The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Transcending self-promotion

There is something about arriving in New York City that is truly exhilarating. There is something about the compound smell of gasoline, pretzels and overworked drains swirling in the hot afternoon air, something about the speed at which people buzz past each other on the sidewalk, something about the way the cops check out pretty women walking by, that is inimitably New York. Or perhaps it’s the opposite. Perhaps it’s the familiarity that quickens the pulse for anyone who has had Calcutta hard-wired into them from childhood: that “just-like-home” feel of a place where taxi drivers aren’t shy about using their horns, where garbage piles up faster than it can be cleared, where one gets the same comforting sense that things are a hair’s breadth away from flipping into total, joyous, anarchy.

I hadn’t been to NYC in fifteen years and it took me all of five minutes to realize how much I’d missed it all through that time. Things have changed, of course: the subway trains look naked, shorn of all graffiti as they now are; there are far too many Starbucks coffee outlets; people seem less rude; despite that first olfactory blast, the whole place does seem more sanitized, neater and cleaner in a dispiriting kind of way. Having said that, the old joint does still have some dum left, some strange energy, some odd human fizz available in quantities not easily found elsewhere.

To take an example, I’m sitting in the sidewalk section of an uptown bar with my friend Phil ( no smoking within the roped off area, even outdoors, though a special “pavement ashtray” is chained to a lamp-post just outside the rope) having a beer, when we hear a loud shout. “My man! Wass happnin’ my man'” says a large black guy bounding up to Phil and shaking his hand. “Check this out!” He says, offering Phil one half of his portable CD earphones. Phil listens for a moment, nodding to the beat, and then it’s my turn. I put the earphone near my ear and get with the rap while Reon negotiates with Phil. “I can get you one beer man. That’s it, okay'” says Phil, finally. “And one of those fine cigarettes of yours,” says Reon, obviously good at spotting an easy touch. Phil hands him a fag and goes in to procure the beer. Reon pulls out a grimy wad of papers and starts showing them to me: a letter of release from the jail where he served his last sentence, for grievous assault, a bill from the same jail listing the goods he purchased while inside, a photocopy of an old driver’s licence, other official stuff. “See here' I’m out four month, I’m clean, but they still give me shit, y’hear what I’m sayin’' But I’m cool man, no matter what they do!” Before I can ask Reon who “they” are, Phil arrives with Reon’s beer in a brown paper bag and the guy jumps away, momentarily happy, rocking to his CD. “There’s hundreds like him,” Phil tells me, “all on the street, all carrying their entire life in their pockets, papers and stuff, birth certificates, you name it. And they need to show it all to you, like its some kind of proof they exist.”

Reon isn’t the only one who needs to talk about himself or say how okay he is. Within two days I meet an artist who tells me he thinks his work is “pretty smart”, an Ivy League academic who casually slips in the sentence “but I’m a very good teacher and they like that” while describing his current job, and finally, an “Asian Indian” (as Desi Americans are called) writer who explains literature to me thus:

“There is the first rank, the greats you know, Turgenev, Faulkner, James, Bellow, and these guys are forever. Then there is the second rank, you know, the Roths and the Updikes, people like that. And then there’s the rest.” “And where do you place yourself'” I ask, regretting the question even before it’s fully out of my mouth. “Me'” his voice goes to top gear inside his nose. “Oh, my first book was close to the top of the second rank, I’d say. And I’m now writing my second book, which is a kick-ass naavel which should put me right in the first rank, no question.”

My jaw thuds to the ground, not only because everyone I know who’s read this man’s first book has found it excruciatingly bad, but also because of the sheer, shameless, straight-faced, self-pedestalization. So shocked am I that I have no breath left to answer when he asks, “And what do you do'” I mumble something about “films” and columns in newspapers after which the guy pays no more attention to me. Shortly, the great man leaves, presumably to continue his second magnum opus, and the two Indian writer-friends who’ve introduced him to me fall off their chairs screaming with laughter. “Tera to bolna hi bandh kar diye usney! Khatam kar diya tere ko!


I suspect Michael Moore is a man who has all the weapons of self-promotion in his armoury. Confronted with our Asian Indian Naavelist he wouldn’t have blinked before telling him that he, Moore, had produced simply the most powerful documentary films ever made by man. I might not agree with Moore on that one but, at this moment of history, I would happily forgive him that and a lot of other things.

Moore’s latest, Fahrenheit 9/11, is a blunt instrument of a film, loud, clear and as easy to follow as one of those interminably straight highways you find in the American Midwest. It’s a film that many sophisticated people, Liberal and lefty intellectuals and such, feel uncomfortable with for it’s broad strokes, it’s unequivocal venom against George W. Bush and his associates, it’s constant pandering to “Good Old American Values”, it’s projection of Moore himself as a large, lumbering saviour of the American conscience, and so on. But the great thing about the movie is that the left’s discomfort is nothing compared to the massive hornet’s nest of anger, frustration and panic it has ripped open among Republicans already shaky in an incumbent election year. As one joke goes: “Dick Cheney has Osama Bin Laden and Michael Moore standing in front of him, but he’s only got one bullet in his gun. Now guess which one he shoots'”

With the film managing the “crossover” to draw traditionally Republican voters, including servicemen and their families in military towns in South Carolina, the word “terror” has taken on a whole new meaning for the American Right. It is the terror of an all-American, fat, white man from a small town in “middle America” who lays out in some detail how Bush and Co have betrayed the very same “core” Americans they claim to champion and protect: the woman who hangs a Stars and Stripes outside her house every morning, the man who thinks anti-war protesters are traitors, the young black guy who volunteers for the Marines, the man who sincerely believes his country is blessed by god as the best place in the world for freedom, democracy, and the fair and equal right to the pursuit of happiness.

Starting with a brief but vivid history of how George Bush stole the elections, and continuing to demonstrate how his family’s close involvement with the Saudis compromised the post-9/11 pursuit of al Qaida and OBL, before moving to unravel the stupidity behind the whole evil mess of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Moore loses no opportunity to tear into the edifice of this self-proclaimed “bold”, “brave” and “patriotic” administration. And, no matter how crude and simplistic the devices used in the film, no matter that Moore’s self-publicizing would make even Muhammad Ali or Madonna look modest by comparison, no matter that there is not one word about Israel/Palestine in over 120 minutes of screen time, this is a film we — meaning the rest of the world — should be thankful for.

As I’ve said before in this column, America is far too important to be left only to Americans, but, equally, I have to say there are few more satisfying sights than an American getting something right about his society. Fahrenheit 9/11 may not be be successful in smoking the Bush-Cheney gang out of their lair in the White House. Despite the Democrats’ recent upbeat showing, voter apathy, the pro-Republican re-districting in key states, tweaked voting machines and other factors may result in another term for the most dangerously anti-human US presidency in recent times. But, even if the second Bush term is inaugurated, the next four years will not be easy to complete, partly because of the efforts of Michael Moore. And keeping that in mind, I’m prepared to be kind, not just to Moore, but to every harmless self-pedestalizer in New York City.

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