Moths to a Flame

Mehrotra’s book, with its fascination for upper-class pleasure-seekers, fails to be a convincing portrait of the urban young

Eve Ensler’s radical play The Vagina Monologues has been widely performed across India, but it doesn’t find mention in a book about moral, sexual and cultural shifts. COURTESY POOR-BOX PRODUCTIONS
01 April, 2012

SOME WAY INTO THE BUTTERFLY GENERATION, I flip the book over to check the author’s bio. The first few chapters have left me feeling alienated and I’m wondering if that’s because I’m older. It turns out that I’m actually a few years younger than Palash Krishna Mehrotra. As I read on, I discover that we have things in common. We both take a dim view of glassy airports. We know the same cities—Delhi, Mumbai, Allahabad. He grew up in Allahabad, lived in Delhi and Dehradun, and has visited Mumbai occasionally. I was born in Allahabad, have visited Dehradun, and have lived between Delhi and Mumbai for more than a decade.

Growing up, we watched the same TV shows—there was only one channel to watch. He comes from a family that discouraged TV-watching and encouraged reading. So do I. He wrote poetry in college, and has now published both fiction and nonfiction. So have I. His first collection of essays tried to blend social commentary with travel and memoir. So did mine.

From living and working in big and not-so-big cities, from his memories of the 1980s and 1990s, from television, from his own lovers, Mehrotra draws conclusions about our generation. The book claims to be a “no-holds-barred portrait of young urban Indians”, the story of “one man and one generation”. It contains 22 essays on subjects like parties, sexual dynamics, an English-speaking working class, domestic workers, ragging, television and rock music.

IN ‘THUMBELINA ON SPEED’, Mehrotra introduces us to Aditi. He develops a sort of un-relationship with her whereby they spend time together, have sex, but don’t make claims on each other. Aditi wants to dance, professionally. She says her father would kill her if he found out. Finally, she leaves for New York to study music. But before that, she parties hard and, one time, even strips to her underwear and rushes into the streets of Delhi in the middle of the night, riding piggyback on another man.

Mehrotra doesn’t tell us why she parties so hard, or takes risks that even men would baulk at. Delhi is known as the rape capital of the country, where women are supposed to feel nervous about stepping out after dark—even if they’re sober and covered from neck to ankles. So what’s driving Aditi so close to the edge?

I begin to wonder what Mehrotra is trying to say. Does Aditi say something about ‘us’—a generation of women who want to break the rules, take risks? But who are these women? I lived in Delhi between 2004 and 2008. A journalist’s life meant being out at midnight or during the early hours of dawn. I do not recall seeing any woman out on the streets, young or old. Not outside of a car.

In Delhi, one of my landlords used to lock the main door at 9 pm, so one of three roommates had to be home before then and open the door for the others. But the daughters-in-law in that Jat household, not much older than me, didn’t step out of the house at all. They were long-term Delhi residents, equally representative of urban youth. And there are probably many more of them than girls like Aditi. Yet married, middle-class women have no face in this portrait.

Why does Mehrotra write about one and not the other? The obvious explanation is that Aditi provides all the elements for a sexy narrative—sex, narcotics, recklessness. I’m moved by this kid from Ludhiana whose father wasn’t the gentlest. But forget about speaking for her generation—she isn’t even speaking for herself. We only see what she allows Mehrotra, the lover, to see. And Mehrotra, the writer, does not delve any deeper. For instance, Aditi asks him if he will invite her to his wedding. My heart goes out to her. I feel like telling him: “You idiot, the girl’s asking whether she means anything to you. Have the decency to say you’ll never forget her.”

But he doesn’t draw any conclusions from such conversations, nor does he investigate Aditi’s unspoken fears and desires. Familial disapproval of dancing and singing is not new; kids breaking the taboo is not new. What’s new are the hordes of parents who are actually pushing their children to perform on national television and, hopefully, get paid for it. But I don’t know what Aditi thinks about such developments. She performs in Delhi, which isn’t far from Punjab, where daddy lives; she does a lot of things most dads in most countries would disapprove of.

Aditi reminds me not so much of a butterfly as a moth flying dangerously close to a flame. The book is peopled by others similarly on the edge. There’s an essay about Bobby Brown—a young man who worked in a lot of call centres, had a drug problem, and little to look forward to. The story is told by another young man who shared this lifestyle before he decided to clean up his act.

Parties are mentioned in other essays. In an essay titled ‘Where’s the Party Tonight?’, Mehrotra hops from house parties where ecstasy (or MDMA) is stocked in the fridge, to Holi parties at farmhouses, to a “conservative” party in Mumbai where families play musical chairs. There’s a clear note of mockery when he describes the last as “rooftop after rooftop of Gujjus going round and round in circles. I wonder how many times Freida Pinto, a Malad girl, would have done this as a kid before Danny Boyle saved her with Slumdog Millionaire?”

I find it strange that he mentions the need for rescue in the context of musical chairs rather than ecstasy-stocked refrigerators. In ‘The Twilight Zone’, again, Mehrotra accompanies a friend to a drug peddler’s home. In ‘Gurus of Growl’, he mentions Demonstealer, a rock musician who doesn’t do drugs and lives with his mother. This is so unusual in his ‘scene’ that friends call him Semendealer in an effort to “add some excitement to what is an otherwise straitlaced life”.

So what is the author telling us about our generation? Is he suggesting that young people have greater access to mood-altering substances? If that’s the point, perhaps he should have spent some time explaining why, and how, this happened, and what connection it might have with the international drug markets.

Call me conservative, but nobody I hang out with uses MDMA, or knows where to get it. Most young people I know work hard, pay rent, support kids, or ageing parents, or pets. They fret about things like what gifts to buy for birthdays. Many of them pray. Most love Bollywood movies and music. Some go gymming. Some worry about being eco-friendly. I wonder if they would find themselves represented accurately in this portrait of our generation.

MEHROTRA PICKS AN EDGY CORNER to start with, writing of MDMA and 2CB as if these were potatoes and onions, but he never quite makes it to the bulky centre—to the middle-middle class, lower middle class and poor youth. He does mention ‘servants’ and English-speaking workers in pizza joints, but mostly in the context of economic opportunities or frustrations.

Part of the problem is that the author gravitates towards spaces of leisure—house parties, nightlife, music, TV, concerts, restaurants, shopping malls. He also says that leisure has been democratised. “Boys and girls drink together in well-lit, happy spaces.” I’d like to know how many young Indians can afford to be in these democratic spaces.

Nearly 28 percent of India lives in its cities and the figure is likely to go up to 40 percent by 2030. Urban areas contribute two-thirds of the national Gross Domestic Product. Reports from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy indicate that the average quarterly (urban) household income stands at R45,000, which translates into R15,000 per month to cover house rent, food, clothes, medicine, tuition, electricity, transport. At that income level, based on the cost of living in Mumbai and Delhi, the only entertainment one can hope for is TV, and perhaps an Internet connection. Even buying a bottle of wine and hopping into a taxi to visit a friend is a strain.

Surveys suggest that households earning more than R1 million per annum comprise only around five percent of urban households but that they contribute to one-third of the total urban consumer expenditure. From such households come youngsters who can pay monthly house rents of R25,000 or more, and who can buy Carlsberg beer, or Tuborg if they prefer. True, we now have that choice. But Mehrotra tells us very little about the majority that cannot afford, and perhaps doesn’t want, a can of Carlsberg. He tells us that people who work at restaurants like McDonalds like their jobs. But he doesn’t tell us where they might go when they want a drink or how they commute, nor does he seem bothered by these questions.

If Mehrotra were to dissect this notion of democratic leisure, he’d find that it’s a cruel joke. In most cities, green spaces that young people might have enjoyed at no cost are shrinking. Several public parks are locked up after sunset, to keep out ‘undesirable elements’. There are very few clean public toilets. Mumbai has the Carter Road promenade, with benches, but food and drink is forbidden. Except the beach, there’s nowhere to go. Try drinking alcohol on the beach and you’re liable to get arrested. Dance bars have been banned in Mumbai, although dance shows are permitted in five star hotels. There are discotheques but cover charges are high and the drinks expensive. So, whose leisure has been democratised?

One interesting development over the past decade has been the spurt in the number of coffee houses (in a primarily tea-drinking nation!). Chains like Café Coffee Day have at least 1,200 outlets; Barista has more than 200; international brands like Costa Coffee have arrived; Starbucks is making a late entry. There are a few dozen independent cafes. Most of these serve a cuppa priced between R60 and R120. Business is booming because middle-class Indians are hungry for spaces where they can meet safely.

Students, lovers on dates, young professionals—they have nowhere else to go. The cooperatives running Indian Coffee House are struggling, fading out. Those who cannot afford the R60 cappuccino have to drink tea at roadside stalls, where they cannot sit down to talk. Where do the cooks and drivers and autorickshaw wallahs take their leisure?

In ‘Servants of India’, Mehrotra’s writing is empathetic. He describes a mall visit during which he spots a family accompanied by servants out shopping. The employers disappear into a Mexican restaurant and leave the two servants outside, holding the bags and the baby. He mentions Delhi’s high crime rates, the several instances of the help robbing and killing employers, but also of the latter torturing the workers. He writes, “The servant is not someone who provides a service at a cost. He is someone who is less than human… when I put myself in Ramu’s shoes, I can see myself reaching for the iron rod, the hammer, the kitchen knife.”

But then, I’m annoyed at this throwaway line: “In Delhi, most can afford round-the-clock help.” It only reiterates my impression that Mehrotra is essentially writing about the upper class.

And much of what Mehrotra tells us about servants, we already know. By ‘we’ I mean the English-speaking, book-buying middle class in India. We read the papers. We observe what the author observes because we hire domestic help ourselves, or intimately know others who do. He spells out the connections between extreme disparities of lifestyle, physical isolation, and a servant’s attempt to strike back using a moral code borrowed from employers. But he doesn’t give us details. Not a single worker is interviewed at any length, so we don’t have a clear sense of the extent of their bondage, desperation or greed.

At best, the essay serves as a primer for non-resident Indians or international readers who are not familiar with the way live-in servants are treated in upper-class urban households.

SOCIAL COMMENTARY in The Butterfly Generation is a tossed salad of stock phrases: ‘socialist era’, ‘global capitalism’, ‘liberal’, ‘feudal’... I’m soon longing for a metaphorical flyswatter each time the word ‘socialism’ appears.

We were always a mixed economy—and in a limited way still are—and that knowledge is critical to an understanding of the 90s kids. A mixed economy meant that we thought of the government not only as an administrative and legal force, but also as a provider of secure jobs across a wide swathe of sectors. You didn’t have to be a bureaucrat or a politician or a soldier to get pensions and cheap medical care. You could be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, a mechanic, a furnace-stoker, a baggage handler, a banker. People took pride in working for state-owned enterprises like Bharat Heavy Electricals or Air India. Even now, despite our ranting against the ‘system’, few young people would dismiss a government job in an institution that’s likely to stay solvent.

You were told that if you were a ‘private’ party, you needed to find ways of ‘getting work done’. This meant a sinuous chain of ‘contacts’ with senior officials, or bribery. At least some of our mistrust of profit and private capital has come from there, not from socialist ideals.

In fact, although our Constitution tells us we aspire towards socialism, we were never taught to respect socialist ideals. I don’t remember being taught that natural resources belong equally to everybody, or that private property was a bad thing. I wasn’t even taught that every citizen had a right to food, sanitation, housing and education. It wasn’t in our books. It wasn’t in the air around us.

Perhaps that would explain why so many in our generation—particularly urban citizens—are up in arms against government schemes that offer food, health and education—especially those directed at rural citizens, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or the midday meal scheme. It would also explain our early disconnect from the battle for resources. We wanted non-stop electricity and water, but we expected the government to help us get it, even if it meant the destruction of fellow citizens’ homes and livelihoods.

Because we are used to the government being able to step in and control things in every sector, we continue to expect that it will, although much infrastructure is now created and controlled by non-state corporations. For instance, when Jet Airways let go of some of its workers, they wanted the state to help save their jobs. When taxi and auto drivers demand higher fares, the middle-class commuter expects the state to rein them in.

Mehrotra seems not to have taken cognisance of the psychology of the mixed economy as distinct from socialist, or capitalist, or feudal.

MEANWHILE, I HAVE A SPEECHLESS, blank Post-It on page 98 against this statement: “Class barriers, too, have been broken down in these showrooms of global capitalism. The bank manager’s son works side by side with a new migrant to the city, and they both start with a clean slate… centuries of prejudice are instantly wiped out.”

On caste prejudice, the author is disarmingly naïve. He seems not to know that traditionally, cooks belonged to upper castes, so working in a restaurant is not a come-down. He should have interviewed people who clean the toilets. My own experience at cafes is that the person assigned the task of mopping floors and cleaning toilets doesn’t usually handle food.

Besides, the matrimonial pages of any newspaper could have told Mehrotra how caste operates in modern India. Eventually he tempers his optimism about caste and the breaking down of class barriers in the new showrooms of global capital. He acknowledges the monotony of the work and discovers that the salaries of people working in restaurants and showrooms aren’t so high; there’s no leisure, no advancement. What he doesn’t say is that those who can afford to—the bank manager’s son—will escape to better jobs. For the new migrant, it’s a dead end. So then, why talk of class barriers breaking down?

I am annoyed at how often this book contradicts itself. On page 116, Mehrotra writes that India was once “morally homogenous”. As a mediocre student of sociology, I know that India was nothing of the sort. Communities across India have had their own moralities, especially when it came to sex and marriage. Monogamy, for instance, wasn’t always the norm. Divorces were not only accepted but fairly easy in several tribes. Even today, the morality of the Khaps in Haryana is different from cousin-marrying norms in Kerala or Tamil Nadu, or polyandry in Uttarakhand.

What Mehrotra means to say is that middle-class urban Indians once lived with mummy-daddy who felt they must get married before having sex, but that kids with independent incomes have different ideas now. Yet, this celebration of newfound sexual freedom seems ironic and sad when we recall that families are still killing young lovers for marrying across caste, clan or religious boundaries. This isn’t a rural phenomenon either. It continues to happen in cities like Delhi and, most recently, Pune.

In the next essay, Mehrotra contradicts himself again, writing that “a layered, multilingual society like India, split along lines of caste and class, will have multiple and exclusive codes.” That is true, of course, but why talk of moral homogeneity when he knows there are multiple moral codes?

IN RECENT INTERVIEWS, Mehrotra has said that he wanted to peep into people’s bedrooms. But in The Butterfly Generation he just leads us into his bedroom. We hear about some of his sexual encounters, but if he was trying to use those experiences to comment on current sexual mores, he hasn’t succeeded. He should have gone the whole hog and explored every sexual more, across classes. He’d have needed a lot more encounters, but it might have made for an interesting sexual portrait of my generation.

Besides, I resent the fact that he doesn’t want to know more about the women he’s writing about. Take Aditi. He writes that she “knows how to deal with North Indian men”. But does she? A girl who avoids a cigarette shop because the vendor misbehaves is not dealing with him; she’s avoiding him.

He says Aditi doesn’t believe in love and enjoys the freedom of seeing multiple men at the same time. She doesn’t have a job. She needs one. She seems to be partying a lot. He says she’s fiercely independent but doesn’t challenge that image at all. I wonder: Who’s paying for the acid and the parties? Does economics have anything to do with the men she’s with?

Trying to answer that might have provided some insights into sexual mores as well as given us a fuller portrait of Aditi. Then there’s Anita, who will not kiss or sleep with him, but will allow fondling. That tells me very little (except, maybe, that she was worried about a virus of some kind).We don’t know much about her moral code, or her expectations from men.

This book offers no other intimate portraits of women. A couple of girls are mentioned in the context of jobs—girls waitressing while hoping to become air hostesses—but there is no greater economic or social conversation around women, although surveys suggest that one-third of all jobs in India are now being performed by women, and that urban women’s income has doubled over the past decade.

One of the biggest discoveries for my generation of women was that we could be something other than doctor, nurse, teacher. In fact, if we were educated, a job was expected of us. Childbirth was delayed. Women exercised more choice on who and when to marry. And yet, paradoxically, the sex ratio fell. Delhi’s upper class colonies are some of the worst affected. There’s very little discussion of women’s sexuality and the threat it seems to pose to a new generation of Indians.

I am annoyed again when Mehrotra expresses admiration for a song called ‘Balatkari’ (‘Rapist’). It is supposed to be a great success with thousands of people having downloaded it or watched it on YouTube. He says he was “chilled to the bone, elated. The lyrics are a searing indictment of subcontinental muck… it’s not just the woman who has been raped, it’s the constitution itself.” He confesses that some—including a schoolmaster and policeman—found it disgusting but dismisses their reaction saying, “the difference must be generational” while lauding “a new iPod-wielding generation that has the maturity to handle edgy songs like ‘Balatkari’.”

I looked it up online—same old metaphorical links between rape and woman, woman embodying the nation, woman as representative of national dignity and so on. I’m sick to the heart and chilled to the bone at daily reports of actual rapes, or reports of women being destroyed by men who cannot take ‘no’ for an answer. A song that critiques corruption in the blasé voice of a rapist isn’t edgy; it’s just part of an endemic rape mentality.

I was reminded of a recent blog-post by playwright and feminist activist Eve Ensler. She writes: “I am over people not understanding that rape is not a joke and I am over being told I don’t have a sense of humor, and women don’t have a sense of humor, when most women I know (and I know a lot) are really fucking funny. We just don’t think that uninvited penises up our anus, or our vagina is a laugh riot.”

Speaking of vaginas, given the author’s interest in morality and his belief that “boundaries of language need to be pushed”, I would have expected him to mention The Vagina Monologues, Ensler’s renowned play about women’s relationships with their vaginas. The text has been adapted and performed in Indian cities in both English and Hindi. Most women of my generation were taught not to take an interest in anyone’s private parts, not even our own. To be able to hear ‘vagina’ said out loud in a public performance, to say it out loud ourselves (though I believe audiences in Chennai reacted with cold silence, refusing to utter the word) was a turning point. And yet, the play finds no mention in a book which is supposed to track moral, sexual, cultural shifts in our generation. Mehrotra spends no time at all discussing how urban India’s moral battles are often fought over the bodies of young women. It doesn’t even seem to strike him that people who download a song called ‘Balatkari’ might be doing so for reasons other than the quality of the music or the allegedly searing lyrics.

ON PAGE 193, I find myself laughing out loud when someone tells the author: “I tell you, man. You smoking too much skunk… you should study, man.”

How do I reconcile myself with this portrait of my generation where at least eight essays (out of 22) are about people the author drank with, slept with, tried to sleep with, shared some form of narcotic with or partied with?

It seems as if Mehrotra was just stumbling along, meeting people at parties. If he happened to spend some time with them, he wrote about them. But he doesn’t seem to have walked very far looking for economic, social or moral diversity. He didn’t even walk very far to look for a keychain.

Mehrotra complained that he “tried hard” to find a cheap keychain in the New Delhi’s posh Defense Colony market. I wanted to shake him. I know he’s trying to make a point about the city’s elite (and the expats) who drink and shop for overpriced gewgaws in spaces that insulate them from the poor. He suggests as much, later on. So why didn’t he just take a walk, or hail a rickshaw pulled by some malnourished youth to other markets—say, the one under the Defense Colony flyover or in Lajpat Nagar?

The good news is that Mehrotra’s writing is unfussy and vivid, especially when he describes people. The chapters on music are honest and detailed, and make for a good read, although I don’t listen to rock except when it comes filtered through Hindi film music. The last essay is one I clearly identified with. It describes India’s changing economic landscape as reflected in the lyrics of Hindi film songs. I wrote a very similar essay recently, talking about India’s changing public values as heard in popular songs.

The funny thing is, despite my annoyance at his portrait of our generation, I ended up feeling that the author’s core values aren’t so different from mine. How can they be, when we both watched Krishi Darshan? Our habits and tastes are different but I think we’re both distressed by the cash-flaunting turn the times have taken. I think Mehrotra is concerned (if somewhat clueless) about glaring income gaps, and the lack of opportunity for huge swathes of our population. And he’s liberal enough in the context of women and morality; it’s just that he doesn’t jump across the gender divide with the same alacrity as he jumps to conclusions about economic change.

If only the book didn’t set out to be a pan-Indian generational saga—if it was a book about, say, rock subcultures and a boy from Allahabad—I would have enjoyed it. The facts of his life, his memories and his feelings might have told a truer story of our march towards a more (or less) liberal India.