Opinion | The rebellious kids are alright
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
A 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 non-fiction) 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.
Nisha Susan tweets @chasingiamb