This is The End, My Friend…
The problem with Ajith Pillai is that he does not carry baggages, cliches, stereotypes or jingoism as a feather in his cap. In fact, he never wears a cap. He walks the straight and narrow path, and he never flies on false hope. He does not waive a flag. He is neither a poet nor a prophet. He does not even carry bitterness or cynicism as the adrenaline which drives several generations of old-fashioned journalists, who gulp it down in the evenings, swallowing and wallowing in a quagmire of daily despair.
Once upon a time Ajith too had his drinks, sometimes straight from the bottle, or he would too rattle off a spontaneous metal and rock on a high vocal with both base and lead guitar below his tongue, but that was because he was too good a reporter. Hardened, roughened, unhinged, unleashed on the front pages of some of the finest newspapers and mags of the land, especially when one particularly freaky Editor from Bombay, bindaas as ever, would give him a free run to break the exclusives only he could. Not that a byline, however legendary and ephemeral, would bother him at all; they made little sense to his reporter’s instincts as he chased another story down the railway tracks of Bombay, in the underbelly of the gutters, across the silken layers of money, magic and seduction, or through the cold, impersonal, ruthless corridors of power. There was always a clinical detachment to this man, and that was the great objectivity of his journalism; you could never pin him down with fame or blasphemy. Often, in his infinite invisibility, his integrity, and his humility, he just did not care. He cared a damn.
His first book was called ‘Off the Record’, but that was a metaphor; you could read between the lines and call it ‘On the Record’. Students of journalism particularly loved it; so did old pals and enemies. The only thing is that he was basically an old-fashioned scribe who refused to, instinctively, trust diabolical and shady ‘sting operations camouflaged as great investigative journalism’; surely, he would never compromise a source, or cheat and subvert vintage media ethics. You could trust Ajith to be stunningly stoic about his sources and his story, as a reporter and later as an editor, and his boss could always go home and sleep peacefully, unafraid of defamation suits or sinister phone calls from Lutyens’ Delhi. At least that was his call, and he never pretended to be perfect, and he knew how to have a good laugh; after all — we all knew for instance who the source was for all the stories coming from that ‘conflict zone’. The same source, Ajith? Is the story coming wrapped in a ‘chicken tikka‘ from that infamous boozy dhaba on that infamous street? We would laugh and move on. And life would go on.
‘Here’s one for the Road’: I wrote an eulogy on his first book for Tehelka. Ajith deserves more than an eulogy. If you ask me, he is so compulsively quiet and quietly invisible. However, those who know his journalism and his writings, they also know how spoofy and sufi he can get; caricature as a metaphor for a straight expression; opium as a method for detoxed sanity; hard rock as eternally soul and blues. I wrote: “He enters familiar and unfamiliar corridors like a sleepwalker enters a dream sequence. He walks leisurely like an animal with eyes, who knows how to hunt with precise instinctive movements. He beats the typewriter keys into the carbon like a conductor works his opera. He turns the mundane into the exalted, the primordial into bitter realism and the margins into the mainstream. Like a documentary filmmaker who breaks the shallow, repetitive, didactic medium with an invisible, measured, winged leap of imagination, he scripts his own pulp fiction from the hollow of his reporter’s soul, sometimes uncanny with unrequited desire, precise like a news story, sardonic and spoofy, holding back yet again, sometimes like a hangover which needs another hard drink…” http://www.tehelka.com/2014/08/book-review-ajith-pillai-off-the-record-untold-stories-from-a-reporters-diary/
His new book, ‘Junkland Journeys’ is a text steeped in the crisis of modernity and spirituality in a backward capitalist country with pseudo superpower pretensions like India. Published by an the unique commune of Authors Upfront, just launched in Bengaluru, and soon to be launched in Mumbai and Delhi, among other places, the book smells of marijuana smoked inside a swanky ad-agency corporate office, a smoky, sleazy, always packed working class bar near the Gateway in Mumbai which every cub reporter has discovered like a pilgrimage, and the seductive laziness of a Marxist female comrade celebrating the adventure of ideas in the ghettos of Mumbai’s suburbs, while, perhaps, reading The Calcutta Chromosome. Don’t go by the unassuming beginning of the book; it is as unassuming as its Mallu author, who, it seems, has left his rum and brandy, and has chosen to go for a lime soda. It’s like his depressive, sexually ambivalent and defunct, psychic and solitary protagonist suddenly choosing to turn spiritual; a godman amongst gods, a dog in a dog eat world, as Ajith writes, “Dog-God-God-Dog. Dog days. Dogfight. Dog’s life. Dog eat dog. Dog end. Dogma, dogpa, doggone, doggerel… That is why in the beginning is not the word, it is god, it is dog, it is also John Lennon: “God is the concept by which we measure our pain.”
Sounds almost like Karl Marx: Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
If the opium of the masses is religion, and it has penetrated the veins and intestines of the nation’s political unconscious, throbbing like a daily, festering, untreated wound in the everyday fascism of our lives, where the normalcy of psychopaths and mass murderers, as much as lynch mobs and vigilant gestapos, have become poetry and prophecy on front pages and on prime time, the Junkland Journeys begins modestly and enters the inner-lanes of barbarism when Bombay burnt with the fires of hell-fire. This was 1992-93, the dark winter of a city besieged by fanatics, with transparent, brazen and lucid support from the establishment, as the ‘black day’ of the demolition of the Babri Masjid haunted the nation’s jarred and charred landscape, and riot after riot followed the back-lanes and back-alleys of towns, suburbs and alleys of a country under siege. The marijuana in the ad-agency office had long etherised into the black soot of the smoke which haunted Bombay’s skyline as blood and flesh mixed into an anti-thesis of the mass celebration of murder and violence across the tide of the full moon, with the sound of the sea like a scream of despair.
The Junkland Journeys, in its innocuous beginning, might make you slightly stoned. The book wakes you up, page after page, as the reporter writes his jarring truth of fiction, the dialectic of spirituality and modernity, and fills the landscape with memories long eliminated by stagnation and lethargy and the diarrhoea of the mouth, as the nation wants to know, amidst night after night of banality, arrogance and mediocrity, and corruption and compromise camouflaged as journalism and truth. You must therefore enter the book with patience, a slow hesitation, move into the pages of despair and spoof, and learn to unlearn the journeys with the hard and hardened realism of the times. This is no celebrated novelist or epic classical,or best-seller top-of-the-pop writer; this is Ajith Pillai, still smelling of newsprint and rum, walking the backlanes, his shirt blowing with the sea-wind of Bombay’s weary and lonely night, surrounded by faces but almost alone and faceless, mapping the mappings of a city without shores. Often, without sanity, hiding its anger and its alienation, like pain.
Truly, in that sense, John Lennon yet again comes back with his song, junked in modernity’s method of the madness, without baggage or cliche or cynicism. The journey has just begun, and we all know the end: This is the end, my friend.