Saturday, November 16, 2013

Yet another Sachin article

Today, Sachin walked back to the pavilions for the last time and I didn’t care enough to watch it. And I know I am not alone. I am from that generation that has covered the distance with him from teenage to middle-age. Things have changed since, the world has changed. Just in cricket, it seems lightyears away now where we grew up blaming our national Hindu lack of killer instinct. A lot can be said there, but the point is that the journey of the man somewhere marked our own, across an upheaving canvas of collapsing world-orders and ditzy transformations still not fully digested and understood. For that is what adulation is, finding associating and investuring something of ourselves in the object; an identification that goes beyond admiration.
I briefly glimpsed the match yesterday as wifey watched it, and no nostalgia stirred but that wry amusement at the media overkill, where once I would be muttering prayers every time he prepared to face a delivery. I could not simply find that boy within me amid the high-pitched spectacle – and all the boys and girls that made up that world then. I could not imagine how an age I had lived and believed in was ending, despite the fact that it was, right before my eyes.
I understand the commercial interests of the media but did it have to be really so vulgar and loud? Other sporting giants retire elsewhere and generate as much media attention – but this cacophony? Did people need to be stirred to a hysteria where none was needed? I mean this is Sachin. Whatever the niggling fatuous debates of his legacy, he touched the lives of a few generations as few icons ever have. The viewership and the engagement is absolutely assured, all you have to do is plug in your content. But respect at least the man’s sensibilities, if not ours. Yesterday, as the camera panned and stayed on the man’s family despite their discomfort with it, his mother literally squirming at its unmoving gaze, I had to avert my eyes. 
Sachin, the soft-voiced hero who survived 24 years of the intensest limelight without a controversy, without a crack in that quiet cultivated armature, now finally overwhelmed by the forces, slotted clinically in the hype-ometer along with the likes of Poonam Pandey.

 For the man, for us, was more than just a light of world-class genius in an age of darkness; within that genius, he was an embodiment of an age and its values, humility and understatement being the foremost. For he assured us that one did not have to scowl and sledge and elbow to surge ahead, quiet determination was enough. We were a generation of middle-class kids, humble to various degrees, unsure, no silver-spoons in our mouths, no uncles who had glimpsed the world beyond our mufassils, not a modicum of awareness of the world that south Bombay-kids were privy to, the world that would in a few years suddenly dazzlingly open to anyone interested via the ethernet. Our only view was a tunnel vision, a looming pit we had to leap across, our only chance, and our only trick in the bag was merit honed with, well, quiet determination. Sachin was the embodiment of that attitude for us, a boy only a few years ahead of us, with more or less the same resources without, and that is why he meant more to us beyond the craze for the game. He might have been a colony bhaiyya whose example our mothers cited to us. He was not the God for us that the media quickly crowned him and we accepted, but an apotheosis of our own condition. In the days when we stole time from studies, when the world and our future seemed hung only on the marks we drudged towards, he gave us a reason to believe. Our identification with his lone-ranging defiance in the midst of collapses that made Indian batting in the 90’s was so visceral, almost commensurate with what the Argentinans must've felt for Maradona after the Falklands humiliation. He gave us hope that we had the fight in us, despite our diminutive stock. (Those who came later would be surprised to know that there was a prevalent eugenics theory then as to why we Indians always failed, such was the nadir of our national confidence; and this is the time when Sachin, and before that Kapil, walked in).
It’s been a small, contained journey for most of us; we started out desperate to land anywhere, just not fail, and have ended up better than we thought we would. Hard work has paid, despite those darkest times when we felt small and unchosen, as a people, in a manner that perhaps is now forgotten to the next generation, and thank god for that. Even here, Sachin showed a quiet way of handling success without compromising our essential selves, our most personal values, without the image-makeover the hollow-men were demanding all around us. There was always his example, steady and constant dignity despite the brief effervescent threat from the doppelganger Kambli, tempting us in the beginning but ending in a weeping heap in an Eden Gardens pitch in Indian cricket’s darkest hour. But dignity was not what Sachin’s last time at the crease was about. It was about hype, cacophony and melodrama; it might very well have been Kambli’s retirement.
Since the economy opened up, a whole system of myths – of Bollywood stars, of Chetan Bhagat, of tycoons –has been foisted on us, that feeds and grows fat on the money it sucks up from its monopolies of our sensibilities, and would have us believe that mediocrity is an essentially Indian condition. That hyperbole is the only manner in which we Indians Coca-Cola enjoy! Those who would keep you ever stimulated, ever extroverted, ever unthinking and superficial.
It was about manipulation. These myths have been out in the sun for a month now, grinning Suhel-Seth fashion around, lapping up all the accolades and eyes waiting for Sachin, the real deal. Nothing was spontaneous, not even the spontaneous tributes, not the commentators’ asides every five seconds, not the Tshirts, not the decibels, not the dedicated column-spaces running for weeks. True emotions were elbowed out by their simulacrous spectacles. In the end, Nita Ambani, India’s richest housewife, got to lord over it while Sachin’s mother quietly tucks the rosary beads under the shawl and squirmed and waited for the camera to go away.

I turned my eyes away, for whatever the man still meant to me after being left cold by that din of images and soundbytes, or perhaps a reflex of a habit of respecting elders, and others’ spaces and privacies in general – I am still not a voyeur enough. I am the sort of man who finds melodrama disconcerting, for it sweeps everything, even the genuinely heartfelt, in its tide and makes it appear as silly and excessive as the cheapest and the most superfluous. And there are many, many more like me, and will always be. We will stand with hands folded and smile but refuse to gush out our most hallowed Sachin moments because someone’s thrust a mike under our chin, refuse to scream and jostle in front of a camera trained on us. Every emotion has to find its true form to truly express it, and this is not our form. We refuse to be manipulated, we refuse to share, we refuse to participate without our inner consent.

Maybe, later, after a few years, I will visit the moment in a Youtube link, and forgetting the ugliness of this farewell party, remember the lad once who became a man, Sachin, myself, my generation. And I will remember, alone, quietly, hopefully smilingly.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Yet another campus caper

Besides the question why are so many people writing without being interested in writing as such, why are so many of them writing campus-capers? I can understand the still-hungover mid-twenties crowd, but men in their mid-thirties? A purely-humorous campus-caper is not an impossibility, but humour is a craft that has to be painfully learnt, and given that these people are in too much of a hurry to do that, one can only assume that there was something deeper in the tales told, an inner necessity propelling the writer. And when you’ve braved through that bilious prose, at best functional, you wonder if these vapid frolickings of characters who stir scant empathy really deserve a retelling, given that the market is choked with so many similar tales.
I refer particularly to a type of genre, of pseudo-jocks, even bedroom-jocks, strutting around in the cloistered and secure world of campuses ensuring 100% placements. Or at least 80%. Make it a campus in a hinterland where unemployment stares at the actors two years ahead, and there is always the looming threat of a thukai from a gang of local katta-wielding desperadoes for showing too much attitude, and then it becomes a story, stark and viscerally real. Why – because the fear lived is real. Unfortunately, very few of these men are writing that story in English. When they do, like a writer reviewed cruelly here before, the reference point is still the college he couldn’t make through, the fantasied big-dick-waving affairs of their bigger stop-the-press lives, than the humbler truth of his own.
But coming to these writers of a particular stock, whose various but not much varied types I happen to be very familiar with – surely it was not always so facile for them. Let me state an example here. The third part of Amitabh Bagchi’s ‘Above Average’ examines the friendship between the urbane anglofied middle-class protagonist and a vernacular small-town batchmate with such raw honesty, that it achieves what every book must surely aspire towards – making the reader remember, with a lump in the throat. This bit of the story is no quite as sensational as the prelude to a murder in Mayur-Vihar, not as cool as the bit on fear and loathing among drummers in IIT, but it is the bit, unsensational, small, so finely nuanced, that makes me rank it as among the best campus-capers I’ve read. Even the success of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone, that started this trend, was founded on a modicum of honesty of feelings.
Experience is a painful journey. We learn when we fail, we achieve peace when pushed to the last depth of misery, hitting the sandbed, kicking and then resurfacing in a new light. Friendships are tested when pushed to the brink, when the stakes are bigger than a common love-interest, when there is no rich parent to bail you out, when there is no citadel of the campus to keep you cushionly secure against the real cut-throat world. And I refuse to believe that none of this genuine human-condition is encountered even within those turreted walls by even the most facile.
But that is so uncool.
Of course, no story can be a story without some conflict and angst. But these are either the superficially-experienced episodes or borrowed. And like the 3-Idiot’s suicide, never personal enough to transform the facile all-is-well narrative into a deeper introspection as ‘Above Average’ achieved. The structure of the stories is rarely organic and borrowed from the tropes flooding us, Bollywood, Hollywood, MTV. The conflict is always outside and never inside, experienced in superficial sentiments and not genuine emotions.
I return to the question, why, despite the wisdom, are men writing the same stories that they could have written a decade ago? What about the collapse of certain dreams since, of encounters with starker realities, deaths, divorces, of the simple joy of fatherhood?
Because this writing is painful (even the joy has to be experienced with the acuteness of pain) and they’re afraid of pain. Fear is what they start out to avoid in these boisterous memoirs, and fear is what I encounter splashed in pages after pages. The fear of irrelevance, foremost. We were young and cool too, once. Possibilities alive once, now secretly feared dead and gone forever. The tone of these capers is emphatic –effervescent prose, generous peppering of caps and exclamations, slangs, fucks, sex they never had. There are no nuances, only episodes upon episodes. The volume is turned on for the writer as much as the reader, to drown out that faint inner voice and really believe in the constructed fiction of their pasts. The human condition needs no emphasis, only the escapist fantasies where we’re heroes of our stories, larger than life by dwarfing everything else, the side actors and other narratives, and that fear within that makes us feel small and uncertain.
The fear of their present condition.
Fiction is an attempt to understand our deepest selves. One begins thinking one will end at such and such place, but ends up at a nook he never suspected. That is the purpose of writing. I have read interviews of some such writers and listened to them gush about how this happened in bits, and that is the tragedy – they never pushed themselves harder enough from there. Abandon that first facile draft, as I did eight years ago, and chase that uncertain blink of light. Writing, like all arts, is a process which you enter as one man and emerge as a different man, a self you chase to realise within. Like genuine travel. Unfortunately, these writers are determinedly tourists, they want to return securely as the “them” they began with. They don’t want to become anything else. As said before, the stress in their writing is on emphasising their securely-held beliefs of “Kya-cool-hain-hum” and not transformation.
What they do become is this closed self-congratulating clique, insecure of any criticism, ranting about elitists and, like corrupt demagogues winning elections after jail-stints, shouting how the people have voted with their money. There they are, encountered in the new citadels of boardrooms, facebook, pubs, golf-courses and drawing-rooms, loud opinions, still flaunting, self-promotion of vapid blogposts, saying what everyone else is saying, doing what everyone else is doing, only cooler and that witty ironic tone. Ever perpetuating the myths of their lives lest the slightest drop admit a discordant note – especially from within. They are the sort who would panic if their witty takes on a headline-debate doesn't get any likes on fb, two in a row.

I was wrong. Even bad superficial writing does transform you. You return an even hollower self for the truth of the experience encountered and denied.

For those thinking of writing their own stories, I have nothing against any genre. Only bad, superficial writing. Write honestly, don’t be afraid to acknowledge a wasted draft, imagine that entire spectrum of your experiences, exorcise, transform. Disbelieve the strident myths we’re surrounded with – we humans are much more intelligent and deeper than they would have you believe. The readers have still not forgotten to discriminate between the genuine and the affected.