When I returned to my hometown, Siliguri, from a long stay abroad this summer, one of the first changes I noticed was the attitude of the young Nepali man who drives our car. Two things caught my attention: a silver ring with the letter ‘P’ on his left hand, and a little sticker that he had pasted on the centre of the steering wheel. Dawa knew that I hated stickers being glued to my car, and yet he had allowed himself this indulgence.
I, diffidently, investigated from the rear seat: Vote for Prashant Tamang, read the sticker. It did not take me long to find out who Prashant Tamang was. From the Bagdogra airport to Siliguri, there were posters of the Nepali Indian Idol contestant everywhere – glued to tree trunks and lampposts, on hoardings next to Shahrukh Khan, on car rears and house fronts in Gurungbasti, a locality with a pronounced Nepali population. For the next several days, everywhere I went Prashant’s face followed me, and with him, a trail of numbers – 52525, an incantation that seemed to have hypnotised my town and its neighbours. I began to hear stories of local patriots, of young men staying awake all night long, not at defence outposts or research laboratories, but at temporary telephone booths, erected by benevolent telephone companies and shrewd politicians, hungry for proxy votes.
It was these stories that propelled me, finally, to tune in to Indian Idol. Over the next few Fridays, I watched, with the incredulity of a tourist watching a crumbling monument, as good singers were regularly voted off of the show. I began to concur with the media pundit Amit Varma’s argument that gender was an important parameter in the show’s voting patterns, with men voting for men whom they find unthreatening, and women voting for men they find ‘cute’ or ‘attractive’. When I arrived in Siliguri, only Prashant Tamang (a Nepali from Darjeeling) and Amit Paul (a Nepali-Khasi from Shillong) remained, having been voted into the final round by viewers from the Indian Northeast.
I have lived in a small town most of my life, and I understand its pretzel-natured aspirations. I know that we hunt for heroes even in shadows; that we are happy to see a neighbour singing in a chorus; that we are waiting to clap for anyone who shares our accent. At the moment, Prashant and Amit are small-town India’s poster-boys, young men who help us to see our best profiles in the mirror. A contest like Indian Idol is the small-towner’s ‘limited offer’ ticket to an equal-opportunity stadium. But it is difficult to see any show as a true talent-hunt contest if it bases its tests of merit on a community’s finger-tapping efficiencies and spare-fund-collecting abilities. This says something about our insecurities as communities, as well as our consciousness of belonging to that virtual reality called the Indian nation.
I have heard it said before that the Indian Idol winner would eventually be a Nepali. This type of rhetoric frightens me primarily because I see role-playing becoming inextricably bound with the idea of local identity. Prashant and Amit have been paraded by Sony (the show’s producer) as tourists in their own hometowns: they have been made to wear traditional attire, making them look like distant politicians asking for the local vote; their Hindi is usually rounded off with pleas for more votes in Nepali and Khasi. This is not just a ‘son-of-the-soil’ electoral tactic. Both of these boys, by common consent, were neither the best singers in the contest nor the most charismatic. What worked in their favour was something else, a feeling that is distinctly different from the element of ethnic identification and cultivation of a transnational Nepali or Khasi identity.
Remember that the last winner of the Saregamapa show was also a not-particularly-talented singer from Assam, named Debojit. This was all the more interesting because Debojit was Bengali, and in spite of all of the Bengali Hatao slogans, the entire Northeast ultimately rooted for him, contributing to his win. The success of Debojit, Prashant and Amit constitute the traditional opposition between nature and nurture. The success of the boys from the Northeast, which has often been represented in the rhetoric of the ‘raw’ and the ‘pure’, is an answer to the metropole-dominated discourse of meritocracy. Prashant’s win this season, and Amit’s second-place, were both victories of nature’s triumph over metropolitan nurture.
The world in this part of the country has changed. Dawa – driver, dreamer and drummer in a local band – does not just whistle the tune anymore, he sings it, scanning the words perfectly. “Man tha mero Nepali ho” – stressing the vowels, he looks at the rear-view mirror. I suspect he foresees a trail of hysteria following him, a convoy of possibility, satellite television’s gift to the small town, and the baptism of an achievable dream – a personal dream that becomes the collective aspiration of a community; a dream that usually visits the neglected child of a forgetful family, or a self-obsessed nation at mid-afternoon.
~ Sumana Roy teaches English at Darjeeling Government College.