dark-moneyJane Mayer’s book ` Dark Money’ is a well-researched account of the rise of the far right in American politics through the twentieth century and into the twenty first.

The book illustrates how a tangled web of donations, charities and think tanks secretly funded by conservative, super wealthy businessmen, pushed a brand of libertarian (not to be confused with liberal) politics that sought to reduce government control. Protected behind the seemingly benevolent public façade, was inherited wealth and business interests, including in some cases – industries damaging the environment. Of particular interest to me – being an Indian reader, whose impression of the US is largely as one of the world’s major democracies and a country of great universities – is how academia was penetrated by this group. They patiently wait for a new crop of sponsored academics and researchers to shape the thinking behind government policy, to their tastes. As the book shows, at a global level, one of the casualties of the conservative business-academia nexus was the climate change debate.

Dark Money is heavily focused on America; so much so, that for a reader in India, the book can at times, be a plod. It strikes a chord because of a few factors. First, it reminds you of the growing subversion of our times by money. Second, what unfolded in the US is being copied in India. Third, the libertarian agenda is amid wealth distribution, increasingly polarizing in society. Even if a libertarian economic agenda is not yet pronounced in India, economic inequality is significant and polarized wealth is becoming a fashionable state of affairs. Fourth, as a pattern of social and political behavior what is narrated in the book is relevant to any geography that is home to conservative business minds. In the end my take away from Jane Mayer’s book was the pattern of manipulation it exposed. This is a book that by virtue of what it unearths makes you aware of the dark side of the political right; for that matter, the dark side of any political side – right or left – as these patterns can be anyone’s chasing exclusive agenda for power. It makes you aware of the intelligent subversions that characterize contemporary life.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)



Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ Are you sure you want it all machined down? How about some longer strands up front so that you can comb it sideways?’’ the hairdresser asked.

My vision for hair was however as clear as my bald pate.

Off with everything upstairs.

No two ways about it.

For some time now at the salon, my choice of instrument has been the electric trimmer, popularly called “ machine.’’  Use it like a lawn mower.

The hairdresser seemed disappointed at prospect of art, declined. But he was an efficient craftsman. The job was accomplished in a jiffy. It cost Rs 70. I reached for my purse to pay, not quite happy to lose another hundred rupee note. Smaller denomination notes had come to resemble precious stones slowly brought to the surface by the earth’s crust building activity. They were in short supply and the Reserve Bank of India’s pace of note printing harked of crust building; it was taking a million years for the tsunami of demonetization to settle down with new equilibrium in liquidity struck. What’s in short supply, you hate losing. I didn’t want to lose the diamonds and rubies in my purse. Who knows when they will resurface next? That’s when I noticed the new EPOS device with the hairdresser. You can swipe your debit card after a haircut. Things had changed.

Between the best known dictionary meaning for `change’ and its connotation as small denomination currency, it is the latter that dominates imagination in end-2016, given days spent wondering what to do with that museum piece of a new denomination – the 2000 rupee note. Nobody wants it and yet that is what is spewed out by the few ATMs functioning. I remember standing in a queue of amused folks at a D N Road ATM, the machine gifting everyone exactly one 2000 rupee note, a splendid invitation to financial uselessness. In a way you could say the unexpected move to demonetize the old Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes is change in the classical sense but the fun is clearly lost in the larger drift to a cashless economy suddenly thrust upon us. November 8 was a tsunami, the ocean floor slipped beneath liquidity in the economy. What has survived as perception of such forced change is satire, cynicism. Let’s not get into demonetization politics for this article isn’t about my financial troubles. It is about strands of old memory that surfaced in brain navigating the long bank queues and cashless ATMs of Mumbai following demonetization.

What a change! Damn change! Is this change? For whom are we changing? Change is the only constant.  – There were many thoughts running through my head. It was the first working day for banks after demonetization. The queue I was in, snaked out from the bank to bright sunshine outside. In these days of humans defined by life indoors and worries over complexion, the queue tracked every nook and cranny of available shade, making it seem, a rather lethargic anaconda, one idling to digest after a mammoth meal. What had it swallowed? The new government – I thought; tough food to swallow and much ache in the tummy afterwards. Whatever, it was change from previous diet and standing in queue had been dressed up by demonetization propaganda as nation building, patriotism, fight against corruption and black money, so on and so forth. I suspect the real reasons lay elsewhere. But at my level as ordinary citizen, my suspicions are merely private conspiracy theories and knowing that well in land overwhelmed by 1.3 billion people, I choose instead to bury my head in ruminations about `change.’ It puzzles me how a word that denotes something as remarkable as day changing to night and shifts of such scale as change of season, got entangled with money and its transformation to smaller denominations. `Change’ loses something of its natural magnificence through association with dull money. God or whatever that point before everything, said: let there be change and a whole universe birthed itself from nothing. Compare that to change by demonetization or life reduced to hunting for small change. It is distraction ruining appetite for universe.

Somewhere between banks, the hair cutting salon and the next ATM without cash or one gifting 2000 rupee notes, thoughts about `change’ made me recall an old hair cutting salon in distant Thiruvananthapuram. The Internet now tells me that Brut, tucked away in Mascot Hotel, opened in the late 1970s; 1979 according to one write-up. It was already up and running by the time we got to know of it. What I remember is this: the first person from my family to patronize Brut was my father’s first cousin. Unnichettan’s neat hair cut was my inspiration. I was in high school when I followed in his footsteps to Brut. The place was expensive but the folks there did an excellent job. Of particular interest to me was that the salon played music. They had a Philips turntable with built-in amplifier, a pair of speakers and a young hairdresser with streaks of dyed hair – those days that spelt `different’ in capital letters – who kept a collection of LP records. He played music while crafting hair. At most other shops an older lot of hairdressers clipped hair to the drone of daily news or film music that at least, some of the young had long lost interest in.

It was the disco era. Trendy youngsters grew their hair tad long; it was combed tight above the ears and the more courageous, sported streaks of dye on either side of the head. I was pretty tame in that department but I suspect, rather adventurous in other tastes – including music. At one sitting in the salon, I fell in love with the disco music being played. I remember asking the hairdresser for the LP cover. It was the album The Glow of Love by the Italian-American post-disco group called Change. The songs I had fallen in love with were A Lover’s Holiday and Searching, featuring the late Luther Vandross. To my luck, the album’s cassette version was available at Quilon Radio Service, which in those days had a counter selling music.

Times have changed since.

I lost my hair; disco disappeared.

But those two songs by Change always make me happy.

Now if only all change was so.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)