Review: The Butterfly Generation
Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Rupa Rain Tree
Rs 450 pp 272
Weve come a long way since negotiating with the silly gush of India books best represented by City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre. In those books, India was part-National Geographic bio-pic, part-tourist brochure where poverty and chaos served as a safari for outsiders to dip in and dip out of.
Five years after Lapierres 1985 love affair, VS Naipauls India: A Million Mutinies Now brought a different kind of India book to the fore. Through proto-Facebook-style meetings with key Indians, Naipaul, in his sharp prose, presented a portrait of India in the form of a documentary programme. More than 20 years later, it is the Naipaul school of India books that have come to rule the roost Suketu Mehtas Maximum City and Katherine Boos Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Siddarth Debs The Beautiful and the Damned, Patrick Frenchs India: A Portrait, Palash Krishna Mehrotra tears the pages of both these styles of India books and chews them up in The Butterfly Generation.
Mehrotras book is not really an India book. It is about a young man diving into disparate corners and multiple centres of his surroundings that happen to be 21st century urban India. He is an intimate part of the portraits he presents. If some readers find this gonzo approach self-indulgent, one can only tut-tut their dogma honed from sermons about keeping the observer-observed lakshmanrekha intact.
Unlike other narrations of, say, the India call centre story, Mehrotra peels off layers to go into the lives of his characters rather than the subjects they might represent. In a book shot with comic verve landlords barging in rooms to inspect phantom rats (Theres A Rat in Your Room); dark, bad-tripped nights of the soul laced with erotic jealousy (The Twilight Zone), the wide-eyed sexual beliefs of a drug-dealer (Wheeler Dealer: The World of the Autorickshaw Driver), deconstructing womens magazines (Inside the Sari) theres a dark, frenetic undertow that breaks to the surface at times. In Yellow Umbrella, Mehrotra writes about his relationship with a young corporate lawyer who recoils from his world only to later transform into an item girl for an evening. This is the most stunning polaroid of young urban India I have ever encountered.
Mehrotra does not strategically seek out the underbelly of urban India. Other anatomical parts English-speaking workers at fast food joints; Keralas mysterious romance with heavy metal music; the foundation provided by Doordarshan, MTV and cassette shops in the 80s-90s for todays urban Indian are well represented.
In The Life and Death of Bobby Brown, we are told the story of a youngster from Bhopal moving to work in a Delhi call centre and then his downward spiral of smack addiction. Mehrotras description is heart-rending without being sentimental. It is this forsaking of the skyscrapers vs slums narrative and entry into more searing, palpable terrains of atomised urban India that makes this book such a pearl.
This book is not a sociological tract. It is an intimate portrait of the world the author inhabits and the outlying zones that tumble into it. This makes it all the more authentic. Mehrotra has the poets eye and ear. So its apt that he gets to bust the myth that to write in the language of young Indians, you have to write as badly as, say, Chetan Bhagat. The Butterfly Generation, crackling with the death throes of clichés, is as genuine a book as it is beautiful.
Ishan Chaudhuri is a Kolkata-based writer