The Hindu : Literary Review

We are like this only


A collection of delightful essays on India, and Indian-ness.

Mother Pious Lady, Santosh Desai, HarperCollins, p. 380, Rs. 399.

What is it that defines our Indian-ness? What is it, exactly, that unites us — variously Punjabi, Malayali, Gujarati, Bengali or whatever — into a single nation-state?

A difficult question. There have, of course, been many attempts to answer it, ranging from the erudite to the glib, but none of them has been particularly convincing. A quarter of the way into reading Mother Pious Lady, however, I found myself stopping and saying to myself: Aha, so this is what it’s all about; this is what it means to be Indian! Santosh Desai and I may belong to different parts of the country, different mother tongues, cultural backgrounds, religions, ethnic strains, family backgrounds, even perhaps age-groups — all the things that might conceivably divide us — yet, reading this book was like reading my own story; it seemed to suddenly unite us, brothers under the same skin. The book, and the typically Indian human insights it’s filled with, make it the closest thing I’ve come across to a definitive statement of Indian-ness. This was obviously not Desai’s intention when he sat down to write these delightful essays, but it’s what he has, in effect, ended up doing.

Mother Pious Lady is, on one level, a collection of short, hugely enjoyable essays about the quirks and foibles of Indian life. But on another, deeper, level, it’s an encyclopaedia of typically Indian insights which make you say: Yes, I now understand why it is the way it is, for the very first time. And that’s not surprising, because Desai is one of India’s most respected marketing professionals and human insights are, therefore, not just things he collects and cherishes personally, but in fact his bread and butter. In recent years his keen eye for human behaviour and his professional experiences have inter-twined into a newspaper column, “City City Bang Bang”, where many of these essays originated and which has made him a social commentator with a fan following.

Deconstructing the golguppa

Desai examines everything from the ethos of the Hindi film hero to the place of the Bajaj scooter in our collective consciousness; from the deeper meaning of Western vs. Indian-style toilets to a deconstruction of the golguppa (or bhel-puri); from the semiotics of scratching ourselves in public to our deep-rooted dynastic urge, in everything from politics to cinema (Tusshar Kapoor ki jai!) And, refreshingly, when he writes about these things, he writes not as a scholar, or, heaven forbid, an MBA, but as a kind of poet of social anthropology. Thus he says of the humble, phut-phutting autorickshaw:

The auto’s appeal comes from its ability to provide a real luxury; it offers us the power of individualised motorised transport. When one hires an auto one is placing a value on one’s own time. Rather than wait for public transport, an auto is hailed and one’s precise destination is reached. The autorickshaw’s implicit deal with us is that while it gives us this wonderful luxury, in return it strips everything else in the experience that could remotely reek of luxury … It is both deeply comforting and dissatisfying. It captures the variable and uneven nature of life in India that is not too poor to have no choices, yet not so affluent that it can take life for granted … It reaffirms and gives substance to the Indian belief that life may be hard but there is always a way.

Which is, of course, something we always knew, deep inside … except that it required a Santosh Desai to articulate it for us.

Elsewhere, he observes the significance of the slap in Indian life: “In Hollywood angry men punch each other. In Bollywood angry people slap each other… What explains this deep-rooted fascination for the slap as the preferred mode of meting out physical punishment? What does the slap signify that allows it to hold such a prominent part in our everyday lives? The slap imprints humiliation on the face, the part of the body where our identity resides. We hide our face in shame, worry about ‘With what face can I go back to the people I may have shamed?’… The slap is a corrective lesson in social hierarchy, and is aimed less at the body than at our sense of who we are…” (It’s interesting to note here that Desai’s advertising agency had made the Coca-Cola TV commercial which had Amir Khan threatening a dishonest cold-drinkwallah with the application of five fingerprints on his cheek in front of a gaggle of admiring bimbos — an example, perhaps, of Desai’s professional life crossing over into his column, or versa.)

Politics of the speedbreaker

The highlight of the book, however, is probably Desai’s brilliant essay on the speedbreaker, where he — obviously enjoying himself greatly — writes: “We may or may not build great roads, but we sure know how to build great speedbreakers … The speedbreaker exists to defeat the purpose of the road. Motorised traffic became possible because of the macadamisation of roads and the speedbreaker is tarmac’s revenge on itself … But there is a larger need that drives us to put up so many of these speedbreakers. At some level we are afraid of speed and the distance that gets created between those speeding and the rest of us. The speedbreaker is the political front, the battle line that marks the tussle between those with the means to speed and the others…” It’s a piece of delicious, insightful prose that might even be compared with Pico Iyer’s “In Praise of the Humble Comma”, the masterly essay which first heralded Iyer’s arrival as a writer.

Mother Pious Lady is a treasure-trove of insights on India, which coalesce at some higher level into a kind of over-arching definition of Indian-ness itself: if you read them and find yourself saying to yourself, Yes this is exactly the way it is, you’re an Indian; if you don’t, you’re not. What Desai has produced is the ultimate statement of “We are like this only”.

5th September 2010