Saturday, Jun 03, 2023

Grin And Bear It

Grin And Bear It

So the grinches stole Christmas and your faith in democracy. There's more to life. Isn't there? Cricket? Um.... The economy? Well, whatever. Just...

Grin And Bear It Ketakiseth
In Stuart Little 2, the protagonist (an animated mouse) asks his human foster father where the silver lining might be found during a particularly dire passage in his life. It's a question some readers of Outlook might have asked themselves when Narendra Modi won the Gujarat election. Even the politically correct sometimes want a break from the strain of high-mindedness, even the solemnly secular want a holiday week on the lighter side of the moon. What might make us laugh in the run-up to this new year? By us, I mean those of us who didn't laugh with delight when Modi won; the ones who did don't need cheering up, for them, life's been a riot for a while.

If the swearing-in of a chief minister is anything like the investiture of a beauty queen, Modi will smile in a sash, be hugged by Kamal Nath and commit himself to world peace. This is more or less what he did when he promised to rule on behalf of even those who voted against him.

Narendra Modi favours ceremonial turbans over the tiara; he wears a beard already and the word is that he wants to be known as the Small Sardar. English (because it's foreign) finds it difficult to render metaphorical terms in Indian languages. Small is unsatisfactory for 'Chhote', but Little wouldn't be much better (though Stuart Chhote works quite well) and Sardar Junior (which is closer to the sense of Chhote Sardar) is wrong because it sounds outlandish.

In school we were made to study exemplary lives. These biographical lessons were always in Hindi because virtuous lives could only be written in Devnagari (Roman being decadent by definition). A life we studied carefully was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel's. He was called Lohpurush, which, in rough Roman, translates into Iron Man. The historical reference was to Bismarck who had ruthlessly unified Germany with his policy of "blood-and-iron". The point of the comparison was that Patel had, similarly, integrated the territories of the princely states into the political geography of newly-independent India.

By invoking Sardar Patel, Modi invites us to see him as an integrator. His task is to keep India from disintegration, to save it from enemies without (Pakistan, Mian Musharraf) and enemies within (Trojan horses, fifth columnists, terrorists, extra-territorialists, arsonists and other terms that the Hindu Right uses for Muslims). Modi and his klan don't mind saying the M word either; it's part of the straight-from-the-shoulder forthrightness of Sangh politics. His project, the bjp's project, written down in manifestoes and proclaimed in speeches, is to integrate Muslims into India's mainstream, in the same way as Patel integrated the princely states. It's worth remembering that after Patel finished integrating them, the princely states disappeared. This is a cheerless thought.

We could stop reading newspapers to keep the bad news out but to a degree that's hard to imagine, English-speaking Indians inhabit a world invented by the newspapers they read. The English broadsheet's function is to supply its reader with a new English language episode in the life of the world as seen from India. Newspapers everywhere in the world report and editorialise: to these tasks, the English newspaper in India adds the tremendous responsibility of translation, of converting the chaos of vernacular life into the ordered periods of English.

This is an epic business: news that has its origins in the words and actions of Kashmiri separatists, Gujarati goons, Tamil bandits like Veerappan, Punjabi pop stars like Daler Mehndi is subbed into column upon column of temperate English prose day after day after day.

The reason that something as difficult and laborious and improbable as this happens routinely is that the column inches which anglophones inhale every morning are as vital as the air they breathe... they are, in fact, the air they breathe. Language isn't just a medium; it is an ether that envelops its speakers. In India it's hard to find much English in the ordinary air; so it's bottled in a broadsheet paper and delivered to your door every morning. It's your oxygen cylinder, your daily fix.

So not reading the papers is not an option. To see the new year in cheerfully and then to grin right through 2003, Outlook readers need to start reading their newspapers less literally. Instead of falling into the customary (and depressing) trap of imagining that a news headline like Massacre: Two Thousand Killed represents a specific report on a new tragedy in the real world, they need to learn that headlines like this one are formalist exercises, produced not by reporters—or even wire agencies—but by permutational techniques. The telegraphic style of headlines, the acceptable absence of conjunctions and articles and the low expectations Indian readers have of cheering news, makes it easy to generate a steady stream of plausible bad news by randomly combining nouns and verbs.

An Indian newspaper or magazine can be properly read only after it's understood that there are just four newsworthy subjects: the economy, elections, the movies and cricket. Like items in a cabaret act or revue, each subject has an assigned function and a set of invariable headlines.

Economics is the most inflexible: its function is to elevate middle-class whingeing into newsworthy gloom. The range of possible headlines is small: they're confined to the stock market with an annual diversion into the budget. Sensex Crashes, Dalal Street Revives, Markets Rally, Bull Run Halted will briefly give way at budget time to No Sops for Salaried; Surcharges Abolished ; FM Forecasts 7%. There was a time when five-year plans made lurid headlines, but since Manmohan Singh the most you can expect is The Nth Plan Passed. Plan headlines have been replaced by variations on the theme of Liberalisation Stymied.

Economic news has a horror film function in Indian papers: it entertains by supplying premonitions of disaster. Hunger occasionally makes the headlines but only as a subset of news on the government's food procurement policy. Rats Eat Wheat is a hardy perennial but malnutrition doesn't make news like famine used to, and famine (or starving to death) has been declared passé #by expert consensus and seldom finds a mention unless there's an eye-catching murder weapon, like mango kernels.

Politics, after Modi's landslide win, is unlikely to offer any joy to the politically correct readers of this magazine. Till electoral politics begins to deliver more cheerful results, the caption I most look forward to reading this coming year is Amma Nabs Veerappan. Not because he is specially wicked but just for the pleasure of seeing Jayalalitha and Moustaches in the same photograph. There might even be some relief from the seasonal menace of the Ayodhya movement, especially after the vhp announced its intention to diversify into the Qutb Minar. VHP Qutb Puja Thwarted tells you how far we've come since independence. Remember The Taj Mahal was a Hindu Temple by P.N. Oak? It's hard to believe that when it was published the book's title was meant to be shocking. I mean, what did they think it was? A tomb?

As the VHP spreads its wings and (in keeping with its name) becomes more internationalist in its striving, there are other headlines to look forward to: Great Wall of China is a Hindu Parikrama, for example. Or, Jerusalem: Judgment Seat of Vikramaditya? The VHP doesn't even have to make these claims for these headlines to be published because English newspapers in India are driven by the needs of alliteration and graphic design.If it sounds good and looks nice someone's bound to say it sooner or later, or own it, once it's said in print.

When their magazines need a circulation boost, Indian editors put cricket on the cover. Till we lost the two-Test series in New Zealand 2-0 (which isn't as bad as everyone's making out; it's better than 3-0), Ganguly's team was being credited with everything from the forging of the New Professionalism to the journey of the provincial into the van of India's national life. Now, with the brazenness that's so lovable in Indian cricket writing, we'll be treated to stories about amateurishness and indiscipline and the lack of decent coaching in mofussil towns like Najafgarh.

But in this vengeful turning upon our heroes, there's a very real danger that we'll miss the true lesson of the New Zealand tour and the new ground that it has broken. What the tour showed us is this: given the right pitches and motivated batsmen, the artificial distinction between Test and One-Day cricket can be successfully erased. If the 90-run innings can be sold to other teams as the way to go (and don't forget that New Zealand gamely followed our lead) the Board could schedule and market two-day Test matches. But to make it work Dalmiya would have to rest the reactionaries. I can see the headlines: Dravid Dropped from Two-Day Team, or, Tendulkar Trashed for Tonking Ton.

But the main excitement from cricket this coming year will be the World Cup. The world cup is going to be the making of this Indian cricket team. Before our professional doom-sayers and self-haters start pointing out that we don't stand a chance of winning it, let me explain that the tournament will transform Indian cricket because India won't play it. Dalmiya knows that you can't win the Cup without a bowling attack and we don't currently have one. That's why, having signed the icc contract on behalf of the Indian Board, he has now declared that he supports the Indian players in their rejection of the icc's World Cup contracts. The icc is threatening to sue and Dalmiya is beside himself with delight. My theory is that he's going to break the icc, and start an alternative circus, like Packer did. Then the Indian Board will stage a rebel World Cup by simply buying all the players they need and India will win that one. We'll win it because, like Kerry Packer, Dalmiya and his aides will get to select all the teams! So these are the morale-lifting headlines to look for next spring: Thommo Back in Aussie Squad; Nasser Named for India; Gilchrist Twelfth Man; McGrath Axed for Ugliness. In this coming year Dalmiya will display an almost Gandhian genius for strategic non-cooperation. And when he does, remember that you read it here first.

But as Lagaan demonstrated not so long ago, every Indian dream, including the most far-fetched cricket fantasy, is best realised in the Hindi film. Devdas will win an Oscar-ette for Best Brocade Saree in a Foreign Language Film. Encouraged by this, and determined to show Aamir his place, Shahrukh Khan will outdo Lagaan by making a marathon feature on a Mauryan Test Match between Magadh and Gandhara, that'll run for five whole days. Dalmiya, having abolished the five-day game in the real world, will produce this period Test match. The film will be made in English and entered for the Best Film Oscar. The American Academy, overwhelmed by this old-style epic, will once again give his film the prize for best costume in a foreign language film. Deranged by disappointment, still immersed in Devdas and Ashoka, Shahrukh will take to drink in full body armour.

Actually, that might be the way to go this new year—the drink, I mean, not the body armour. Drinking your gloom away is, after all, the orthodox thing to do. Gujarat, remember, is the one teetotal state in the Union: look what happened there.