Rohit Chahal, 19, New Delhi
New Delhi: There’s something incongruous about model-turned-movie actor John Abraham being spoken of in the same breath as Hindutva champions Guru Golwalkar and Veer Savarkar, whose portraits loom over the spacious living room.
Rohit Chahal, 19 years and eight months old, is aware of the gulf between his one-time role model Abraham and his upbringing in a family that swears by Hindu nationalism and its pantheon. Influenced by the success of Abraham,Rohit took to modelling three years ago.
"People used to tell me that I could easily be a model, given my height and build. I had seen John Abraham and, like a million others, decided to try my hand at modelling," says Rohit, who is in the final year of a bachelor’s degree programme in human resources and management at the College of Vocational Studies in New Delhi.
His dalliance with modelling was the cause of the first—and last—major disagreement he had with his conservative family, which associated the profession with a freewheeling sex-and-drugs culture. "But this was one thing I just had to do. So I fought at home and walked the ramp," he says.
The flirtation with modelling proved short-lived and Rohit returned to his family ideology, which is rooted in a long association with the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an arm of the so-called Sangh Parivar, or family, of Hindu nationalist groups.
After enrolling in college, he joined the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose lotus-embossed flag flutters from atop his family house in Preet Vihar, a middle-class neighbourhood in east Delhi.
Rohit was born in a Jat family the day after independence day in 1989, about two years before India wholeheartedly embraced economic reforms by dismantling government controls that had fettered its economy for four decades, and opening itself up for foreign investment and technology.
He was the second of three sons born to Naresh Chaudhary, 47, a builder, and homemaker Manju. The couple named their eldest son Shekhar after Chandrasekhar Azad, the freedom fighter and revolutionary who shot himself to death in 1931 to avoid being taken prisoner by British police.
The second son was named after Rajguru, who together with Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev was hanged in 1931 after the three were convicted of killing a British police officer.
"Rohit was to be named Bhagat Singh, but a relative by the same name had passed away around the time our son was born. So we dropped the idea," says Chaudhary.
ACCESS TO TECHNOLOGY
The three sons were encouraged to be religious in a household that strictly forbade partying. "This Western culture has led to our boys becoming weak. They have lost the courage to deal with life and are taking to drugs. I will not let that happen to my children," says Chaudhary.
But the Chahal family’s ultra-conservative attitude didn’t bar access to technology, one of the gifts of liberalization that the young take so much for granted.
According to the ministry of information technology, India has the bragging rights for the world’s lowest mobile phone call rates (2-3 cents, or Rs1-1.5), the fastest growth in the number of subscribers (15.31 million in four months), the fastest sales of a million mobile phones (one week), the world’s cheapest mobile handset ($17.2) and the world’s most affordable colour phone ($27.42).
India also has an installed base of at least 22 million personal computers, 100 million television sets and 65 million cable television connections.
Rohit was in class III when he first handled a computer, in class VI when he logged into the Internet. His father was one of the early buyers of a mobile phone when it came to India in the early 1990s. "I have grown with all these gadgets and credit cards. They are a part of my life and life would be difficult without them," Rohit says.
That’s at odds with his association with the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, known for its staunch opposition to foreign investment and technology, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and the causes they espouse.
Rohit, raised in an era of economic openness and a beneficiary of the growth it fostered, says India should focus on "self-sustainability instead of giving space to multinational companies to exploit India."
STINT IN PRISON
Last year, he was among a group of students who attacked a history department professor at Delhi University. The students were protesting alleged vilification of Hindu gods in a college textbook when the professor, S.Z.H. Jafri, tried to intervene.
The students said an essay titled Three Hundred Ramayanas by A.K. Ramanujan had made derogatory references about Hindu gods. According to media reports, the students were offended by passages in the essay including one in which Hanuman, the monkey-god, was described as Ram’s "trusty henchman".
The students, who also vandalized college property, were rounded up and arrested by the police. Rohit spent 10 days in custody, and doesn’t rue the experience.
"I was only defending my faith," he says.
Rohit’s father agrees and defends his son. "He did nothing wrong. Youngsters have to stand up for the Hindu faith," says Chaudhary. The father’s attitude is not surprising. Chaudhary, 47, was one of the hordes of kar sevaks (volunteers) who took part in the December 1992 demolition of the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.
"That was one of the most memorable days of my life," says Chaudhary, who recalls that from Ayodhya he took an autorickshaw to the neighbouring town of Faizabad to call his father from a public phone booth and gave him the news that the mosque had been toppled.
BACK TO THE ROOTS
Minutes after he hung up the phone, the Chahals’ ancestral house in Daryaganj, in Delhi’s Old City, was attacked by a rock-throwing mob. Relations between Hindus and Muslims in the area deteriorated to a stage where who you did business with or even shared a cup of tea with was being reassessed on communal lines. In 1999, the Chahals moved from Daryaganj to Preet Vihar.
For Rohit, after the brief dalliance with modelling, it has been a back-to-the-roots journey. He will vote the BJP in the coming general election and intends to get himself a personality makeover by switching from jeans and shirt to ethnic wear.
He has no love interest and will marry a woman chosen by his family. ("If any of my boys get into an affair, then they will be out on the streets," threatens Rohit’s mother.)
He is interested in an army stint, but his long-term goal is to join politics.
Abraham having been forgotten, his role model is the vigilante-like character played by actor Naseeruddin Shah in the Hindi movie A Wednesday. Shah plays the role of a man who secures the release of four jailed terrorists by threatening to set off a series of bomb explosions in Mumbai. He kills them when they are freed.
Terrorism is the biggest concern facing the country today, says Rohit.
"I identify with the character played by Naseeruddin Shah," he says. "A common man has to think of how he can battle terror himself."