August is a time for reflection, for storytelling in India. It marks the anniversary of Independence.
Independence Day is different from New Year. New Year is calendrical, August 15 is historical. A New Year summons anticipation, a sense of looking beyond and moving beyond.
Independence Day invites reflection, a need for judgment and evaluation.
What does Independence mean today?
I come from a generation where August 15 needed Jawaharlal Nehru on ramparts of Red Fort and Melvin de Mello and Surajit Sen announcing an era on All India Radio. History came to a small-town boy like me in fragments.
In fact, I never visited Delhi till I was in my 20s. I wish I had seen it later. Delhi appeared better in fiction as an imaginary, a cinematic mix of Mughals and Lutyens’ colonialism.
It exuded grandeur and power if not governance. Today I wonder what these symbols mean and what we stand for.
My world was different. Santosh Desai once tried to explain socialism by saying it had a particular sense of boredom.
We waited for things to happen and we watched others waiting for something to happen. Scarcity was a norm and the ration card gave a gloss to scarcity.
We became independent so that we could wait in lines. Yet scarcity gave an edge to desire, to need. Remember there was no Xerox machine. We were copyists.
I copied book after book because that is the only way I could possess it. One memorised huge sections and we sounded like delighted parrots reeling of Shakespeare, Blake, Akhmatova to each other.
Boredom and scarcity gave desire, memory and freedom an edge. We worked for it every day in a way a generation that downloaded knowledge may not understand.
Today a scanned copy, the ability to duplicate, distances you from the nature of the original.
Modi sounds heavy. Nehru just was.
I remember a friend of mine complaining that this generation had downloaded freedom.
Despite shortages, there was a style to the Nehruvian generation. Modi might be fashionable but he lacks style. Nehru has an ease, a flair. Modi sounds heavy. Nehru just was.
Our current prime ministers have to invent themselves again and again. Today it is this lack of style that bothers me because style is colour, design, qualities one misses today.
Style also pointed to a sense of playfulness. Our artists were playful, our scientists even more so.
A Raman, a Krishnan, a Bhabha dreamt science in a different way. The new generation has no sense of their creativity, their enjoyment of originality.
Our new hero is the IIT entrant, the great summarisers, fresh from the killing fields of Kota. It is this absence of playfulness which haunts India today.
It is celebration of a world, a sense of its aesthetic which we have lost today. As a result, we confuse creativity with productivity.
We have lost a sense of the classic. Whether in Bollywood, music or in scientific research, the loss of the classic is something one mourns.
I miss the old sense of the city as a sensorium. Cooking, shopping, searching for second hard bargains had a sense of adventure which is difficult to convey.
Brand has destroyed a sense of the classic. The idea of brand defines quality for you, in fact stereotypes it.
When one works on a craft, an art, on literature, a classic is something you encounter, you wrestle with, imbibe in small qualities till you can absorb it.
History was oral not what you acquired in NCERT books.
The mistake our generation made was that we did not diffuse the classics.
We tried to convert into clubs of privilege when we should have created a knowledge revolution around originality, the classic and quality.
We failed and today what we see is a philistine idea of quality, a banal world which cannot grasp, celebrate or mourn a Chandra, a KG Krishnamurthy, or talk of a Mansur, a Bismillah Khan in a different way.
My generation made many mistakes but the biggest was that we failed to democratise quality as equality.
Equality as mediocrity is not the same. Democracy needed to reclaim the aristocratic touch. We had captured diversity with equal access.
We separated quality and equality creating in turn a mediocre generation. Because we have no sense of quality, and diversity, we seek to stifle every new act of creativity.
Censorship reveals an act of understanding today in the way the deviant, the eccentric, the managerial and the dissenting are all grouped together.
As a result, ours is a society which is emptying out in two ways.
First, quality in the old sense of craft, colour, food and dance is dying out. Languages are fading and with it memories and stories of a different world and a different way of life.
The old sense of craft, the creativity of the gharanas is lost while no real sense of quality is being created.
We are borrowing the droppings of the West. We are a junkyard for its mediocrity. This is why India is depressing today.
We want to be like China when so many other worlds were available to us. The mediocratisation of India in the guise of democracy is what haunts one most today.
The other aspect that worries one is violence and our casual attitude to it.
I confess the acceptance of violence from road rage to rape to disasters on roads worries me.
The sense of consternation, the burden of scandal that accompanied violence earlier is missing.
With it, vigilantism of upper castes has become a substitute for justice.
Today commissions of enquiry are not able to grasp such phenomenon. It is almost as if we seem to accept violence as the normal cost of what we call development.
I guess this August 15 and its inauguration of the new makes me an outdated man.
India thinks the epidemic of nuclear plants and facilities all over Andhra and Gujarat is a Christmas gift to the nation. I guess old-fashioned people are like environmentalists, a seditious type.
I wish I could celebrate but the nation state makes me alien. I will clinch my fists in old-fashioned worry as the flag goes up to new salutes this August 15.