Arriving at ‘the Happening City,’ what does Anand Giridharadas find? Drivers dressed in white, lining up the corridor leading out of the airport, holding signs for customers such as ‘Microsoft Mr Sridhar’ and ‘M. Rita Singh Motorola.’
Sixty-three kinds of whisky for sale at this world-class airport in Hyderabad, with toilets cleaned no longer using the traditional twig brooms but with vacuum cleaners; and security cameras monitoring whether the cleaners performed their tasks at the appointed times, he writes in ‘India Calling: An intimate portrait of a nation’s remaking’ (Harper). “What remained of old India was visible in the colourful folk art that had been etched into the glass walls of the terminal. But it was an India of dancing ladies in saris, simplified and packaged for the white man.”
Force of the dreams
Driving into the city, past ‘the rugged, boulder-strewn villages,’ it is ‘evidence of a new and sudden middle-class plenty’ that the author sees. “Cellphones were hawked every few yards. English classes were on offer. Recruiting agencies promised to carry the young out of India, to work as flight attendants and software coders and engineers. A place called iStore sold iPods…”
The combined message of the ad signage in the city hinted at ‘the escalator of middle-class respectability that millions were riding,’ observes Giridharadas. “First a cellphone, then a motorbike, then a car, then a laptop, then a house, then a wife.”
The deepest change that he witnessed in India was not in what its factories were building or what its programmers were coding, but it was in the mind, in how people conceived of their possibilities. The Indian revolution was within, describes the author. “It was a revolution in private life, in the tenor of emotions and the nature of human relationships. The very fabric of Indianness… was slowly, gently unravelling by the force of the dreams, and allowing itself to be woven in new ways.”
A chapter titled ‘Ambition’ talks about the texting culture in Umred, a town in Maharashtra with a population of about 50,000. Text messages brimmed with borrowed emotions – trite proverbs, made-up sayings, quotations from people they scarcely knew of, such as Abraham Lincoln, reports Giridharadas.
Ninety per cent of the messages appeared to be forwards, as if the young had so much to say to each other, and no language of their own to say it, he notes. “A new day had dawned, and with it a new idea of human relationships, relationships not of hierarchical authority but of democratic amity. There had been no time for these new relationships to develop, and they had not yet gained their own vocabulary. There was so much raw energy but no context, nothing to guide it…”
As an onlooker of the exchange between ‘Ravindra’ and ‘Sunita’ – about whom you would read in the chapter – what the author records is that they had said more to each other through him or with their thumbs tapping tirelessly at their phones than they had ever dared to say in person. “‘You’re the kind of friend who is difficult to forget,’ she had once texted him. ‘I miss you very much here,’ he had replied.”
A not-to-miss chapter is the one on ‘Love,’ where Giridharadas goes down ‘the class ladder’ to discover that the sexual revolution is more of a textual revolution. India is in the grip of a mobile phone craze, and for young middle-class Indians what could not be attempted in person could now be pursued by phone, he narrates.
“The cellphone gave the young a zone of individual identity, of private space, that they had never known. It gave those who did not have their own home, car, or bedroom a chance to have, at least, their own phone number and a collection of messages that no one else would read.” Not surprisingly, the author comes across young people, well into their twenties, who still had not touched someone of the other sex, but had their phone in their pockets vibrating ‘all day long with textual innuendo, with flashes of a new kind of romance striving to establish itself.’
The case of Ashish Chetri (‘twenty-four, short, and pudgy, an assistant chef in a five-star hotel’) recounted in the book is one of a gradualist approach, with quests made mostly via cellphone in a middle-class world where ‘the women did not go to bars or date or go home with men. At most, they agreed to coffees, with coffee meaning just coffee – usually with another woman brought along as a chaperone.’
Ashish’s method, as he explains to the author, begins with taking note of women who interested him when he went out in large groups of friends and friends’ friends, and then obtaining the phone number of an intriguing woman through his friends. “He would text her anonymously for several days, perhaps beginning with a message like, ‘Some guy around you likes you.’ If he received a positive reply, he would reveal his identity, raise the temperature of provocation, and press the woman to meet him in person.”
But before you try out the method, read on what happened when Ashish fixed his gaze on a neighbour and sent her a message anonymously. “‘thank you for admiring me!’ she wrote back ‘but u know wat i feel dnt u think dat instead of sending me msges like a thief y dnt u come up n speak 2 me openly. I mean (face 2 face) Dnt u think dat dis is a better idea? Afterall v r not strangers v r neighbours m i not right? Now the rest is upto u Ashish.’”
Returning to ‘the Happening City,’ in the ‘Anger’ chapter, you are introduced to Venugopal, a Maoist poet, irritated at ‘a new kind of dehumanisation: an obsession with advancement, the erosion of time, the turning of men into robots, and, above all, a fragmenting of the society – no longer into Brahmins here and untouchables there, but into software engineers who lived in gated enclosures and villagers who were told to pack up and make way for a new airport for the software engineers.’
The contrast that Venugopal presents to the author is one of a journalist in a financial daily – penning articles that gushed tributes to the new economy with headlines such as ‘Small is what makes Microsoft go,’ ‘IBM’s latest offers road to infinity,’ and ‘Get ready to surf the Net through your television’ – versus an opinion columnist in a Telugu newspaper. “To earn a livelihood, I have to do something, because I’m not a whole-timer for revolution,” Venugopal reasons. And, recounts Giridharadas, “It was my first brush with the idea of part-time revolution…”
A book that is too difficult to ignore.
“They found a strand of the spectrum scam stretching into space, and so…”
“They are giving up the probe?”
“No, a team is getting ready to go out there!”