Note: Pritish Nandy read this and tracked me down to tell 
me over the phone that he really liked this `perceptive piece.` 

Deccan Herald, Sunday, October 17, 2004

Whither next, Neo?

We seem to be a nation of Neos, all battling an ancient 
Matrix. But do we know just what we are doing, asks 

The UK-based theatre person Mahabano Kotwal put it best
when she recently said: India is opening her legs even as she
closes her mind. We are living in confused times, one look around
 will tell you that. There’s a fog that has come upon us, pervading,
 suffocating and all around us.

Switch on the telly and you will see a plump woman showing
you her thong strings while gyrating most gracelessly to
suggestive lyrics…and no, she isn’t Monica Lewinsky,
she’s home-bred desi. In fact, all the women in Tellyland
seem to be either young tarts or shrewish hussies, no gray
area in between. Our haute couture designers don’t help this
 picture any when they heap layer upon layer on their live
clotheshorses to recreate the gaon-ki-gori look or, as they are
 more wont to do now, display what they think is an artful
arrangement of a few scraps of fabrics on attitude-enhanced
models. Like women can wear this in a land where
they get harassed and raped sans provocation. Like the scraps
 are showcasing India’s ‘wonderful textile heritage.’

Blurred pictures
Out on the big screen the picture, if you’ll forgive the pun,
 becomes more blurred. Films that recreate Kargil seemingly obstruct
 the path to Indo-Pak peace. An adipose enhanced Manisha Koirala
 is killed for packing on the pounds, not for her histrionic capability,
 or lack thereof. A pretentious Kareena Kapoor tries walking the
 serious cinema route pioneered so effortlessly by the likes of
 Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil before her and makes about a
zillion comments marveling at her ‘realistic’ Rs 500-sari
(made by designer Manish Malhotra, anyone see the irony here?)
in the film Chameli. How come no one thought of asking Nasiruddin
Shah what he thought of herding pigs in the film Paar? Or how it felt
for the late great Smita Patil to wash herself under a non-designer
 tap in Chakra?

Our music, ah, our muzak. It’s (still) the age of remixes, and if you
can’t see the creative process involved in taking old meaningful
 songs and ‘grooving’ them up with some rap or worse, some lyrics
from the Bee Gees, that’s your problem, certainly not theirs.
Because you see, there are takers aplenty for this kind of copy-cat-ism.

Our print media, except for a woefully minuscule segment, fares
no better, dishing out as it does page after page of sensationalist
fare, smothering real nuggets of information in a cocktail sauce of
trivia and of course, blitzing us with Page Three People. If at all
scams are scooped or followed through, well, it’s not any
investigative spirit that moves the publications to do so, it’s all
the circulation figures. The real issues are no longer what’s
happening about us, it’s how many people read which paper.
They have dumbed us down and then, dumbed us down further
and now, we’ll take anything they choose to give us. They
call it reader-friendly; whatever happened to improving the tone
 of the public debate?

Violent prejudices
It used to be that everyone was entitled to their three minutes
of Warholian fame. Today, it amounts to a lot more than a mere three
 minutes. Dubious celebs rule, their inane sayings are touted like the
New Gospel. Then again, maybe it is the gospel in the new Matrix.
Celebs misbehave, celebs run over people sleeping on pavements,
 celebs shoot girls down at late-night eateries and we fear they will
 walk away from it all; this is no unfounded fear and we know that.
 The more in your face people are, the more they are feted.

All the winds of freedom haven’t cleared away some cobwebs,
though. In fact, it has hardened our right-wing attitudes. And
 so we have people burned to death in jeeps if we suspect them
of ‘allurement through religion’, whatever that means. We ransack
 our own heritage libraries if someone living across the seas makes
 a point we don’t like. We loot, rampage, burn books, pull down edifices,
 all in the name of Cause. We used not to be like this.

We have scam upon scam, people caught accepting money,
offering it, and no one flinches or follows up, at least not seriously.
 We have whistle blowers gunned down, whistle in hand, and
after some moments of refection, our thoughts move on to more
 lucrative pastures. We have government seeking control over
 prime academic institutions and they may well gain that control,
 too. As for our bleeding heart Leftist faction, they are too busy
 tarring everything they deem capitalist with the same grimy brush
 to see the wood for the trees. They are against globalisation,
which is akin to trying to stop the inexorable tide, heaven help those
misguided activists.

The Sensex is zooming at the speed of light towards the 7,000 mark
 and no one’s questioning the rocket propulsion. India is still shining
 and the glare emitted is calculated to blind us to still pitiful roads,
 non-potable water, electricity outages and corruption corroding
every area of life.

Now here’s the strange thing: all our vigilantes haven’t vanished
 into the new Matrix yet. There are still people who think
Chandrababu Naidu is an archetypal CM rather than a Laloo P. Yadav.
 Surveys routinely show that most Indians think Ayodhya is more
a place than an issue; that bigotry, religious or otherwise, is
the pits; that enterprise and morality are not mutually exclusive
 terms. However, the fog of confusion seems to have well nigh
 wrapped all these right-thinkers. What remains are all those Neos.

The new matrix
In the new unfolding Matrix, the chorus runs thus: ‘What’s in it for
me’?’ Carpe diem is the mantra for all in the system. We can’t
blame what’s happening on the foreign hand, or ever foreign
torso. Ladies and gentleman, or more pertinently, chicks and
 dudes, we did it all by ourselves. Globalisation = liberalisation
= vulgarisation. QED.

In this confused state of affairs, the old Matrix stands for all
that is quaint, restrictive, outdated. It stands for old- fashioned
 values like integrity, honesty, diligence. It stands for music that
 stood on the strength of its meaningful lyrics, films that portrayed
a sometimes uncomfortably close-to-the-bone but very real
state of affairs. Magazines and newspapers that were totally
 paisa vasool in its editorial matter and analyses of events. White
was white and black was black in those days. Today, gray rules.

The emerging Matrix scares me. It is vulgar, it is ostentatious.
 It is composed of everything second rate, it worships everything
 mediocre. Money is Mammon, of course, and everyone in this Matrix
is busy earning money any which way, which they then proceed to
blow up in as crazy a fashion and as fast as they can. Cell phones,
 malls and foreign cars are the chosen symbols. Cops have turned
 robbers. Every political party sups and beds with just about every
 other party, and ideology be damned. And of course, we Neos
 will keep on voting them back to power, these greedy, vile,
unprincipled cancerous nodes, to use Mr Lyngdoh’s sterling phrase,
of our system. We will keep our heads down, fear the unrighteous
 wrath of the lumpen and altogether, play safe. We won’t think
 too hard. Once we keep on subverting our principles in the name
 of pragmatism, there will come a time when we won’t care any longer.

The end game
We won’t care about anything. We won’t care about those
less fortunate than we are, those who differ from us in faith
and appearance. We certainly won’t care for those old fogies
who still honour old notions of tolerance, large heartedness,
 incorruptibility. Not in the new Matrix.

So, have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater? Do we know
 if we did and what’s more, do we care? I’m all for the gusts of
liberalisation blowing through the country now, freeing us from
antiquated rules and red tape. I’m all for money earned the right
 way, and let’s face it, every Neo worth his red and blue pill
knows just what is right, the new Matrix hasn’t obliterated
 that, as yet. I’m all for our youth flaunting it if they have it,
but in small doses and in good taste.

Good taste seems to be the first thing that the neo-Neos
are throwing out of the window. Heaven alone knows what they
 will throw out next.


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