Simran Bhargava with Chiddanand Rajghatta in Bangalore
Illustrations by Ajit Ninan
India Today, August 15, 1989
The trademarks are the same—khadi kurta, broken chappals and a faded jhola. But along with the genuine social activist, a new breed of hangers-on has appeared on the scene. A report on the noveau-jholawala’s causes and crises.
“He’s a walking contradiction, partly true and partly fiction.”—Kris Kristofferson
Long before there were Yuppies and Puppies, there was a truly homespun figure already doing the rounds. Not restricted to caste or community, he belongs to us all: the jholawala.
He is the one in the protest march, raising his clenched fist against “these bloody multinationals”. He is the one in the bookstore gazing on mournfully at Pablo Neruda and Michel Foucault as he fondles his three-day-old stubble. He is the one who, if he has two pyjamas, will proudly wear the one with a hole in it.
The jholawala is a professor, researcher, drop-out, theatre person, small-time film maker, socially concerned journalist or simply unemployed. He is an intellectual in an intense love affair with poverty. For a jholawala, a jhola is a purely physical need; anything will do as long as it can be hung on the shoulder, leaving his hands free to hang on to buses or to raise in protest marches.
The jholawala is found in libraries, canteens, second-hand bookshops, European film festivals and art galleries. In Bombay, he is at the Jehangir Art Gallery. In Calcutta, he is at the College Street Coffee house. In Madras, he is known as a thuk-bag intellectual (some say ineffectual). And in Delhi, the tribe hums in the 1-km area around Mandi House.
The jholawala is usually in the midst of a hot discussion. He is the thinking man’s answer to the Puppy (prosperous urban Punjabi) and he almost always belongs to the broad, broad Left. But now, as one admitted, “We are confused. We don’t know what to do with glasnost, perestroika and the Chinese crackdown.”
Jholawalas exist in groups and the look on their face is earnest. A genuine jholawala must have a cause. Silent Valley, Narmada Dam, pavement dwellers—or he can’t exist. As thousands perished during Bhopal’s lethal gas leak, many jholawalas took birth. ‘They are the ones who make a difference,” said one observer. “I take my hat off to them.”
Several jholawalas, in fact, first rose during the Naxalite movement in the late ‘60s. They were marked by their passion and violent activism. They got beaten up, left colleges and went underground. When they resurfaced, they could no longer adjust to society. The originals are still floating around and have given rise to hundreds of imitators, nouveau-jholawalas, who are turned on by the romance of it all but are, thankfully, spared the heat and hardship.
The real jholawala worked: the psuedo one makes sure someone sees him working—or what’s the point? He is the one on the fringes, gingerly putting his toe into mainstream activism, and backing away, scared: ultimately, it’s just too hot to be committed for long.
The psuedo jholawala is also into guilt trips in a big way. Above all he lives a life marked by intensity, a search for angst. He is tortured by the unfairness of it all: the unfair distribution of wealth, exploitation of the workers and the greed of the moneyed classes. He will try and infect others with this guilt too.
Today’s jholawala ranges from the grassroot (working in villages) variety to the upmarket (attending seminars on foreign films) type. He is rarely into local issues like civic amenities but he can always be rounded up for protests against dams, eucalyptus trees and American imperialism: a full-time jholawala can in fact be tested by the number of blisters on his feet. He’s also found hanging around the World Bank for a grant to lecture in America on the perfidies of multinationals.
A jhola has him prepared for any eventuality: a typical jhola would contain Charminar cigarettes, a 15-day-old clipping from The Guardian, an old issue of the New Yorker. A toothbrush because you don’t know where the sun will rise the next day (a comb, however, isn’t necessary). A People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) study on something. A book to read at the bus stop and a couple of refills (but no pen) to write with.
Although they hate Ronald Reagan’s and George Bush’s America, jholawalas learnt a lot from the US in the ‘60s: Vietnam, peace, love, feminism, Marxism, thisism, thatism. An ideal jholawala is some part flower child and genuinely believes that love and peace are important. Nowadays, though, Marxism is out and environmentalism is in: one environmentalist jholawala refuses to build a fire even in the middle of winter “because the earth’s resources are getting depleted”. And he will not drink tea—”because tea-pickers are exploited”.
Recently, a band of jholawalas was seen outside the US library in Bombay—the American consulate was too far away—protesting against the depletion of the ozone layer and the Alaskan oil spill. They were also heard shouting: “Imperialism nahin chalegi, nahin chalegi” and “US hands off Nicaragua”.
Many young people begin their careers as jholawalas in college with the disturbing questions: Who am I? What am I here for? What is the purpose of life? Jholawalaism starts from that poignant search for self. Next, the jholawala reads Kafka, Sartre and Camus (one read Ayn Rand by mistake).
These are heady, intoxicating days fired by idealism and radicalism: life is measured in coffee spoons. A lot of time is spent talking about relationships. Many jholawalas spout poetry at this stage: “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
This phase is marked by intensity, passion and midnight discussions on how the USSR is superior to the US. Parents of rich kids look on indulgently during this period: “Oh, my daughter is a socialist.”
Being broke—“Poverty is my birthright and I shall have it”—is considered fashionable during college. The story goes about one rich jholawala boy who wanted desperately to belong—however, wealth came in the way. So he would leave home in his car—and then switch, half-way, to a bus.
A jholawala doesn’t give a damn about clothes, just as long as they are shabby and don’t match. He is the antithesis to the Puppy. Never, never would a jholawala wear a safari suit or a gold chain. He is also allergic to knickers, especially khaki ones.
He would quite proudly admit that he has not had a bath for a week. Ditto for shaving. He would often wear glasses—even if the doesn’t need them. These days jholawalas are making a beeline for gamchas—which they wear like scarves or simply drape over their shoulders.
A jholawala rarely owns a vehicle. He walks or rides buses since that gives him time to think. As a result of that and his chronically broke condition, he has discovered a variety of small eateries where he has immense rapport with the waiters. Many heated discussions take place here: recently in a Bangalore establishment, after they had finished their bi-two coffee (one coffee and two jholawalas share it), a fist fight broke out between two jholawalas: one of them objected to the denigration of Stalin in recent days.
Generally, jholawalas are big drinkers—rum and water if they’re paying for it, and anything else if someone else is. This is done while listening to old Hindi film songs, moaning the end of the black and white era. They have little of western pop: they genuinely believe that Madonna is Christ’s mom.
A jholawala also has a thing about his mother tongue: talk to him in English and he’ll reply in Hindi. Of late, when the jholawalas want to say ‘no’, they say ‘naa re’. He will also use only Hindi abuses, saying: “Why should we use theirs when we have so many of our own?”
A jholawala’s house is spartan but messy: books and papers are strewn in careful anarchy. Although he is suspicious of money, a jholawala spends lavishly on books. Or he simply steals them. One jholawala confessed that he stole Presumptions in The Cold by Leo Bogart (a book on media imperialism) from the university because, as he put it, “This book was gathering dust since August 1982. The university didn’t deserve it.”
A genuine jholawala must be familiar with existentialism. A high-level jholawala would try Nietzsche and Kierkergaard (one brought along Proust on a picnic). He would not have read Wordsworth but would have dissected and redissected Mallarme, Rilke, and Rimbaud.
Despite the intellectual stuff, a jholawala doesn’t mind a sneak preview of the latest Playboy (which he will explain in terms of carnal, temporal philosophy). He has a few other plebian tastes: he likes Jaya Prada, Goldie Hawn and Dimple Kapadia and not Shabana Azmi and Meryl Streep. (This goes with his reverse snob image: smoking beedis, using datun, and lapsing into Hindi abuses). Incidentally, he should’ve seen Battleship Potemkin, Rashomon, and Pather Panchali, 17 times each.
In recent times, jholawalas have loved films by Costa-Gavras and Thomas Alea. They talk about this scene in Alea’s The Housewarming where a party is going on in a South American sugar plantation: five minutes are spent just stirring the sugar in the cup. Many jholawalas have spent half an hour discussing this five-minute scene.
For some reason all jholawalas are turned on by South America: discussions at parties have ranged from the debt trap, rate of inflation in Argentina to the destruction of rain forests in Brazil. One worried jholawala, at 22, landed up at Berkeley (the hotbed of American jholawalaism), surfaced in demonstrations against the CIA, helped with a concert to raise money for Nicaragua—and was last seen disappearing into Gautemala on a Rockefeller grant.
A jholawala is often part of a study circle where everyone sits on the floor, having an intense discussion after every page of The Economic and Political Weekly. These days, hot jholawala discussions have centred on how to stop bricks from getting into Ram Janmabhoomi.
Other jholawalas run—or subscribe to—small, underground video libraries that rent out revolutionary films. One highly academic jholawala’s favourite song was Ek Do Teen Char, but since it didn’t go with his Pather Panchali image, he only allowed himself to hum it when no one was around.
There is a great sense of camaraderie among jholawalas but there are also sub-cultures and jealousies. A typical comment about an ex-jholawala friend would be: “Saala fraud hai, Doordarshan ke liye film bana raha hai.” (He is a fraud. He is making a film for Doordarshan).
Like other human beings, jholawalas too are vulnerable to love. The lovers probably met at a relief camp during riots or in a protest march led by Swami Agnivesh. Jholawalas in love take long walks among ruins, have a civil wedding (or simply live together) and then go for a honeymoon to more distant ruins like Mandu, near Indore.
Jholawalas, incidentally, hate perfume (they prefer ittr), love Germaine Greer, Sylvia Plath and have read all of Simone De Beauvoir’s memoirs. Both Mr and Mrs Jholawala are familiar with The Hite Report and have been witnesses at several court marriages.
At around age 30, the jholawala starts getting fidgety: it is just too tiresome to go on living like a starving artist in a garret. Said one: “Now you want what everyone wants—family, comfort, security.” He, however, continues his love for the jhola from his armchair.
But now, there is a major problem looming on the jholawala horizon: the tribe is panic struck. There is fear of disintegration. More and more younger jholawalas are giving up jholas for the three things jholawalas hate most: Materialism, Maruti and Michael Jackson.
What do you say when the Jholawala gets a fit in Rome?
What’s a Jholawala romance?
What do you call the Jholawala who ran away from bloodshed?
The Jholawala Bhagh incident.
What does the godfearing Jholawala say when he sees liquor?
How did the Jholawala pass?
With top Marx
How did Jane Fonda devise her arm exercises?
By watching Jholawalas during protest marches.
What is the Jholawla song?
I’m a jholi good fellow.