How Debjani Thakur Created The Best of All Possible Worlds

In a previous post, I showed that Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls is, in addition to being a super enjoyable romantic comedy, also a work of science fiction, where we get to witness timelines go awry as events are reshaped.

Now, let us turn our attention to the sequel, The House That BJ Built. In the past post, we discovered that TPTG ends on a day in February 1989. From this, we can work out when THTBJB takes place. The first paragraph of the first chapter tells us:

Twenty times the Amaltas trees along Hailey Road have burst into glorious yellow flower since the day Dylan Singh Shekhawat threw himself off a terrace six stories high.

Right. Amaltas trees bloom in May. Usually. Thanks to climate change, they have now started blossoming even in early April. But since there have been only twenty blossomings, this places us sometime between May 2008 and April 2009 – and in 2009, things were not that bad. In fact, here is a Delhi Walla photo essay from May 2009 talking about amaltas trees blooming in May and June.

Shortly after that, we are able to narrow the beginning of the book down even further, to between December 2008 and February 2009, thanks to this line:

Today, as the watery winter sunshine filters in through the grilled windows of Number 16, it sparkles upon the tiny diamond nose stud of the lone Thakur girl in residence.

But if it’s December 2008 or early 2009, it’s a very odd 2009. As we can see from the prologue:

Samar drops the phone onto the bed and looks about blearily for his iPad.

The iPad first became available in April 2010. How has it appeared a year and a half ahead of its release?

Then, in Chapter 3, we discover that a certain biopic has been produced and released long before 2013, which is when we watched it:

So many bio-pics take creative liberties- look at Milkha Singh. You think Milkha really got it on with a hot blonde Aussie chick the night before his big race?

In Chapter 6, it turns out that Connaught Place has a Starbucks. Which makes it four years ahead of the October 2012 launch that we experienced.

In Chapter 12, Samar and the Trings are checking YouTube on their phones – two and a half years before there is 3G service in India; and for that matter, widespread smartphone availability.

And finally, in the epilogue, we find a reference to a movie that released in 2014:

Chandu, who has got sense now and returned to her husband, and whose hair is looking so cute, like Anushka in PK!

If you assume conservatively that the epilogue takes place exactly a year after the prologue, and so, in December 2009, that means that PK has released at least five years ahead of schedule.

Why has so much popular culture and technology shown up so much earlier in The House That BJ Built than we know it to have arrived in our own lives? What explains this unseemly haste? Is it the same timeline jolting that took place in Those Pricey Thakur Girls? Possible, but I have an alternate theory. Which is this: the timelines have settled, but by the time 2009 and The House That BJ Built roll about, history has been irrevocably altered.

This changed history starts with Debjani making her rogue broadcast towards the end of Those Pricey Thakur Girls. In history as we know it, the state owned broadcaster challenging the state itself never happened, and so the government served out its term until the 1989 Lok Sabha Elections, after which we had two years of instability, followed by fresh elections, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a balance of payments crisis, and then economic reform.

But in the world of Those Pricey Thakur Girls, Debjani Thakur going rogue means that political instability arrives in February 1989 itself, and to add to this, Purushottam Ohri and Dylan Singh Shekhawat’s entry into television news meant that investigative journalism never let up the pressure on any government to follow. The balance of payments crisis arrived much earlier, and so did structural economic reform.

In turn, this meant that the Indian market opened up to the world a year or so earlier than 1991, and continued crisis forced even more economic liberalisation in reaction. The one year early start doesn’t seem like much, but it, and the cumulative effect of muckraking journalism meant that by the late 90s, India’s economy had grown to a point where it was influencing and accelerating the development of social trends and technology. Thanks to a much more open economy, Starbucks could enter India well before 2009. Thanks to the massive Indian demand, Apple could develop and release the iPhone and the iPad simultaneously, instead of with a three year gap between the two. Data spectrum too was made available much earlier, and with the increased cultural openness, the terrible movies of the mid-90s bombed miserably, prompting directors and writers to bring their more experimental ideas – biopics of athletes and satires of religion – to production much earlier.

The alternate timeline that Debjani Thakur brought into existence is far superior to the one we live in. It is wealthier, sweeter, and possibly has even less global warming. It is a universe where Hailey Road has a delicatessen and charcuterie – which would have been so useful to me when I used to go to German classes at Max Mueller Bhavan! – and one in which taking giant amounts of cash on an international flight is not an economic offense. It is an idyllic world, and I wish I lived in it.

Anuja Chauhan and the Missing January

I recently reread Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls. This was an extremely close reread, because I was looking for specific details to figure out when exactly the sequel takes place. And in the process I discovered something surprising. Time in Those Pricey Thakur Girls does not move at a constant rate. At least ninety days have just vanished from the narrative. The rest of this post describes how this happens, in detail. This of course means that I will give away many, many spoilers for the book. It also means that this post will probably be of interest to you only if you have already read the book; which means the relevant readership for the post is tiny, probably even smaller than this blog’s already vanishing readership. However, it’s an interesting discovery, so I might as well set it out anyway. Here we go.

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The Loss of Lingo

As the years pass, I use campus lingo less and less, because I have fewer people to speak it with.

Given that there are MA theses talking about how campus lingo is merely a way for ingroup identification, maybe this is not such a grave loss in the larger scheme of things. There are some terms, though, which I wish would have spread beyond the IIM Bangalore campus.

Back during my MBA, the response to seeing somebody trying too hard to attract attention (whether of professors, the opposite sex, or message board frequenters) was to call them ‘footage hungry buggers’, perhaps kick them a bit, and then move on with life. Then we left campus, formed other friendships and relationships, and forgot all about this phrase.

What a tragedy. For if language influences thought, then the world we live in today desperately needs the phrase ‘footage hungry bugger’ so that, when confronted with unwarranted demands on our attention, we can respond appropriately by naming them and then dismissing them. Because there are so many footage hungry buggers in the world right now. Trolls on twitter. People who appear on news channel primetime ‘debates’. People who conduct news channel primetime debates. A Prime Minister who unerringly locates the camera. How much happier our life would be, if we merely named them, and in doing so, slayed them.

Mahishamati as Radical Soil: The Maoism of Baahubali

My old friend Neha Natalya Pandey, currently engaged in postdoctoral work in the United States, was kind enough to forward me her mother Dr. (Mrs.) Valentina Dimitrieva Pandey (M.A., M. Litt., Ph. D.) ‘s monograph on the Baahubali movies, with a request to share it. The recent turmoil in American – Russian relationships, with both the associated financial sanctions, and, tragically, the vilification of anything Russian among American academe, has made it impossible for Neha Natalya to maintain the Pandey family’s blog; and so she has been forced to forward their works for the popular masses to her friends to ensure that we common people continue to benefit from the erudite family’s research and advocacy. I reproduce Dr. (Mrs.) Pandey’s monograph below, unaltered and unedited. – AK

I have been dismayed at the vilification of Baahubali 2 in the counter-revolutionary press of India. Late capitalist media, sustained like fungi by the rotting advertising dollars of corporate houses, seeks to suppress or mischievously misrepresent truly revolutionary works of art. To serve their corporate masters, media houses have attacked the Baahubali films as racist, casteist, feudal, and antifeminist. As we shall see, nothing could be further from the truth. Baahubali 2, especially, is a pioneering work of cinema that speaks for the proletariat, the downtrodden, and the coming revolution.

That Baahubali 2 is revolutionary could have been anticipated from the creators alone. Like artistic stalwarts David Dhawan and Manmohan Desai, SS Rajamouli has spent his career on cinema that conveys the rage of the forgotten man in an unforgiving system of brutalisation. Yet even I was unprepared for just how far the Baahubali saga was willing to go in its championing of the subaltern. Rajamouli’s earlier body of work – for nobody is perfect – still privileged the individual vengeance over the dismantling of structural inequity. Baahubali goes a step further, and issues a call to arms for revolution.

We see in Baahubali that the land of Mahishamati is ruled by the wise regent Sivagami, and exists as a peasant utopia, untainted by industrialisation. The scholar Dominique Legrand-Metternich, in her work Mutter, Boden, Mensch, has pointed out that in (ab)original societies, the mother (who is not-male by virtue of her role, even though she may be male when observed through the lens of crass empiricism (see: Idle, 1979)) is identified with the land; whereas the father (who is always male, and thus anti-feminine) is identified with the fire. Thus, the preindustrial societies are inherently feminist, while post-industrialist societies are anti-feminist. Sivagami is able to maintain the idyllic conditions of Mahishamati, until Bhallaladeva takes the throne. It is then that industrialisation raises its ugly head.

The senior Baahubali is exiled, and works his revenge by introducing the technology of the gear-drive to Mahishamati. But this is only the spark that lights the fire. Once Sivagami is murdered by Bhallaladeva, the true end of the pastoral Mahishamati is brought about. For the next twenty five years, Bhallaladeva brings about so-called ‘development’ and industrialisation – but all this ‘progress’ is restricted to military technology, like automated chariots; or giant waterworks. Rajamouli’s film is therefore a searing indictment of Greco-capitalism; as the military-industrial complex, created by the American imperialists; and large dam projects, funded by the same imperialists; are both placed in the person of the villainous Bhallaladeva.

Fortunately, the end of ‘development’ is at hand, as Mahendra Baahubali and Avantika lead a peasant guerrilla army. As a Telugu speaker, Rajamouli is well aware of his culture’s glorious history of peasant revolutions. The pairing of the peasant Avantika, and the bourgeois Baahubali; coming together in a glorious synthesis of a proletarian revolution, is an obvious hat-tip to both the Chinese people’s revolution, and the ongoing Naxalite revolution in India. In an atmosphere of increasing suppression of people’s movements, and of their supporters, Rajamouli is as courageous as Baahubali himself in creating a film that so unabashedly propagandises the Naxalite movement.

In conclusion, the Baahubali films represent a pro-people, anti-feudal, anti-Greco-capitalist, and pro-revolutionary message. It remains to be seen, whether the bourgeoisie of India shall recognise the writing on the wall – but the people have awoken. Lal salaam!

– Dr. (Mrs.) Valentina Dimitrieva Pandey
MA (lit.) MPhil (illit.) PhD (corres.) M.A.S. University, Darjeeling

(The writer is the Randal Zakuroff Chair of Gender Studies at the Department of Social Sciences, at the University of St Petersburg, Russia. She lives with her husband Acharya Somuchidononanda Pandey in the Malyeshi suburb of St. Petersburg, where their twenty-two children frequently visit them.)

Demographics and Anti-Incumbency

After seeing the results of the May 2016 assembly elections, I have developed a hunch. It is that anti-incumbency will be much less powerful in elections in places where the birth rate is low.

My reasoning is this: suppose in years 0 to 5, party X is in power. In years 6 to 10, party Y is in power. In year 11, elections come around.

In a state or country where the birth rate is high, you have a large cohort of 18-23 year old first time voters, who were 13-18 when party X was last in power. So they know just how rotten party Y is, but have forgotten, or never noticed, how bad party X used to be. This cohort then votes with a great deal of hope and aspiration for party X. And because of the high birth rate, it swamps the votes of such people who remember how bad X had been.

But in a state where the birth rate is low – and possibly close to, or below replacement rate – the people with long memories of how X was in power, and how Y was in power, will outnumber the first-time voters. And so, as long as Y is even slightly better than X; they will vote Y back in.

Of the states that had election results declared in May; Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Kerala all have Total Fertility Rates below the replacement rate. And Tamil Nadu and WB both had incumbent governments returning. According to my hunch, that is because there were enough voters who remembered how bad the CPI(M) and DMK used to be, and even if they didn’t particularly like the TMC or AIADMK very much, still felt that they weren’t the worse alternative.

I realise that this hasn’t panned out in Kerala, which has stuck to regular anti-incumbency – perhaps because there actually isn’t anything to choose between the UDF and LDF; and perhaps also because anybody who votes in hope for change does so for the BJP.

But if my hunch is correct, it means that for any state which has a TFR less than 2.1; as long as a party in power can be just better enough than the principal opposition party, anti-incumbency for at least the first term will be less of a threat. Those states right now are:

  1. West Bengal
  2. Punjab
  3. Himachal Pradesh
  4. Tamil Nadu
  5. Delhi
  6. Kerala
  7. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana
  8. Maharashtra (does that explain why the NCP and INC came back to power in 2008?)
  9. Karnataka (but that is crazily anti-incumbent)
  10. J&K
  11. Probably many of the North Eastern states and Goa

Looking over these, I realise that my hunch will probably work best where the state has two principal parties. In Andhra Pradesh the situation has been complicated by the fecundity of political parties; in J&K by there being four major parties over three regions; and in Punjab and Delhi by the sudden appearance of the AAP.

I have a further hunch that any party that gets a second term will get a little too complacent or greedy, and eventually end up being worse than whoever was voted out; and that a new equilibrium of anti-incumbency after two terms will evolve in places like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and Andhra Pradesh.

So I will stick my head out and make predictions:

  1. AAP will get a second term in Delhi (though I wonder if this mechanism works as well in Delhi, which might be getting a bunch of first time voters through migration rather than birth)
  2. AIADMK will not return to power in 2021, or even get Lok Sabha seats in 2018
  3. Whoever wins Karnataka next year will figure out that they have to be just a little better than the Congress (and how hard can that be, even for the JD(U) and the BJP?), will manage it one way or the other, and come back to power in 2024.
  4. The CPI(M) will also figure this out in Kerala, and break the one-term jinx in 2021.
  5. UP will have one-term governments or unstable coalitions for the next two decades

Two corollaries that emerge from this:

  1. In low-fertility states, because vote swings will be less violent, small caste or religion – based parties will never suddenly lose their core vote, and so we will be stuck with guys like the PMK and the MIM for a long time to come.
  2. The huge cohort of first-time voters that sweeps incumbents out in high-fertility states explains the rise of Narendra Modi. It also explains the Arijitisation of Hindi film music. As long as you have a growing number of teenagers and young people who have never actually been in a romantic relationship, but are looking forward to one, soulful songs about idealised romances that bear no resemblance to real life romances will have a market. Sob.


A Return Journey for Vada Pao

Although it’s widespread in India, the samosa is not originally from India. There may be a metaphor in there about the Aryan Invasion Theory, but let’s ignore the metaphor and focus on the food. Here’s a Quartz story about the origins of the samosa:

From Egypt to Libya and from Central Asia to India, the stuffed triangle with different names has garnered immense popularity. Originally named samsa, after the pyramids in Central Asia, historical accounts also refer to it as sanbusak,sanbusaq or even sanbusaj, all deriving from the Persian word, sanbosag. In South Asia, it was introduced by the Middle Eastern chefs during the Delhi Sultanate rule, although some accounts credit traders for bringing the fare to this part of the world.

The post seems to have been written by a Pakistani person, so it focuses more on the Pakistani keema samosas, while briefly acknowledging that in India, it has been vegetarianised, so that the samosa filling has become potato instead of meat.

I never knew until I was out of school that samosas could come with meat instead of potato and peas. By that time, I had already gone off samosas forever. This was because of how bad potato samosas in Delhi can get, especially when you’re trying to make them as cheap as possible. Of course, for government canteens, which operate on lowest financial bid contracts, making things as cheap as possible is imperative, so there is nothing quite as awful as a government samosa. It is the nadir of cost cutting, and features the coming together of:

  1. The worst quality of potatoes (and Indian potatoes are already pretty bad compared to potatoes from the rest of the world)
  2. Deep frying the samosas in dalda instead of oil
  3. Watered down tamarind chutney

Now consider the vada pao. This, unlike the samosa, was almost certainly created in India. And it started out vegetarian. It has always been a deep fried mashed potato ball stuffed inside a bun.

What if we sent the vada pao on the reverse journey of the samosa? That is, from a vegetarian potato beginning; we turn it into a meat item? We mince various kinds of meat, fry each in besan (or maybe even another sort of batter), and then put the result into a pao. And after various experiments, we figure out the best possible meat and batter combination and end up with something that’s more expensive, but far tastier and healthier than a potato burger. If it works, we could give the recipe to Central Asia, as a way of saying thank you for all the samosas.

Definitely Not This Article

My beloved readers, I appeal to you as both a former editor, and a longtime reader of things: if you are married, please stop calling your wife ‘the wife’.1 Or your son ‘the son’. ‘My wife’ works fine.

At its best, this behaviour merely suggests a sort of delusion in which you imagine that nobody else has a wife and yours is the only one in the world. This is bad enough. But things get truly awful when two people start doing this on an email thread or message board. For example:

X: The wife likes bananas, so we shop at Sarojini Nagar.

Y: Everyone in my family likes peanuts, so we shop in Rajouri Garden.

Z: The wife likes catfish, so we shop at Alaknanda Complex.

Aadisht: I like Evergreen kesar rasmalai!

At the same time, thanks to their use of the definite article, I am imagining that it’s the same wife for X and Z. Like a timeshare. And when I know the wives in question and they are delightful ladies, this makes it all the more awkward.

So please, use ‘my’ instead of ‘the’.

1: Technically this applies to ‘the husband’ also, but empirically I’ve never seen anybody saying ‘the husband’. Perhaps this is because they say ‘the hubby’ instead, at which point my brain wipes away the memory of what they’ve just said to preserve me from the horror.

A Requiem for Exes

I have been thinking about exes. Not mine, but other people’s.

Specifically, I have been thinking about the exes whom I never got to meet.

In some cases, this was because the person whom I did know had a relationship when they were living somewhere else, and then broke up before I ever got to meet the partner. Sometimes it wasn’t even geographical separation, but never getting to meet the partner for one reason or the other.

In other cases, it was reading somebody’s blog, and over the months or years, seeing the partner once referred to, change from name to allusion, and then vanish altogether. And made all the more poignant because the ex had no online presence, no blue link underlining their name, to give them an identity other than once partner, then ex, now cipher. The same applies to Twitter and Facebook, I suppose.

What happened to all these exes I never knew as persons, but only as partners, I wonder. Did they take the breakup badly? Did they move on? Did they see it as an opportunity to become aggressively single and Lothario their way through life? Go to the Rocky Mountains and shoot grizzly bears? I shall never know, particularly when the breakup was either messy or embarrassing.

Perhaps they’ve all gone to the same place, and Scott Pilgrim style, formed a League of Evil Exes.

The Taxman and my Grandfather

Two weeks ago, the Hindustan Times had an interview of Arun Jaitley, in which he made this depressing statement:

Shouldn’t the taxmen have some idea about the correlation between your income and expenditure or the correlation between your income and lifestyle?

As far as I’m concerned, no they bloody shouldn’t. Accepting reluctantly that I do have to fork over about a quarter of my income in order to provide for my government’s questionable expenditure choices (an airline? really?), I draw the line at said government also demanding to know the complete details of my lifestyle on threat of financial penalty. Is nothing private? Can I no longer buy web hosting, Cities: Skylines, or The Princess Diaries XI: Royal Wedding without Jaitley poking his greasy nose into the affair? Moreover, if there is already sales tax and service tax, why do the taxmen give a damn about the correlation between income and expenditure? And as long as I pay everything on time and accurately, why is my lifestyle under suspicion from the get go?

This excessive preoccupation with other people’s lifestyles reminds me of the story of how my grandfather disliked Jammu.

My grandfather was a great man who climbed out of poverty thrice. The reason once wasn’t enough is that the first time he did it, Partition pushed him back into destitution, and the second time he did it, his sleazy younger brother pushed him back into poverty. But he kept going, like Chumbawumba.

On his third climb out of poverty, he was living in Jammu and running a small business, which had its office not too far away from his home. So rather than pack a lunch box, he would walk home every day for lunch, and then walk back to work.

One day, on his walk home, he was accosted by a stranger who told him enthusiastically, “Dharam Swarup ji, the matar pulao at your home smells excellent!”

He himself hadn’t know what was being made for lunch, but a stranger did (even if the reason for this was the prominent aroma of Jammu rice). He didn’t have any clue who the stranger was, but the stranger knew who he was. And this complete stranger had no compunctions about accosting him on the road.

Eventually my grandfather moved to Delhi, and as he was a great man, made sure that he brought all his relatives along with him. And for many years to come, he told these relatives (who then told me) this story to explain how rotten Jammu was, and how it was full of busybodies who kept sticking their noses into other people’s business (and kitchen windows).

Presumably this is not merely a Jammu problem, but an Indian small town problem. Which would explain why Arun Jaitley, despite having left his small town forty years ago to study, practice law, and practice politics in Delhi, is still obsessively peering into other people’s lifestyles. Woe.

Sugar! Tolstoi! KRK Sir!

A couple of weeks ago, I read this Hindustan Times oped by Manu Joseph. I call it an oped merely because it appeared on the Opinion page. It would be far more appropriate to call it a masterful piece of trolling of anybody who enjoys sweets:

Sugar operates in the same way as evil because it is. It is an allure that hides deep inside culture, and in the notions of love, celebration, freedom, sharing and being endearingly flawed. And in our fundamental right to mediocrity. The only time human beings question the virtues of perfection and excellence is when you take sugar away from them.

There are multitudes within that paragraph. The correlation of sugar and evil; which is hyperbolic by itself but so understated in the context it appears in. The contemptuous scorn for “being endearingly flawed”, which I too find annoying when I find that particular self-projection infecting my Twitter timeline. The rage at love, celebration, and freedom all being hijacked by bad dietary habits. And that is just one paragraph. The rest of the oped pours the same scorn on Aditya Chopra movies’ suspension of logic, fruit juices, the moral panic over Maggi, and… pretty much everything else, actually.

What explains all this scorn and rage? And why is Manu Joseph angry at everything? Why are so many of his opeds what the good old days of blogging used to call puke fests? After giving the matter much thought on my commute (which runs from South Delhi to Sonepat so I had lots of time to give it thought), I was rewarded with an insight. The insight was this:

Manu Joseph and Aakar Patel are the Safe-For-Work versions of Kamaal R Khan (hereinafter referred to as KRK sir).

The rest of this post is full of bad language. Kindly proceed accordingly.

Continue reading “Sugar! Tolstoi! KRK Sir!”