Book review: 'The Butterfly Generation'

Sunday, 11 March 2012 - 8:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
The book explores the freedom conferred by McJobs in a developing economy and the birth of India’s English-speaking working class.

The Butterfly Generation
Author: Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Publisher: Rain Tree/Rupa
Pages: 264
Price: Rs450

The Butterfly Generation, the blurb claims, is “a compelling, no-holds-barred portrait of young urban Indians today, and the world of new money, opportunity and accelerated change that they inhabit”. Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s book (“part memoir, part travelogue, part social commentary”) is a collection of personal essays on urban Indians, 25 to 35 years old, who came of age in post-liberalisation India, and, like the butterfly, metamorphosed in the New India of go-go capitalism and globalisation.

The first of the book’s three sections, ‘One-on-One’, offers sketches and vignettes of individuals, beginning with what seems like the mandatory account in books of this sort of the ugly Punjabi Delhi landlord. We meet a photographer hit hard by the recession and caught in a debt trap; a jaded airline pilot who is a “hedonistic Buddha”; scriptwriters in Versova, Bombay, who adapt Hollywood films for an Indian audience; women Mehrotra has dated: a feisty but emotionally unavailable dancer and a physically unavailable corporate lawyer who nevertheless titillates him with an item-dance performance; smack-addicted call centre workers content to make enough money to support their nihilistic “hardcore junkie lifestyle”; and an autorickshaw driver, a hustler and wheeler-dealer, “an unlikely, unwitting agent of globalisation”.

Mehrotra’s participant-observer method allows him to offer an insider’s perspective on these protagonists — friends, acquaintances, lovers (and other random people he has met or sometimes just heard of) — escaping from small towns and conservative families to realise their dreams of self-transformation in the big city. In the city, they work hard and party harder, ingesting vast quantities of illicit substances, navel-gazing, sleeping around, hanging out.

Mehrotra means to celebrate the freedom of this post-liberalisation generation from the shackles of what he calls the socialist 1980s, to applaud their mobility — geographical, social, professional, and emotional. But despite all the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, what emerges in these pages is a largely confused, aimless, frustrated, self-regarding generation. His canvas is too narrow; these are mostly stories of a small social group restricted to the South Delhi-South Bombay circuit, and the reader is soon overcome by a feeling of ‘much the sameness’.

How much insightful social commentary can one milk from analysing people in their late twenties and early thirties who want to ‘make up for lost time’ because they were denied the chance to party like teenagers in the repressive, restrictive socialist 1980s?
The second section, ‘Wide Angle’, offers a broader context and elaboration of the case studies in the first section.

Mehrotra explores the freedom conferred by McJobs in a developing economy and the birth of India’s English-speaking working class. ‘Globalisation has been kind to me,’ says a worker in a fast-food restaurant who comes from a village with no electricity. Indeed, globalisation and its votaries is the main theme of the book. There isn’t much space here for globalisation’s discontents, for those left out of the triumphalist narrative of capitalism’s march forward, or those who have deliberately chosen not to participate, or those who are opposed to it.
In some ways, the second section is the weakest, and the analysis of the larger trends in Indian society is often facile and trite. Describing the mainstreaming of homosexuality and gay culture, Mehrotra writes, “Capitalism has liberated India. The socialist India of the 1980s encouraged secrecy.”

The other essays cover mostly well-trodden ground: the acceptance of St Valentine’s Day, albeit in a gaudy consumerist avatar, despite right-wing Hindu opposition; the democratisation of leisure; ragging; standup comedy and Indians’ lack of a sense of humour; servants in India (but no actual servant has a speaking part here); women’s magazines as manuals of instructions for love, sex, romance, marriage, and career; and the urban party scene.

The third section, ‘Here We Are Now, Entertain Us’, is more self-assured. Mehrotra’s analyses of popular culture, particularly the underground/alternative music scene and the creative output of new indie bands, cover less well-known ground, and hence are more interesting.

Mehrotra, who is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone India, knows his music, and offers a potted history of the birth and evolution of Western popular music in India since the 1970s, beginning with the cassette-tape revolution, which democratised and decentralised music production and consumption in the country.

His own musical journey through the decades — beginning as an eleven-year-old in small-town Allahabad and Dehradun in love with synthesised bubblegum pop — encapsulates the revolution in popular musical taste in urban India. He tells us why Indians are into heavy metal and explains the significance of the Money Song celebrating the making of the fast buck in Hindi films.

The Butterfly Generation
captures a historical moment in the evolution of an important demographic of the New India. Perhaps Mehrotra can return to do a follow-up study in another ten years.

Malini Sood is a Delhi based editor and writer

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