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Midnight’s grown-ups

What the stars of an old Indian documentary make of their country now

Samanth Subramanian | May/June 2015

For most of last year, practically every fortnight, I dialled a house in Troy, Michigan, trying to speak to a man I had seen in a film half a century old. Let me admit, up front, that I failed. T.N. Subramaniam was unwell when I first called, his wife told me, and if he ever recovered enough for us to have a conversation, I never learned of it; abruptly, in August, his home turned unreachable, the phone ringing endlessly away. No one called back. After months of searching for Subramaniam and thinking about him, I lost my chance to ask him the questions that had gathered, like giant snowdrifts, in my mind.

My obsession with the film he was in, “I Am 20”, began in the early autumn of 2013—a dispiriting season for India, a season vacant of cheer or promise. There had been a parade of bad news: outsized corruption, a gummed-up economy, politicking of wearying vileness. An uninspiring election was drawing nearer. The nation’s affairs felt soiled and beleaguered, and the very project of India seemed to have gone awry in some profound way. In this troubled climate, I watched “I Am 20” for the first time, and then dozens of times more, spellbound by its characters and by the messages it held.

To be sure, I couldn’t easily have seen it before then. Commissioned by the state-run Films Division in 1967, it had kicked around as a filler in cinemas and then for a while on television; only in September 2013, when the Films Division posted a batch of its old productions on YouTube, did “I Am 20” become widely available. I can’t remember how I stumbled upon it—following some trail from social media, no doubt—but I do recall the way my skin prickled in recognition. Here were our thoughts and deep worries of today, but fixed on film 46 years earlier. What sorcery of repetitive history was this?

The conceit of the documentary—19 minutes, black-and-white—is straightforward. In 1967, 20 years after the British left India, the film-maker S.N.S. Sastry was asked to interrogate a host of 20-year-olds about their fledgling nation. He produced a succession of talking heads, interpolated with images of India that have the cool, detached quality of found footage: trains barrelling over bridges, a tribal folk dance, tall palm trees on a beach, villages and farms and factories, M.A.K. Pataudi (the Nawab, as he was then known) batting in a Test match. Sastry himself never appears on screen, so we can only reconstruct the questions he posed. How much progress has India made? What do you want out of your life in India? Are we better off now than two decades ago? What problems still plague India? What does freedom mean to you? What does your country mean to you?

Stacked up, these questions leak anxiety, as if Sastry asks them in the full expectation of uncomfortable answers. He gets plenty: “I don’t have any love for my country,” declares a gangly fellow hunched over his ukulele, who only moments earlier was crooning the first few bars of the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better”. One young woman: “I think of India when I think of long queues. People waiting patiently for buses, for rations.” Freedom, an engineering student says, has only meant “that man has freedom to starve, to go naked, to die of hunger, and to go uneducated”.

Complaints emerge about the bribes needed to get into a university, about the swelling population, or the lack of machinery to plough a farm. Some students admit to unexceptional ambitions. “I’d like to be a rich young man,” one says. “I believe in high living.” In the villages, people discuss their poverty—without rancour, but also without visible hope. Perhaps a third of Sastry’s subjects talk in Indian languages: Bengali, Tamil, Hindi or Punjabi. The rest speak English, and the relative loftiness of their class allows them, amid thoughts about dancing and travel and meteorite research, to make some stray expressions of faith in their country. These moments gleam like nuggets of gold in a heap of coal. Behind the images, by way of a soundtrack, runs a sprightly little jig, but as the disappointment congeals, the melody begins to feel ragged and manic. My ear heard discordant notes even when there probably weren’t any.

More than two dozen people flicker in and out of the film, but there is an undisputed star. He’s the only one allowed the privilege of an introduction. “My full name reads T.N. Subramaniam,” he says, his voice 
nasal but pleasant. “T stands for Tinnevelly, that’s the name of my village. N stands for my father’s name, Neelakanthan. And Subramaniam, of course, is my name.” He sits at a desk, a plump calculus textbook set before him as a prop. His dense dark hair would be wavy if he grew it out, but you get the sense that he’d never permit himself such indiscipline. His face is slim; he has a way of tilting it downwards and gazing up at the camera that, combined with his toothy smile, gives him the look of a wise imp. He holds his thick, black-framed glasses in his hands as he speaks, turning them over and over, professorial even at 20. He is absurdly articulate, and Sastry adores him. In turn, Subramaniam adores India. He regards it as an explorer would an unfamiliar land, keen on traversing it thoroughly to chart it for himself. He wants to observe and record his impressions of his compatriots, he says: “their songs and their dances…the agony, the anguish and the anger, the fertile soil, the pastures—anything. So that one day, I could open the book and remind myself what I’m part of and what is part of me.” He starts his sentences with “Well,” as if he has deliberated upon these ideas for years: “Well, it seems to me the fashion today to denigrate the country, and when two people meet, they get into a sort of competition about who can abuse the government better.” He urges the long view: “I would say our achievement is that we have a hopeful tomorrow. Our failure is that our today is very precarious.” The film’s last words are his. “If all the people in this country who didn’t fancy their prospects in it were allowed to quit, I think I’d stay. Because it’s something big. It’s a huge experiment, and I would like to be a part of it.”

I was curious about the pessimists and the optimists, the brash and the thoughtful, the chap who sang the Beatles and the woman who was tired of queues

I was drawn to Subramaniam, this garrulous man only two years older than my father, their names a tweak away from each other. But really I was curious about everybody in the film: the pessimists and the optimists, the brash and the thoughtful, the chap who sang the Beatles and the woman who was tired of standing in queues. In that gloom-ridden September of 2013, locating the men and women of “I Am 20” began to feel like a vital and urgent task. I wanted to know what they had done with their lives, how their opinions had held up, and what they thought of our country today.

The credits of “I Am 20” divulge no details of characters or locations. Somewhere in the Films Division archive is a sheaf of production notes pertaining to the documentary; in these, Sastry may have named the people he enlisted. But India’s state-run archives are famously tight-lipped, and with nothing else to go on, tracking down the cast looked infernally difficult. And it was, for weeks. Then a chance comment on YouTube identified one of the young men as Shailesh Gandhi, and it was like springing the final tumbler of a lock. Gandhi, who had gone on to serve as an information commissioner with the government, was easy to find. “Oh yes, I know plenty of the others in the video,” he said, when I called him. “There’s Dunu Roy. There’s a chap called Victor Menezes who had an interesting career. There’s Aditya Kashyap, who unfortunately died a few years ago, and there’s Ashutosh Haldipur, who’s in America now.”

Sastry, it turned out, had been guilty of mild sleight of hand. Stymied by his original mission of finding Indians born on August 15th 1947—the date India became independent—he enlarged his ambit to 20-year-olds in general, then to anybody born in the vicinity of 1947. Even so, Sastry was unhappy with the interviews he first recorded, in rural India or on city streets. So he went to one of the leading universities, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Bombay, and asked for some of its brightest students. Gandhi, who was the secretary of the IIT student body, wheedled his more opinionated, quick-tongued friends into the exercise. “I remember Sastry saying, after he’d finished shooting: ‘I’ve got my film now!’” Gandhi said. Nearly every extended interview is with an IIT undergraduate, which lends it a pronounced male, middle-class tenor. (“When I was at IIT, there were nine girls,” Gandhi said. “Just nine. Across the entire campus.”) Through him, I reached most of the other IIT students in the film, but the women and those in the villages remained lost to me.

The other Gandhi: Shailesh Gandhi sold his business to become an activist

I went to see Gandhi in the study of his apartment in Bombay, now Mumbai. On the wall above his desk was a pencil sketch of his namesake, the Mahatma; on the desk, a marble bust, also of the great man, mysteriously divested of his spectacles. The Gandhi who is still with us has an open, amiable face; since his university days, it has changed only with the addition of a French beard of fine upkeep. For all his good humour today, he is the dour scold in “I Am 20”, the one who stands in a laboratory and frets about the average Indian’s “freedom to starve”.

Gandhi remembers that year, 1967, as a turbulent one. In the previous half-decade, India had lost a war against China, won another against Pakistan, and witnessed the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, its first prime minister and foremost idealist. During a famine in 1966, more than 2,000 people had died of starvation; the nation’s farms were ailing, as were its industries. In the summer of 1967, in a West Bengal village, a violent communist uprising called for land to be redistributed among poor farmers. That year and the next, elsewhere in the world, there were student riots. Impatience was in the air. An old order seemed to be primed for dissolution.

“We saw poverty, and a lot of unfairness, and we thought these things weren’t changing,” Gandhi said. It felt like a crossroads, just as 2013 felt like a crossroads, a more dire one still than 1967. “If I look at the graph of how our values and ethics have been sliding over the past couple of decades, and if you extrapolate from there, we’re in for a disaster. We’re going to be a third-rate nation. But we can change this, and there are signs that we may yet change it.”

Between the brief cycle of human existence and the longer cycle of national improvement, though, there is a tension. Life cannot wait for the graph to extrapolate. Some of Gandhi’s friends, like Victor Menezes, went to America and never returned. In “I Am 20”, Menezes is a brash youngster with brilliantined hair, aspiring to marry his boss’s daughter; he went on to become the senior vice-chairman of Citigroup, and to have a convention centre at IIT named after him. From afar, Menezes discerns progress back home. “The reputation of Indians, of Indian products and Indian universities, has gone through the roof,” he said, over the phone. “You can’t go into any company in the world today without seeing Indians in senior management.”

But this was a pinched view of progress, was it not?

Not at all, Menezes said; I was just too close to the bad news. He gave me some bankerspeak. “The worst thing you can do is read the daily newspaper. Because if you step back a moment, and look at the fundamentals, they’re quite amazing.”

That same day, I went to see Dunu Roy, in his office in a New Delhi market complex whose fundamentals were far from amazing. The wind whipped mud in from a nearby construction site and coated the buildings with grime. Electricity cables, legal and illegal, ran overhead in a tight twisted mess, like thick serpents devouring each other. There were broad gashes in the paving that hemmed the complex, and, in them, run-off from AC units puddled and stagnated. Just outside, the ring road was consumed by traffic. Roy’s office was one large room brimming with employees and computers. Roy himself sat at a computer, his silver hair brushed back from his forehead, not recognisable at all as the Bengali boy with soulful eyes in “I Am 20”.

The urban poor live on the margins of a city’s consciousness and often find themselves excised from visions of a shiny new India

After IIT, he had found his way into rural development, spending 17 years in a single district in central India, helping villagers plan their lives and engineer their own solutions to their problems. Now he works with the urban poor, who live on the margins of a city’s consciousness, and who often find themselves excised from visions of a shiny new India. “The way our economy is structured,” Roy said, “it is responsible for a lot of inequality.”

If, in 1967, Roy had been told about the state of his country in 2013, he wouldn’t have been too disappointed, he said. “That’s with the benefit of hindsight, of course.” He regarded progress as a painstaking cycle of trial and error. “There was a period of ferment in the 1960s, when people said, ‘This isn’t working. Let’s look for other answers.’ There was another such period in the 1990s. And there’s another now. We’re disillusioned with our government, searching for another way.” He found the search satisfying. “The larger the crisis, the more creative the response,” he said, and he grinned, as if he approved thoroughly of whatever crisis we’re passing through at the moment. “It’s a much more exciting time now.”

The biting assessments that Gandhi had made in “I Am 20” caught up with him. At an IIT alumni meeting in the late 1990s, an old professor asked him: “Shailesh, you used to be very critical about society—what do you think now?” Gandhi’s first impulse was to moan that things were still not right; upon reflection, he realised that if the country around him was still broken, it was because his generation had failed to repair it. So he sold his business—a factory that manufactured plastic bottles—and became an activist, working on freedom-of-information issues. “There’s a learned helplessness we’ve come to feel as a public,” he told me. “Everybody is happy to say that the government should fix things. But it’s our responsibility to convert our government into a better government.”

I quoted one of the young girls in “I Am 20”. “What do you want me to do for the country? I think I do enough by being an honest citizen, by doing my job to the best of my ability, by working eight hours a day.” Shouldn’t that be enough? 

Gandhi mulled over this. “You know, my daughter talks the same language.” She left for America a decade ago, and on the eve of her departure, Gandhi told her, “Your life is yours, of course, but I hope that, after a few years, you’ll come back.”

“I want to live an honest, decent life,” she said, “and I think it’s difficult to do that here.”

“Many things are wrong in India,” he replied. “They need to change. But we need to change them.”

“But you’ve wanted to do that, and I don’t think you’ve been very successful,” his daughter said. “I don’t want to do that.”

Gandhi recounted this conversation to me. “She’s settled there now, with a husband and a child. But my feeling still is that it’s up to us citizens. Look, I love my wife and child not because they’re the best people in the world, but simply because they’re my wife and my child. If you feel that bond, then you say you’re responsible.” His voice cracked and shook. “Why should I believe in India? Because it’s mine.”

Nobody knew where T.N. Subramaniam was. TN, as his friends called him, had been at IIT with Gandhi and Roy and the rest of them, but after he graduated, he had melted out of view. He wasn’t on Facebook or alumni listservs, and he didn’t attend reunions. His name was so generic that search engines threw up hundreds of results: a deputy manager at Isuzu Motors, a technology architect at an American company called RouteOne, a Tamil epigraphist. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t have written to all of them. The star of “I Am 20” had gone entirely incognito.

From the accounts of his friends, I built a mental composite of him. His father had been a journalist in New Delhi, and TN had arrived in Bombay besotted not with engineering but with books and philosophy. Roy called him a rarefied intellect: “His sharpness came from a particular kind of logical mind, which doesn’t necessarily apply well to reality.” The restlessness of TN’s mind transmitted itself to his body; in conversation, his hands flailed about with abandon and he smoked incessantly. “Do you have a light?” he’d ask, showing up at a friend’s dorm room at midnight. Once that was procured, he’d add: “Now, do you have a cigarette?”

A welcome development: Dunu Roy works with the urban poor in New Delhi

He was content to maintain his grades a rung or two above average; if he could, he skipped classes 
altogether and held court in the cafeteria, prolonging a cup of coffee and persuading people to stop and chat. Not everybody took him up on these invitations. TN was an acquired taste, too fond of proving his intelligence, making the acid retort, quoting Wittgenstein with pomp, cutting arguments short by dismissing the counterview as “epistemological bunk”. He was intimidating, and he was happy to intimidate.

These qualities served TN well in the debating society, where he climbed into flights of rhetoric, using words that few understood. He wrote plays, inscrutable Beckettian dramas; Roy directed them, but says he never fully understood them. In one, a character kept opening a box and proclaiming, “It’s empty,” while three others did things in different corners of the stage.

“It was mystifying,” Roy said. “Nobody knew what the hell was happening! But the audience was glued to its seats. There wasn’t a whisper throughout, and then there was thunderous applause. What it meant, nobody knew.”

For all his chatter, TN never revealed much. When Gandhi watched the final cut of “I Am 20”, he wondered if TN had told Sastry what he really thought, or if he had simply gauged the most appealing things to say. Nobody knew TN well enough to figure that out. Then they graduated, and none of them saw him again.

In February 2014, I posted a fifth or sixth plea for leads on Twitter, asking if anybody knew the narrow-faced young man in the film. Usually people tried to help by Googling TN and sending me pages I had already discovered. This time, though, an old IIT roommate of his responded. He’d heard that TN had gone to Brandeis University, near Boston, for graduate studies.

A memory fizzed. One of the TNs I had come across online had studied at Brandeis. Then he had taught at Oakland University in Michigan. Then he had joined RouteOne as a technology architect. I unearthed articles in mathematics journals written during his time at Oakland: “Reduction Formulas Revisited”, “The Summation of Rational Functions by an Extended Gosper Algorithm”. I found an interview with RouteOne’s TN that had a photograph: a balding, wry-mouthed, narrow-faced man, with eyes of an arresting brightness that reminded me of the TN in “I Am 20”. When I read the interview, though, my spirit trembled. Was this what TN—the Wittgenstein-spouting TN who exulted in his country—had finally done with his life? Had he moved to the United States to build software that streamlined car loans?

I wrote to four RouteOne executives, and one of them sent me his former colleague’s e-mail address, cautioning that he’d heard TN was unwell and might not respond. He was right. Then I wrote to six people in the mathematics and computer-science departments at Oakland, where TN had taught until the early 1990s. My luck turned; a computer-science professor remembered him, dug around, and sent me an address and phone number in Troy, Michigan.

I called Troy. A woman picked up.

“Is this the residence of T.N. Subramaniam?”

“It is.”

I said that I was a journalist calling from India, and that I was hoping this T.N. Subramaniam was the one who had appeared in a documentary during his time at IIT.

She sounded incredulous, as if I was a telemarketer with a novel cover story.

“No, but what is this really about?”

So I elaborated further, about S.N.S. Sastry and Shailesh Gandhi and Dunu Roy, and about “I Am 20” and its re-emergence on YouTube. I explained why TN had fascinated me, and told her as much as I knew about him.

OK, you’ve found him,” she said, when I ran out of breath. This was TN’s wife, and she knew about the documentary. But he had suffered a stroke, she said, so we wouldn’t be able to talk for a while.

I constructed a regimen of telephoning Troy. Every other week I would call, and TN’s wife would say, in her tinkling voice, that he wasn’t quite ready yet but he was getting better and I should ring back soon. I kept this up through the spring and into the summer, before leaving a hiatus of a few months. It was when I tried again, later in the year, that the phone began to go unanswered. Each time, I was diverted to a machine, to the flat, default voice of an American man encouraging me to leave a message.

I wondered what had happened to TN; then I wondered at my own strange eagerness to talk to him. What had I hoped to learn? The reason he departed for the United States, I suppose—the reason he chose to subtract himself from the great Indian experiment. Had there been a final straw of disappointment that broke his back? Or had he left India out of some entirely different motivation, and still feeling optimistic about his country? And yet neither explanation would have fully satisfied me—just as it didn’t quite console me when Victor Menezes spoke buoyantly about the progress India had made since 1967.

The true comforts turned out to be the cynics of “I Am 20”, Shailesh Gandhi and Dunu Roy, who could be excited and idealistic about our country’s future even as they remained worried and uncertain about it. The simultaneous occupation of those states of minds wasn’t a contradiction, I came to realise; it was an absolute necessity.

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hsnk - December 28th 2015

What an amazingly poignant piece. The portrayal of TN makes me rue that you couldn't get in touch with him. What an ending that would have been!