Mint ST - - FIRST -


friend and I were re­cently dis­cussing our new re­sis­tance to new things. SK said, “I feel I have be­come set like curds. No new cul­ture be­comes ac­tive in­side any­more with­out feel­ing strangely sour.” I was struck by her anal­ogy given what I was read­ing right then—jour­nal­ist Nikhila Henry’s new book on youth un­rest, a book co­in­ci­den­tally ti­tled The Fer­ment.

The poet John Ciardi wrote many things but he is most quoted for say­ing, “Fer­men­ta­tion and civ­i­liza­tion are in­sep­a­ra­ble”. It is in the pur­suit of bread, beer, pick­les and equiv­a­lents that civ­i­liza­tion has grown. As I tried to read about what the ac­tual process of fer­men­ta­tion is, I un­der­stood (fi­nally!) that it is not what I vaguely imag­ined it in­volved—man­than aka churn­ing. Fer­men­ta­tion is the metabolic process by which or­ganic mol­e­cules (nor­mally glu­cose) are con­verted into acids, gases or al­co­hol in the ab­sence of oxy­gen. A bub­bling in a still and air­less place that cre­ates some­thing new. It re­ally is a glo­ri­ous, smelly alchemy, and the re­sult is bet­ter than gold, the sub­stance al­chemists ap­par­ently went blind and mad while pur­su­ing.

There is a mo­ment of pro­found, toxic still­ness very early in Henry’s book. Not far from the late Dalit ac­tivist Ro­hith Vem­ula’s room in Hy­der­abad Cen­tral Univer­sity, she writes, there was a well in the fac­ulty res­i­den­tial area dug spe­cially for a Brah­min math­e­ma­ti­cian who did not want to share wa­ter from the univer­sity’s drink­ing wa­ter sup­ply. Henry un­der­lines with quiet vi­cious­ness the ci­vil­ity pol­i­tics that al­lows the math­e­ma­ti­cian to seem nor­mal, mild, sim­ple, spir­i­tual (insert benign ad­jec­tive of your choice) and stu­dents like Vem­ula to seem like the ones out of line. It is in re­ac­tion to places like that well and that anaer­o­bic spir­i­tu­al­ity that In­dia’s en­er­getic revo­lu­tions have come.

Henry writes, “Over and above ma­te­rial de­mands in­clud­ing em­ploy­ment and health ben­e­fits, In­dia’s young­sters sought well-be­ing, a nur­tur­ing ground on the shores of which their in­her­ent rest­less­ness would ebb.”

I skipped ahead of a ba­sic ques­tion you may have. Are we in the mid­dle of a youth rev­o­lu­tion? Henry says we are as she analy­ses young peo­ple and those who are in­clined to look at In­dia’s young peo­ple as de­mo­graphic div­i­dend ver­sus de­mo­graphic bomb. Nearly ev­ery para­graph of her book (which hap­pily takes a loose or­ganic struc­ture, rather than stick­ing to the rigid con­fines of con­tem­po­rary non­fic­tion) will con­vince you that we are in the mid­dle of many mil­lion revo­lu­tions. De­spite all dis­trac­tions, de­spite all dif­fi­cul­ties, de­spite all temp­ta­tions, young peo­ple across the length and breadth of In­dia are fer­vently on the job of mak­ing the world bet­ter.

Per­haps it is be­cause of the dis­trac­tions. Af­ter all, as chef René Redzepi said, “Fer­men­ta­tion is one of the coolest ana­log things you can do in a highly dig­i­tized world.”

But we re­ally won’t know for sure where we are for a while. Not un­til we, and those in the mid­dle of their re­bel­lions, look back. And when they look back, they might be only do­ing so in re­sponse to a new churn­ing, a new ag­i­ta­tion. And who knows what to­day’s rebels will feel then? As F. Scott Fitzger­ald, the stylish chron­i­cler of “youth cul­ture”, wrote in 1920, “At eigh­teen our con­vic­tions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

So is that what was hap­pen­ing to my friend SK (who has a fine and un­usual mind) and me, who are feel­ing a lit­tle curd rice-like th­ese days? Old age?

I am sur­rounded by friends who talk about starters for sour­dough bread and kom­bucha (which I am still a lit­tle un­clear about) and kim­chi. But I have never thought about the ever-ubiq­ui­tous curd in terms of a starter. As in, if you don’t have a lit­tle curd to start your new curd, what do you do? I googled it and couldn’t stop laugh­ing. Ap­par­ently one of the pro­ce­dures is to add red chill­ies to boiled milk. So much for my friend’s self-dep­re­cat­ing in­vok­ing of the bland­ness of yo­gurt. Ap­par­ently, into ev­ery life a lit­tle mirchi (spice) must come to be worth liv­ing.

The Fer­ment ends with a short med­i­ta­tion on the fu­ture of an in­fant Vem­ula, Ro­hith’s nephew born in De­cem­ber 2017 and also named Ro­hith. A baby for whom his fam­ily wishes the life they weren’t able to get, the world that the late Ro­hith longed for. Henry is cau­tiously op­ti­mistic of the boun­ties of the fu­ture and hopes that the “legacy of strife” will be car­ried on. Be­cause more than any­thing, fer­men­ta­tion needs one cru­cial in­gre­di­ent—time.

Cheap Thrills is a fort­nightly col­umn about mil­len­ni­als, ob­ses­sions and se­crets. Nisha Su­san is the ed­i­tor of the we­bzine The Ladies Fin­ger.


De­spite dis­trac­tions and dif­fi­cul­ties, In­dia’s young peo­ple are striv­ing for a bet­ter fu­ture.

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