The Reengineers unfolds over a period of a day and an hour that begins and ends in Madras as Chennai was known then, in March 1991. Though the novel begins and ends in that time and place in a beloved old library in a poet’s house in a Madras suburb, the rest of the story is set in more recent times in the fictional town of Conchpore.
This post is about that bygone age of the eighties and early nineties that the novel refers to as the time ‘when life was lucidly defined in glorious shades of black and white, when the world was a relatively simpler place where time flowed at a slower, gentle pace’.
It was a different epoch of time, an era before the advent of the internet or mobile phones, when there were two television channels in most homes and cable TV was a rarity that had just started to make its presence felt. Was life was really better back then? I am not sure, for the world in the present day seems to be much better in several ways in comparison. Society is more broadminded, relatively. The internet is turning everyone into culturally and intellectually cosmopolitan global citizens. There is so much more freedom, so many more choices regarding every aspect of life, opportunities abound in every field like never before and even though it is still a very, very long way to the safe, perfect Utopia that was visualised in the optimistic fifties and sixties post independence, I believe that we are on our way to getting there.
Though nostalgia is passé, sometimes a phrase in a book or an old song brings to me memories of those days when time seemed to be endless and yet seemed to have so much more quality. Today if I wish to read a book, I can order it online and get it within a day, or buy an ebook and start reading immediately. I also have instant access to what readers around the world thought about the book, through the reviews on sites like Goodreads, Amazon and the many book blogs. But does this instant gratification and the deluge of readily available information live up to the joy of walking into a library, physically browsing through the books and finding unknown treasures by chance? Any song that I feeling like listening to is likely to be online, accessible at the click of a few buttons and sometimes the payment of a nominal fee. But it was something else, the joy of physically attending a concert or unexpectedly getting to hear an old favourite film song on Rangoli or Chitrahaar. As someone who grew up before the advent of email and phone messages, I rejoice in how it has revolutionised communication in work and life. Open conversations on social media have made the whole world kin, bringing people closer like never before. However, writing and receiving a letter on notepaper was not only a delightful experience but also a mode of communication on a totally different plane. Practically, I am all for the technological conveniences of the present day but the simpler life as it used to be until perhaps the mid-nineties had a whole lot more of old world charm. Perhaps I will never be sure which is better.
As I write this, a random memory of the early nineties comes to me – a song from an afternoon television program called Palash ke Phool broadcast on the Doordarshan’s national network that I sometimes used to catch on returning from school. It was a Tagoresque story of a village schoolteacher’s daughter waiting for her childhood sweetheart to return from the city. Not only the story but the presentation too was subtle and subdued, like in most other television programs of the eighties and early nineties. The actors were dressed very simply and in accordance with the story’s rustic setting and background. I especially remember the heroine’s austere cotton saris that complemented her serene countenance and gentle demeanour. Everyone including the hero’s friend whose proposal is rejected by the heroine spoke in calm voices and behaved with quiet dignity. I was too young to empathise with the romantic aspect of the story, what stands out in my memory is the soulful melody of the title song that the heroine sang to her beloved asking him to bring her Palash flowers whenever he visited her.
Neither Doordarshan nor any of the hundreds of television channels that abound today are likely to make such sensitive shows anymore. But then, it seems that such characters and such stories have also become rare, and can be found only in such random memories.