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Herald Mirror, 21 Jun 2009

By G Vidiadhar

Casting about through my papers for a case which will be an ideal exposition of the talents which Sherlock Holmes had developed into a science – nay, even a fantastical art – I can find no case to match this one, with all the elements of the outre that he so loves, and which so well displays his talents.

With the passage of time, the family of the principal protagonist, once among the highest in the land, remains but a faint memory, with no living representative. I may therefore now disclose the details of that strange succession of events without fear of leaving any living being stricken with shame by my disclosure of the sordid shadow which once cast its pall across the scion of the family.

It was the summer of ____, and Holmes and I found ourselves vacationing in Goa, a particularly uncivilised part of a notoriously savage land. We had been lured there by the renown of the local brew, a potent concoction called feni. We had a most enjoyable week, as the Goan feni lived up to its reputation – though I must say that the Nepali that Holmes scored one evening was not half bad either.

But one day Holmes received a letter embossed with an ornate seal. “Who is this from?” I brooded aloud, unable to penetrate the secrets of the envelope which lay on the floor between the mats on which we lolled. Holmes lifted the envelope. “From the Ranee of Kooch-Bhi,” he replied after a moment, his keen eyes having spotted the name written upon the back of the envelope. “Let us see what it is about,” he said, slitting the envelope open with a dagger of intricate Oriental design which he always kept on his person for just this purpose.

There was a long silence as Holmes perused the letter, his face becoming increasingly troubled.  “This will not do, Moriarty’s tentacles have spread even to Goa,” he muttered. Shedding his shorts and T-shirt and getting into a kashti, the quaint costume of the local males, he rushed out without a further word.

It was a week before he returned and a miserable week indeed it was, with Holmes having taken all our money with him. Thrown out of our room by our grasping landlady, I was trying to brave the heat in the shade of a convenient coconut palm, a task complicated by the delirium tremens that had hit me ever since the corner hooch shop refused to extend any further credit. I was in a pitiable state when Holmes, keenly sniffing out my trail with his nose close to the ground, stumbled upon me.

“Come, Watson, this will not do,” he said, as he helped me sip – and then gulp – the life-giving brew. Feeling the steadiness come back into my limbs, I looked up at him, to see upon his face the keen look which never failed to give me a thrill. “The game is afoot, Watson,” he cried, as I stumbled to my feet, game for whatever new adventure now lay before us.

We rushed to a waiting taxi. “I didn’t think you could handle the local motorcycle pilots in your condition,” Holmes explained, “and besides, this will give me an opportunity to bring to your attention the salient points of the case. The Ranee of Kooch-Bhi wrote to me about the strange behaviour of her son the Rajkoomar, the heir to the throne. He had lost all interest in wine, women and coke – the distinguishing marks of any well-bred member of the ruling classes. At all times of the day and night, he would be found reading and mumbling to himself. Every now and then, of an evening he would disappear.

“Well, I followed him, and found that he has become a Quizzer!” A tremor of horror shot through my limbs on hearing the name of that dread cult. “Yes, Watson, well may you shiver. Moriarty’s perfidy knows no bounds, and he set up a branch of the cult in Goa, knowing the Rajkoomar frequented the beaches here. Skilfully he was ensnared, and since then he has been neglecting his duties by his kingdom and his concubines. Verily, evil operates under the guise of folly – pursuing this pathetic pastime, he has cleared the path for his evil uncle the Vizier to take over the kingdom.”

“But what can we do? Moriarty has already used this cult to destroy the flower of Western youth,” I protested. “It was not easy,” said Holmes, “but during my researches I stumbled across the writings of a strange Viennese necromancer named Freud. He speaks of childhood mishaps with potty training – all too common in these Eastern hell-holes where the sanitary facilities leave much to be desired. This anal retentiveness, as he calls it, blocks all normal impulses and redirects them towards the accumulation of useless information. Moriarty induces blockages by the administration of strong opiates, though the skilful insertion of the bark of Quercus suber serves just as well. And then the victim is his,” said Holmes, as the taxi drew up before a dilapidated structure in the quaint, though garbage-infested, little town of Ponnje.

We crept silently to the window of the building, and beheld a curious sight. A group of mesmerised victims sat before the master of ceremonies, who was asking questions in a curious sing-song tone, obviously meant to increase the hypnotic effect of the arcane ceremony of the cult. “They believe that the universe was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and that his noodly presence guides their actions. Who are they?” he queried, and the entire group could be seen nodding wisely at this gibberish and trying to dredge up the piece of useless information he desired.

“There is the Rajkoomar,” whispered Holmes, pointing to a comely youth. “But what can we do?” I whispered back, groping through my pockets for my trusty revolver, only to find that I had brought my chillum instead.

“No, Watson, such measures will not work,” Holmes said, referring presumably to the revolver, though maybe he meant the chillum. “In the East, look for Eastern remedies. An old witch in the town has sold me a concoction called Isabgol, which should enable the Rajkoomar to find his way clear, breaking the spell. I administered a dose to him in his food this afternoon, and it should be taking action around now.”

Even as he spoke, the pensive cast of the Rajkoomar’s face acquired a frantic hue, and he rushed in the direction of the privy by the side of the river. Ten minutes later, he appeared again, knotting up his shalwar, and we accosted him. “Rajkoomar, the Ranee awaits you,” said Holmes. “To hell with the old bitch,” said the Rajkoomar, “I’m off to find a nautch girl.”

“Will you not return to the quiz?” asked Holmes, only to get a puzzled look from the Rajkoomar. “Who cares about such rubbish?” he responded, as he sauntered off. A question to a question! Indeed, he was saved.

“A most satisfactory conclusion to a difficult case, though we made it just in time, before the spell could take too strong a hold,” said Holmes that evening, as he loaded up his pipe with some Afghani, which, though excellent, reminded me of the Jezail bullet which I still carried in my leg as a souvenir of the Afghan wars. “The direct approach would not have worked; the spell was too powerful. We had to go to the root cause – the blockage below which was diverting the brain above towards the accumulation of useless information. Moriarty has tried this trick earlier and I have learnt to recognise the operation of the cult. You know that the human brain has a limited capacity, and if you can convince people to clutter it up with useless information, there is less space for that which matters. And thus Moriarty drives his targets witless, and clears the path for his minions.”

We pondered in silence for a while. “But Holmes,” I expostulated, “think of those still under the spell. We must save them. Let us obtain more Isabgol.”

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“No, it is too late, they have been under the spell for too long,” sighed Holmes. “And besides, you may remember the Turkish saying, ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for him who depriveth a man of futile contemplations.’ There is as much sense in Mulla Nasruddin as in Horace, and as much knowledge of human folly.”

There seemed to be nothing more to say, and we smoked in silence for a while. But I could see that Holmes was sorely troubled. “What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes finally, as he laid down the last pipe of the evening. “What object is served by this circle of triviality and futility and pointless questions and useless answers? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

But maybe the quizzers will find that answer, and that will indeed be the end, I reflected, as I drifted away into my blissful dreamworld.

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THE JHOLAWALA SYNDROME

Simran Bhargava with Chiddanand Rajghatta in Bangalore

Illustrations by Ajit Ninan

India Today, August 15, 1989

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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).

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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.

Jhola Jokes

  • What do you say when the Jholawala gets a fit in Rome?
    Jhollus Seizure.

  • What’s a Jholawala romance?
    Maila Majnu.

  • 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?
    Hey Rum.

  • 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.

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Culture

“What’s a ‘culture’? Look it up. ‘A group of micro-organisms grown in a nutrient substance under controlled conditions.’ A squirm of germ life on a glass slide is all, a laboratory experiment calling itself a society. Most of us wrigglers make do with life on that slide; we even agree to feel proud of that ‘culture’. Like slaves voting for slavery or brains for lobotomy, we kneel down before the god of all moronic micro-organisms and pray to be homogenized or killed or engineered; we promise to obey…

Such are the noisome slithers of the enslaved micro-organisms, twisting and hissing as they protect the inviolability of their sacred homeland, the glass laboratory slide.

— Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet

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