Even today Barbie Girl reminds me of the Shiv Sena. The association was irreparably formed about 17 years ago, soon after I arrived in the great adorable city that the Shiv Sena had just renamed ‘Mumbai’. I did not choose to understand the Shiv Sena, but I had close encounters with the party because I was poor, poor in the sense that even P Sainath would have called me that. And when you are poor in Mumbai, one way or the other, you meet the Sena.
I joined the Sena’s local gym because it was almost free. Two muscular men there said that as a part of my initiation I had to do 50 push-ups “for Hanumanji”, which I performed well, and they handed me two rolls of cloths that I figured a day later, through my problem-solving abilities, were langots — one blue and one red, not saffron, mysteriously. “No underwear,” a man said, probably because it was western. It was to be the only time I would hear anybody say, “no underwear” menacingly.
At least once I came close to getting beaten up by the Sena’s men for setting out to work on the day of a bandh. Naturally, my first impression of the Shiv Sena was of a party filled with men who were very serious though I could not figure out what they were serious about. My surprise then when I began to hear ‘Barbie Girl’ during their street assemblies in the Prabhadevi neighbourhood.
Such congregations would often end with devotional songs, which had paeans to Chatrapati Shivaji; folk songs, which were mostly about Shivaji; and patriotic songs, which were entirely about Shivaji. Then, from the huge mounted speakers would play ‘Barbie Girl’, and the menacing men, most of them drunk by now, would break into dance as though they were enlightened enough to pay tribute to the exquisite song that was, in reality, a great underrated satire on men.
The Shiv Sena was many things, including a network of street clubs that provided an honourable excuse for young urban Marathi men of modest means to have fun free or at a low cost in the guise of politics, social work and Marathi jingoism. They had no other recourse. ‘Barbie Girl’ was the collapse of the masquerades facilitated by intoxication.
The Shiv Sena did not resent fun, but it did violently resent the organised unambiguous fun of the middle class and the rich. Its thugs beat up lovers and molested women who celebrated Valentine’s Day. The Sena alleged that this type of fun was western and so immoral, even though the party was much smarter than its stated views. The Sena denounced bowling alleys because they were inside the malls that were built on failed mills and factories, its former employees fated to become unemployed alcoholics in Bermuda shorts. The Sena had to be this way, as were many political parties, because its core constituents did not have the means to access fun.
The price of fun in India includes a cost whose purpose is to raise the bar of entry, to ensure that the other type of Indians, the ‘downmarket’, do not slip through. As a result, Indian politics has never publicly associated itself with or overtly promoted organised entertainment. If anything, Indian politics, taken together, is a system against fun. It extorts from the entrepreneurs of fun.
Amusing then that Shiv Sena scion, son of Uddhav Thackeray, the 24-year-old Aditya Thackeray should be promoting the idea that there be zones in Mumbai where the fun industry is allowed to operate all day, all night. He imagines a city that buzzes with affluent nocturnal activities, like the cities of the world he has visited. He says the times have changed, minds have changed — the Shiv Sena can come out of the closet.
The political reaction has been, understandably, pious. A Congress MLA said that this was an ‘elitist agenda’. The BJP’s Ashish Shelar said, “Even pav bhaji and wada pav stalls should be allowed to stay open through the night.”
It is true that Mumbai has more serious problems than a substandard nightlife. Its politicians have good reasons to, above everything else, force the Indian Railways to figure out how to shut the doors of the city’s trains, and air-condition the compartments so that millions commute daily in a humane and safe way.
This does not mean that some minor good should wait until the greater good is achieved. Actually, fun is not as frivolous as it makes itself out to be.
In India, entertainment, like space science, is promoted by politicians as something that deserves to exist only because it performs a clear social function. The function of fun that politicians point to is that when the rich get drunk, the poor get jobs.
Some people may worry that the government is participating in promoting yet another island for the rich that would be visible to the unhappy poor. But then there is another way to look at the leisure industry, that it is in the business of renting out fleeting encounters with affluence.
A conscientious lower middle class young man tends to hoard money. The entertainment industry alone has the capacity to make him spend on inessentials. He sees value in upper-class fun precisely because it is that. Often, he yields. He has managed to enter bowling alleys, Go-Karting rinks and even high-end pubs. Today, across India, in most places of fun, it is impossible to pre-determine the social class of the patrons. Such a trend sets the grounds for a uniformity of experiences across social classes.
It is true that India has a vast number of poor who cannot imagine walking into, say, a pub. But it is also true that there is a vast number of young who have just escaped a particular rung of poverty and are wide-eyed about a new world that is suddenly open to them. The reason why the Shiv Sena does not pretend anymore that it is against organised fun.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed by the author are personal