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A RACE OF ELBOWS
- India has turned into a ruling caste mohalla in a small town

Maybe it’s just me. Recently at the Inox, waiting in queue for tickets, I stood a bit back, letting a woman finish her transactions at the window. While I was waiting, a young middle-class Bong slipped past me and went and stood right behind the woman, closely followed by a young female companion. As civilly as possible, I pointed out to the guy that I was waiting in line as well; the fact that I had given the preceding customer a bit of space didn’t mean I was not in queue and I made that clear, but politely. The Future-of-Calcutta’s reaction was telling. He was quite clearly caught out behaving like a boor but there was never going to be a trace of an apology, there was not even a surly shuffle taking him to his place back behind me, instead there was a solid shoulder bump as he and his girlfriend brushed past me, with the guy muttering “Aami jhamela kortey chai na, naholey… (I don’t feel like creating a problem, otherwise…)”.

This left me with a simple choice: I could either ignore the fool and move ahead, or I could turn and ask “Otherwise you’ll do what'” with the answer already clear that the branded T-shirt-wearing Future of Calcutta was willing to get into a brawl about a place in a queue consisting of exactly three people. Since I was accompanied by a couple of non-adults, and since I was trying to set a fatherly example to them, I let the matter drop (not, mind you, that I’d be any good at any kind of a mall-brawl).

The incident approached the kind of crude, petty mini-violence that I’ve come to expect when in the Delhi-Noida-Gurgaon-Dwarka urban jungle, but even in DNGD, you would have to work to find a middle-class guy, with girl companion in tow, acting quite so crudely quite so quickly. Carrying this experience, I began to notice small things as I moved around this city: it wasn’t just the youngsters who were incapable of standing back and letting others pass first, it was also people my age; it wasn’t so much the so-called chavanni class that was pushy and nasty in day-to-day dealing as it was the Tommy Hilfiger and Levi’s victims; it wasn’t just the buses, minis and taxis driving like homicidal maniacs, the air-conditioned airbag-wagons were equally crazy. It was like everyone in the country was having an Aggression-orgy and Kol-cutters were, no way dudes, goings to be lefts behinds, the rawksturrz that we all are.

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But hey, why blame this town alone' Admittedly, it’s a bit absurd when Calcutta proudly starts carrying a chronic machismo viral, like a whole city taking off its shirt and whirling it around, shouting “Dekhli, bey' Aamrao achhi (Can you see' We’re around too)”, but if Calcutta is Sourav Ganguly then the rest of India is Andrew Flintoff.

It’s as if the whole country has slowly and deliberately transformed itself from a large and complex nation, done a radical subsumation of its character and mutated itself from being the main part of a subcontinent into a ruling-caste mohalla in a small town in Haryana. The default Indian mode now is what one might call the ‘Lathi-Pajero’ and far too many people carry both, their own psychologically configured lathi and their own internal four-wheel drive: when someone gets in your way, just drive over them, and if you can’t, get out of your SUV and beat them up. This attitude gets reflected in all sorts of things, from the grand spectacles of sport and politics on the national media to the micro-exchanges of the home. The ads going suddenly loud on TV, the corporate-carpetbaggers shamelessly reducing services while raising ‘trap’ charges on the customer, the great self-congratulatory trumpeting of our stock markets as they cross various ‘peaks’, all of these on the one hand, and the small haemorrhages of communication within families, within personal relationships, within work relationships, all of these make up too much of the new society alchemizing around us, form too large a part of the real visage of Chak-de-India. It’s as if, as a people, we have become one gargantuan, unfeeling, elbow; or, perhaps, a better image is that we are a mass of headless, faceless elbows smashing into each other as we act out some collective fantasy of ‘getting ahead’.

For instance, what were the airport security personnel who recently beat up a passenger thinking' What they did was obviously not acceptable, but nevertheless it was interesting. Let me float a probably completely false theory just to see where it goes. The nature of police brutalization in this country also seems to be changing: whereas, earlier, the working-class (or the middle- or upper-class revolutionaries who decided to take up cudgels on behalf of the poor) would bear the brunt of cop-muscle from their own class, now those old, invisible boundaries which used to protect the middle class are smudged. Possibly this is because the middle class itself has finally lost its veneer of ‘bhadrota’, and the different kinds of violence the middle-rich inflict on everybody around them now stand more uncostumed and exposed than ever before. All the security cops at the airport were doing was taking a leaf out of the Indian middle class’s own new book.

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None of this is by way of arguing that we should be quiescent or cowardly, nor is it to say that the old, hypocritical, bourgeois ‘courtesies’ should continue to corset people’s hopes and aspirations. Just as there is bad cholesterol and good cholesterol, there is also, I would argue, bad aggression and good aggression. There is a huge chasm between regressive tribal instinct and genuine chutzpah and subversive elan that carry a person or a group out of old patterns of defeat into some kind of genuine victory. The point is, we as a society now increasingly look as though we can’t tell the difference. And, because we can’t, we are now embracing all aggression as being good.

There may be a tendency to over-blame them, but in this business of aggro-more-ation our Rockstars, Bollstars and Crickstars do carry a load of responsibility for their ‘iconic’ behaviour. For instance, all those years ago when Javagal Srinath ripped one into the nether abdomen of no less a fortress-batsman than Allan Border, many of us exulted. There was no chit-chat directed at the crusty AB from the young Kannadiga as the veteran doubled up in pain — terrific non-verbal, ball-to-ball communication had already been achieved. Equally, when Sreesanth did his Nel-nritya last year, after hitting the South African for a six, we all cheered, for that was a correct and adequate response, especially since it was backed by a maximum right over the lippy bowler’s head. Unfortunately, the accolades received for that thespian-terpsichorean moment went straight to the younger Sree’s little head. Since then, he and his younger teammates have looked like buffoons, pile-driving their little Jeep of aggression against the huge, reinforced wall of Australian cussedness.

Not that this is a point one of the young Turks takes when I try and have a serious discussion with him regarding the team’s Psy-ops strategies for the forthcoming tour Down Under. Part of the problem is that we are having the communication in a really aggressively loud discotheque, but still we can both more or less hear each other. I suggest to the player that he and the rest of his team are a hugely talented bunch and don’t really need the unnecessary lip-work on the field. “No, no, it was good.” He said, referring to the recent India-Australia ODI series, “We had to do it. It was good — after the first two games no one talked to each other. They just had to shut up!” I pointed out that they shut up and beat us. “No, it was actually pretty close. And we’re going to keep giving it to them…and we’ll get them now.”

Maybe it’s just me. And if this chatty Indian team does get the Aussies in Australia, maybe I’ll shut up too.

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