A love letter to the scene

I swore I wouldn’t do this when I left home, ‘this’ being  droning endlessly about the savage beauty of Bombay from the ivory tower of the NRI, but here I am anyway.

I’m in the smallest, whitest ivy league school in the United States. A verdant, almost fanatically perfect capstone to the overarching might of capitalism and the US educational system. On nights straggling home half- drunk, I stare blankly at a black-felt sky towering over a quietude that I now associate with the sound of affluence.  I walk by centuries old buildings untouched by age, radiating a warm, smug glow into the bitter cold of the New England night. There is no noise, no redturningmaroon miasma of Paan spit and poverty; none of the saltwater and sweat, and gunpowder and garbage smell that forever embellishes my nostalgia tinted memory of Bombay.

God I hate it here sometimes.

I miss Mumbai, maajhi raand. I miss the people, the places; the strained pulse of a city that expends more energy into survival than growth. But most of all, I miss the scene.

Thing is, I watched an underground gig on campus the other day and I finally felt a semblance of comfort.  It was all here; all those things that I missed so much, the hummingbird anxiety of the opening band, the effluvia of cheap beer, and the baseline murmur of people alternating between frenzied dancing and far too serious conversation.

This right here is what David Foster Wallace would call a futile attempt at a belletristic opening.

But I digress; as I staggered back home, my ears still ringing with the familiar throb of phantom music that happens when you stand far too close to the stage. It struck me. Even though everything I’d just experienced had a comforting familiarity to it; I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was still a huge difference between what I’d just witnessed and what I’d experienced for six years before this. An inchoate electricity that I remembered feeling at every concert at home, but couldn’t quite find right now. So I did what I do best when faced with a puzzle, I took a long drunk walk.

Drunk walks are Proustian experiences, somnolent lines of best fit crisscrossing paths often walked sober. With every step I took that night, I walked past the years before this, meditating on the dithyrambic joy of being young(er), drunk(er) and stupid(er). All of my stories of Bombay revolve around the scene. The scene here being everything from I-rock and Livewire to B69. The first live gig I ever watched was when I was 16, an earnest wannabe engineering student in the correctly greasy black t shirt who’d spent an entire life before this in a sun bleached suburban existence in the Middle East. And I’d been hooked since.

In the years that followed, between twitter and the few short months I spent working at Nh7; I went from complete stranger and weekend warrior, to someone slightly in the in. I became friends with the writers and artists I looked up to, I shared the experiences that are so characteristic of concerts in Mumbai, the shady lanes behind Blue Frog before the pre drinking at Ambience, the smuggled rum into concerts and the mosh pits than ensued thereafter.( I would go on, but this piece is convoluted enough as is.)

But that’s where my story differs; and here’s the shameful truth, I realized early on that I was absolutely tone deaf. Which meant that I could never truly comment on the music with any degree of authority (with the exception of a few, carefully chosen references to stay within the conversation *haha, yes, sulk station is the Indian portishead*). So like any self-respecting 16 year old engineer who reads far too much Camus, I fancied myself as L’Etranger; the foreigner, the outsider. I stood out of the way; throwing myself into the music without preconceptions or expectations. As someone who spends a considerable part of his time in spiraling introspection, this liberation kept me sane through the worst of college. And it gave me the ability to observe with an objectivity that I couldn’t bring to any other part of my life.

Which brings me to the aforementioned puzzle. Walking past this surreal memory wall; I realized the source of that electricity that I couldn’t quite understand earlier. I realized that what I’d been fortunate enough to witness was the flowering of a scene.

At nh7 the standing rule (also see arjun’s twitter bio) is that we don’t support the scene. This is an effective, deliberate paradigm that stems from the need to maintain objectivity in the face of the meritocracy of the internet, and it’s worked well so far. Our artists cannot afford to be patronized because any cognitive biases, borne out of a jingoistic allegiance to our own cannot really survive within the ruthless equalizer that is the internet.

But I’m not at Nh7 anymore, I’m swimming in the tepid waters of nostalgia as we speak. So there.

When you grow up in the model Indian environment, and become an unsuspecting player in the zero sum game that is the Indian educational system; it takes more than just talent to subvert the stony pragmatism that forms the spine of the Indian bildungsroman. It takes a maniacal earnestness, a devotion to the art that derives from nothing but the love of the art itself. We were drawn to this culture, to this music, to where we are today, swimming against a tide of far- too- much- other- shit- to- worry- about. Which is why I propose ( rather sentimentally so) that every artist borne out of our middle class deserves an extra accolade simply for expending the effort it takes to swim the other way.

Think about it, whether it’s Farhad Wadia  *shudder*, or Blek, or even the sheepishly earnest college death metal band that’s trying on corpse paint for the first time, every indie artist in India today has dealt with the pressure of the egalitarian internet and the pressure to conform to a mainstream culture designed for the lowest common denominator. Every alternative artist, no matter how derivative or ultimately ridiculous, has experienced a moment of artistic integrity so deep, it survived despite a culture designed to eliminate it. They’ve fought against their families and their inherent systems of belief; they’ve survived, nay thrived, in an atmosphere that at one point seemed so soul crushingly negative, the only alternative was conformism. Our artists, and the fans who followed them have survived the cultural pogrom, and emerged the stronger for it.

Bhanuj Kappal will still compare your lyrics to the absurd babbling of a syphilitic tourette’s patient if you deserved it, but pat yourself on the back, because your effort actually matters. Your earnestness and your integrity have finally begun to create something that will stand the test of time. Your fans have followed suit, bringing the same degree of love to you that you’ve given to them.

But that’s just my point, you see. Standing there in that basement, surrounded by uber hipsters, and feeling generally at home, the one thing that I truly couldn’t find was the underlying pulse of wonder and earnestness. Which is why I support the scene in India, it is a thing of wondrous beauty, and I miss it very much indeed.


In Defence Of Chetan Bhagat

I come not to bury Chetan Bhagat. I do not intend to throw further dishonor upon a name already sullied by you, me, and the pseudo intellectual in the corner presently picking his nose. The very same person who, between fits of dry humping the literary critique of wiser people, howls with scandalous delight at the sheer dumbass rhetoric of our national mindset.

We judge Mr Bhagat today, for his bluster, for the fact that he plays to the masses. But that makes no sense. He plays to the masses because he believes that a writer is only as relevant as his book sales, which is honestly some pretty solid logic. We grew up to believe that the only true barometer of success is our education. We are the fallout from socialist India, our degrees are our epaulettes, our chevrons, almost our entire self worth.

Curiosity in school is only useful as long as it helps you beat that Tamil boy who doesn’t play sports. You move forward, and if you were confused enough, as over 900000 kids every year are, you will study for the JEE’s, the AIEEE’s and over 13 other such exams. You will meet people on the way who seem to have completely forsaken any pretence of intellectual curiosity, and who are doing quite well because of that. It is perfectly acceptable for a 21 year old to not know, or more significantly, not want to know of anything beyond his cloistered reality. Politics, Art, culture or philosophy are solely for jholawallas who smoke too much charas.

It’s funny, 14 competitive exams and an entire adolescence gasping in the primordial sludge of the Indian educational system ought to have hammered that into my head. It hasn’t worked so far.

But I digress, for we speak of Mr. Bhagat, who is a smart man. With IIT-B and IIM-A on his calling card, He knows that for every self important emo kid who’s read Marquez by 16, there are 300 adolescents whose lives cannot handle an exposure to an alternate reality. He claims to write fiction, and while that might seem a bit tough to believe sometimes, on closer observation, he really does.

Our mainstream fiction is not fantastic. It isn’t well written, well researched, or even well spellchecked. It can’t be. You can’t honestly expect a 15 year old to read Wolf Hall if he’s been studying 15 hours a day to get into the IIT’s and knows that every single one of his classmates is doing the same. Fiction, or rather, the ability to appreciate and ruminate upon fiction is solely dependent on the readers ability to conceive an alternate reality. But within the miasma of hyper competitiveness that exists within our system, there is no alternate reality as significant, or as comforting as stories of an education that will, once and for all, guarantee success. After all, For a 19 year old in his second year of engineering college, what could be more fantastic than visions of life in the IIM’s (!), in your own room (!!),having sex with a girl (!!!)?

We do not need depth, or any form of aesthetic expression. Because, as one English teacher told me, completely straight faced, “there are no marks for flowery, beautiful writing in the board exams”. We are camels, trudging through a desert we hardly know exists in the first place, pausing only to drink from a mirage of halfway plausible reality.

But we return to our self proclaimed youth icon, Mr Bhagat. Who is, indeed, an honourable man. He has no pretensions about art. He is a writer, an influencer of opinion. With his half baked plotlines, his liberal use of a “Young India” cant and his kooky, gauche, often ludicrous opinions about policy, he represents the very worst in us, but he does an admirable job of it.

How could he not have those opinions? That’s exactly how much of young India does think. And there’s no one to blame but ourselves. Over the past 6 years, I’ve passed through the forbidding gauntlet of competitive exams that exist in India. Everything from the IITJEE’s to the CAT. At every stage, I’ve watched some of the best minds I know shrink into a nautilus shell as they try their very best to pretend the world doesn’t exist beyond the next exam. Because today, there is no point to have a holistic worldview unless you have a group discussion for the IIM’s next week, there is no point to reading Nabokov in high school unless,…. Nope, there is no point to reading Nabokov in high school.

Chetan Bhagat isn’t really the problem you know, He’s just one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. (the cranky one with self esteem issues). Because today, a majority of the smartest, most capable people I’ve known through engineering college grew up in a world where they actively resisted curiosity.

So hold your breaths, fellow members of the angst ridden minority, because you may huff, and puff and blow until youre blue, But Mr Bhagat’s little house of books isn’t going anywhere, Which isn’t a bad thing, because Mr Bhagat is an honourable man, even if he’s suspiciously friendly with the maid.