Palash Mehrotra’s book on the metamorphosis of India’s youth, the Butterfly Generation, is a nonfiction novel in the tradition of Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe, which may explain the bemusement with which it has been received by most Indian reviewers. Narrative nonfiction is a genre that is only just coming into its own here, with book’s like Mehrotra’s and a handful of others.
Billed as “a personal journey into the passions and follies of India’s technicolor youth,” Butterfly is a hilarious and eye-opening look at an India that none of the countless books about the country’s “rise” have explored, or even known to exist (think Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods, for instance). It’s a book about subcultures, and the underground, and as such Palash says that a good number of the responses have been along the lines of “but I don’t know anybody who does MDMA.”
(Full disclosure: Palash became an instant drinking buddy a few weeks back, after an interview about his teaching career at the posh Doon boarding school devolved precipitously).
That’s a shame, because like the New Journalists he’s emulating, Palash has a gift for infiltrating the underground and capturing its personalities. And these are people who just might represent “the new India” — or its avant garde — more completely than the spirited office drones depicted in the more staid books preoccupied with India as a “market” or a “spiritual” or “ancient” place. (I have to emphasise: Butterfly is also charming and funny, more so when you realise that Palash is a sort of anti-cool anti-hero: “Some people don’t get that this is basically a book about me going into different places and making a fool of myself,” he told me, not long before he launched into his signature stumbling-and-falling freestyle singing routine, a sort of Bob Dylan-meets-Wyclef).
Consider some of these chapters:
“Captain Andy” describes a pilot who got into the industry when Air India was the only carrier and getting a job at all was risky, who now is at the top of the world because pilots are in heavy demand. So far, just like all the books about the New India. But what Palash’s story is about is Captain Andy’s after-work life, where, among other things, he’s become preoccupied with vacations at international clothing optional resorts. “Sometimes, any returns from a trip disappointed. Like when he comes back from the carnival in Rio. He complains about the poverty, slums, nightclubs with no air-conditioning and concludes angrily, ‘What a let-down. Just like India.'” (One reviewer was correct in pointing out that Palash does have a tendency toward a kind of pat summation at the end of his sketches, which oversimplifies and undercuts his keen emotional observations).
“Versova Scriptwriters” gives an insider’s take on the Bombay screenwriting business from the point of view of struggling writers and actors like Amit and Raghav, who are adapting ‘The Italian Job’ for an Indian audience, but also the denizens of Colaba’s grungy flophouses, like a Ukrainian call girl who lives in a hotel room with her boyfriend and three children — coming in and out all night to change outfits between customers. “The constantly scurrying hotel staff desultorily pats them on their heads sometimes, while the man sits and drinks, and drinks, until it gets too much, and he falls down with a huge crash. This happens every night. The staff come running, help him to his knees, while the children look on goggle-eyed. The hotel has common bathrooms and toilets and I often see the man shuffling to the loo down the corridor in his underwear, the pants around his ankles hindering his movement. He looks like he’s taking part in a school sack race and I’m worried he’s going to topple over and fall flat on his face, but he doesn’t.”
“Wheeler Dealer” tells the stoy of Nandu, an autorickshaw in Dehra Dun (the small town that is home to the prestigious Doon boarding school where Palash taught English for a while). “Nandu is so much more than just an autorickshaw driver. I call him super-fly automan. He is a hustler, an illegitimate supermarket on wheels and a sleazeball par excellence,” Palash writes. He gets closer to Nandu’s heart than I’d have imagined possible for a ‘posh’ English speaking Indian (Palash is the product of India’s St. Stephen’s College and England’s Oxford University) — we learn about his sexual proclivities (watching porn with his wife, among other things), his dreams, his crimes, and his understanding of the modern India. It’s brilliant source material for everybody from the guys trying to sell soap to the would-be screen writers in Versova.
Palash is a sociologist by training as well as a novelist / story writer, and he brings the scientist’s eye for trends and the novelist’s feel for emotional significance to the book — which in the end is impossible to summarize. I feel like I’ve given it short shrift in picking out the three chapters above, at random, and I’m not sure that I’ve captured how funny and engaging Palash is as the narrator and bumbling hero. (He’s at his weakest when he abandons character sketches for relatively lightweight analytical essays in the book’s second half).
Suffice to say this: I have not read an “India book” in at least five years, because India is my job, and I want to get away from it when I’m off the clock. But I’m burning through this one, laughing all the way.
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