Slumdog, caramba, and an old ad jingle

In the search for superlatives, the limits of sense and decency have long been passed. Did you ever think a person living in the Mumbai slums could be so lovingly called a 'slumdog' in the yankee fashion in print and the boom, and everyone would celebrate the triumph of this repulsive rags-to-riches story with obcene hurrahs, and people not even being slightly uncomfortable with the word?

"Woof! Woof! This is all so boring!"

Sigh, the Indian advertisement industry too has ceased to manufacture simple wish-fulfillment messages: of a TV that made your neighbours green with envy, a red soap that could be used alternately as a brick and a magic token for winning football matches, a scooter that 'united' India, or simply those 'amazing whiteness'-inspiring detergent powders of Lalitaji and (oh ho!) Deepikaji that lost their appeal once the publick took to mall-visiting sprees, and chucked all their old clothes out somewhere.

But these are remembrances of things past, and no one can be forced to read Proust anymore.

I was inside a ramshackle Kolkata bus last week when I spotted a rather strange advertisement outside the schlock South City mall:
"You shall be judged by the colour of your skin; your second skin."

In a sense, the product which happens to be some fashionable clothing has become irrelevant: the advertiser with the exaggerated imagination of an ant inside a Myrmecophaga tridactyla's snout is trying work directly on self-congratulatory images and dreams using coloured words. Images and dreams inspiring "colour confidence", and revealing the rest of the world in its true (bad) colours, words that remind you once more of the complex past and confused present that your country suffers inspite of all that fashion the advertisers offer you, dear Neo, this time you get to choose a skin instead of a pill!

"Woof! Colourman, colourman, which colour do you choose?"

¡Ay, Caramba! I have a suggestion, though, and I think I've mentioned it somewhere above in the oblique. But in case you're bored, let's forget that and let me sing for you a old ad jingle of times when you never thought of the big, bad world. And in case you've been wondering, Myrmecophaga tridactyla is the scientific name of a morose 6-ft long snouty creature found in Central and South America that lives on ants.

“Washing powder Nirma, washing powder Nirma
Dudh si safeedi, Nirma se aaye
Rangeen kapda bhi khil khil jaye
Sabki pasand Nirmaaaa. Washing powder Nirma.
Woof. Woof.”

[Credits: See this blog by Vinayak Razdan if you're really nostalgic about the Indian advertising world of the eighties. The image of Lalitaji is borrowed from At the Edge.]

The inferno of living

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

-Calvino [Invisible Cities, 1972]

Too many people have died

Pete Seeger has grown old, Bobbie Dylan has changed, and what you thought were your tunes and words have died. But yes, too many people have also died in the meantime. You learn it from the sophomoric television that Israeli planes are dropping bombs at Gaza. Men, women, and children wiped into oblivion under the fire and the debris.

You've watched...

You've watched the flames rise up on the screen as the newscaster on some Indian channel switches to discuss the weather over New York sky, even when you're across the globe. Or when she invites someone who's an expert on global recession, CO2 emission, on Obama's radicalism and Chomsky's pacifism, on aardvarks, emus and intergalactic refrigerators aboard India's moon mission, someone who'll now discuss with a serious face all the implications of the UN chief Ban Ki-moon's sudden discovery: "Too many people have died." Really?

When was the first time you had watched? Oh, it had been the CNN coverage of the bombing of Baghdad in the early nineties, you and your friends played "Scud" and "Patriot" in the courtyards of crumbling colonial houses. Or simply gaped at Pranoy Roy showing his GK in World This Week as how the UN could never tolerate such an aggression on Kuwait. And now since you've grown older, you remember important events as how you watched or missed them on TV, and under what circumstances, often or not as glimpses that left without visible traces.

You had been doing a maths homework, and planning to watch Superhit Muqabila (the old crappy Channel2 TV show on Indian TV that listed the most popular movie songs), when you caught a glimpse of Russian planes bombing Chechnya. Did you, at that time, think that children of your age were getting killed in their sleep? Oh no, you had been busy playing with a toy Uzi and a model fighter plane and bombing terrorist hideouts in the backgarden.

Then time had flowed, the sun rose, moved across the sky and set, and you were reading Kundera, laughing, forgetting, and eating a crampy cheese-burger at the canteen when the twin towers crumpled. An undergrad was yelping like Tarzan as he ran across the university, spreading the news: "Hello! Everyone! Pentagon has been fucked." You returned home and watched the tragedy and all the melodrama that followed. You saw it again and again, and thought why America is hated throughout the world.

You now know the answer why.

You had heard of bombs being dropped in Afghanistan, and had rushed to the canteen where they were busy watching a cricket match. No, you couldn't switch the channel. No, not even during the advertisements when beautiful females and macho males were gulping down Pepsi, Coke, or similar toilet cleaners, and asking you to do the same. You had to wait till you could travel back to your district home, and be content with the few seconds of national television news that told you little of what happened in Afghanistan, but what every revolting politician said, shouted, screamed, winked or farted to the media during that day. (Radical flag marches, effigy-burnings of Bush followed, you melted in a universe of hot-blooded slogans, but to what effect? The killings continued, the marchers felt bored, and left)

You also know by now that 24/11 is never the direct coefficient of 9/11; just some stoopid Indian journalists pretending to be too intelligent apes after the Mumbai attacks, which some people suspect might be a covert operation of Mossad. You never know, but you know exactly why you hate these TV journalists. It's perhaps why you had stopped watching the idiot box after you had 'grown up'. Ah!

What do you feel like in 'newsless' oblivion?

The second attack on Iraq was part of shared office excitement and individual searches. Your colleagues clustered around a desktop as you together watched Saddam swinging. And you watched all the pictures of the dead Iraqi kids, shifted uncomfortably through innumerous blogs and YouTube videos posted by Iraqi bloggers who thought that they would make the world understand, and you felt like screaming. But then, time flew, and before you knew the occupation of Iraq had become so commonplace that a hundred people killed everyday ceased to be 'news'. But now, since the bombs are dropping on Gaza, what will you do? Will you sit before the TV, and switch to another comfortable channel that speaks of lifestyle? Or do another survey of blogs, videos, and podcasts, and rest content that at least you're more informed than the others?

I don't know, but gentle reader, once again, let me wish you all my scorn and hatred for all the military-industrial empires of the world. And for all who've died in Gaza, it will be very easy to say in the glib way of those like us who can lead uninterrupted placid lives far from their pain that the oblivion they suffer would be a fate worse than death. But no fate is worse than being roasted alive, believe me.

Stories, statistics, and lives

"Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people — but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless.

Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly, and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, his skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted, distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, and remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.

Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.

A life that is, like any other, unlike any other."

- Neil Gaiman [American Gods]

"Take the slack"


DAY TWO: It's three o'clock in a jungle few kilometres close to the hills of Jharkhand, and a pack of jackals are having hysterics somewhere close, unaccustomed to humans camping in their free-trade zones at the penultimate day of the European calendar year."Ka-hua, Ka-hua," they talk amongst each other.

A devout jackal trying to sink his teeth into an Extremely Unnegotiable Roti (probably one of those I unsuccessfully tried to have at dinner with something vaguely resembling half-roasted indigestible brinjal) speaks: "Ho, ho, Ho-Ka-Hua, these humans are trying to climb those rocks even that extremely smelly black animal with hooves and a tuft of beard avoids climbing. Lord, they must be mad."

"You doubt," chips in another, "Ha, these rocks are extemely slippery and I wish someone slips and falls and breaks his neck. We'll have our party then. Damn this recession, Ka-Hua."

"Yeah, I hope it's the fat, er, healthy one with thick shiny bits of glass over his eyes," says the devout jackal persistently negotiating the Extremely Unnegotiable Roti, and probably a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. "Ha, ha, Ha-Ka-Hua. Did you see him climbing? An overaged overweight Tarzan of the Apes, swinging in space like a hopeless elephant."

"Let's hope he falls, let's hope he falls, Ka-Hua, Ka-Hua," they scream in indecent chorus, as they forage close to the tents of the Rock Climbing Trainees. But thankfully The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks had been forced to keep his shoes and socks outside the tent flap, and now they act as an active deterrent for all nocturnal creatures.

I wake up. I am almost sweating from a nightmare of what passed as the previous day, myself on all fours, clawing and scampering over a huge barren rock formation, seemingly close to the clouds, and the plains far down below, a rope with a bowline knot tied loosely to my waist faintly inspiring security, and with my bottle-glassed spectacles foggy with sweat. I think of having a drag, but the free smoking zone is a steep climb half a kilometre uphill ("Smoking is strictly prohibited in the camp areas"), and I'm cozy inside my sleeping-bag like a wizened dracula neatly folded up inside a coffin and with painful tent-pegs stuck deep in his heart, knees and toes. I resist the temptation.

But now someone imploringly tugs hard at my rented sleeping-bag, smelly from the devil-knows-how-many past expeditions, as I try to balance myself into a comfortable position from the inside. I find I'm perched atop a slippery foam mattress, and inside a knee-high tent packed tight with three occupants and all the men campers' rucksacks, reminding you of all the pungent and immoderate zoo smells you ever experienced. The tent's inside is foggy and wet, with sweaty vapours dripping down the sides.

"Dada, please, I've to go to the loo." My sleeping bag gets a simultaneous hard pull. It's The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer who has been going without his essential fluid for the last two days.

"Go on, what's troubling you?" But he's persistent: "You don't understand, I have to go to the loo."

"No need to climb up high," I groan, contemplating the freezing cold outside. "The instructors are sleeping, especially Madame Chiang, and you can just get behind the tent, climb a little downhill, and find yourself a cozy place next to the weedy pond," I say weakly to the speaker. "Damn, they'll pull us up mercilessly in just an hour an a half for the horrid 3km-run and exercises. Why don't you control your emotions and get a little sleep?"

But The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer is desperate, he had spent seven years at a military school where they issued single-barreled rifles and bullets to students for chasing down stray dogs. His claim to fame was an encounter he had on the roads last year with five drunken brawlers, whom he claimed to have knocked down with one-for-each Mike Tyson punches. And he's known to have carried a menacing Rambo-style knife to the Sunderbans, intent on killing any man-eating tigers on land or river, if they happened to cross his way. But now, it's a different voice speaking.

"You've to get up," The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer almost shouts, and then, drops into a whisper: "There're jackals outside. You know I'm not afraid of jackals, but uuff, they are simply too many." Cold logic!

A torch flares up inside the tent, and I realise with horror that The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks is awake and thinking of getting out of the tent. But he's faster than me, and before I can throw myself out of the tent, I'm overthrown by the, the, what you call it, eek ... The Smell. By the time I'm out of the tent, both of my tent-mates have disappeared, and The Smell steps out of the tent and proceeds to devour the night sky, hung overhead like a damp smelly sock. Risking no more, I feel for the wrap of tissues in my pockets, spare a glimpse of Orion and the desolate celestial hunter high up in the sky, and limp towards the weedy pond, groping in the dark.

"Let us catch you littering close to the camp site, and I promise I'll make you use your dinner plate to clean up everything, tissues and all," Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, an overtly stern-looking camp instructor had warned the previous day. A schoolteacher by profession, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek is one of the singularly stern disciplinarians I've ever seen since my schooldays who uses words like stinging whips, even on people who thought they had conveniently left their school life nightmares some decades behind. But indigestible half-cooked brinjals and Extremely Unnegotiable Roti(s) can work wonders in your intestines, and make you brave enough to risk all possible outcomes in extreme darkness; yes, even the wrath of angry schoolteachers and Chinese gods of malice.

Edging on the weed pond, I sense The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer easing himself right next to the pond, with The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks posed as a brave sentry between him and the jackals, absent-mindedly fiddling with a pen-drive, which I'm sure contains half a million lethal viruses. Without a second thought, I light up a cigarette, smile uncomfortably at The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks for I had shouted at him in the morning after my toothpaste and toothbrush mysteriously smelled of his socks, and proceed to look for a cozy spot.

True were the words of the court jester who told the king of Nabadweep after a prince was born that he felt happy as if he had just relieved himself. True werest thy words, Old Master Rabelais, who found true happiness in expunged emotions and other bodily virtues. And true werest thou, divine alchemist Paracelsus, who insisted that nothing was to be learned of life if you avoided the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation. Ah, heaven! I too shat like I had never before!

The next day, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek lines up all the trainees, and proceeds to launch another tirade: "This will be your last warning, how many times do I've to tell you, blah, blah, blah!" And her suspicion zeroes in on a defiant fidgety kid doing the final rounds of his engineering college, whom she keeps under stricter gaze for the rest of the camp. Poor kid, he's spared the cleaning-up, but his sneaking out and smoking reaches a conclusive end. I exchange a nirvana glance with The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer, and we quietly proceed to climb on to our free smoking zone for a refreshing drag before our bones are bashed against the rocks...