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Shobhaa De: The youth don't have the guts for politics

Last updated on: January 18, 2013 10:30 IST

Image: It's much more of an aspirational world that they want desperately for themselves rather than becoming politically active, says Shobhaa De.
Photographs: Vijay Mathur/Reuters Savera R Someshwar, Vaihayasi Pande Daniel

'The young middle-class Indian is more concerned with Birkins and bikes and the EMIs on a new home and travelling abroad than politics,' novelist Shobhaa De tells's Savera R Someshwar and Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

Political parties and politicians are becoming richer and richer, while India has become poorer and poorer and poorer feels novelist Shobhaa De.

That was a good reason to profile politicians, with not too much kindness, in her latest novel Sethji.

De discusses politics, the bleak situation in India, its youth and the writing scene with's Savera Someshwar and Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

Have you read Part I of the interview with Shobhaa De?.

The youth of India are very, very disillusioned about politics. What would you tell them?

They are entirely justified in feeling disillusioned.

But disillusionment is not going to change a thing. It's not enough to say I'm disillusioned! What are they going to do? Light candles, write protest songs, have overnight vigils somewhere, hunger strike for a couple of days? It doesn't help.

You have to channelise that disillusionment, that rage... You can't feel powerless. You cannot feel helpless. You cannot expect the change to come miraculously out of thin air... that a fairy godmother or godfather will show up and wave a wand and bingo! It will all be fixed.

If they want things to change, they have to speak up.

Like they say, the greatest tragedy is not the clamour of the strident voices of the bad, but the appalling silence of the good.

So, if they want that change, they have to jump into it, get their feet dirty, get their hands dirty and fight from within. They cannot stand on the sidelines and say I'm disillusioned, I'm hurt, I'm feeling terrible about this.

Look at what's happening in other countries. Look at the Arab Spring. Look at the young all across the world.... when they feel strongly enough, they do something about it. The young of India have to do that.

Maybe the situation in India is not as bad as Egypt.

I think the biggest difference is that we are still living in a democracy.

In Egypt and elsewhere, they were living under dictatorships where they had no voice at all. There was a huge amount of suppression, a huge amount of rage that was fermenting for decades. But there was no way of giving expression to it.

It's a different situation in India.

Having said that, I think the young middle-class Indian is more concerned with the Birkins and the bikes and the EMIs on a new home and travelling abroad. Their focus is different.

It's much more of an aspirational world that they want desperately for themselves rather than becoming politically active, politically aware or even engaging themselves enough.

They might do it through NGOs; they feel, I go on the weekend and teach slum children so I've done my bit for India but that's not enough. It's really not enough unless they actively engage in politics as it is today at the grassroots level or challenge the status quo, challenge the system.

I don't see that happening in a hurry, but who knows?

Is it because politics is not considered an honest, lucrative profession?

Lucrative, yes...

Lucrative yes, but it's not an honest way to make money. You can make a lot of money and, once you become even an MLA, you are set for life. But do they see this as sacrificing too much, giving up too much?

No, I don't think they (the youth) have the guts and the stomach for politics.

It's not about giving up a thing.

Everybody in India knows, even the illiterate man on the street knows that even if you get to the sarpanch level or the municipality, you will still make more money, illegally of course, than you ever would struggling and toiling in a factory or in any other noble, honest profession.

Everybody knows what the deal is in politics and perhaps that deters a few right-minded individuals.

The young Indian -- those who are in a hurry to make it in politics, and they talk about it openly -- says, 'Forget about becoming an entrepreneur, forget about setting up a factory, forget about borrowing money from banks which you may not be able to repay, just get into politics yaar! You'll make more money in five years than you'll make in 50 years.' It will be more than what their fathers and grandfathers have ever made...

That is the prevailing situation, that's how people feel. It's very cynical, but there it is.

Please click Next to read what Shobhaa De thinks about the crisis India is facing...

'India has become poorer and poorer and poorer'

Image: We just don't have leadership. That is the crisis we are facing today and that is the crisis I hope the next election will set right, says Shobhaa De.
Photographs: Reuters

As a mother, I feel this generation has none of the idealism that, let's say, my father's generation had.

As a mother, how do you personally try to grow your own children's idealism?

The only way to do it is to demonstrate it in your own life. Otherwise, it will be really hypocritical and nonsensical and today's kids will tell you exactly where to get off.

For example, if I were to indeed go out and buy a Birkin bag -- which I do not, and will never, possess -- and then come and preach austerity to them, they're going to laugh in my face. You have to walk the talk with your kids because they can't be fooled.

If there are issues that concern you deeply, as they do me and my husband, even at the risk of being preachy old fogies and having the children say, 'Oh God, there they go again with their bhashans (speeches) and gyaan (knowledge).' It doesn't deter us, we don't give up.

We keep talking about it and, hopefully, at least one percent of it does percolate.

The basic message, which I think is worth repeating to your kids, is that they should lead an honest life without compromise; they should lead a life of integrity where they can look themselves in the eye in the mirror and not shudder or blink.

That's the best you can do. Other than that, I'm not Raja Ram Mohan Roy.

What goes through your mind when you look at where India is, politically and economically, today?

You can't divide the two.

Politics and economics go hand in hand, so what we are seeing in the last few years is that the political parties and politicians have become richer and richer and richer while India has become poorer and poorer and poorer.

It's not that we don't have the wealth. We have the resources. We have the brains. We just don't have leadership. That is the crisis we are facing today and that is the crisis I hope the next election will set right.

What gives you a feeling of hope as far as India's future is concerned?

The young, the educated, the restless, the impatient and the angry.

Many of India's leading politicians are single -- Narendra Modi, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik... Do you think not having the expectations and responsibilities of a family make for a different breed of politician?

You have to be married to politics if you take it seriously enough.

You really have to be married either to politics or to Bill Clinton; only then can you succeed.

If you have a Bill Clinton as your partner, then he's the one who's going to be driving you further into a political career that works for you as a couple. But even he is saying, and he sounded almost sad saying it, that Hillary wants to become a grandmother more than she wants to be the president of the United States of America.

It's very hard, especially for women in politics, to find that balance. Politics is hugely demanding. It takes a lot out of anybody, man or woman.

If you want to succeed, I'd say marry politics and forget about a sex life; forget about everything else.

Please click Next to read why dynasty politics is natural in India...

'Dynasty is something we've been accustomed to for decades'

Image: Politicians today may have better accents. They may dress sharper in designer wear. They may have been to foreign universities. But scratch the surface and you see the same old creature, says Shobhaa De.
Photographs: Pawan Kumar/Reuters

The other side of the coin is dynastic politics -- where you want to hoard everything for your son/daughter; the desperate need to have your son/daughter succeed you.

What do you think goes on in the mind of this kind of politician?

I would love to know! I've tried in Sethji to explore what goes on in the minds of these politicians. But it is inevitable, it is natural.

One sees it in corporate life. Today, politics is business; it is dhanda. I've said it in the book.

Just as a large corporate house would want to keep all the money and the power within the family, and succession plans are based not on merit but on the son or the nephew or an adopted son or a foster son or son-in-law and so on, in politics too, it is the same principle.

In India, there is a great amount of reverence and respect for continuity and dynasty. It provides Indians with a sense of security. It's like being in a womb where you fully looked after; the environment is not alien to you.

Whether in politics or in corporate life, dynasty is something we've been accustomed to for decades. I don't see that changing in a hurry.

Going back to your book, it seems like you've exaggerated the stereotype of the politician or the political game. Was it deliberate?

Secondly, do you feel that Sethji really exists as he is exactly portrayed in your book with no shades of grey?

Well, tell me where the exaggerations are and I'll be able to answer your question.

What is exaggerated about (Sethji's daughter-in-law) Amrita's life or Sethji's life?

In the sense that politicians may be...

Ruthless? Immoral? Venal?

Well, yes, and also in the way they dress. Now they look a little bit like (Union ministers) Milind Deora and Jyotiraditya Scindia...

Suit-boot wallahs? Are they really all that different?

They have been marinated in a certain political environment. They may have better accents. They may dress sharper in designer wear. They may have been to foreign universities.

But scratch the surface and you see the same old (pauses) creature.

I am still trying to understand why you chose to portray Sethji in a dhoti?

Today, when you use the word neta (leader), the average Indian, even the educated young Indian, will think of the topi (cap) and the dhoti and a politician from perhaps the badlands in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.

They will not think of a Jyotiraditya. They will not think of a Manish Tiwari. They will not think of a Milind Deora.

That is the politician that is imprinted on the public imagination. That is the politician who is the symbol for venality, corruption, immorality -- everything that we find loathsome in our system.

As far as grey shades are concerned, Sethji does have his vulnerabilities. I think they come through in many ways -- particularly when it comes to caste, to his own being and his health. There are areas where he is not even half as tough as Amrita for example she takes far tougher decisions.

To me, the dynamics of the book were about Sethji battling with the new India, a new political system, a new political order which has marginalised a lot of the Sethjis in our midst, whether it is in regional politics or in Delhi.

Sethji, for example, is out of his depth dealing with the polished new political creature in the corridors of power in Delhi or in the corporate corridors in Mumbai. But that does not mean they are not succeeding (in dealing with them).

Politicians like Sethji are big players in their own way; they are just unable to speak the new language of politics.

But the canny political brain ticks away regardless; there is no such word as compromise in Sethji's book. Nothing is a compromise if it means you are achieving what you set out to do and you have a target to meet.

Image: Akhilesh Yadav, Uttar Pradesh's young chief minister, with Bill Gates.

Please click Next to read why Shobhaa De used certain stereotypes of politicians in Sethji...

'The book was written much, much, before the lovely, lovely, Hina Rabbani came to India'

Image: 'We even have a movie character inspired by the Birkin, the Bagwati in Zindagi Na Milegi Doobara. That's the kind of iconic status we have given to a handbag'
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters

Another character I'd like to talk about is Sethji's daughter-in-law, Amrita. She's strong, gutsy, vulnerable. There are many other women mentioned in the book, but all of them come across as very...

Phikha (watery)?

Well, the story was really about Amrita and Sethji. They were the central characters of the book and it is their relationship that drives the story and drives the book.

The other women characters are like cameos, they come and go. They are not that important; they weren't that key to the telling of the story from my point of view.

They don't come across as strong, not even Simran, the wannabe actress who has an affair with a powerful businessman.

People like Simran are survivors. They are creatures who exist on the periphery of politics, manage to get what they can -- a BMW or a rich boyfriend with connections or a farmhouse -- and run...

Even Sethji's political opponent within his own party is a tough lady. I don't think she is a pushover. But when she has to make a choice, she settles for the money. You see people like them all the time.

Coming back to exaggerated stereotypes, like, for instance, picking up the Birkin bag or getting into a fancy car... Is that deliberate?

It's deliberate.

If you notice, the book was written much, much, before the lovely, lovely, Hina Rabbani came to India with her Birkin. And all of India was obsessed with it.

There is a Birkin syndrome in India. We even have a movie character inspired by the Birkin, the Bagwati in Zindagi Na Milegi Doobara. That's the kind of iconic status we have given to a handbag, for Christ's sake.

So, yes, if Amrita is carrying a Birkin, I have used that particular bag deliberately!

You seem to be parodying, maybe as a side show in the book, our own lifestyle ...

Not mine. I don't possess a Birkin...

I mean, the way we treat our help for example. Is there a parody of all of us there and not just Sethji?

It's not a parody... it's just a social comment.

It is how we treat our help. Even in this day and age, in the 21st century, not much has changed. It is a feudalistic, patriarchal society. We still talk a different language to the help. And I am not just talking about the babalog in Delhi.

Whether it is in Mumbai or Kolkata or any other city, we do have these clearly defined lakshman rekhas (dividing lines) we simply will not cross.

You won't ask your help to sit down with you for a cup of tea at the dining table.

So it's not parodying it, it's merely reflecting our social reality.

Please click Next to find out how Shobhaa De collected material for her novel on politicians

'I have a pretty good sense of what goes on inside politicians' heads'

Image: Fiction is really not about re-creating and re-producing something. That would be journalese; that would be reportage, says Shobhaa De.
Photographs: Krishna Murari Kishan/Reuters

How did you collect material for the Delhi part? That's tough because there's so much about politicians that we still don't know.

I didn't exactly move into one of those kothis (palatial houses) for my research if that's your question (laughs).

Having monitored politics in Delhi and elsewhere for over two-and-a-half decades, and having interacted and met with several politicians from Delhi, I have a pretty good sense of what goes on inside their heads.

I've visited their houses and know the way they live, the way they dress.

You have to be a keen observer. You need to listen. You need to be curious.

At the end of it all, it's a story that I am telling; I am a story teller.

Fiction is really not about re-creating and re-producing something. That would be journalese; that would be reportage.

A lot of it has to do with imagination, thank God, so a lot of it is imagined.

Please click Next to find out who are Shobhaa De's favourite young writers...

Tags: Delhi , Shobhaa De , God

'It was important for me to write this book now'

Image: 'All that is awful and wrong and depraved about politics in India today is, in a way, symbolised in Sethji and the cast of characters; it shows us the amoral world that we are endorsing even through our silence'
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

You seem to go back to the Shobhaa De formula. It's not there in India Superstar or in Letters To My Children, but it's there in your other books. You seem to believe that's a good formula to go by.

There is no such thing as a formula.

I mean, it's like saying what is the Yash Chopra formula? If there was such a formula, everybody would make a Yash Chopra kind of film. It's not that tough.

You can say I will look at all of Yash Chopra's films and pick the best elements and make a blockbuster like him.

The films he made were the films that were within him; they were the films he wanted to make; they were the films he was most comfortable with. It was turf he knew.

Similarly, my novels have all reflected, at different times, my interests, my travels, my curiosity, my concerns. And the books that you refer to, whether it was the India book or Letters To My Children

They tapped much more into the journalist in me because they were tracking changes in India at various levels -- whether it was in marriage or parenting or social change within India.

This book takes me back to fiction, back to story-telling which for me is Wow! It's like a luxury... It's like checking into the Ananda Spa in the Himalayas and just letting the imagination flow like the Ganga.

Your earlier book, Superstar India celebrates India, but Sethji de-celebrates India. Why is that?

Superstar India was written when we were really on the up, up and up.

2007 was such a fabulous year for India. There was so much hope and so much optimism. We really did walk with a different swagger. And we could not have anticipated this change in such a short span of time.

Superstar India was upbeat because I was feeling upbeat. India turned 60, I turned 60. It was like a parallel story.

And then came 2008 and the big crash worldwide; it didn't happen in India then but it did impact us hugely and everything went a bit out of kilter after that but...

So the de-celebrating of India in this book is reflecting your mood as well...

Completely. All that is awful and wrong and depraved about politics in India today is, in a way, symbolised in Sethji and the cast of characters; it shows us the amoral world that we are endorsing even through our silence.

So it was important for me to write this book now.

From romance and sex and Bollywood to politics... how did that transition happen in terms of your novels?

I wouldn't strictly call them romance and sex and Bollywood in quite the same way. I think each one of them was representative of a strong social change.

All of them were, in some way, a comment on what India was going through (then) which was quite cataclysmic at the time.

In many ways, they (De's novels) were ahead of their time, even if I say so (myself). For example, Socialite Evenings, which people imagined was just -- when I mentioned Malabar Hill and the life in south Mumbai, which is the life I know best; I've grown up here since the age of 10 -- a life I had invented.

Actually, that was the new India. That was a society in transition. At that time, we were not aware of it.

The people I described, the personalities in that book were individuals who I knew; they existed.

But when I mentioned Malabar Hill -- it was quite a prominent locale in the book -- people imagined I had merely superimposed Beverly Hills in the Indian context.

There was such disbelief! People could not imagine that was the high life of Mumbai -- it was pre-Antilla (Mukesh Ambani's home in Mumbai) you must remember. But, clearly, we were moving towards Antilla.

Socialite Evenings captured all of that in a way that was very truthful. Maybe people could not stomach that or they imagined I had imagined it all, which wasn't the case. It was reality as I knew it.

Similarly, Starry Nights, I think, remains the boldest and the most candid look at Bollywood from the inside out, rather than an outsider's version of it.

Let me put it this way -- it was not Madhur Bhandarkar looking at Page 3. It's very much a felt experience. Having edited Stardust for 13 years, I have an inside view.

Starry Nights remains, even today, the most definitive book about aspects of Bollywood that people still don't want to acknowledge. We still want to pretend there is no casting couch. We still want to pretend there is no underworld money. We still want to pretend it's all kosher.

It never was; it never can be.

What do you think of this whole boom in writing? There are so many books being released. Who are your favoured writers among the young set and why?

It's almost a flood of self-expression out there.

And why not? It's like a tsunami of literature coming out.

Everyone has a book and everyone wants to tell their story or everybody has a great idea for a book or a life experience that they imagine will transform the world.

I think it's fantastic because, for decades, there was no way for young people to get published. You had to be a name. Now, how do you become a name if no one wants to look at your manuscript? So it was a bit of a Catch 22 there.

Today, there are so many publishers and big players and international brands... the biggest merger (publishers Penguin and Random House) has just taken place. There will be more money. That will support the publishing industry. That will support young authors. I'm all for it.

Today, self-publishing is no longer considered disgraceful or demeaning. Those who cannot find publishing houses are quite happy to spend their own money and self-publish.

There are platforms across the board -- there are digital options. The world's gone mad with people wanting to express themselves, whether it's on YouTube or through writing. And the platforms are available.

To pick a favourite author would be a little difficult because, well, I can either write my own books or read everybody else's. And, as a publisher myself, I get at least 10 manuscripts a week to go through. And I enjoy that very much.

I see the vibrancy. I see the quality of writing. I see the ideas more than anything else. There are people wanting to say new things and they are saying them very well. So, as of now, it's boom time.

I hope the boom time stays. I expect that it will because younger and younger people are finding their voices and people are interested in those voices; they are finding their readers. They are finding an audience.

I don't want you to list only one name...

Throw a couple of names at me and I'll tell you.

Well, let's throw the most conventional ones... there's Rashmi Bansal, Amish Tripathi...

Yes, good writer. I liked his work (Amish Tripathi). I like what he stands for.

He's smart. He has reinvented and repackaged mythology in a way that is very sexy. Like a good marketing man, he has thought about how to position his books, how to create a brand.

I think he'd be in the top three in the publishing world today.

Anybody who you think may be a young Shobhaa De?

(Laughs) well, I've been waiting in journalism for 40 years for the clone to arrive. Waiting in fiction...

>But why have clones? Why have a young anyone?

There are so many young, fresh, wonderful, original voices. Why not just raise a toast to the original rather than a clone?

What's next on the anvil? Is a new book already in your head?

Yes, it's in my head.

I'm looking at a trilogy right now, but more than that I don't know because I need to nurse this baby -- that's Sethji -- through at least till the baby is a toddler and can walk on its own.

Once I am done with that, because the promotional activity will take at least another year, let's see...

But the book is definitely there. It's exploding out of my head, waiting to be written. So it's fiction for sure for the next five years.

Any hints?

No. My husband tried to pry it out of me -- he said could it be this, could it be that, you've left a window open here, could it be that character playing a more prominent... I told him I am not giving anything away for free.