5 May 2012

Book Review: The Butterfly Generation

A book review published in Biblio:

Skimming the Surface

The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolour Youth -- by Palash Krishna Mehrotra. 
Rain Tree/Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2012, 264 pp., Rs 450
Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s non-fiction debut is described as “part memoir, part travelogue, part social commentary… the first book about New India to be written from an insider’s perspective”.

In the first section, ‘One-on-One’, each chapter is ostensibly a sketch of one of “India’s technicolour youth”. The much-touted “insider’s perspective” seems to serve mainly to assemble a cast of desperately uninteresting characters – bankrupt photographers, girls from “the local theatre scene”, a dancer on her way to the US, even a cosmetic dentist who “makes a bomb decorating the teeth of wealthy white women” – whose only reason to be in the book is that they have all shared narcotic substances with the author. “That week there’s some MDMA floating around at house parties. Aditi and I do some together with a bunch or friends.” Or: “I know Gaurav. We’ve dropped acid together.” Or again: “We’re running out of hash. Prateek calls me saying we need to score.” This is no reason to condemn them or him, but unfortunately these chapters contain zero insights, and there’s only so much of other people tripping that a reader can take. Sample: “The star has given me energy, dollops of it. Also a sexual vibe. Naked exgirlfriends dance in front of my eyes… All they want to do is to make me happy, give me pleasure, massage my cock with their lips.”

Even the sole non-PLU person in here, an auto driver from Dehradun called Nandu, is only known to Mehrotra because he doubles up as a dealer. And so even in this chapter we must spend at least part of the time hanging out with Mehrotra and Nandu as they get stoned. “Nandu passes me the joint and claps his hands excitedly. There’s a tweeting sound from the ceiling every time he claps. It’s something he picked up in a Chinese goods store in Calcutta – the Singing Bird Electric Lantern. It’s quite something.” We get it. A great part of the ‘New India’ is getting stoned. So what?

It doesn’t help that Mehrotra seems content to merely skim the surface of these lives. There’s Anita, 24, for example, a corporate lawyer who “treasures her independence” and lives alone in an apartment in Bombay but – the ‘but’ is implied everywhere in this piece, even if it isn’t articulated – is hunting for “The One” based on her mother’s instructions to settle down. She “lets [him] explore her breasts” but doesn’t want to kiss, she dances raunchily to a Bollywood item song for Mehrotra’s benefit, but wants him to sleep on the couch. One gets the feeling that she would have made for a fascinating chapter, if Mehrotra had only been willing to listen. But he decides that another night on the couch is not for him, and leaves abruptly, leaving the reader, too, with a sense of incompleteness.

When he does stay with someone a little longer – and stops talking about himself – he is capable of making the interesting observation that makes or breaks one’s sense of a character. Captain Andy the pilot, who prefers alcohol, gets a few wryly memorable lines of this sort: “If it’s an expensive cognac he leaves it in his car, making a trip downstairs each time he wants a refill. He drinks expensive liquor and says he can’t afford to share it. Besides, people can’t really tell the difference and it would be wasted on them.” Bits of the chapter on Bombay scriptwriters are fascinating — like the café called Pop Tate’s where they hang out, where the television is always tuned to a 24-hour Bollywood news channel. “What might pass as light entertainment elsewhere is hard news here in Versova, the heart of the Hindi film industry.” But Mehrotra then carries on about Pop Tate’s for three paragraphs.

That’s the thing about this book. Most of the time, Mehrotra seems like he can’t be bothered, either with people or with writing about them in any detail. At other times, he belabours a point so much that you no longer feel it’s the slightest bit insightful, or meanders on endlessly about something he’s already discussed several times. This should not surprise us, perhaps. In a previous avatar, Mehrotra was the sort of journalist who, when he wanted to explain the popular Hindi acronym KLPD (Khade lund pe dhokha) in his column for the news weekly Tehelka, produced a four-line-long piece of doggerel instead: “I was hard and erect/ and ready to flow/the signals were all green/ oops! where did she go?” This stellar piece of poetry is now available to us again, since that Tehelka column has become a chapter in the book, under its ridiculous original title, ‘Inside the Sari’.

This second section of the book – ‘Wide Angle’ – is where Mehrotra really comes into his element, holding forth on pretty much everything he wants to, without feeling the slightest need to back up his throwaway assertions with anything that might be called research. In ‘Inside the Sari’, for example, he’s out to “crack” the “codes” that govern “relationships, sex, the dirty business of love and life” in India. He assures us that reading Indian women’s magazines in English – Femina, Cosmopolitan and Women’s Era – will explain a great deal. While magnanimously granting in one sentence that there are “different magazines, different types of Indian women, multiple codes”, in the next sentence he feels able to airily assert that “Indian women used to sit demurely, legs crossed sideways, whenever they rode pillion on a two-wheeler. Now they sit with their legs confidently astride, toned arms gripping their boyfriend’s sixpack.” Which women? Where in India? Of what class background(s)? How old? None of this matters to Mehrotra, who has already moved on to his next pronouncement – “Yes, the sexual revolution is finally underway in India” – based on a few sentences about condom ads and morning-after pills on primetime TV.

This is followed by yet another unbacked assertion: “homegrown chicklit sells in the thousands”. One may wonder: Which books is he talking about? And why does the selling of chick-lit suggest a sexual revolution? But questions are futile. Mehrotra is up and away, with nearly four pages worth of conversational snippets reproduced from a call-in radio show called ‘Between the Sheets’, and hey presto, end of chapter. A chapter as ridiculous as this can only lead us to the conclusion that none of Mehrotra’s intended readers are Indian women. Oh, you are one? And you want to know how to “crack” the codes that govern Indian men? Well, Mehrotra’s message is clear: for that you don’t need to go to men’s magazines – you have Mehrotra himself.

In another chapter called ‘I Love My McJob: The Birth of India’s English-speaking Working Class’, Mehrotra announces that “the average Indian’s attitude to work has changed”. “In the showrooms of global capitalism”, it seems, there is “a newfound respect for physical labour” and nametags that bear only first names erase all signs of caste so that “centuries of prejudice are instantly wiped out”. The ludicrous wishful thinking of this apart, Mehrotra does not even bother to reconcile one set of observations with another: a few chapters later, in a chapter called ‘Servants of India’, he spends a paragraph telling us that “middle class Indians are generally averse to menial work. If they could, they’d hire toilet attendants to wash their bums. A young banker can’t be seen with a broom; an upwardly mobile young woman can’t be seen doing household chores”. In one of his few useful observations in ‘Inside the Sari’, Mehrotra points to the fictive world of Cosmopolitan which discusses the division of such household chores as washing up and cooking, knowing full well that most Indian readers will go home to a house with a live-in servant. So which is it: is the Indian middle class’ inherent hierarchical-ness alive and well, or has liberalisation freed us all from oppressive structures and nasty things like caste? And if the answer is that it’s complicated, it really would be nice if Mehrotra gave some thought to addressing that complexity, rather than giving us contradictory generalisations.

In the third and final section, ‘Here We Are Now, Entertain Us’, the “insider perspective” essentially seems to justify Mehrotra spending what feels like aeons trawling through his long-drawn and boring memories of growing up in pre-liberalisation India — boring not just because pretty much any upper middle class reader over 30 in India remembers those years of Doordarshan and cassette-buying often in as much detail as Mehrotra does, but because he has almost nothing insightful or new to tell us about that shared experience.

This final section does contain the only chapters that seem like they’re based on a combination of immersion and research: several about the emerging music scene (including such gems as our invention of “sitdown rock ‘n’roll”, and one analysing the emergence of reality TV in India, a reasonably interesting subject except that one must deal with a fresh stream of Mehrotraisms, such as “Rarely will Indian couples interact with each other as individuals. Everything about a person is passed through the filter of Bollywood…”.

This book is especially disappointing because it comes from Mehrotra, who can write taut, thoughtful, even arresting prose when he puts his mind to it. Eunuch Park, his book of short stories, which I happened to review (Biblio, May-June, 2009) did contain glimpses of Mehrotra’s now ceaseless desire to shock and provoke, but it was written with greater empathy and greater attentiveness than he seems to provide a single one of his subjects here. From the lazy, slipshod arguments, flat descriptions and self-indulgence on every page of The Butterfly Generation, one can only conclude that Mehrotra thinks nonfiction needs neither research, nor commitment — nor editing. He has proved himself devastatingly wrong.

Published in the March-April 2012 issue of Biblio

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