The stories I get the most satisfaction from are usually about the neglected margins of India, where struggle is enmeshed with life. The ones I will upload have been written for The Sunday Guardian and (the now defunct) Covert Magazine. I'll be putting up any articles here at least until The Sunday Guardian website is up in a couple of months. Thank you for reading.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hear Ye, Hear Ye. Caesar Arriveth

(a shorter version of this piece appeared as the edit in the Sunday Guardian on 7th November)

In those distant times when a toga was standard attire for the dapper gentleman-about-town, and not solely the party accessory of choice in American undergraduate fraternities, the Caesar would occasionally leave behind the magnificent ramparts and towers of Rome and tour the dominions, where he could see firsthand what life and livelihood were really like in those scattered little dots that relied on his Great Benevolence.

The visit of the Emperor would cause huge excitement. The local chieftains and warlords (especially those not tainted by war widow housing scandals) clamoured for an audience with the Emperor. The roads, usually so shoddily built they would cave in if it rained two days in a row, would be especially reinforced; after all, the Imperial Chariot was a weighty beast, with shining spokes of gold and bulletproof windows certified by 50 Cent himself. It would not have done for the almighty Caesar’s chariot to fall through the surface, into the cesspool of muck and refuse that swirled under these poor Dominion-dwellers their entire lives.

The Imperial tours were important because this was the time when the largesse of Rome would be apportioned, and the chieftains would spend years and years fashioning for themselves begging bowls, which they would call by strange names, like SENSEX and BSE. They would shout loudly about how big their bowls had become over the last few years, and how big their bowls could be, if the Emperor, in his wisdom, decided to help them just a bit.

As it is with all men of Great Benevolence, the Emperor would play favourite, doling out his bounty with some care. How difficult it was to rule the entire world only he knew. And those quivering beards in the Senate of Rome would not allow him to do just as he pleased. Their messages would be passed on: Commodius would say: “The dark warriors of Sumeria have the thorium we need for our new nuclear-powered arrows. They must be kept happy. Give them some gold, and a new donkey cart.” Incantus would say: “but their enemies, the Assyrians, hold the key to the magical kingdom of Afpak. They are weak, but petulant. Give their king a bribe. Call it a military loan.” Then there were others, like Emmanuleus, who instead of giving advice would inexplicably leave to run for Mayor of Chicago.

Perhaps the strangest behaviour would be seen within one tiny subsection of society, the Drum Beaters. The Drum Beaters were a group who enjoyed suffixing scattered initials to their name to convey a sense of gravitas, as in, Msduttus NDTV, and Sagarikus CNNIBN, and Arnahiccupicicus TNOW, and their job was to assist the spread of information to the populace. Because debate in dominion society was always rough and ready, the vital qualification for this job was the ability to speak at the same decibel level as the trumpet of a baby elephant (the Romans had machines to measure these things); over the years, this ability to speak very loudly, and very fast, was confused with the ability to identify and solve all that ailed dominion life. Soon all the chieftains, policemen and warriors, even the best thinkers of the day, would go to their debates, and try and show everyone that they too could speak very loudly, and very fast.

Our studies show that the Emperor’s visit generated two easily identifiable reactions amongst these Drum Beaters. The more indulgent of the lot – let us call them the Liberal-Epicureans – would see the Emperor’s visit as a good chance to finally interact with someone of intellect, dignity, style and importance equal to their own. As the world watched, they would sit the Emperor and his wife down and smile knowingly, as if to say: “yes, if you can imagine, I live amongst these crude folk, who know not Sartre or Glenn Beck. It is a weary life we lead, you having to rule the entire world, me having to shout inanities incessantly.” And then, as an aside, “I came to your inauguration in Rome, you know. Did you see my NDTV van?”

The second type of Drum Beater was of the taskmaster variety, the Incautious Stoics, if you will. This people were self-acknowledged experts at the Harangue. The Emperor’s visit thus became a chance to ask why thousands of things had not been done. “Why have you given our neighbours flying chariots? And where is all the money that was promised us? And are you actually saying you won’t be solving that intractable self-determination/border dispute during your three day visit here? For shame.”

Dominion society was full of such characters. Such as the merchants, who when the Emperor visited, would quickly appliy their makeup, pull out the old leather boots & fishnet stockings and hit the streets with their finest “come here, big boy” looks. These merchants’ God, Commercius, was actually the Emperor’s poodle. If the Emperor was happy, Commercius would wag his fluffy tail, and these merchants could rest happy knowing their best Julia Roberts-in-Pretty Woman impressions were not going unnoticed.

All in all, it was a strange, mysterious time, shrouded in the mists of the past. There must be some lessons for us in the here and now, but for the life of me I can’t figure them out.

(My extensive research for this editorial involved finding a Youtube clip of that scene where Joauqin Phoenix returns to Rome in Gladiator. All complaints about the historical accuracy of the facts noted above should therefore be sent to: Ridley Scott, Director, Hollywood).