Saturday, October 21, 2006

Some Happy Diwali, Id Thoughts

Byline by M J Akbar: Some Happy Diwali, Id Thoughts

The Eureka moment came at around four in the morning in Kolkata. I was in my room at the Sonar Bangla, one of the finest hotels in Asia, and had flicked open the television after sehri, the pre-dawn meal before the Ramzan fast. The screen came to life with Zee Music, and with my brain on full throttle I realised that it was the old Hindi films, which were really true to life. It is the new movies that are unreal.

Have you seen the ghost in the song Mere Mehboob Qayamat Hogi from the Kishore Kumar film Mr X in Bombay? The ghost in this song has a paunch. What could be more realistic than that? A ghost has a midway existence between this life and wherever we go to in oblivion. It retains elements of this life, as for instance the famous dancing girl whose anklets tinkled through the night in Warren Hastings’ haunted bungalow in Kolkata. (Haunted, that is, before it became a residence of the nouveau riche; which ghost can survive the cultural enthusiasms of black money?)

If you don’t believe me, get up at four in the morning and switch on Zee Music. That song comes punctually at 4. I can say this with some certainty since they do not change either the sequence or the selection of songs at that hour, safe in the knowledge that both shareholders and executive directors are fast asleep.

You might, in the bargain, end up also watching a song from Rajendra Kumar, who never used a word he could not describe with his fingers; or, at the other end of the scale, Bharat Bhooshan — the only part of his body that moved when he was singing moving songs was his hair, in response to either a river breeze or the studio pedestal fan. But our bygone heroines protected realism. Their body and body language belonged to the soil of India. Their fleshy contours are visible in any respectable Indian restaurant or market. I submit that it is the current crop of actresses who are utterly unrealistic. Who could have such slim, svelte and sultry bodies as they do? Their sex appeal is a figment of some marketing imagination, a page out of a glossy magazine that tells more lies than politicians in campaign mode. Modern Bollywood actresses are not allowed to have a posterior, and their exterior is pawned to motives that are ulterior. A Meena Kumari or an Asha Parekh was never embarrassed by the natural waves of soft flesh. Nobody ever caught them in a gym with latex underwear.

This air of unreality is seeping over all forms of entertainment. Take the Champions Cup coverage on television. There is a perfectly sensible anchor, Charu Sharma, but each time he gets to the third sentence he is interrupted by his co-host, whose principal virtue is huge assets everywhere except in the brain. Her most penetrating comment on the state of the game is "I told you! I told you!" I presume advertisers insist that she asks questions, so she restricts herself to the obvious, never making the mistake of mentioning either cover or mid-off in case she gets confused between the two. All the experts, and there are some serious heavyweights out there, play along, except for the majestic Geoff Boycott who insists on sticking dogmatically to the point. It is beginning to dawn on the other commentators that they are here on a well-paid picnic, so why not enjoy it.

There is one cricket commentator who is so unreal he is unworldly: Navjot Singh Sidhu. No marketing genius could have invented him. He is a natural. He used to whack the cricket ball quite a bit once. These days he punishes the English language. His technique may not have changed. In the old days he decided what he needed to do with a delivery before the bowler had bowled it. Now, he has a set of answers that are delivered irrespective of the nature of the question. The subject might be anything: Pakistan’s recovery, Ponting’s dropped catch, Lara’s back. The answer is the same, delivered in a rising lilt, rising from alto and ending in cracked tenor. "Character is the soul of wit! You can take the actor out of the character but you cannot take the character out of the actor!"

The curious thing is that Sidhu’s other job is as a full time Member of Parliament, representing Amritsar for the BJP. I have often wondered what would transpire at a meeting between Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Rajnath Singh, and the young guard of Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Sidhu.

A grim Rajnath Singh opens the meeting with bad news from Uttar Pradesh. The party could even sink to fourth place in the next Assembly elections. Vajpayee looks at his hands, silently. Advani looks thoughtful, then looks away. Joshi adjusts his scarf. The silence gets heavier by the second. Sidhu picks up the silence and smashes it into smithereens. "The grit of the earth is writ in the wit of the candidates. He who picks up the brick will kick defeat in the face!" Vajpayee is now engrossed in his fingernails; Advani is thinking about Shyama Prasad Mukherjee; Rajnath Singh’s mouth is ajar. Jaitley takes things in his hand.

"UP is difficult, but if we draw a parabola between Ferozabad and Lakhimpur Kheri, withdraw all resources from Allahabad and Kanpur, and concentrate on…"

Joshi splutters: how dare anyone withdraw resources from Allahabad, his constituency, which he would have won handsomely if everyone had not conspired against him!

Sidhu intervenes. "He who withdraws from battle, is going to get stuck with the cattle! Charge on, I say, and send the bill to Bombay!"

Vajpayee closes his eyes in deep meditation; Advani has shifted his thoughts to Deen Dayal Upadhyay; Rajnath Singh’s mouth is now open to the extent of two inches and Joshi is suddenly looking defeated. Sushma Swaraj looks at Jaitley and asks sweetly if there should be a fixed quota for cricketers in Parliament. Jaitley, conscious of his high status in the management of Delhi cricket, continues manfully. "You see, if West UP is lost and the East abandoned, then our strategy must be to outflank the Congress with a pincer movement in the Centre and South, with cross-border help from Madhya Pradesh, so that we can remain the Number Three party."

"Ooooooooooohaaaaaaaaaaaah!" exclaims Sidhu. "You can carry the cross to the water, but can you cross the water with the horse? That is the question, my friends, and unless India answers that question, I say, numbers are as numb as a dumb charade! You can make all your calculations, but three into one will only keep you third!"

Vajpayee and Advani look briefly at each other. Nothing is said, but their eyes indicate that they are utterly grateful that neither is president of the BJP at this fateful hour. Joshi announces his retirement from politics, but only after he has completed his current Rajya Sabha term. Rajnath Singh gets up and hands over charge of the UP elections to Sushma Swaraj. As the others leave, Jaitley stares dully at Sidhu.

"Ho ho ho!" says Sidhu, his voice at its excitable best. "He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day! But the boy who stood on the burning deck was lost to flames but not to fame! Never lose heart before an enemy! Only lose heart to a lover!"

Jaitley leaves the party office and goes on a long Diwali holiday. Sidhu’s sidhuisms echo eerily across an empty hall.

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