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The Butterfly Generation

Palash Krishna Mehrotra

Rupa Publication

Pages: 272 Rs. 450

A rollercoaster ride that leaves you wanting more

Palash Mehrotra’s second book is an entertaining glimpse of a generation encountering great change, but it fails to deliver at vital moments, writes Aadisht Khanna

Aadisht Khanna  26th Feb 2012

A Contributing Editor to Rolling Stone India, Palash’s section on music is better written though reportage eclipses analysis

n the last few months, Indian reviewers have been expressing thankfulness for a spate of books — Aman Sethi's A Free Man, Katherine Boo's Beyond the Beautiful Forevers — that stay away from grand theories and narratives that explain all of India, and stick to shining a light on one tiny corner of India, examining it in great depth, and not worrying too much about What It All Signifies.

I have mixed feelings about this. I enjoy books which dive in depth into a specific topic, and do wish that there were more of them. I also realise that trying to construct a useful Theory of Everything about India is difficult, even foolhardy. And yet, the reviews of Katherine Boo and Aman Sethi's books have been almost over the top in their dismissal of the Big Narrative. The Big Narrative is an important genre, and we need writers who're ambitious enough to take up the challenge of tying together all the strands that make up society. Critics and readers do need to call out writers who're not equal to its demands, and books that don't live up to their ambitious promise — but to dismiss the genre itself is to rule out the possibility of a book that does pull off an explanation of the India story — to go from healthy scepticism to cynicism.

That somewhat rambling digression into different sorts of nonfiction was necessary to explain my unease — even exasperation — with Palash Krishna Mehrotra's The Butterfly Generation. The book's cover blurbs promise an examination of India's new generation — but the book itself doesn't deliver it. What we get instead is a series of loosely connected vignettes and essays. The first part is a collection of verbal portraits; the third part is longer essays on Indian entertainment, especially music; and the second, weakest part is a set of essays on trends in Indian society.

The Big Narrative is an important genre, and we need writers who’re ambitious enough to take up the challenge of tying together all the strands that make up society.

The portraits are possibly the best written section. Since Mehrotra is writing about people he knows personally, he is able to dive into their lives and examine both them — and his relationship and reaction to them — in detail. Despite the detail, these are short, active, and tightly written vignettes.

The section on entertainment is spoiled by a flabby essay on the history of Indian television. Overly long, and with little fresh insight, I felt it was wallowing in nostalgia of the sort that can be found all over the blogosphere, and had no place in a published collection. The essays on music were far better, though: Mehrotra is a Contributing Editor to Rolling Stone India, according to the author profile, and his involvement with the Indian music scene is evident. But even here, analysis is overtaken by reportage. In an essay, Mehrotra might offer two alternative explanations for something, but never weigh their competing merits, or even bother to acknowledge that he's offered up competing explanations.

n the essays on trends, where Mehrotra moves away from both his area of expertise and his personal relationships, this lack of analysis derails the writing utterly. These essays are observation piled upon observation, with neither insight into nor closeness to the subject. Every essay quotes or describes liberally, and then serves up a generalisation by way of commentary. And Mehrotra's writing often descends to basic general knowledge, leaving me wondering if this book was written for a foreign reader, or perhaps just a very superficial one — as if he had seen the readers in The Hindu's TV advertisement, and decided to give them a crash course in what was going on around them.

By itself, this is not a problem, but every section seems to be written for a different sort of reader. I thought the first section sympathetically written, but couldn't understand why I should find the people described interesting. The second section seems to be written for the sort of people described in the first section, while the third section finally had something for me — the reader who knew nothing about Indian music, but was aware that it existed and was worth understanding.

There is nothing that unifies the three sections, except the claim that they together explain India's new generation. I don't know whether this claim was made by the writer, the editor, or the marketing department, but it's arrogant and laughably wrong. The first section describes two or three thin slices of Indian society, the second generalises about all of it, and the third dives into an independent music scene that while growing, is too small to typify, or even affect, a generation.

We return now to the problem I described in the beginning — had Mehrotra stuck to one section, and developed it, he could have come up with a well written book of portraits, a good book about Indian music, or a really great book about particular Indian musicians. Instead, we have a mishmash that tries at time to be focused, at times to be all-encompassing, and achieves the worst of both extremes.

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