Saturday, August 20, 2011

The sweet smell of the earth

I love old fashioned Indian vegetable markets.

Even if my life depends on it, you cannot take me to the supermarket  in the mall, which is a stone's throw away from where I live. The shining shelves and the frequently mopped  floors together make up what I like to call anesthetic aesthetics. They distract you from the very reason you were there in the first place -- to check if the vegetables were fresh. Plus, you can't negotiate the prices: that itself, is a deal breaker for any Desi who cares about a deal.

Recently, at my local vegetable market, as I was trying to negotiate the great desi potato deal, a strange thing happened. A lady, who didn't look like the kind of person who enjoys shopping in a traditional Indian market, was buying potatoes. And, while trying to put the potatoes in her bag, the seller dropped a few of them on the ground. Looking quite indignant, the lady said, "O bhaiya, mitti waaley aaloo mat dena! (Brother, don't give me the potatoes from the ground!)" The vegetable seller smiled and said, "Madam-ji, saare aaloo hi to mitti waaley hain, kaun se nahin doon? (Ma'am, all the potatoes are from the ground, which ones don't you want?)"

That was interesting, because, a lot of us do occasionally forget that potatoes really come from the ground. And so do scores of other things that we like. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have forgotten the part of us that connects us to the earth. To many of us, the word rural is now equated with country bumpkin. And sometimes, when a plain speaking man from a village seems to attract a much bigger fan following than what the rest of us can ever imagine to, we get offended. After all, don't we need to carefully wash something, that has been on the ground? For quite some time.

As you probably know, Anna Hazare's movement has now attracted millions of Indians. Worldwide. Those of us, who cannot attend his protest movement in person, are content to sit in front of a television and watch the live coverage. But nowadays, television news is not just about news -  a lot of it has become all about commentary and discussions. These "talk shows" tend to attract a lot of Mr. Know-it-all's and Ms. I told you so's. And lately, I have been seeing a lot of these people looking as indignant as the lady who was trying to buy potatoes. How could a nondescript man from an unknown village command so much respect, while their accented English and carefully punctuated columns could not. Surely, this potato needs to be washed, before it can be made presentable.

A famous television journalist from a TV channel called CNN-IBN, with the last name of Ghose, has been quite vocal in her criticism of the anti-graft movement. She was recently caught tweeting. And the tweets were quite strange. In one, she cautions the youth of India that Anna Hazare has advocated the flogging of alcoholics in the past. In the other, she claims that Anna's incarceration in Tihar jail, might end up being the Bastille for the government. I am guessing that Ms.Ghose, when inebriated, does say Vive le revolution between the sips of her cognac. And perhaps, in her nightmares, she does get visions of the infamous Guillotine, which did affect many a capable cranium. In ways, that led to a painful separation -- of body and soul.

In the last few days, I have seen many such people being extremely critical of a people's movement, which they have written off as anti-constitutional, anti-democratic, or even as misguided. One could argue, that they are truly threatened by the possibility of the great Indian democracy being usurped by the people of India.  Led by a soft-spoken septuagenarian, with a mass following. But, I think there is more to it than just that. I don't think that our liberated experts would have been so afraid of Mr. Hazare, had he spoken about the finer aspects of the Indian constitution with scraps of Latin or French thrown in. The fact that Mr. Hazare is a Desi,  scares the living daylights out of them. Our elegant elite, are afraid of the soil. And anything, that springs out of it.

I am not a supporter of Mr. Hazare the person. In fact, I don't think even Mr. Hazare wants anyone to support him as a person, as he has no political ambitions. He stands for an issue, that has grave consequences for our country, and like countless other people in India, I support him in his struggle to force the government to legislate an effective anti-graft law. But, the fact that he is a Desi, has endeared him to countless other Desis, including someone that you might know.

When I was a child, I  would wait the whole year, for the first smell of monsoon. After the extremely hot months of May and June, when the first showers came, the parched earth would give off a sweet smell. That captivating fragrance, would somehow connect me to the earth, and make me feel like the complete Desi, that I like to think I am. As the monsoons would get stronger, and the sweet smell would disappear, I would eagerly wait for it. For another whole year. Years later, as an eighth-grader, my biology teacher had to spoil it for me. According to him, the smell was caused by the aerosol action of the spores of a bacterium, called the actinomycetes, which is quite abundant.

Recently, with Mr. Hazare, and thousands of my compatriots rallying around his cause, I think I have started smelling  the sweet smell of the earth. Once again. I hope, with all my heart, that our enlightened "intellectuals" do not tell me about the aerosol and the bacteria again, and spoil it for me -- one more time.


  1. Excellent piece of write up ..... I hopped in here after reading your comment on Shobhaa's blog. I feel optimistic that all intellectuals are not misguided. Your write up is very thought provoking .... especially about the masked life that some people love to live.
    I too am a supporter of the cause that Anna is vouching for. And it is the simplicity and sincerely of that selfless man which has attracted the entire crowd towards him.

  2. Interesting write-up. One could argue that the majority of Indians have a son-of-the-soil fixation, just like you have alleged that the elite do about grassroot level people, similarly most middle-class Indians, love a son of the soil story, they want their leaders to be squeaky clean and completely away from any urban, educated, sophisticated 'trappings'.
    Makes one wonder, if Anna indeed would have become as popular, if he were a convent educated, engineer, or doctor, who spoke fluent english, wore jeans instead of desi clothes, and had a life outside of this movement, would he be an acceptable leader to the masses ??

    I would like to clarify, that i do support the Jan lokpal bill and the movement, lest anyone *ahem* jump at my throat, and am not against Anna, but I do see why people are eating up anything he serves, and an important factor in it is that he fits the 'image' middle class India has of an ideal leader, and currently there's no one else who fits that 'image' better, whether just having the right image makes him the best man for the job...well time will tell..I sure hope so..

  3. Very nicely written. Just like Satrupa, I made my way to ur page after looking at ur comment in De's Blog.
    So many ppl are lured to Anna just because he stood for a proper cause with clean background. As above commentator asked whether it wld be the same kind of support to the one comes frm a diff class of society with fluent english, jeans etc unlike Anna... I would say it wld be even better provided if he/she has a clean background. Who knows may be the so called elite class wld also support. :D

  4. @ Jyostna :
    What are the requirements of a "clean background"? Do we know for sure if Anna has a 100% "clean background" ? Would someone who smokes a few cigarattes, has a drink or two with friends, eats meat (maybe even red meat), has had some failed romantic relationships or maybe even live-in relationships in his past, and may have lived/studied/worked outside India for a while, and may have given some petty bribes in his life, like bribing a cop to get out of traffic ticket, be considered good enough ?? Or does he have to measure up to some per-historic benchmark, of wearing gandhi topi, dhoti, kurta, and speaking only hindi, no english, non smoker, celibate unless married, etc etc, have to be a part of the definition ?? What bearing do the above characteristics have on the outcome of the movement ??

  5. As long as you don't hurt any one is fine.When peopl in the villages drink at the cost of food for their childeren, beat up their wives is what he fought for!! grow up, come out of your comfort zone.This movement is not of Anna v/s Govt. It is between people of this country v/s corrupt.
    Don't you think if there was some one that you were confident will listen to you, you would bribe the police? I am sure NO!!! because yo have no confidence on the people sitting higher you choose to bribe the lower!!

  6. Satrupa: Thanks! Yes, Anna's simplicity is the movement's greatest asset.

    Blue Sky: Thanks!

    AAD: A majority of people always identify with someone who walks and talks like them. That is why, our politicians wear Armanis in New York and Kurta-Pajamas in their constituencies.

    Jyostna: Thanks! I don't think our intellectual elites would ever publicly approve of anyone, since they love to hear the sound of their own voices. They might just reduce the quantum of attacks on someone that walks and talks like them. But, no more.

    JustChill: Anna may have done certain things to bring a change to his village. We all know that he has greatly succeeded in his work. Sometimes, the ends may justify the means, but I know that these are fighting words I write -- as I brace for some attack :-)

  7. Great post Desibabu.
    Simplicity and rootedness will always have followers, whether in Armani suit or Dhoti Kurta. "Armani suits" don't make mass leaders in this country because, in the way to acquiring one they loose the sense to smell 'Mitti'.
    There were great leaders, like JP who commanded great mass following, comfortable both in a suit and a Dhoti.The criteria is 'mitti ki khoosboo'(Rarest of rare quality) and people will throng to him/her.

  8. Dear DesiBabu,
    Unfortunately, you chose the wrong person for your critical analysis.

    While your analysis of Ms Ghose would be on the spot if she was a true blue journalist, that is not the case. Her rise is through her father Bhaskar Ghose who was DG, Doordarshan, and then through linkage with Pronoy Roy, and marriage to Rajdeep Sardesai.

    The stars of TV news have not risen the way you might expect them to have risen. It is a very murky world out there.

    MJ Akbar is perhaps the last of the journalists we looked up to who is still in action. The current lot have no sense of prespective. Hard work + fast English + western clothes does not give one analytical abilities.

    Please DO watch the news 'shows' for entertainment value, and breaking news :-), but certainly not for their analysis. Their funding sources decide the outcome of the analysis.

  9. desi babu, I wasn't talking only about politicians, it was about all leaders, political and non-political, it's funny that we associate leaders with political figures, yet on some level we despise all political.
    This son of the soil fixation of Indians, has caused them to be fooled by tons of politicans, merely be presenting themselves in the 'right look', but not having the real solid values, that matter, most of our politicians look the part, of the son of the soil, but do most of them really care about the aam aadmi ??

    It's a shame that anyone who doesn't swoon over a leader,for any reason, is called a 'sophisticated elite' and brushed off as looking down on 'genuine' people, (genuine because the look the part) whereas they may even have a legitimate point of contention, but no, since they are elite, they can;t possibly be able to look beyond the outer presentation of a person, and appreciate him/her, and swoon over him as the masses do, and this type of thinking is just sad, because it doesn't allow for dissent to voice it's opinion, and that is scary in a democracy.

  10. Hi, DB, I haven't read your post for some time. It is nice to read your post because of its style of writing.

    Now coming to the point, and be honest, I am skeptical about Anna's cause. That is not because of anything you have theorized. I have been away from India for a long time by now, but nothing has replaced the sweet smell of my soil in my system.

    So My concerns. I cannot put them all here again. You can read in the following link. I am not imposing my post on you. But all my thoughts I cannot summarize into a comment :)

    All the best

  11. AAD,
    I dont think u understood my comment..I said clean background meaning not being involved in scams or scandals be it minor or major,.. not the common man who cldnt escape from the clinching fists of corruption some times. I never said wear dhoti n speak hindi then only u will be supported. Then there is Kiran Bedi on the stage whoz not following this conventional simple desi dress u think she is not respected???
    A leader shld be a rolemodel to his followers n Anna has earlier proved himself to be one such by working for his own village n RTI act.
    Another fact is tht in India, we r so used to adore the 'simplicity' in leaders since Gandhian times, that is the reason why Anna's simplicity has attracted more ppl to the movement.