For many years in Tamil cinema, an actor was considered supremely talented only if he had the ability to laugh and cry at the same time. Such a facial genius was usually expected when a character is dying in the end or bidding a long good-bye to his love, or when he confesses to his punitive widow mother that he had got the money for her medical emergency not through theft as she believed, but by selling his own blood. Only Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Hassan could master the difficult art. But on the streets of at least four Indian cities, I have seen young men come close to achieving the feat on the night of new year’s eve, when their desperation to have fun is laced with their melancholic suspicion that they are probably miserable. Like the large crowd of men near Marina Beach on that distant night, who had turned out in their best clothes, fleeing in full sprint not knowing why cops were chasing them with lathis and probably even stones. As they fled, they appeared to be laughing one moment and another moment focusing on the run with a funereal expression. Also, every new year’s eve in Bombay, you can see boys on their bikes, in reflective shirts and pants, howling in inexplicable glee and gaping with a stab of longing at a swarm of unattainable girls in small clothes going unsteadily in the arms of large affluent boys.
For most young men in the country, the night of the old year is one of the most torturous nights, only marginally saved by reality-altering substances. At the heart of the chaos they create on the roads—the sudden wildness of their bikes and their readiness to molest—is their unhappy certainty that others of their age are having a very good time. Every year on this night, foreign tourists and NRIs, who venture into the streets confusing the male laments for the youthful commotion they have seen in better worlds, are assaulted. Four years ago, I remember seeing a glacial mass of mobs circling the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay as if it were Mecca. Two White girls ran out into the street carrying their small cameras with the unmistakable expression of having encountered an India moment. They merged with the mobs. They had to be rescued by the police. Two years ago, girls who stepped out of the Juhu Marriott were molested by a crowd of about 80 men, and their clothes were torn. This event was photographed and a national outrage followed. The police arrested a few local boys, who went to Raj Thackeray for help. Thackeray, using his mystic powers, declared the boys innocent. Maharashtrian boys, apparently, did not do such things.
There is something miserable about the new year’s eve in India, something pathetic which affects almost everyone. The simplest of tasks seem hideously difficult on that night. People are stuck in traffic, the air all around is unnervingly charged, and even entering a pub or a restaurant bears the symptoms of a hard escape. Inside, in the islands of modernity that we have created, there is no easy promise of happiness because in every face here there is a high expectation from the night. It is as if alcohol and love on this night must do something more than what a nameless Saturday evening can. But chances are you see vomit in many colours, and drunk women cry.
Even in London, where I imagined people would be in the ecstasy of material fun, I only saw the loud anticipation of mobs that wanted to believe they were having a good time. Underground stations were shut because of overload and people had to walk miles in the cold. And, as I stood by the Strand, I saw relationships break all around me—women walking away from their men weeping, some holding their shoes, men looking around in the winter cold exasperated at how differently the night had turned out.
The way some young married people talk about not stepping out on the 31st night, it is as if they have been in the pursuit of fun all their lives and discovered that fun is an illusion of the young. Maybe new year fun is like canoeing—you see others in a canoe and you think it must be nice, and then when you sit in that silly boat, it is not very enjoyable.