Monday, May 08, 2006


Between 42 and 45 degrees in Ahmedabad this week. The high temperatures have probably contributed to my first ever case of the infamous ‘Delhi belly’. On Tuesday night after a couple of Kingfishers, I proudly stated that I had a cast iron stomach. Famous last words. Now on the mend after several days of khichri-kadhi, yoghurt/'curd' and nimboo-paani as my main food intake, supplemented by in-house fruits like watermelon.

I’m still reading Weheliye’s excellent book Phonographies in between jogging, strolling, shopping for cottons and books, and hooking up with various friends old and new for lunch, tea or dinner. That is, until the bug scuppered me.

A journalist for Tehelka was over a few days ago and we talked for some time about the 2002 pogrom/genocide of Muslims, laughably called a ‘communal riot’.

He shared some absurd stories about the looting of mainly but not exclusively Muslim businesses such as shops and restaurants:

A multi-millionaire’s wife joins the looters at department store Pantaloons.

A government/police official makes a packet from blackmailing the middle-class and upper-class looters caught on the closed-circuit camera. He leaves the force with a squeaky clean reputation because he was canny enough to only be corrupt in one fell swoop rather than make a career out of extortion.

Student looters end up with an oversupply of LG microwave ovens in their Gujarat University hostel because the clothing stores were too packed with other looters.

Restaurants were systematically stripped with first ice cream packs and then various bits of the furniture being thrown or passed out of windows and doors before the kerosene Molotov or other bomb cocktail was chucked into the hollowed out space.

We laughed that someone needs to write a ‘riotous comedy’ for the screen.

Moving on to media consumption.

Apart from Tehelka and The Hindu, Indian newspapers are shite. The Times of India and Indian Express are embarrassing national dailies. They have been flimsy and slight for some years but are markedly worse since I was last here (February 2005). The poor English grammar, clichés, mixed metaphors and hyperbole are irritating. The papers have become skinnier versions of the US and UK tabloids with their peculiarly Indian mix of sexual repression and titillation. Every front page has a celebrity story and the last page is purely Bollywood Hollywood. 1001 reasons why Tom and Kate called their baby Sundrop or why we should all be gifting each other sweets because some Bollywood bombshell who can’t act is working on a Hollywood film. The online editions are more respectable than their print siblings.

The Ahmedabad section of the paper gives the impression that the main news in this recently proclaimed ‘mega-city’ of 5 million plus is the fun had by brand-conscious youth who party and eat at the US clone businesses around town. Consumer testimonials nudge out stories about the suicides of farmers affected by the mass culling of infected chickens (amongst other reasons).

Each year one of Shuchi’s aunts who is the human resources director of an Indian corporation drops by with a heap of magazines for us to glance over the preoccupations of the Indian consumer. Titles include Man’s World, Stardust, and the local versions of Elle and Cosmopolitan. Check these out if you want a snapshot of the nation's globalized consumer culture, its desires and the ethos of the leisure classes. Thorstein Veblen, where are you? I like shopping too but.... I don't believe I have the western double-standard that doesn't want the east to 'catch up' with the west. But the pornography of consumption is somefink else.

The biggest selling film magazine in the world, Stardust, is hilarious. Stories of teeth replacement and other Bollywood gossip jostle with pouting pin-ups that reveal cleavage as the stars contort their bare legs into uncomfortable postures that would leave a yogi baffled. And that’s only the male stars. Salman Khan is the premier beefcake, famous for going out with his actor buddies to shoot several protected species in a couple of days of illegal hunting. He’s out on bail.

Stardust doesn’t have any 'reviews' at all. The closest it gets to journalism is asking its interviewees about their affairs and break-ups, arguments with directors and their self-realization as actors and human beings. The answers could have been scripted by their agents. Nobody dare say anything that really spills the beans. I just read a story about the British website Popbitch and yearn for some straight-up goss about how celebrity actors are arrogant bastards on set and are whores when it comes to advertising contracts. Where are the stories about them shagging producers and directors, or at least giving blow jobs in the Indian fashion that allows one to maintain a prized virginity. And that’s not just the men. Stardust is more puerile than Filmfare, though the latter is also full of sycophantic sound bites and negative commentary that wouldn’t hurt a flea. Must get my Bollywood & Beyond students to write about these mags as star texts.

There’s little critical discourse about popular culture and the media in the press. For most of the intelligentsia, the ‘media’ actually just means the newspapers and headline news on television. Negligible serious journalism about fictional forms such as soaps and movies appears in print though they occupy so much media time and space. The academics work in this vacuum but they’re barely read or simply trashed as westernised, or too embedded in impenetrable theory and jargon. Therefore, a flourishing hagiographic literature on film directors, actors and musicians fills the cinema sections of local bookstores. Usually there’s a foreword by megastar Amitabh Bachchan to bless the publication. Touched by the hand of god.

Quite by accident caught a television interview with this art archivist Neville Tulli who opened an auction house in New Delhi called Osian's. Osian's art sales fund other activities such as archiving of the arts and crafts of India, publications and a film festival. He talked really lucidly about economic growth in India and how the state and civil society institutions were not seriously engaged enough in the development of the nation's intellectual capital. He described a strategy of building and assigning value to local and indigenous arts and crafts in the art market and using that revenue for other institution-building purposes. The discussion reminded me of some of the points raised in George Yudice's excellent The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era.

Anyhow, to end this dispatch, last but not least: the tracks of my tears. I may have inadvertently repressed the revelation that my iPod is kaput until the end of this missive. I have jogged around with the 40 gig click wheel model (now a venerable antique) at my waist for some months. After about 25 minutes it often stops playing and I clutch it in my hand so it doesn't jig about for a few seconds and the tune usually returns after a moment or three. However, one dawn out on the cinder track with the vultures looking on last week, the device skipped a couple of tracks and then just locked into no play mode. I tried in vain to reset and then when I finally succeeded at home, it wouldn't sync up with the iTunes library. All attempts to revive the little one failed. I followed instructions on the Apple website and put the injured thing into disk mode and initiated repair mode. That failed too. Shuchi's wealthy cuz had sent a guy around to set us up with wireless internet access and he said he'd take the out-of-warranty iPod and have it opened up. The guts of the machine exposed. Could they fix it? I doubt it, though Indian tekkies are extremely able. I had to laugh when I remembered those two mechanics in turbans and dhotis on Goodness Gracious Me, fixing any problem with huge hammers and mallets. I am dismayed, but have managed the cold turkey quite well with brief listening sessions hooked up to the laptop library. It's not the same though. I can't snuggle up to the iPod under my pillow as I snooze to ambient Kompakt tunes in the afternoon. And in the longer term I wanted to age with my first iPod, to see its white skin weather like mine. But in these days of disposability, it looks like I will be forced to purchase a Nano when we're stateside. Oh woe is me.