of the greater middle East, citizen-led revolts have challenged the will of despots, deposing some, beheading others.  In yet other countries, a raucous populace marches on, unwilling to be silenced.

This is my present, and it is a seminal moment: pregnant with possibility.  Is it not an exciting time to write about?  I think it is.

My second approach is to write about the issues I care about.  These are diverse, and range from the suppression of civil liberties in tribal India to the alarming effects of positive feedback loops on global warming.  Broadly speaking, these can be categorised as musings into the future, and they are an exploration of what our policies of today will mean for our tomorrow.  Climate change is of course the most pertinent of these issues, but they encompass geopolitical events today that I believe will have profound consequences for us into the future, such as the continued occupation of Palestine, or the collapse of the Eurozone.

This is my future, and it is an unpredictable and chaotic maelstrom.  Is it not worthwhile to mull about?  I think it is.

The third approach is to reflect on my past.  Having grown up in India in the eighties, immersed in the syrupy mediocrity of Bappi Lahiri’s plagiarism and Doordarshan’s parsimonious helpings of mass media, it is astonishing to see a country that currently eyeballs more than 500 TV channels.  For better or for worse, the last 20 years have created seismic shifts across India, and contrasted against the grimy steampunk of modern Bharat, my childhood seems starkly remote, almost idyllic.  Multiple writers have exploited this meme to the max, writing about every rich Indian’s deprived (yet happy) youth.  In the afterglow of success and prosperity, the exigencies of childhood can be rewritten as moral fables, the inadequacies papered over with a patina of quaintness.

This is my past, and it is the age when the elephant began to sprout tusks.  Is it not a fascinating era to recount?  I think it is.

So this is it, people.  In a nutshell, what I hope to write about eventually comes to this:

My past, this present, and our future.

Happy Reading!

……. and back.

Its been more than a year.  Far too long.

Oceans rose, icebergs melted, and a few hundred polar bears drowned, their bellies churning fat blubber and polychlorinated biphenyl pesticides, their heavy fur dragging them down, the next ice floe too far, their flesh too weak, their spirit too crushed.  Then just for solidarity, the Greeks did a polar bear too.  As did a derrick named Deepwater, sinking more than a mile to the ocean bed, its ugly visage no longer blocking our Horizons.

The earth trembled, then shook, and giant ripples washed ashore: snapping bridges, crunching cars.  Rivers flooded, and torrential deluges washed away a people already embittered by hate and Hadith.  Afterwards, the sun shone, and then shone some more.  Parched leaves wilted and curled in the heat, then kindled and crackled in the shade.  The smoke was visible from the moon, they told us, as if that somehow were a matter of pride: even the Gods can witness our follies now.

Someone set fire to a fruit-seller, and the people – incensed, hungry and bitter, rose to rid themselves of their masters.  Scepter and crown came tumbling down, and in the shifting sands, were made equal.

Bombs went off in crowded markets, and near leaders’ houses.  In the mountains, not far from the roof of the world, tribal areas that were once federally administered were now listless and pockmarked – their  complexion blemished by big metal birds that prowled the sky.

A tall man with a long beard was dragged away from his home by soldiers.  His body was dropped into the ocean a few days later, sinking softly to the bottom of the sea: Deep Waters once again.

So much has changed, yet nothing has changed.  The more I run, the clearer it becomes to me that I am not going anywhere.  This is just a slow sort of place, where the eddies and whorls in the stream of time wash over the boulders every day: seething, smoothing.

The Red Queen would approve.

: 291 Vaswani Nagar, North Main Road, Koregaon Park, Pune :

Pune was a quieter place then.  It was 1997, the year of the last great Pune Floods. M G Road was a one-way road, Deccan looked like a vast campus and Orient Express (since deceased) delivered pizzas to homes. Aundh was a forest, and NDA stood atop a dark and lonely hill in Khadakvasla.

There were birds in the lake beyond the NCL campus.

Laxmi Road was the artery that ran through the city. Camp was the green lung that breathed, its alveoli soaking the heat and the air. Sassoon stood stolid next to The Railway station, housing (among other things) 2000+ hospital beds and one appendix (belonging to one mr mohandas karamchand gandhi, preserved for posterity). Budhwar Peth was the red light district.

And Koregaon Park was the centre of the Universe.

Its own universe, alone and distinct. A mysterious world of brooding buildings and overgrown gardens, plaster seraphs and purple robes – roaming the streets during the day, their open hair catching the dappled sunlight.

As you passed over the bridge leaping across the railway lines from Camp to Koregaon, the Don Bosco centre would rise on your right, and the turn off to North Main Road soon after.  North Main Road snaked its way to Mundhwa, umbilically connected to South Main Road by a ladder-rung of gentility, seven in all: unobtrusive portals that would ferry you from bustling NMR to the leafy temple-strewn length of SMR. In between the two roads was a mystery land of crumbling old houses and mysterious manors, their facades fenced by ferns and foliage, set deep inside from the tree-lined lanes, in coccoons of sound-soaking eternity. “Old Parsi houses”, we would intone, part-admiration, part-awe, whole-envy. “Old Money”, we would add, throwing in a grimace with pursed upper lips pushing down the corners of our mouths- the ultimate Indian expression of begrudging appreciation.

And right there in the beginning of North Main Road, before the right turn to the Osho Ashram, opposite the yet-to-be-born Hot Breads, next door to Gourmet, home of mouth watering waffles with unlimited honey and butter (which has since been ambushed and swallowed by a bright young Cafe Coffee Day, swarming with peri-pubescent puppydom), was German Bakery, the cafe at the end of the Universe, where burnt-out souls came to rest and feed, to sleep, perchance to dream.

German Bakery was on the first corner, its mian entrance opening out to the main road: the itinerant visitor would step through the threshold into a large leafy courtyard, littered with low stools and short tables, and intellectuals contemplating the swirling grounds in their coffee dregs. The aisle along the side led to the Tibetan shops, presided over by slightly intimidating aunties selling smooth coral stones and necklaces. Between these and the Bakery was the exit to the side lane, leading off to the river and the cremation ghat – a bare clearing with rectangular depressions set into the concrete. The river was full, dark and sludgy, and an Aghori sat on the far side steps of the ghats, tending to the shrine, making conversations and fires, and smoking his butter-like charas in his chillum.

German Bakery itself was always abuzz, and yet untouched: a tiny oasis of Truthful Chocolate ecstasy in a harsh and cruel world. A large Masala chai cup and croissants were among things on offer, along with mashed potatoes, hummus, fruit salads and cream and scones and cakes, and a pick of delicious omelettes. A wide and eclectic menu stared the visitor in the face, neatly inscribed and hung above the smiling Nepali waiter’s head, his cheerful frame dwarfed by the counter, piled high with such suspicious events like Organic Muesli and Pekan Boe tea. The cafe itself wrapped around the kitchen and the manager’s room, and was lined with wooden benches and white-washed walls. The monotony of the walls was broken by random advertismenets for colon irrigation and tantra classes, an ironic speech bubble above the head of Nirvana in night-blue ensemble talking to Pretty Young (Confused) Thing in the corner. A list of rules for visitors on the wall offered pragmatic advice, such as to not offend the locals by kissing in public. A bulletin board advertised second-hand enfield bikes, houses for rent and eternal salvation in Hebrew.

An air of calm ran through German Bakery, with swirling cigarette smoke from tables mixing with the clouds from the coffee. Conversations ebbed, and flowed, and ebbed again, their lines looping and dipping and whorling through the hot summer air. Regulars dotted the tables, sitting beside newer wannabes, and pondered on the meanings of the universe, and on the vagaries of Kishan’s waiters.  As the cries of hawkers wafted across to the tables, somewhere a pair of flip-flops shuffled its way to the gate, its wearer drawn to the swelling tide of human consciousness outside – propelled forward by the purposefulness of the truly aimless. Ashram inmates walked in, their eyes scanning the cafe,  and their purple robes revealed shapely ankles beneath (as their erect nipples revealed sheer nakedness beneath, or so it seemed to our hormone-addled brains). Couples necked in the corner, and sometimes, a Warkari wandered in, lost on the way back from Pandharpur. Her Sari tucked in between her legs and folded neatly into her waist-fold, her forehead marked with a large vermillion circle of sometimes-purple red, she walked into German Bakery, her dish held out in front of her: battered, aluminium. 

And somewhere, another star-struck student would step through the threshold, his eyes drinking in the slice of peacefulness before him, his mind noting with sudden bemusement that time was treacly-thick here, the hours passed like days passed like minutes passed like the lifetimes that spent their years contemplating the slow settling of the black grounds into the murky depths of the Mint Ice Tea…

And history would play itself out again, a tired organ-grinder in the corner cranking up his instrument, preparing to play out the same tune again for the umpteenth time, as a new monkey prepared to dance.

                       – In Memory, German Bakery, No 291, Vaswani Nagar, North Main Road, Koregaon Park, Pune.


*Author’s postcript

Like everything else in Pune, the German Bakery was also torn down by the assault of invading Megapolis-Pune. In 2002, Pecuniary Pune crept slowly into Koregaon Park, widening North Main Road and taking a great big slice of German Bakery’s facade with it. The slow decay of the Osho Ashram and the steady invasion of more upmarket coffee chains turned GB into a symbol of wannabe kitsch: frequented by itinerants, populated by infrequents.  As traffic and dust rose with equal ferocity through Pune’s roads, the calm around German Bakery was shattered: its unhurried pace lost, its extravagant space now a thing of the past. Its access to both the main road and the side alley- a metaphorical cul-de-sac linking the mainstream and the alternate, was taken over by an army of rude short-cutters, turning the aisle of wafting thoughts into a thoroughfare to somewhere else. In 2008, when I spoke to Kishan, he confessed that times were hard, and he was staring closure in the face if things didn’t pick up. Presumably they did, because he was open and active till the 13th of February, 2010, over 22 years after German Bakery’s inauguration.

On Saturday, February 13th, 2010, an Improvised Explosive Device ripped through German Bakery, killing 9, and injuring at least 45 persons. Random images of carnage greeted passers-by, in an attack believed to have been targeted at foreigners, or the Jewish Chabad house, located less than 400 metres away. Terrorist outfits are being implied darkly in discussions, impending bilateral talks are being touted as immediate provocations. Possible links to Mumbai are being investigated. Inevitably, a high-profile blame game will ensue, and outrageous statements will be made; ultimately, the powers-that-be will continue to fiddle as Home burns: their railings all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And yet another loud bang will rip through the sunny afternoons of our collective consciousness, tearing through the peace, severed limbs and shattered viscera piercing the bubble of calm around our most precious memories.

                           German Bakery is Dead! Long Live German Bakery!

Invictus in the land of the ‘Boks

Early on in the movie “Invictus”, there is a scene when Francois Pienaar’s father sits around and does a cassandra, while looking at the telly and talking generally, on The State of the Nation. His manner is disaparaging, his atitude pessimistic. As he rails and rants against what he sees as the inevitable collapse of the new dispensation in power, Pienaar (played brilliantly by a buffed-up matt damon) looks across at his mom, and they exchange The Glance.

Eyes rolling, and mouthing some inside joke, I imagine that this must have been a look in many households across SA, circa 1994. Mandela had been freed, and what the world saw as a moment of delirious celebration of victory for the forces against imperialism and racist bigotry was often seen very differently in South Africa, where the sudden appearance of black might and white fright turned the tables, and how!

And as older generations railed against the collapse of the world as they knew it, I imagine that younger people perhaps rolled their eyes at their mothers, and moved on with their lives.

In the evolving sensibility of Invictus, decades-old suspicion and mistrust is slowly replaced by interracial secret service camaraderie, hunger is replaced by a love for rugby by poor township boys, and eventually everyone (yes, yes! everyone, even the black xhosa maid!!) goes to see a rugby game where the national team grunts against oversize maori warriors. In a tensely fought final, the entire country stays indoors (white men in raucous pubs, black men in roadside shebeens), and a toothy boy from the townships shares the radio with on-tenterhooks Afrikaans policemen. The national team wins, people cheer madly, and a grinning Morgan Freeman- as- Madiba looks on at the tranformative power of sport.

If only life were so simple. Less than 15 years after the historic triumph, sitting in a darkened theatre in Gateway, Durban, I heard barely-suppressed snickers of derision when the scenes of reconciliation and repair flashed on the screen. The tragedy of South Africa today is that the bitterness is still very much in the air, and maybe as fathers rant, the glances are not even exchanged any more at breakfast tables.

The transforming power of sport is something that many hollywood movies have tried hard to exploit over the years (and succeeded admirably). The image of the last-minute touchdown with the orchestra crashing to a crescendo in the background, and the hero’s muddy face streaked with triumph, amid close up shots of the clock signalling timeout and a field invasion by fans, is legend. Invictus has all of that glory, and greatness.

The captain is a taciturn Afrikaans boy overwhlmed by the humility and greatness of the president. Madiba is a kindly old man : graceful, dignified and astute, charming supporters and critics alike with his simple and powerful philosophy. Even the rugby team, beefcake-bourgeoise before, are attentive anthem-singers after, all smiles and happy grins after Pienaar’s pep-talk. Heck, even the grubby kids from the townships, with the ragged trousers and no shoes, are a toothy crease of joy.

The reality, in today’s SA, is vastly different. In the year of World Cup SA 2010, it’s really pretty evident that sport, like everything else in south africa, has been carved up along racial lines, and distributed: the whites get rugby, the blacks get soccer and the indians get cricket , with the mandatory outliers all round. The coloreds, of course, are too busy hanging around Cape Town and being cool. Sports are only the tip of the iceberg: in a nation poisoned by years of institutional racial identification and prejudice, it takes more than a world cup win to bring the fractured pieces together. Depending on the color of their skins, foreigners will eventually get to be privy to the “South Africa is going to the dogs” dialogue. Everyone is a pocket anthropologist, and crude racial generalisations will be made over the poitjie pot, even as you stand around embarassed, and stammering thanks. Whites and Indians will be the first to moan and groan, even as they drive their fancy cars with super-sensitive alarm systems across the city to their fancy houses in the swankiest parts of town. Black moaning is different, and usually laments the fate that has befallen. And how powerless they are to stop it.

When Madiba talks in the movie of a “Rainbow nation”, and borrows Archbishop Tutu’s term to talk of the glorious multi-culturalism of South Africa, the whole world was charmed and touched. Today, the description seems eerily literal, of a prismatic country bent on splitting white light into its components. Maybe the great man was being  prescient, in his own ruined, tragic way.

Adapted from Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, by journalist John Carlin, Invictus is a portrayal of the intimate relationship between sports, pride, honour, and the inner core of decency and fairness that exist at the heart of every person. Some inconsistencies have been noted in the movie (Mandela quoting Invictus and not Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena  speech to Pienaar and the boys, the pile of stones on Robbyn Island that could not have existed in 1994), but the greatest inconsistency is the image of a united, cheering-as-one, proud and integrated South Africa. As we shuffled out of the movie hall, I could not but help noting with a sinking feeling that THAT particular cheer probably lasted barely as long as the credits.

who’re the three?

3 idiots is a movie that was released over christmas in an unprecedented 2126 screens across the world, multiplex screens from Cape town to Canberra carpet bombed with raj kumar hirani’s latest offering. The film has grossed over 300 crore rupees (thats about $ 70 million) in 19 days, a record in itself, and is probably on its way to settling comfortably on the summit of the largest grossers’ mountain, glitteringly studded with some other A Khan –  starrers, like “Ghajini”, or older gems like “raja hindustani”: reigning favorites till they were toppled by other, more substantial offerings like “gadar”(dir: anil sharma, whose next movie “veer” is on its way : salman leading a mercenary army in pre-handpump india- so be warned) et al.

the film was preceded by careful branding and market promotions, for this was the latest offering from a director who had provoked countrywide discussions, chatter, and more importantly, emulation from the adoring masses for his last movie, and even, to a lesser degree for his debut film: both candyfloss social commentaries with the same protagonists who stumble with brilliant comic timing through life-as-idyllic-comedy.

As I went to see it, though, my tickets placed me right next to 2 south african-indian kids, who, after watching the opening credits and Aamir’s stellar entrance, rolled to their sides, and promptly went to sleep. hmmm, not part of the adoring masses, i see.

3 idiots was also the latest movie to be graced by the great khan (henceforth known as ‘gk’), whose return to normal size after acquiring rectii, biceps and a hydra-like* deltoid in his last offering “ghajini” has been the subject of excited speculation.

so its with some degree of reserve that one approaches 3 idiots. on the one side, adulation from the masses is almost always suspicious. yet, the team making the movie seems to be adept, and the marketing seems synchronised, right down to the facetious spat over acknowledgements and titles when a legal contract was signed between all parties concerned, (whose contravention should have provoked court action, not petulant tweets and angry press conferences)

and this post is meant as a review, so I shall cut to the chase, and try to concentrate on the movie itself, and chop out the chatter.

3 idiots is a movie about 3 friends, 2 adversaries and 1 sweetheart (supported by one pregnant sister, two differently autocratic families, and a surprise jaaved jaffery appearance). The movie is set in an engineering college in Delhi, the Imperial College of Engineering, a none-too-subtle reference to the IITs in India.

Indeed, none-too-subtle is a theme that runs through the movie, as the theme of “suicide due to academic pressure” is rammed down audience throats with vigour at three separate instances in the movie. I agree that suicides are a part of professional college life in India, particularly at high pressure institutions like the IITs, and we have all lost friends or classmates to the pressures of academia: some burning out, others fading away, and a few taking the plunge towards ending it all (and successful at it).

Yet is that the dominant experience of college life? is it the dominant tragedy of our university-attending students? is the oppressive teaching system, with its over-emphasis on memorisation and academic rigour, choking creativity and innovation in our institutions?

Does 3 idiots adequately address these issues?

Does it do so without resorting to tired cliches, painful melodrama and flaccid jokes to pepper the narrative?

The answer is no. on both counts, which is sort of paradoxical, I recognise.

Right from the name of Aamir’s main adversary (Chatur Raamalingam? Why don’t you just get out the Mehmood tapes and dress up the man in a dhoti, carve out a sikha and smear him in bhasma? Why not just address him as “oye madraasi”, mister hirani?)

The geeky, no-social-skills rival does not really have to be from Madras, or Hyderabad, neither does it really behove well to pick on a person schooled in Kampala and Pondicherry (both with no hindi included in syllabus) and from a non-hindi speaking background for their poor skills in the national language. Chatur’s attempts to speak in hindi are pretty good, and he improves through the movie, achieving a passable grammar and vocabulary at the end, enough to make himself understood to movie goers without subtitles.

Yet the cliche is repeated, as always. To Hirani’s credit, at least the token muslim was not subjected to kid-gloved condescension, neither was the inventor Lobo’s dad a “God tumhe hameshaa khush rakhenge” padre in goa.

That was some relief, certainly. But the tired cliches, and the flaccid jokes, and the forced hilariousness was almost as irritating as the sight of men in their late 30’s and mid 40’s playing boys less than half that age. Admittedly, parts of the movie are funny, like the sanskrit verse at the end of Chatur’s ill-fated speech, like some of the gags with the teachers. But when this is seen in the backdrop of gk’s condescending, sanctimonious elder statesman patronage, the humour is too little compensation. 

Aamir-as-superman is a role that movie goers have come to identify since Ghulam more than 11 years ago. With the possible exception of 1947: Earth, gk has played the squeaky clean and patronising hero in all his movie: saving enslaved childhoods in “taare zameen par”, saving enslaved villages in “lagaan”, defending the nation in “sarfarosh”, defending his faith in “mangal pandey”. Its about time that the long, self obsessed biopics of himself, embellished with a million edited-to-make-aamir-look-good moments are treated with scepticism, and not unabashed admiration.

Don’t get me wrong. I would go for an gk movie far more readily than an SRK , or Salman movie, but I still think that the alaborate paeans to the man’s megalomania are getting a bit too tedious. So while gk fools around “more outside classes than inside”and “attends whichever class he wants to”, other students in the class do the boring humdrum job of sticking to the schedule. Yet gk shines in every class, does projects for other students, delivers babies using vacuum cleaners, and spends the night before the finals ferrying a friend’s invalid father to the hospital before topping the finals with the highest percentage aggregate. Any student worth his/her salt who has gone through engg / med school can tell you that at the highest level, toppers ae created by a combination of genius, obscenely long hours, application, luck and perserverance. A genius who flits airily from lecture to lecture absorbing what he can may be able to do really well in the results list, but topping? Unlikely.

But the most irritating quality of the movie is certainly its unsubtlety. And the patron saint of that is Boman Irani. If I am forced to see another of Irani’s over-the-top performances with fake lisp/beard/pagdee/wig/limp/mole, i think i shall scream. To see him as a cardboard tiger in too-high pants and tight coat, with a poisonous persona defined by peevish petulance and rather uneducated comments about “engineering”, and “machines” was tortuous, to say the least. To watch his teary-eyed capitulation to the bright side was even worse, and it is here that the movie fails to move, or even push or nudge.

All-in-all, if Hirani doesn’t change his style of aseptic cinema stories, unsubtle social messages, happily-ever-after endings, random resuscitations of paralysed patients, all embellished with dialogue that uses puerile jokes that may cause primary school teachers to blush and giggle nervously  in their classes, its going to become increasingly difficult to see his movies.

Evidently, I am in a small minority here, and along with the 2 children snoring peacefully in the seat next to me at the theatre, probably I make up the 3 eponymous heroes of this movie.

Which really answers my question, of course.

* – read: many headed.

in the winter of our disconnect

A few days back, a man called balasaheb thackeray, aging tiger and ailing supremo of the shiv sena made a few snarky comments against sachin tendulkar- cricketing god and all-round nice guy (actually that phrase is more aaccurate the other way round – “cricketing nice guy and all-round god”).  The issue was Sachin’s comment about how he played for India, and not for the state of Maharashtra, and how Mumbai, his city, was for all indians. 

Balasaheb’s patronising manner was criticised by the papers, and his condescension ridiculed.  Some papers used it as a chance to twist the knife in further after the recent humiliating election drubbing, some others pointed at the sena’s increasing disaffection with the pulse of the people.  “Marathi Manoos” has suddenly become a funny buzz word, to be used in cheeky jokes and trying-desperately-to-be-vernacular English newspapers.

Then the Sena struck back.  The office of one of the offending papers was attacked, the editor roughed up, the receptionist slapped.  Escaping journalists were grabbed by the shirts on their backs : buttons popped, fabric ripped.  The sena was triumphant in its admission.  Yes, it was us, they said to anyone who would care to listen, and this is a warning, so please note.

There was media outrage, predictably.  The press angrily demanded just retribution, and the chief minister cooed, and tried to soothe ruffled feathers.  The issue was not about the marathi manoos, he said, it was about vandalism and petty populism.  The attacks were heinous, the perpetrators dastardly.

Then two days later, the chief min raised the marathi manoos issue again in public.  People who are local should be given priority for jobs, he said.  I shall take the matter up with the railway minster, he promised a cheering and adoring audience.

And the media continued to sullenly fold its arms and pout in offended disaffection.

Something does not make sense here.  Hooliganism is one thing, but hooliganism and post- ‘ganism chest- thumping is not usually par for the course, especially when it is such a sensitive issue and involves the greatest sportsman in the land. 

Generally, when a political party owns up to something, you can be sure that that “something” resonates with the approval of a significant number of people, of a group that is on its way to being considered a ‘majority’.  When a political party owns up to vandalism and wilful attacks on media, involving (however obliquely) a national hero, you can be sure that there’s support, even approval.

The bottom line is this: If there was no public support for the entire “maharashtra for maharashtrians” polemic, then it wouldn’t be made, stridently, from every available political pedestal that an avaricious neta can clamber upon.  The very fact that political parties make it a point to defer to linguistic chauvinism to define their ideology means that it resonates with their voting public, as well as with swing voters, disaffected and undecided.

Anyone who has travelled in the dusty bylanes of rural maharashtra will know that there are only two things that penetrate into the heart of the impoverished state: politics and cinema.  While this is true for almost all of the vast rural hinterland in India, in Maharashtra, that other great Indian Arterial presence : The Indian Railways, is conspicuous in its absence.

Cinema is paradoxical, because it is hindi cinema that thrives in the boondocks,  from slick SRK starrers to slimy sordid skinfests.  It is hindi cinema, certainly, but the sensibility it represents (NOT its context – most hindi cinema is exaggerated vaudeville of Punjabi ritual) is something that people feel they can ostensibly connect to, and revel in.

Politics, though, is ubiquitous.  And while each of us purse our lips in exasperation when we see political antics, and their unfortunate consequence, we spare very little thought for the core demographic for whom that elaborate charade is meant.  How many of us have travelled across villages in the country, outside of our own provincial “native places”?  And I don’t mean 79 photographs set against the quaint prettiness of Fatehpur Sikri or Khajuraho, but really travelling through unremarkable shanty towns and rural homesteads, filled with hopeless dreams and the grimy effluent of cities?  When villages are mentioned, how many of us imagine a SRK-less “Swades” landscape, or an amir khan-less Champaran?

For all most of us know, rural India could be anything from an 18th century feudal fief to a idyllic pastoral-paradise filled with belles and moustachioed villains at every corner.

If there is anyone who bothers to visit, or even tries to understand what the hinterland thinks, it is the local candidate, anxious to please, geared to ingratiate.

It is this knowledge that emboldens our political parties, this invaluable understanding of the “grassroots”.  And if the Sena and the MaNSa are pushing the marathi manoos plank, then it is because it finds currency with a significant section of that grassroots.

I am not for one moment condoning the violence and the hoologanism. I am also not for one moment condemning it.  But I do think that with the horrified, faux cosmopolitan and pseudo- liberal reaction to the controversy, urban India and the English media have truly exposed the extent of their disconnect with perspectives that other parts of the country consider justified.  Its as if among the many Indias that coexist in the one great India, two groups of competing India stand, unable to understand the other’s stance or vision.

Truly, this is the winter of our disconnect.

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