Sunday, February 22, 2009

Living it up with soup, sex & stories

22 Feb 2009, 0000 hrs IST, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghv

Siddharth Shanghvi's new novel, 'The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay', was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008

This is taken from:,prtpage-1.cms

When asked to write about this wonderfully dubious idea, the New Austerity, I was out shopping for vegetables in the bazaar. I promptly turned to the vendor and asked her to bring down the price on the tomatoes. After all, if the markets were crashing the least I could do was go home and make soup from cut-rate tomatoes. Perhaps that also sums up my relationship with the changing face of India's economy: buy local bhaji, bargain, get by on lots of soup. My response is neither profound nor strident, but perhaps it's practical. The depression that has struck the US like fever has now registered in India only as a cold: not because our economy is more resilient but because, quite frankly, no one ever really factored in The Poors (a tag made famous by the website Gawker, which blogs about the economically challenged) when we drafted India's sexed-up GDP (which, now, suffers an embarrassing case of erectile dysfunction). Not only are we as bad as we've always been, we no longer get the press release from the India Shining publicity campaign. So while India's worryingly optimistic 7.1% growth forecast could buoy up folks like us, a report released by the International Labour Organization last month said the world's unemployment rate would pause at 7.1% (and the worst hit could be the 'working poor', those subsisting on less than $2 a day).

However, the slump has turned around the marketplace: the public sector, gathering dust, has suddenly acquired its old patina again. Working for the Indian government is a little like my MTNL broadband internet: the rival service providers might have fancier brochures but MTNL just has bigger bandwidth. It might even flag a return to the Seventies, when government jobs were viewed through rose-tinted glasses not just for consistently honouring inefficiency but also because of an insultingly measly but reliable pension plan.

But what distinguishes the Seventies' generation from my own is youth: two out of three Indians are under 35. And youth is defined by recklessness. We're prepared to explore options in spite of the looming threat of joblessness. When my friend Rishi, an investment banker, was laid off, he decided to go back to his first love: writing. We met for a drink last week when he told me he was working on a script. Jokingly I asked him if he intended to write about a banker with a moral conscience, the sort of pinstripe saint who hands back his obscene bonus. Rishi laughed and told me that he wasn't into the magic realism crapola that gave my own fiction a bad name. Then, he let me pay for drinks.

But after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last year, I noticed a new fire in our youth, visibly rattled by the political incompetence in dealing with the calamity and unwilling to put up with government infrastructure that allowed terrorists to dock out at Colaba. I remember standing on Marine Drive two days after the November attacks, and underneath the pointless dignity of a candlelight vigil, I noticed the stirring of a political consciousness in a generation that had plugged into their iPods and plugged out of India. But that deadly message from the terrorists really woke them up. No wonder then than that Jaago Re, a campaign to drive up voting in the urban youth, marked a 30% jump right after the attacks. And now a new survey claims that Young India wants a leader who delivers on development and can handle homeland security (alarmingly, Narendra Modi tops this survey). Perhaps this generation doesn't care if the guy at the steering wheel might burn down a few thousand people as long as he gets the car company to set up shop down the road. The nascent political conscience I noticed last year is tempered by the downturn, which means: Do the rally that gets you the job.

But, there are flashes of some good news.

Since losing her job, my college buddy 'D' told me she's been spending her days sending out resumes and the nights getting laid. Apparently, the best thing to do with your free time is to give freely. When plays are out of question and going to the cinema wallops the wallet, getting laid could take the edge off being laid off. In light of the downturn, I predict picnics will make a comeback (in a hamper pack six Jain egg salad sandwiches, a flask of chai, sulli wafers, a handful of Cadbury ├ęclairs, two napkins and a few apples. Take Bus No. 231 to Juhu Beach. Enjoy).

And perhaps now that The Crunch has shown us what we have always known — conspicuous consumption is the triumph of symbol over experience — books, that curmudgeonly idea, that charming anachronism, will find readers. Within pages we will form imaginative sympathies with people we have never met, weep for heroines, rage against villains, we will read long into the night in the hope that the characters will be safe. When we turn to the last page we will smile with relief in the belief that the people we had been reading about, after all, were only us, and that we too will be safe.