Over a decade after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government tripped over India Shining, the fabled mukhota is back in the limelight. But now, after the current prime minister helped to give the finishing touches to the prime ministerial waxwork, something extraordinary was required. The PM rose to the occasion wearing an expressionless Chhau mask, unnerving both the faithful and the rest, and inviting a bit of mockery too.
Actually, a week of relentless mockery is closing with a sense of delicate balance. Donald Trump mocked an Indian call centre employee without mocking India. Milkha Singh mocked the choice of Salman Khan as ambassador to the Olympics without mocking Salman Khan. And Vijay Mallya mocked everyone by telling the Financial Times (the video ran on NDTV in India) that he wanted “to close a painful chapter” in an otherwise scintillating business career. He also declared that the Indian government could have his passport or his money, but not both.
The media forever fear disruptive change, but it never really happens. For instance, Aaj Tak’s morning bulletin, which runs 100 stories from 100 towns, has taken over the mantle of the lurid crime pages which vanished from the newspapers decades ago. The programme is a non-stop, rapid-fire assault by news about road rage, road fatalities, murder, suicide, rape, breach of promise, arson, forest fires, pillage, petty vendetta, and random, low-down caste violence. (A sober version, with 50 stories in 10 minutes, follows) However, some of the most interesting stories from the small towns, which would merit only two column centimetres in the briefs columns of the newspapers, if at all, get full play amidst this mayhem. Kipling would have loved them. This week, there was news of Jaipur’s citizens stopping traffic to protest against the depredations of monkeys, and elephants getting drunk and disorderly in villages after snagging some really happening mahua.
Over the years, an urban legend had gained currency about African elephants deliberately letting fruit rot, with the premeditated intention of getting tight. In 2005, National Geographic news reported that it had been put to rest on rational and scientific grounds by a spoilsport at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. But the Indian elephant has clearly cut to the chase, bypassing the fermentation stage and going straight for the bottle.
This week, the National Geographic struck a raw nerve in Delhi, which it celebrated as the “home to unbreathable air and undrinkable water”. It’s the same old story, garnished with the mandatory quote from Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, but Matthieu Paley’s pictures are giving the willies to even hardened citizens of the capital. Some images are as predictable as the story, like that of a ragpicker on the slopes of the magic mountain of trash, eternally smouldering Bhalswa. But there’s also this little snap of a Noida settlement on the bank of an old waterway which has become an open sewer. I drive past it on my way to work but even so, the picture of people living like that is unnerving and shaming. But then, a tributary of that sewer runs near my own apartment, though it is a better part of town. The filth is right in our midst, and we would see it every day if we didn’t have tunnel vision. But if we actually saw things as they are, we would all go mad.
Images of public disaffection continue to dominate television screens. “Den of organised sex racket” — that epically awful phrase in the JNU probe report, which has rekindled the controversy, has brought images of anti-nationals conducting torchlit marches on the campus. Further away, Kabir Khan, director of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, was surrounded by a group of enraged people at Karachi airport. Just some guys shouting “Pakistan zindabad” and “shame, shame”. No big deal but definitely anti-national. But not half as anti-national as those guys marching at JNU, which the government would have declared enemy territory if it were legally possible.
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