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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 51 New Delhi December 10, 2016

Recession Exposes Demonetisation’s Dark Side

Sunday 11 December 2016, by Humra Quraishi


Tuesday afternoon I was in and around New Delhi’s posh Khan Market. Usually this marketplace is more than crowded, with locals and foreigners not just shopping but stuffing themselves in the various eateries, but that afternoon (November 29) it was as though a vacancy of sorts had enveloped the entire stretch. The sellers and buyers looked glum. After all, the year is ending on a dismal note!

I did get to notice at least two rather strange developments: buyers with a two thousand rupee clutched in their hands had to buy goods worth a few hundred (five hundred to even a thousand, depending on the dictates of the shop-owners) before they were handed the remaining change. Call it nothing short of forced buying! Then, though around this time of the year the shops of this up-market shopping complex are over-stuffed with the latest but this time they were baring only the left-overs. Nah, no excitement. Only sad, depressing money- related offloads amidst long drawn looks! Decayed we have begun to look and behave. There are no regular talks but each little sentence is laced with money-chaos inflicted even on the non-moneyed! Signs of dictatorship out there in the open even as classroom lessons on democracy are being held in those tight-suffocating interiors.

Yes, demonetisation has begun to show its trickle-down effect on the industry, even on everyday basic products. Nothing very complicated to it: no money in the market, less workers and lesser buyers and with that signs of recession and more of those dark patches on the economy.... darker they’d get before this year merges to the next.

I’m reminded of Bengal’s reigning novelist Mani Sankar Mukherji’s popular novel, The Middleman, as this novel focuses on some of the bleak aspects of life and everyday realities—unemployment, frustrations, recession and all those layers of corruption. And what could be termed amazing is that even though this novel was originally written in the 1970s (its English translated version was published years later by Penguin), it seems as though the very storyline is apt for these hard-hitting recession times that we are going through right now. The entire novel revolves around the life and times of an unemployed young man, Somnath Banerjee. With a tremendous flow to it, the story takes one along a heap of frustrations and disappointments that the young man goes through together with the contradictions and the utter turmoil.

In fact, when I met Sankar (as Mani Sankar Mukherji is popularly called), the very first query had to be this: “Was this novel written along autobiographical lines and patterns?” And with a rather nostalgic smile playing on his face he quipped: “I have seen unemployment, poverty and injustice taking place all these years... ongoing in today’s India. Since there’s a story behind the writing of every novel, many people have insisted that I reveal the facts about The Middleman in the form of a confession. I had first considered the idea of this novel in, what now seems, another life-time, when I was jobless. My father had passed away suddenly, throwing the responsibility of a huge family entirely on my shoulders. I was desperate for a job, but had no contacts in any office or factory. I didn’t even know how to secure employment. Why, I didn’t dare even to ride in the lifts of unfamiliar buildings, in case I was asked to pay. One day, a well-established gentleman chided me in exasperation, ‘Are Bengalis incapable of trying anything other than jobs? Why don’t you get into business?’ That was the beginning. I decided to go into business.”

And with that he portrays the dark realities and darker truths he’d confronted during those days when he’d tried to survive in the so-called business-cum-corporate world. Pulling out rather generously from those experiences, weaving them in this novel. Writing with a well-defined and definite purpose. To quote him, “I had a clear objective to leave, through a novel, a reliable document for the future generations—a depiction of the extreme humiliation and abuse that was heaped on the helpless unemployed young men and women of our times. I wanted, too, to remind our youth and their parents that without emergency measures to tackle the employment problem, the very foundations of our social and personal lives would crumble.”

And this novel had caught the attention of Satyajit Ray to such an extent that the legendary film-maker had quipped: “I felt rampant corruption all around, and I didn’t think there was any solution. I was only waiting for a story that would give me an opportunity to show this.”An opportunity did come his way when he caught hold of a copy of Sankar’s novel, The Middleman. Read it and made his award-winning film Jana Aranya based on it. Not to be overlooked is Ray’s rather apt comment on this particular film: the only bleak film he’d ever made!

Today aren’t we all seeing, sensing and witnessing the tumbling-crumbling taking place—when there’s not just joblessness but recession and rampant corruption? Today it’s the well-connected who are thriving with nexus networking in full swing, paving the way for more sleaze and slander.

It’s about time that many more writers like Sankar and several more film-makers like Ray portray what’s going wrong in these strangely ‘developed’ times.

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