Press Coverage, Reviews

Crest, TOI Review

Middle-class cameos

Pankaj Butalia, TOI Crest, Mar 13, 2010, 12.01pm IST
In the journey from our nondescript pasts into an ever-hurtling future, we often miss a turn and lose track of who we were and where we came from. We seek a mirror that stands outside the moment, that combines the sociologist’s method with the historian’s sense of time and sews it all together with the Freudian’s understanding of the self. For years now Santosh Desai’s ‘City City, Bang Bang’ in the Times of India has played this role – almost as if those 800-odd words are the moments of sanity we hold on to before being sucked back into the roller coaster called life.

A collection of Desai’s essays is now out in the form of a book. The title Mother Pious Lady itself derives from a matrimonial advertisement which reads “Status match for a very pretty, very fair Brahmin girl. Decent marriage. Father govt. servant … Mother Pious Lady.” In lesser hands this would lend itself to easy caricature but Desai consistently resists the temptation and sets about trying to deconstruct the matrimonial ad: “A mathematical composition of terse eloquence ; it speaks in guttural acronyms and reveals as much in what it is silent on as in what it says… individuals are summed up entirely by their background, appearance and occupation.”

He then goes on to analyse the role that these ads play in the transaction that marriage is. This typifies what could be called Desai’s method: to first look at the everyday which is or has been part of our lives, to then find an apt metaphor that goes beyond the manifest, and finally to expand its domain and give us a way of looking at that which we tend to overlook. With a turn of phrase which verges on the literary, Desai’s writing regularly evokes pleasure in the reading. Rarely has writing in Indian newspapers displayed so much energy for such a long time.

Consider some observations. On Indian honeymoons : “In celebrating the sexual union of the newly weds, a personal moment between two individuals gets socialised; the two are merely enacting their roles as husband and wife in full public hiding;” or, on the Maruti : “For most of us, who were born in the middle class only to die there, the car was a border we could not imagine crossing … the Maruti compressed the promise of consumerism… and… flung the doors of aspiration wide open…”

Bundling a collection of eclectic essays into a focused book is never easy – so random reflections on everyday life need to be shaped into chapters and sections which deal with us in terms of our past, present and telos. Loose observations of life around us become formats within which we look at the Indian middle class “which is always caught between competing desires, between conflicting world views…”

But underlying it all is a deep sense of empathy and identification towards the protagonists which allows us to locate ourselves in his work. We then become those who insist on paisa vasool, who sat through hours of Chitrahaar, who know what a VVIP is and those who aspire to travel down unbridled highways even as we plot the bumpiest speedbreakers for the road that passes by our own house.