Mayank Shekhar is a popular journalist and film critic who has written extensively for many national dailies on a range of topics. It is no surprise then that he follows the same idea – of writing and commenting on everything that would interest the modern Indian – in his book.
Borrowing its name from a childhood favourite game, Name Place Animal Thing seeks to put into perspective the peculiarities of all things Indian and then some. Two things stand out about the book. First, the vast number of topics Shekhar writes about; he tackles everything that concerns the Indian urbanite, from the everyday roadside Romeo, to the Anna Hazare phenomena, to the perennial Delhi vs. Mumbai debate. Second is the manner in which he approaches these ideas, writing in a lucid style.
Part rant, part reportage (as the sleeve describes the book), Name Place Animal Thing is made up of Shekhar’s writings, or rather his observations, from over the years, which have skilfully been grouped together and divided up into sections on the people we know (names), on places, on the ‘circus’ that is everyday life (animal) and things that may make us wonder.
Name Place Animal Thing is lush with anecdotes, both from his experiences and those from the crypt of Indian history. Take for instance his recounting of the origins of India’s somewhat accidental foray into the big bad world of cable television.
It all began innocently enough with Rajiv Gandhi seeking better programming on Doordarshan, centred on the values enshrined in the ancient texts. His minister responded by ordering the production and telecast of the Mahabharata and Ramayana with “no time to spare: no tenders, no usual short-listing of prospective bidders.” When two Bombay filmmakers, Ramanand Sagar and B.R. Chopra, produced the shoddy first episodes of Ramayan, they were used anyway, since the PM had asked for it. It was that typical bureaucratic mindset that inadvertently heralded the revolution of Indian television, or, as Shekhar calls it, the confusion:
A child of such accidental birth is unlikely to know its front from its backside. Over decades since, the baby’s still spinning in circles, simultaneously pooping and recycling its own poop. It never quite grew up.
Shekhar also wades into familiar territory with many chapters devoted to all things Bollywood. We get one that breaks down stardom for us, with Salman Khan as the useful peg, and another that discusses the reasons for Emraan Hashmi’s popularity:
Here’s a hero whose tiny, scruffy face instantly reminds one of the early evolutions of man…And yet the question on Ramesh’s mind, looking at Hashmi, the humble homo-erectus hero…isn’t “What’s he got that I ain’t got?”… The more likely exclamation mark hanging on Ramesh’s boggled brains, or those of countless Indian males [is]: “Wow. He can? Damn. So can I!” This is how the world’s possibly least desirable man, at least for a while, became the nation’s greatest sexpot.
The bad and the ugly
But Name Place Animal Thing does not just include the good. It also includes commentaries on the many serious issues that young, modern India encounters, especially those hidden behind the guise of “that’s just how it is.”
Shekhar does not shy away from calling Bollywood out on its misogynistic representations of women. Early in the book, we are reminded of how the dastardly act of rape is used as a form of arousal by many filmmakers. That such scenes sell even on their own (as he points out, videos in the “hottest rape scenes” category rake up millions of views on YouTube) indicates a critical flaw in Indian society. Why is rape so common? Well, why not, if your movies use it to drive home the machismo of your regular Joes (the rapist and the guy who saves the girl, if she is so lucky) and to make you feel carnal desire?
The rape scenes may have made their way out, but that Bollywood continues to use scantily clad women gyrating seductively to suggestive lyrics as a way to “lighten the mood” goes a long way to explain why women are often simply seen as sexual objects.
Movies are great influencers. The young take cues from their filmstar role models on everything, from fashion to romance. No wonder then that chhedkhani (molestation) becomes something to emulate:
She doesn’t like it, she swears back at him, but that’s because she is ‘teekhi as mirchi’ (hot as chilli). She looks even more delicious when pissed off, we’re told. Her ‘no’ is always actually a ‘yes,’ we know. Eventually, the pesky stranger gets the girl. So does Anil Kapoor, just hanging around for days under Madhuri Dixit’s balcony. As may Aamir, a tourist guide, groping a lonely blind girl while he shows her around the ruins in Delhi… This behaviour gets normalised over decades of watching such films.
Shekhar also tells us a popular tale of collective apathy with which anyone who has been to Mumbai during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival would be familiar. With religion as their defence, hordes of inebriated young men and women swarm the city’s streets, dancing enthusiastically to the latest hits, both local and international, with no regard for the inconvenience they cause. For about two weeks, anything goes – religious celebration (and tolerance) is a good defence. With Mumbai as his example, Shekhar draws attention to the peculiarity of religion (or religious culture) in our country. Tolerance and acceptance must equal a free pass, civic courtesy be damned.
Shekhar’s ability to comment on things as commonplace as suburban cliques and something as serious as the depiction of partition in Pakistani schoolbooks in the same simple style is remarkable. Aimed at a younger audience, or those who are bound to have shared some of his experiences (who among us has not had a run-in with the cops or knows someone who has?), the book makes for easy, but not light, reading.
His casual, conversational writing style (with liberal doses of “stream of consciousness”) ensures the book will appeal to a vast section of readers, introducing them to ideas they may otherwise avoid. Discussing popular topics (movies, music, the overenthusiastic-moralistic cops) is easy, but talking about touchy topics (religion, misogyny, rape) is not. He approaches these topics in a humorous, often sarcastic, manner, but says enough to make you pause and think. Shekhar manages to capture the essence of modern India – the good, the bad and the ugly – with equal aplomb in Name Place Animal Thing, in no small part because he chooses to do away with the grandiose.