It wasn’t liberalisation, it was liberation!
The summer months are always kind of muggy in Patna. In the early 1990s, they appeared sultrier than normal. The days would be hot and the nights would be dry. There was only so much one could do. And that ‘so much’ was never much, with those prolonged hours of nothingness blankly staring at us. Don’t know if the irregular load-shedding and the dark absence of electricity were the reason behind the dreariness. Or if one could point towards the abrupt kal shaam chhe baje phir mulakaat hogi endings of Doordarshan as the cause. Or whether the limited stock of antaakshari songs (despite the unending stock of holidaying cousins to play them with) was the prime suspect. OR perhaps it was just the mid-teen angst.
But the insipid monotony was real. And there was only so much one could do.
Those were also the days when Aamir Khan was doing snake movies, Rishi Kapoor was wearing his last set of sweaters around trees, Jackie Shroff was giving solo box office hits, and Vinod Khanna was cracking dudhu jokes looking at women in Farishtay.
Yes. There really was only so much one could do.
Or actually, there was. Buzz words like liberalisation and globalisation were just beginning to hover around, and private TV channels were soon to be an everyday fix as a positive fallout of the policy changes. Cable TV was slowly becoming the fashionable thing to do in small town India, a perfect middle class counter point to the safari-suit-and-pomeranian superiority practiced by the elite. My professor parents, of course, thanks to their world view and wisdom nurtured by Brahmanical leanings, had a strong point of view on cable TV or any other form of unsupervised entertainment. EXACTLY the reason why I readily agreed when Ramkailas ji, my trusted aide, and the family Man Friday, recommended that we steal the cable connection since the wires went through our garden.
Till then, our experience in thieving was restricted to pocketing raw mangoes of the awesomely juicy Maldah variety from the neighbours’ yard. So I was not too sure. Having said that, the lure of breaking the boredom and seeing content outside of the staid DD programming was too much of a temptation. The programming options were way too many, beyond the Krishi Darshans and Chitrahaars of the world. There was finesse and flair one wasn’t used to seeing on television. Plus, there was MTV. That thing that was meant to morally corrupt the youth of the nation.
I was ready to be corrupted.
All it took was a pair of garden cutters and some ingenuity, and we were a cable TV household between 10pm and 5am, every day. Opening gates to a world unseen. The firang accent, the cool graphics, the smart promos, the interesting shows… they were all from a distant land. There was Star Plus with its Crystal Maze, Donahue, Oprah and, oh, those kissing cousins in The Bold and The Beautiful. Or the cigarette smoking Tara in the eponymous series on Zee TV, and even the obnoxious Mohan Kapoor on the channel’s Saanp Seedhi, and also Rajat Sharma, giving birth to a different breed of journalism in Aap Ki Adalat. This was all different. New. And real.
And then there was, of course, MTV. All different. New. And surreal.
With its funky graphics, bizarre spots and fast pace. Smelling like teen spirit. With Michael Jackson and Madonna. With Guns N’ Roses, a paradoxical co-existence that could well define MTV. With Right Said Fred declaring his sexiness and Phil Collins his inability to dance. With Pearl Jam, Megadeth, Metallica and innumerous such bands that us small-towners had no knowledge or clue about. I saw images I never thought existed. I saw people I never could be. I saw love. I saw debauchery. I saw a display of colours, commotion and camaraderie. It was culturally alien, unfathomable at times. But it was all eerily eye opening. I could never be them, I knew. And yet, I wanted to know more about them. Every day.
I saw possibilities. And I am not just talking television. I am talking life.
For that Hindi medium boy from Bihar struggling with Itihaas, Bhugol and Nagrik Shastra in school, it was almost like him creating his own itihaas every night. By unshackling himself from all that was around him. By thinking beyond the books and the course material. By taking those fantastic flights to nowhere. I never did stop thinking in Hindi. I did not develop an accent. I never could appreciate Pearl Jam, Megadeth or Metallica. I did not try becoming a different person with brand new reference points. Only, my perspectives changed. I started seeing things differently. I did not know where did I want to go, but I knew what it would be like.
We were caught soon enough by Papa. He said all that we had to do was ask. He was, obviously, very upset. Major mud on our face. But I wasn’t complaining. It was worth the trip. It was not as if it suddenly changed my persona or that I could see doors opening for me. But this entire visual experience, day on day, made me realise that there were so many doors that existed.
It was not just economic liberalisation at work. Or just liberalisation. It was liberation!
It changed my outlook. It made me more confident. It made me more audacious. It allowed me to dream differently. That gawky teenager, son of academicians, started looking beyond Engineering and Medicine as a career. As did many of us from similar backgrounds. Everything in the world, hitherto unseen, was now around us. And everything was achievable. We did not have to travel to foreign lands to broaden our horizons. The world had come to us. Very soon, the world literally was around us in the supermarkets. In form of Camay soaps and Hershey’s chocolates. As brand new malls and multiplexes. In the queues at McDonald’s. Buzzing in pagers and mobile phones. Surprisingly, none of it made me feel poor and deprived at any point of time. It kept egging me to have a deeper resolve to become better off. Read rich.
In retrospect, that was the bawdiest, and yet the most important, contribution of liberalisation to the small town India, and not just me. We stopped feeling guilty about earning and spending monies, something that Papa would have so not approved. We were okay to let go of our middleclassery. Of course, that came with its own set of struggles. Mumbai, the city I had chosen to move to, gave me its perfumed indifference, showing me my place in the 8:11 local. I gave it my unadulterated confidence. Very soon, we reached a compromise, and the city was home.
Fate brought me to MTV in 2000. And MTV gave me the confidence to change MTV. It had made me embrace its globalness, I made it embrace my Indianness, being a part of the team that made it desicool. I worked with them for ten long years. Fancy designation, et al. Little did MTV know about the role it had played in my life. Even when it was on mute. :)
Meanwhile, we got Ramkailas ji a job as a peon in Delhi. His family continued to be in a remote village in Bihar. We sponsored the education of his son who is now sixteen. The boy uses a smart phone and knows how to Whatsapp. I suspect he also knows how to order mangoes online. Only, he aspires to follow the career path of his father. Become a peon.
Twenty-five years later, I wait for another round of liberalisation.
– first published in Indian Express Sunday edition Eye as a part of their special issue on 25 years of economic reforms –
A Hindu-Muslim cab ride and a lowbrow selfie
Posted this on Facebook, and the response was touching. While this note does not quite fit in with the general tonality of my blog, I am still posting it in here. Because I can. :)
I haven’t quite been well for the last four days and have been severely out of action. Made the first move out of home today for a drive to Bandra Kurla Complex for some work. To my horror, I discovered that there was some Vishwa Hindu Sammelan being organized at BKC. The roads were filled with various hues of saffron covering the rural Maharashtrian tourists on their first visit to Mumbai. There also was Poonam Mahajan showcasing her beatific smile from illegal hoardings in the backdrop of Jai Shri Ram war-cries and at least 30 of those huge Police trucks with the battalions deployed all over. I was suddenly taken back to Advani’s Rath Yatra that I had witnessed at the Rajendra Nagar over-bridge in Patna, and while the context today was not as militant, the confused feeling inside my head was the same… of unease, discomfort and fear, not being able to understand the motivation behind such a loud and ferocious assertion of the faith.
I drove back home, and had to leave again in an auto to Sion to get my other car from Servicing. (Yeah. First world issues. I know.) On the LBS Road just before Sion, I was suddenly greeted by a sea of green flags, long beards and Aligarh pyjamas. There were speaker-stacks on the side of the road matching the length and breadth of the Gateway of India, with their thump hitting the insides of the intestines, playing what sounded like some Islamic religious songs. I could not understand the context. But the feeling in my head was exactly the same that I had encountered not too long time back.
The auto stopped at the Sion station and I had to switch to a taxi. Had totally forgotten about this little technicality that no autos run beyond Sion. Womenfolk and cabbies always find reasons to reject me, and it was only after a wait for almost half hour that I finally found an affable Sikh driver asking me to hop in. The moment the car was about to leave, a Muslim man along with his burqa-clad wife carrying a toddler leaned in, and asked the cabbie to take them to Sion Hospital. Of course, I was in the cab already, so the driver expressed his inability, and zipped the car past the yellow blinking light to reach the other side of the signal.
I felt uneasy again. And this was worse than the discomfort encountered twice already in the span of last two hours. Something was acutely wrong and I wanted to make it right. And at least in this case, I knew how to. I told the cabbie to stop the car. I wanted those people to get in, too. The Sardar said he was just about to do that himself, “aur aapne muh ki baat chheen li, bauji.”
Soon enough, the couple crossed the road and was surprised to find us waiting for them. Thus began our 5-minute journey towards Sion Hospital. A Hindu, a Sikh and a Muslim family travelling together to ensure that a toddler got timely treatment for whatever was bothering him. We talked about the baby and his health and told the mother that all would be okay.
I don’t know how much of a Hindu I was or how much of a Muslim or Sikh they were in that little ride that we took together. There were no Sammelans or congregations that we were going to. We weren’t getting satiated by loud songs or war-cries either. No flags were being carried. No overt symbols of our respective religiosities were being flashed. And yet, I knew I was a good Hindu. And that the couple were good Muslims, and the cabbie was a good Sikh.
All would be okay. I hope. I pray.
PS: Of course, I had to spoil it all by being the lowbrow low-light selfie-taker. But in my defence, I was just too overwhelmed by the moment, and what the heck, I am so good-looking!