I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself. [Claes Oldenburg]
The government line is 'unity in diversity', of secularism of religious faith and personal beliefs, something that also includes the freedom to practice idiosyncratic whims, fiscal fraud, nepotism and perverse deceptions.
It is said that the 20th century was the most creative period of human history; its 100 years saw changes in governance, politics, social behaviour, art and science that had not been witnessed in the last thousand. Equally, it is said of India, that the last decade of the 20th century was more destructive than the thousand years that preceded it. Floods, cyclones, famines and other natural disasters aside, India saw the calculated demolition of a mosque; it experienced rioting on a monumental scale. Political assassinations, insecurity, terrorism and fear became the order of the day. But with political ambitions and party loyalties at stake, India chose to ignore it all, hoping it would go away. When a train fell into a gorge killing 800, the India-Pakistan Cricket Match made a better viewing option than dead bodies on muddy ground. When a killer earthquake hit Gujarat and people lay dying under the weight of illegally conceived high rises, a German relief supply plane stood for nine hours at the airport awaiting customs clearance. When a Union Minister, caught with cash stuffed in sofas and beds was re-elected instead of being jailed, it spoke of a new order in the making. In the riots that engulfed the nation and absorbed the elite in intellectual, often ineffectual, debate, in fodder scams of criminal scale in drought afflicted areas, in water riots in places where Ministers cars were washed twice daily, was the first sign that human life came a distant second to religious, political, caste, gender, and personal ideals.
Housing for the Economically Weaker Sections, LIG, Low Income Group. Build for Work Program, Nirman Yojna, Work for Food Program, Karya Yojna. Euphemism upon euphemism. Every official act of magnanimity was tinged with political ill will and doomed to failure. The poor in India were different in far too many ways to ever overcome their handicaps. To be saddled by poverty, to live in the village, to be a Muslim or Christian or tribal; to be a woman, unmarried; to be dark, was the ultimate humiliation in 18th century India.. Nothing has changed in 21st century India. Several lifetimes and good karmas would be needed to rise to India's 21st century ideal: Hindu, Brahmin Male, urban dweller, young, fair, moneyed.
To survive is to stick together, and also remain apart from others. Journalists acquire land and live together in a landlocked subdivision called Press Enclave, lawyers in Niti Bagh, Punjabis in Punjabi Bagh, Bengalis in Chittaranjan Park, Jews in Cochin, dwindling to a few hundred, in Jewtown. Cooperation has come to mean cooperating with people whose close proximity is unlikely to produce cultural, economic and ethnic ripples. A married, orthodox, Bengali Muslim chartered accountant with two children, and employed by a multinational company, is not likely to live next to a South Indian lesbian couple with an adopted Sikkimese baby. It is a much safer bet living with a neighbour who is racially, morally, sexually, spiritually and economically your equal, than attempting to savour the uncertain benefits of diversity.
Wherever you go, every turn or incident or meeting reinforces your position, and you are reminded of your deprivations, your opportunities. In your sightline is someone worthy of emulation, someone else in a state of humiliation, another in desperation. The proximity of such reminders baffle; and make you acutely aware of all the social, political, and economic collisions that are waiting to happen to you in your life, in the life of India.
Yet places in the city radiate the genial signs of shared tolerances. There is an Islamic tomb in the old neighbourhood; a Hindu temple is quietly being `regularized' down the road; a delegation of Buddhist monks is attending a peace conference at the international centre. The day-to-day signals are those of a country tolerant in mind, where an unwritten code of religious and social onduct governs the passing of each day. But passive individuals given to the rituals of secularism in their own life, become rapidly fanatical when part of the larger collective of their own community. The community provides the platform for action, the political party the credo of hate. Every bit of pious rhetoric invariably has undertones of violence.
Contradictory signs are everywhere. Doordarshan will transmit a commercial for a refrigerator across the land. The fridge is laden with chicken, milk, fruit juices, eggs and ham. But the ad is imbibed by a bonded labourer in drought-ridden Bihar. A political leader still maintains his links with Gandhi by dressing in a similar fashion; only the shawl is of pure silk, the dhoti of terrycloth.
India allows everything to coexist; mineral water and cholera, the personal computer and the hand plough, lesbianism and arranged marriages. But what appears sad and funny and stupid at times is only the sad and funny irony of such juxtaposition. A towering, five-storied mansion, slapped with an expensive stone veneer and flouting every building bye-law, becomes delightfully funny, extravagant and sad when viewed across a grim cityscape of mud shanties with a single water source and open sewage. That the residents of these mud shanties have helped build the mansions, and survive by their construction, only makes the irony sadder and funnier.
In India the desperation of daily urban life is in perpetual conflict with the 21st century itch to become the world's most notorious consumers. Setting an unfamiliar course on the path of perennially increasing gross domestic product, the new Indian has learnt to make his own substantial contribution to the annual growth rate. Flatron TVs, stainless steel fridges, call centers, cell phones with cameras, Baroque houses with cupids pissing into Italian fountains, pool-side barbeque grilles, vacations in Brazil, Corinthian columned housing called Malibu Heights, plate glass malls, BMWs - all vie for space on the credit card. Risen from the ashes its owner is now in stiff competition for global goods and services - unsettled and unsettling, a mercenary, setting American standards of consumption and obligation. Defending the new gods of NASDAQ, he is often consumed by middle-class guilt and returns to desecrate old temple walls. He belongs at once to the new India, brash and arrogant, relentless in his persuit to become someone else, but unable to shed the undiscovered values of the old India, an imaginary Gandhian utopia. Outside his hermetically sealed malls and farmhouses, this other India awaits admission. The pi-dog sniffs turd on an unfinished road. Citizens reel and shuffle about in unhealthy purposelessness, filling forms in triplicate with mother's maiden name, clubbing daughters-in-law to death, exchanging packets of notes in darkened halls. Theatrical scenes in iscordant play. Considered together, they produce the schizophrenic character of the new India. An India of despotic and devious insanity that plays itself out daily through a cast of shifty trustless accomplices - the new heroes.
Along the new road, four-laned, with guard rails and green signage similar to any American highway, India bristles with activity, thirsting for things that once belonged only to another world. After half a century of sustained denial, the thirst is endless. But turn into the side road and the scene changes. Drive along this dirt track for thousands of miles and the scene refuses to change. Mile upon relentless mile, a primitive land unmade in any physical way stretches on, a lone tree in the distance, a charpai and a mud hut. Talk to an old woman trying to sell a heap of garlic in the emptiness; tell her about the new economic order, the high Forex reserves and job outsourcing. Tell her about the world's fastest growing economy after China, and watch the faded eyes light up. There is change in the village: Sure, there's been a six year drought, and the only well has dried up. But Maggi Noodle packets are now available in the ration shop, and Bisleri mineral water in plastic bottles. There's no caste rivalry anymore; the Dalits have relocated to a separate village, nearer to the Dalit well. What's more, her husband has a steady job as a bonded labourer; even the children have work in the matchstick factory. Sure there's not enough to eat, but food isn't everything. Things are looking up.
Outside the village, dried by famine, the billionaire industrialist looks blankly at the gnarled face; past her shriveled skin, he sees the remote village wall. He knows, behind it are other unimaginable states of malnourishment, infant mortality rates that defy all norms, and many lives lived on only twenty rupees a day. Less than the cost of pissing in a London pay-toilet. But he smiles. Inequality is only an indicator of a thriving economy, he tells himself. In so formidable a divide, no unrest is possible.
That two centuries can exist in such appallingly close proximity without even affecting each other is a surprise that India offers all the time. If there is dissatisfaction in the village, it rarely spills into the fancy farmhouse next door. If industrial workers die of chemical waste pollutants from their own factory, the owner simply hires new workers. As long as the boundary walls are high, the fences electrified, as long as profits and dividends stay within the family compound, life is OK. hyper-reality. Against the denuded backdrop of fallow dry fields, California houses huddle, embarrassed in their lushness, a little uncomfortable in the Indian sunshine.
But not for long. Everyone knows that the artificial India is the real India now. As Mahatma Gandhi once didn't say: The real India is not here, it's in California.
Small town Moradabad in UP, is the largest manufacturer and exporter of brass objects in India, with an annual turnover of over 42 crore rupees. Despite its supposed richness, in urban terms, Moradabad is truly the armpit of the world. Squalid beyond belief, treeless, filled with rivulets of effluents, unmade roads, stagnant pools of water and with a roadside poverty to rival any of the small towns of Bihar, in the public life of the city there is not a hint of its industrial affluence. And yet, along its Eastern edge lies its only link to affluence -- the city's larger houses -- each displaying a level of ostentation in indirect proportion to the surrounding blight. In such a setting, the houses become nothing but the carefully preserved and fenced bits of ornament in a sea of grime - petrified statements of contrast.
The irony hits you every day. A three-bedroom apartment across the Dharavi slum in Mumbai costs one million dollars. And there are enough takers for it. As there are for the Neo-classical and pagoga-style houses of Amby Valley, a leisure home reserve of artificial lakes, artificial ski slopes and artificial beach fronts, built north of the city. And physically protected from the mess of India.
But move higher up and away from the rarified ground atmosphere of Amby Valley and include the perspective of its surrounding countryside, a rawness hits the senses. When viewed with the parched village ponds, the lakes flicker in mock hyper-reality. Against the denuded backdrop of fallow dry fields, California houses huddle, embarrassed in their lushness, a little uncomfortable in the Indian sunshine.
But not for long. Everyone knows that the artificial India is the real India now. As Mahatma Gandhi once didn't say: The real India is not here, it's in California.
Who cares about Gandhi anymore. From the heroism of Independence, India had happily reduced the heroic act to money matters and fiscal prowess, making as the new heroes of our times the Richest Indian, the fourth richest Asian, the Most Affluent American of Indian origin, the only Indian in Fortune 500. The old heroes were still there, but they were shelved and reduced to caricature. Mahatma Gandhi, a distant guardian of Independence, CV Raman of science, Ramanathan Krishnan and MilkhaSingh of sport grinning down their respective shelves, a little weary, a little sad.
The new heroes were ordinary money-grubbing parasites, whose sole ideal was to be a millionaire by the age of 30 or grow their hair long for the Guinness Book. There where no Mahatma Gandhi Margs, no New Jawaharlal Nehru Stadiums, no Satyajit Ray Chowks. Only Ansal Plazas and Raheja Towers. Builders commemorating their own actions in their own lifetime, to give you a taste of the new India.
For most people of my generation, born soon after partition and witnessing something of the promise of Independence, India now offered only a regressive refrain. Every shock of communal violence, every message of narcissism and greed in the papers, was a signal to retreat - to withdraw behind high boundary walls; the only way of self preservation was through self-absorption and selfishness. Social obligations and ambitions withered away and all that remained was the cold hard truth: each man for himself. The boat was sinking, and fast. Save yourself.
I too learnt to survive in the only way possible. I became a modern day hero - an Indian without obligation or ideal. I learnt to cherish all that was of value to the new India; Money, split air conditioning, microwaves and Haryanvi guards for the house - all the buttressings that recreated an image of myself as a promoter of my own middle-class cause. There was no other way. It was more important to earn even if in evil ways, than carry the mantle of some half-baked proposition into the uncertain arena of national idealism. To save the country's millions, to propose solutions for low cost shelters or do something as archaic as believe in the country was an old Gandhian madness.
Sometimes it is difficult to live in the eternal overdose of India; its daily message of violence, the generous hostility of its ordinary life; the persistent symbols of piety and fanaticism. Yet, despite the despair, the daily embrace of life also adds another dimension to the country. It provides the compassionate face of humanity in perpetual struggle.
After 20 years of being back home, every day still affects me profoundly; every sight fills me with new rage, tears, greater compassion, even love. How uncomplicated the place was, I always thought, and how much everything was a reminder of life and death.
The book consequently is written with love. At the outset this may not appear so, but, every aspect of derision and despair has a corollary in affection. If I have hated and despised the happenings around me it is only because I have always thought of India as a welcoming family home full of cherished value and memory. Like a benevolent grand parent, happy in its poverty whose touch and embrace were a measure of my own comfort and security. And it is with great sadness that I see the grandparent suffering and dying.
But among the unhoused millions, gas tragedies, thieving bureaucrats, earthquake relief that never comes, large scale urban despair and nuclear threats, the sadness is naturally tinged with comedy. In India comic relief becomes an effective tool to assuage collective guilt. The daily quantum of human suffering, the weight of public expectation in helping to alleviate that suffering and, the cartoon characters that pose as potential providers and rulers, altogether rate India high as a setting of daily satire and parody. The largest number of forest management and research institutes thrive when twenty thousand hectares of wilderness is being eroded every day. A railway tout encourages you to limp on the train so as to take advantage of the quota for the handicapped. Six grown men with doctoral degrees sit together in a train compartment and conduct a deep, heartfelt, debate on the shunting schedule of the 242 Down Passenger train from Mehsana, a widely acclaimed book, Trains at a Glance, in hand. Where would this happen but in India.
Whitewash satirizes the medium of the newspaper as well - its known personalities, advertising, classified ads, tenders, obituaries, and hue and cry notices. Film stars, politicians, cricket players - animated but in recognizable form - engage in fictitious interviews and scenarios. In attempting to poke fun at the current state of affairs within the country the newspaper format of the book examines issues, personalities, people and ideas in a way that is wholly idiosyncratic - at times, projecting the current image of India, at other times, an India that once was, and yet others, an India that may never be, and perhaps, should never be.
In so doing, it is meant to act as a form of corrective measure to the real India, offering a set of unintellectual lenses behind which lies something of today's morality.
Thieving forests officials, presidents, WMDs, dowry deaths, adulterated foods, newly wed housewives, crashed trains, striking airline pilots are all mixed and matched in the unstructured way it is possible only in India. In Whitewash their actions are further embellished to represent a grossly magnified picture of the world - an exaggerated picture of people driven to grotesque levels of greed, and indulging in heinous acts of depravity and barbarism. .
The more I wrote, the more I realized that it was not possible to exaggerate Indian reality. From my narrow middle-class cocooned perspective, self-conscious and self-serving, everything was an exaggeration. India loomed as large as an untamable beast, baring its fangs with such regularity, that it left me reeling in retreat. Life beyond the boundary wall had become a matter of such serious - almost criminal - tragedy, that it was now a very highly developed form of comedy. At one time it was possible to laugh and cry at the same time. Now it's hard to stop laughing.
But there was another reason. For some time now, I realized how little I am affected by the day to day affairs of India, how little its public, political and social life interests me. Even the daily news seems unreal -- like narcissistic messages from some distant unstable planet. The aspects of India that enrich my personal life belong at divergent ends of the spectrum; sometimes the daily offering is close to the meditative - the sight of the sweeper woman's movements across the floor, a lone figure doing yoga under a tree; more often, it is in the realm of the mundane - the daily march of children heading to school, the vegetable vendor's chant. Whatever it is, people, places and landscapes move me profoundly. But the middle ground, the India of daily squalor and dormant prejudices, is always hard to accept. In that world, I am not a player, just a viewer in the back row, watching the audience with as much interest as the play.
I suppose in every society the middle class bears the burden of dysfunction. People belong out of human need, inadequacies. People of my background - privileged and pretentious, a little aloof, and always judgmental - are easily unhinged in an untamed country. Without the daily crossfire of survival and aspiration to occupy you, India is an inadequate ally, just an indulgence. A great peep show.
Whitewash is therefore, not an objective book. No book on India can be. It is a prejudiced work filled with love and hate and despair; by exaggerating and fictionalizing known events, personalities and situations, the book I hope will caution against the excesses of our time and act as warning for the future. By extrapolating the madness of the present, the writing is meant to stir the reader against complacency. Moreover the book is written about India from my personal viewpoint. It encompasses thoughts, historical data, contemporary references and ideas, expressed from the vantage point of an ordinary middle-class urban life. It may be chronologically and historically an unconventional view, but, for a place which follows no established convention, I think it is the only perspective possible.