In Superstar India, From Incredible to Unstoppable, the gauchely titled new book by Shobhaa Dé, India rocks and India is “hot” (literally so, as I write this, but we are not talking about global warming here). So she reckons we should seize the “India Moment” that is “dominating our psyche”, whatever this glibspeak means. But India, rues Dé, has problems. Old problems that fester like rotting wounds, and new ones too.
Second innings: This is the 60-year-old author’s 13th book.
She has a long whinge list of both — greed is good in “new” India; politicians are bad; corruption remains endemic; our insouciant, spoilt kids don’t “connect” with poverty; there are not enough loos for women; and the young are not picking up cudgels to stop the slide. So what’s new? As she approaches 60, Dé shoots off her “love letter to (an) India” of lotus eaters, greedy kids, unctuous men, mall-ratting, bed-hopping women, vulgar weddings, and generally, Indians with body odour, dirty habits and ill manners.
But this rambling and tediously repetitive book with sweeping generalizations about India and its people reads like a sub-par pop social commentary for dummies. At other times, it reads like a book that rich folk and people like us would write when we hit the road to sample the Other India and go giddy watching schoolgirls in tatty frocks cavorting in mustard fields and watching stoned urchins dancing at traffic lights for alms. How can the poor be so happy? How can I be so blue in my blue Merc? Where is the nearest Art of Living centre? When Dé gets over such boring existential angst, she goes into a funk, excoriating Indians for their bad habits and equally awful traditions, mostly with good reason for most of the book. Like the many complex India(s) Dé suspects this country to be, there are many confusing Dés in the book, making it a painful read. It’s a bit like watching a Madhur Bhandarkar film on India.
Her syntax takes bizarre turns, helped by some atrocious editing — in Punjab, she finds teenage girls with their “healthy bodies squeezed into extra-tight jeans” seeking a “thick enough bush to pee behind”. Apparently, the “spectre of starvation” continues to loom over rich Indians today and “behind the paunchy businessman’s satisfied burp after a heavy meal is the niggling fear (of starvation)”. And “Delhi is the hydra-headed monster…a sinister destination that remote controls the rest of India”.
Dé is no P.J. O’Rourke, so when she dabbles in politics, the results are disastrous — the plight of Dalits is compared to the “discrimination” faced by Prince William’s girlfriend Kate Middleton (the British press savaged her for being “middle class”, you see). Mayawati is compared to Martin Luther King, pages after being clubbed with Narendra Modi, Lalu Prasad and Amar Singh, “vying for the ugly spot” in politics, whose regimes, she feels, may have abused their positions the way Idi Amin did. Is the Gomti overflowing with dead bodies of politicians these days?
The only time that Dé shows flashes of her old chutzpah is while writing on our warped relationship with sex. Baring her fangs, she does a nifty demolition job of the Kamasutra, fake sex surveys peddled by our magazines and raunchy advertising that seem to hint at a rollicking time being had by all. Vatsayana’s tome, she says, is the “biggest con job out of India”.
She rubbishes theories of a sexual tsunami sweeping the country and takes a swipe at magazines which offer kinky make-out tips. “Tongue in the navel…and behind the knees. What sort of person is having this kind of sex?” she wonders. “Working women come home looking grim and/or fierce. It needs a really motivated/horny fellow to want to tackle the creature”. What about the working man’s hormones? “...After hours of commute time (they) get home with smelly armpits (a Dé obsession!) and breath as foul as their mood. Foreplay? Sex? You must be kidding”. The bottom line, like it or not: “A booming economy does not induce instant erections.”
There are some memorably bitchy anecdotes, too. At a meeting at Highgrove, she tells Prince “Jug Ears” Charles that she writes, “risqué novels…bodice rippers”. Then she informs him and his consort, Camilla, that practising Kamasutra would “break your neck” and “even the simplest positions are hard on the knees”. At the Konark sun temple in Orissa, a garrulous guide briefs her and her hubby on a fresco of a couple copulating doggy style: “Men behaving like a kutta, see, doing kutta things.” Dé is best when she writes on the anecdotal, the quotidian. But India, on the whole, deserves much better.
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of BBC News online.
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