Beyond the Age of Paisa Vasool
By Shiv Visvanathan
Desai traces India’s move from asocialist republic of scarcity to astate of bounty
The study of popular culture as a genre has produced some wonderfully creative writers. One thinks of Ashis Nandy, Patricia Uberoi and Vijay Pershad. Probably the most playful of them is Santosh Desai.
His collection of essays is a wonderful word palette, each a fragment of memory, a collection of miniatures arranged together to create a picture of middleclass India in an everyday sense.
Desai had a very middle- class childhood. What made the middle- class of the time different was the way it wove together scarcity, memory and boredom. The public sector socialism of the time with its ritual of ration cards created a world of limits. One did not starve but one subsisted on little. The one thing socialism created was the world of boredom as a commons. One shared each other’s boredom.
The window became the opening through which each of us watched each other watching. Everything except mothers’ love had its limits. But scarcity was not a form of repression. It was challenge to improvisation. We improvised around everything — the family, relatives and games. Desai captures the magic of memory in little fragments.
The power of the postcard lay in waiting for it; anticipating its every word and reciting it repetitively to everyone. One strip- mined just about everything for value. Paisa Vasool was the philosophy of that era. One extracted maximum advantage by recycling everything. Yet scarcity helped create a commons of sharing, of hospitality, where unexpected guests were the order of the day; the miracle of loaves and fish paled before the improvisation of our mothers. They made little stretch to infinity in a world where hospitality recognised no shortages, where little was converted into a lot.
The culture of improvisation centered on food, community and family. It was a world where rickshaws were crammed, houses were crammed, beds were crammed but there was always space to ‘ adjust’ for one more. It was the happy world of improvisation where mothers were the greatest inventors.
Scarcity, says Desai, created a style, a culture, a set of protocols which coped with shortages with grace, in a world where less was more. We even milked boredom to create enjoyment. Desai is at his best in this part of the book.
The way the family coped with scarcity also created an urban style centering on the scooter and the autorickshaw.
Even Bollywood constructed its heroes around the scarcity principle.
The film hero was an icon of excess and exaggeration, a picture of histrionics confronting the everydayness of our restraint.
Waste and boredom were the stuff from which we crafted both identity and memory. Desai suggests the pickle as a sign of equality and innovation. Food was the great leveller and the best of food was available on the street. Street food, as Desai puts it, was popular culture being constantly updated.
The latter part of the book catalogues the opening of that world. It is an opening of our senses, our future, our possibilities. A world where memory of scarcity lost out to new spaces.
The new icons were a Dhoni or a Rakhi Sawant, creatures who carried no genes of the past, no layers of history in them. They were small- town kids who responded to the future, whose identity kits had no footnotes from the past. These people were confident of the future because they had no sense of the past.
Small towns were bundles of amnesia ready for the future.
It was a world where the old everydayness had changed and scarcity now yielded to mobility and possibility. Desai builds fragments on sociological fragments to capture this world. Yet while it is not judgmental, one senses a distance, a movement from a world Desai lived in to a world which Desai is watching. It is a movement from the subjectivity of autobiography to the keenness of ethnography, a transition from the willing culprit to interested spectator. It is playful but lacks the sense of innocence and fun, the Rabelisian accuracy he brings to aunts and stomachs, chronicling the way they behave with acoustic precision.
One sees a transition from community to a sense of individualisation, from shared memories to the individualisation of success.
For Desai, consumerism altered memory, changed the body and broke the old grammar of scarcity.
What enabled this new world to go places was the media, especially television and advertisements that redefined excess.
Now excess was identity. Excess liberated the senses creating a society asking for more, refusing to settle for more- or- less.
The media becomes the Rorschach of this new world where intolerance substitutes for repression, where mobility is no longer rung by ladder rung, where a city as a semiotics of dreams is changing, where desire is re- writing itself on the body, on the city, where India as a 21- inch TV is creating a world that’s seceding from the rest. What makes Desai a powerful interpreter is the way he projects our new sense of want in fragments.
The imagination is still constructed from scraps. Here, cricket is not a game but a Rorschach of our futures.
The consumer overpowers the old languid spectator. The transition from spectatorship to consumerism is powerfully drawn.
Desai outlines success with its new anxieties. It is a liberating world where the signs are different, where instead of deluging people with food in silence as a form of love, one actually begins to say, “ I love you”. The openness to the new becomes a form of excess. Desai’s style itself becomes symptomatic of the whole. In the earlier section the patches add up to a quilt.
In later essays, the future is left open- ended. There’s almost a confession that the old forms of storytelling may not quite work.
Desai is a brilliant commentator.
But in the later sections it is the disquiet and silence between the lines that haunts the book.
For all its laughter and its sense of detachment, it is a book that cares, that senses the liberating power of the media and consumerism may go awry, but warns you not to pre- empt in terms of old categories.
Just take one hint. For all his values, Desai insists that understanding people like Narendra Modi is critical. It is this that makes the book a minor classic and my vote for one of the outstanding books of the year. Like the old middle- class, one felt one had extracted every bit of fun and insight from the book. It was paisa vasool to the last.
— Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist and media commentator