Angry Anna (the game, not the man)
A frail 73-year-old man’s self-righteous anger is the latest gaming sensation among young Indians. ‘Angry Anna’ modelled on the hugely popular ‘Angry birds’ is a furiously fast online game where the user ascends to the next level by ‘finishing off’ corrupt Indian politicians. Every time a level is conquered, he is lauded by the signature scream of ‘Jai Hind’ (Victory to India). ‘Angry Anna’ is the latest and arguably, the most farcical stamp of virtual approval of an anti-corruption movement that is playing out like a typical Indian tamasha (a bawdy form of folk theatre) in both real and virtual spaces while the rest of the world is watching and wondering.

It is a movement that is gaining currency every passing day and has seemingly put the fear of God in politicians, upped the sale of national flags, brought out hundreds of people onto the streets and given the heroism-seeking young, aspirational and consumerist Indian an unlikely pin-up idol in a presumably ravenous Anna Hazare, the 73-year-old Gandhian who is on a fast from the past 11 days.

For those following the movement from afar, it is easy and indeed tempting to term it India’s very own Arab spring that will bring about a revolution capable of wiping out decades of bureaucratic sloth and insidious corruption. But closer home, the so-called movement is facing its fair share of cynicism and criticism, especially in the online media. The reality, unlike Anna Hazare’s spotless white garments, appears muddied. Without any doubt, the movement has stirred the imagination of the young of India just as there is no doubt that corruption in the Indian bureaucracy and governance has reached unimaginable proportions. 

Crowds  of both young and old are resolutely gathering in the open, slushy grounds of the Ramlila Maidan where Hazare is sitting on the fast surrounded by his supporters but their knowledge about the movement, what led to it and what is being demanded is much less assured. It is this crucial lack of informed opinion among its supporting youth that makes many observers wary. For most supporters, what matters less is the draft of the ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’ that Hazare so desperately wants the Indian Parliament to table (and pass a resolution about) as opposed to the Government’s own draft version of the anti-corruption bill. What has caught their collective imagination is the image of a ‘simple’ man from a village in western India bravely standing up to an all-powerful government. Thus Anna, as he is being affectionately called, has become the figurehead for the fight against institutionalised corruption. More than the legalities and specific clauses of the draft bill, which is what the protest is actually about, people are enthusiastically waving their flags and tweeting furiously because they see Anna Hazare as a powerful cleansing agent – a ‘Mr Muscle’ able to remove all the tough stains of years of money-grabbing, systemic fraud and rampant corruption and render the system clean and shiny just like a newly wiped kitchen table top. 

This is not just harmless utopian thinking as it might appear at first glance. What it spawns is a dangerously flawed strain of thought – one that separates all corruption from the self and dumps it all on the ‘evil other’. In reality, corruption is as much systemic as it is individualistic and every youngster who has ever used ‘influence’ to enter the portals of a prestigious educational institution or who has ever paid a bribe to a traffic policeman instead of a fine (to get off easily and cheaply) is as much responsible for India’s culture of corruption as those politicians who pocket millions of rupees as kickbacks from lucrative contracts.

These are precisely some of the reasons why the movement, despite its overwhelming popularity among large sections of the society, has generated increasing amounts of criticism.

For India watchers, it might come as a surprise that an anti-corruption movement, which has become such a magnet for the young, can and does have so many detractors. While it is true that nobody in their right mind can disagree in principle with a protest against corruption, it is the way the battle is being fought that has spurred many to raise their dissenting voices. Critics are accusing Anna Hazare and his supporters of the very same arm-twisting tactics they are ostensibly protesting about and believe their methods smack of intolerance for alternative views, self-righteousness and a pious unwillingness to vacate the moral high ground.  For his supporters though, he is nothing less than a messiah of the masses, a man who has brought a government down on its knees and who they believe will be the catalyst for great change, a modern ‘Gandhi’ who will free them from the clutches of corruption. The debate is increasingly getting cleaved in the middle and nowhere is this more obvious than in the virtual world.

The growth of internet in India, like many other things, has been phenomenal in the past decade. Internet users in India, according to a market report by BCG, a global consulting firm, are set to double to 237 million by 2015 from the present 100 million. This, significantly,  is only around 10 per cent of the total population of 1.2 billion but still it puts India at the third spot in the list of world's largest internet users. The demography of its users is mostly young school and college students. Overall, 72 per cent of youngsters access the Internet regularly and over 50 per cent of these youngsters use it to check mail or one of the social media sites, especially Facebook. According to BCG, social networking sites comprise a staggering 84 per cent of Internet usage in India.

Even while I write this, Anna Hazare continues to trend on Twitter and has been doing so in several revealing avatars the past fortnight; only, the hash tag has changed from the enthusiastic #support Hazare and #against corruption to the more strident #Anna is India to the present facetious #AngryAnna (the game, not the man).  More than 3,000 results show up on YouTube when you type India, corruption or Anna Hazare, most of them amateur videos of protests across various Indian cities. The ‘India against Corruption’ page on Facebook has nearly half a million ‘likes’. Several similar pages have sprouted as have status updates, online campaigns, petitions and profile badges.

Indeed the incessant chatter and the often passionate and blustery online discourse provides great wealth of material to obtain clues about how educated young urban Indians are making use of the medium, especially the social media sites, to debate about the complexities of India, the frequent facetiousness of it all notwithstanding. The quality of these debates is often questionable but debating they are, nevertheless. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious multi-cultural country like India, it becomes even more frightening than usual when complicated issues of identity, political participation and cultural clashes are clouded by chest-thumping nationalism, tokenism and a severe case of slacktivism.  Be it inane discussions about the latest movie or the most popular filmstar or more serious issues like the present hot topic of corruption or the recent Mumbai blasts, what is clear is that these social media sites literally become extensions of the classroom – with its share of the quietly intelligent and the not-so-quiet bullies.

This is very evident in the Anna Hazare debate online which has brought to the fore this larger social networking tendency to have no middle ground. It is almost as if the medium itself encourages a George Bush-like mantra of ‘you are with us or against us’.  In the many happy spaces that sites like Twitter and Facebook provide, it is terribly easy to interact with only those who agree with you; take out your own personal frustrations and give vent to dormant feelings of intolerance in the guise of collective protest and not at all take the effort of learning, understanding and forming intelligent opinions.

As to whether this kind of impassioned buzz translates into real opinion formation among the youth or whether it drives public opinion in general is debatable. If we take the Anna Hazare debate as an example, instead of being an independent space for discourse, the Indian social media space is perhaps not just guilty of propagating airy opinions but also might be imitating the traditional media in the way it is approaching the issue. What is often noticed is that Twitter and Facebook users are projecting views already aired on television and in print and garnering evidence to supplement (or oppose) what the traditional media is saying. This is not to completely dismiss the medium’s tremendous ability to drive outrage and increase participation. This was clearly demonstrated in the example of the young twitterati of the nation providing authentic and quick information about last month’s Mumbai blasts and also, crucially, helping victims obtain essentials like ambulances and blood donation.

In both these specifically Indian instances, the internet played a great role in organising, mobilizing, spreading information and creating advocacy but it still has a long way to go before it becomes an effective tool to bring in real political change and be a respected sphere for intelligent discussions and opinion formation.  Instances such as these bring into focus the many unintended consequences the internet might have had on its young users – strengthening feelings of intolerance or encouraging vacuous symbolism, just to name two.  Its very fluidity and freedom makes the medium a double-edged sword and renders it a space where the highly farcical can rub shoulders with the deeply intellectual. 

Which is why in this virtual world, it is acceptable to express support to the anti-corruption movement by merely crowing on Twitter and Facebook about mastering another level in the ‘Angry Anna’ game while the real Anna contemplates in studied silence whether to break his fast or not (the government having agreed to several of his demands already).

P.S: Anna broke his fast on August 28 after the government agreed to a resolution that included his major demands.

The German version of this story was published on 30.08.2011 in ZDF-Hyperland, a website run by ZDF, a public broadcasting company from Germany. Find it here http://blog.zdf.de/hyperland/2011/08/indien-angry-anna-spaltet-das-netz/

Anybody would assume a detective is the last person to often close her eyes and think of the land that gave her life and be glad of the people she knows and loves; and do all this while leisurely drinking a large cup of red bush tea.  And anybody would think a ‘detective’ novel about one such ‘traditionally built’ lady who moralises more than detects and who is more interested in doughnuts than death would never hold much appeal. But Mma Ramotswe isn’t the poster-woman for unlikely detectives for nothing. She is delightful as she is original; she does go on about goodness and caring but does it with such genuine empathy and understanding that you forget you started out wanting to read a detective novel and end up willingly steered into an engaging world of profound philosophy and masterly understatement.

Scottish writer and professor of bioethics Alexander McCall Smith, the genius creator of ‘Botswana’s most famous lady detective’, is clear that it is the apparently unsuitable optimism and common sense of Mma Ramotswe that gives her gentle detections a disarming edge, be it the ‘delicate touch’ needed to tackle a straying husband or the more firm and witty treatment that ought to be meted out to an interfering aunt. Then there is her Scottish counterpart Isabel Dalhousie. In a further proof of his extraordinary ability to write arrestingly about morality, human understanding, kindness and other such yawn-inducing values and expertly hide them under the cloak of detection, The Sunday Philosophy Club series has Dalhousie telling her charmed readers why they should have the right attitude to rain and how not to moan the lost art of gratitude.

McCall Smith’s creations are only the latest and arguably the best known today among unusual fictional detectives who, either because or despite their incongruity, lighten up a genre that is otherwise adrenaline-heavy and blood-spattered. They might often muddle through their detection and never quite find the body in the library but they often end up telling us a thing or two about our world and its many follies. Unlike their sharper, slicker versions, (think Inspector Rebus, Kurt Wallander and other such strong and silent Nordic types) these often bumbling do-gooders make us gurgle in pleasure and make it impossible to recall them without a smile on our lips. 

One such delightful but rather short-lived detective series featuring the Oxford don detective Gervase Fen was written by Bruce Montgomery under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin. Fen is your typical absent-minded Oxford professor of English, as eccentric as the English weather and with a similarly dour sense of humour. Crispin wrote nine novels featuring him solving mysteries such as discovering missing Shakespeare manuscripts and catching thieves tripping out of locked rooms after which he inexplicably ran out of inspiration. The most famous and indeed the most witty is ‘The moving toyshop’, a gem of a tribute to the rarefied world of Oxford academia complete with a dedication to Philip Larkin, a fantastic plot set in the bylanes of Oxford and many nudge-nudge literary allusions.  

Indian authors too have suddenly woken up to the many delicious possibilities of narrating the exploits of the unlikely hero or heroine as in the case of human rights activist, born crusader and new age diva-detective Lalli. Kalpana Swaminathan’s retired policewoman is already solving her third mystery, the luridly colourful ‘Monochrome Madonna’ while Smita Jain’s Kasthuri Kumar who has just emerged with the curiously titled ‘Piggies on the railway’ looks all set to chug along, quite comfortable sleuthing, keeping an eye out for boyfriends and daydreaming about Valentino gowns.

In a conversation with Prakash Karat for a national newspaper, British crime fiction writer Ian Rankin felt that in crime writing today, the moral core is getting stronger and the writing better. He expressed confidence that the kind of literary snobbery about crime fiction that existed for decades is fading fast. Perhaps the creators of unusual detectives realise this more than anybody else and more significantly, are in a much stronger position to take advantage of the changing perceptions. If nothing, it is infinitely harder to turn up your nose at the feisty Kasthuri Kumar when she takes a break from detection to drool over her competition, the handsome Tejas Deshpande, or be snobbish towards a smiling Mma Ramotswe ever willing to rustle up a warm cup of bush tea while the sun sets over her beloved Botswana.

Published in Daily Post India on 21.08.2011. Find it here http://dailypostindia.com/index.php?option=com_wrapper&view=wrapper&Itemid=11

At the departure lounge of the HAL airport in Bangalore that night of September in 1997, my friend from school Kavitha R.N. looked thoroughly weighed down. RN, as we fondly called her, had three unwieldy bags to take care of and a brand new “softie” husband who was taking her to Santa Clara, US. To her great consternation, an extended family of 25-odd people had come to the airport to bid her goodbye. One of them had even written a poem about how happy he was about her going to the “States”, which he thrust unceremoniously into her already busy hands. Another put a marigold garland around her neck while a young boy gave her a bouquet. Her aunt made her swallow some sugar. The buzz around her was electric, to say the least, and the conversation was all about which cousin of hers was next in line to marry and which were the best hunting grounds to find suitable US grooms.

To me, her discomfort was obvious, as was her state of mind. She was muttering about how embarrassed and annoyed she was but her eyes told a different story. They had already spotted freedom. Nothing brought out this sense of “journey to liberation” into sharp relief as much as Bangalore’s great exodus to the “States” in the 1990s did. A successful Kannada movie released in 1995 and set in San Francisco poignantly depicted how the American dream could corrode minds and distance hearts. The movie’s title, America! America!!, said it all. But such cultural depictions of ground realities were rare. People hardly fathomed the possible perils of this ambitious voyage—the goodies they were discovering on the way were too blinding. As often happens with change, what led to it and what came out of it was discovered much later, mostly in hindsight.

The country was liberated economically, politically and socially in the 1990s, but freedom blossomed most inside minds. This was most visible in Bangalore, which itself transformed without ceremony from a boulevard-dotted “garden city” to the glitzy torchbearer of this change. It is hard to determine whether it was the youngsters who were glowing in the reflected glory of a city thrust into global limelight, or it was the city that was preening because of its youth, who literally led the charge into the new millennium. It was perhaps possibly both. What was palpable, though, was the change in body language and thought processes not just of an entire post-reform generation, but also of their parents, aunts and uncles, soaked and dyed for years in pre-reform tight-fistedness and conservatism. Several things happened simultaneously that culminated in 1990s’ Bangalore making the American dream its own. Cable television, the Internet and the opening up of the markets led to a giddy consumption craze that was both fed by and mirrored in the decade’s movies, music, television and advertising. Whole classrooms of students about to complete class XII in school felt liberated enough to chant “yes, we can”. Silicon Valley triumph tales were sliding off tongues that were unused to uttering names such as San Jose and Santa Clara.

People who had resigned themselves to spending lifetimes in rented houses and travelling by autorickshaws became the dreaded nouveau riche, deliriously smug in their spanking new Marutis and Cielos, not to mention declarations in “Kanglish” of plans to buy a “flat-u”. For young Bangaloreans, IT was the magic word that turned stone walls into doors; for their parents and extended family, it was the road map to deliverance—the best way to notch up social status. All they needed was an offspring whose life story could be narrated at weddings and family functions as “Computers madthaiddane” (he is “doing” computers).

Most were happy to be described as such and more than willing to undertake this journey. If the odd soul or two did demur, they would have to have a core of steel to ward off the intense peer and family pressure. Thus, somebody like me, who detested physics and mugged up integration sums to pass my class XII board exams, nonchalantly took up tutorials for the Common Entrance Test (CET), with grand plans of studying engineering (electronics or computer science…the others were infra dig) and somebody like my friend, Seshadri, limerick king and impromptu Kannada poet who dreamt of writing “one suspense novel every year”, ended up in Sunnyvale, US, with an MS, two children and a house.

The majority believed that this three-point formula—study engineering, get a “software” job, and then go to the US either on work or to study—would not just take their family into the software hall of fame, but also grant them individual liberties, both cultural and economic. And indeed, it did. These were the subliminal trips, the mental journeys that were both the result and the cause of the actual physical voyage to the US.

The narrative though was thoroughly unlike that of the Swinging Sixties. If the flower children were all about rebellion and celebratory capriciousness, the yuppies were about being practical and ambitious. The world wasn’t a marijuana- induced “mayanagar”, but a gritty, real place where money should be chased. As far as the yuppies were concerned, this climb up the social ladder was both desirable and legitimate. So it was that at the heart of it all, “States” actually spelt m-o-n-e-y. Whether they recognized it or not, the older generation fully supported this enterprise, sometimes visibly, sometimes silently. And you couldn’t blame them. For families that hadn’t seen any wealth for generations, these were heady times.

The youngsters though were clever in various other ways. They didn’t let go of their tradition but they were self-assured enough to work around it and if need be, underneath it. The most striking example is that of drinking alcohol. In conservative middle-class homes of Bangalore (from where came the majority of the “softies”), drinking was not exactly in vogue and in many cases, even strictly prohibited. But drink beer you did (and pronounced it to rhyme with “heer” as b-e-e-r), and boozing was really the surest way to arrive. Of course, you never got so drunk so that you couldn’t get home at a decent hour (after gobbling up fistfuls of mints). The flower child might have stood up to his dad and demanded to know why he was against alcohol, but the yuppie never crowed about it, nor did he question his parents. It was vital that they be on his side.

The young men and women would give their parents the slip and go on dates, but would not say no to an arranged marriage a few years later. The “boy” would work in the Bay Area but he would gladly take leave and come home to take a Kannadiga bride from his sub-caste. Of course, there were exceptions—and there will always be.

This was also why for many girls, the journey was much shorter. All they had to do was marry a US “softie” to arrive. For many of my friends, it was the ultimate liberation—you could live away from in-laws, wear what you wanted and booze! For the girls’ parents, it was an achievement to marry their daughter to a “softie” and pack her off to the US, complete with the kind of farewell that my friend got and carefully packed saarina pudis (rasam powder) and thokkus (tamarind pickle).

While the 1990s’ children undertook many such journeys, physical and otherwise, their parents were on a trip of their own. They were living vicariously through their children and often making up for their own lack of spending opportunities by overindulging. What’s more, soon it would be time to actually take that flight to the US, pose for pictures in front of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, patently uncomfortable in “Punjabi dresses” (as salwar-kameezes were then called), sneakers, and baseball caps, not to mention the triumphant return journey bearing Mars bars, Hershey’s Kisses, some colourful umbrellas, “scent” bottles and teddy bears. The American voyage became their identity, and so powerful was this identity for many from the pre-reform generation in Bangalore that it continues to hold sway even in 2011.

Which is why at a wedding recently, a distant aunt was introduced to me as the one “who is going to the States this September”. Some journeys never end.

Published in Mint-Wall Street Journal on 13.08.11.http://www.livemint.com/2011/08/12204047/Society--The-8216States8.html