I am the Unknown Indian Outsourcing Worker.
The year was 1989, and every second Wednesday was a treat. Every fortnight, Anondomela, a bong magazine for kids would arrive at the doorstep of my three bed room house in our steel and dust industrial town. That magazine was my link to the world. Anodomela would have cover stories about snow leopards, action heroes, the Beatles, blue whales, Disneyland, Maradona’s childhood, and sometimes pictures of Steffi Graff. There weren’t a million magazines around then, there was no cable TV – hell, I didn’t even have a TV set in 1989. From my balcony I could watch chimney spouting fumes and flames on the horizon – there was blank space for kilometres, with nothing but a thick forest of shrubs and a railway line between my place and the chimneys. It was a different time.
So one day, in May 1989, Anondomela arrived with Michael Jackson on the cover. An androgynous black dude looking a bit like a FTV model, with a smile and a jacket and a belt with a guitar shaped buckle. Intrigued, I flipped the pages. Michael Jackson apparently has been a star since he was five – was born in Gary Indiana, had an ape as a pet and also a big yellow and back striped snake, had won eight Grammies in a single year, was unpredictable and a good Samaritan, wore a white glove, had rhinoplasty, thought the Beatles were ‘pure’, wrote the Moonwalk, did the Moonwalk, toured Japan, had something called Vitiligo, and finally a sentence my young brain didn’t quite comprehend – Diana Ross – ‘she is my mother, lover, and friend’. I was still some time away from puberty. I was hooked, this guy was bizarre.
Michael Jackson had of course won eight Grammies in 1984. Poorly paid bong children’s magazine journalists had a five year phase lag with the rest of the world. But God bless them, they were my only connect with the world. My DD one childhood had nothing in the way of music beyond what my parents listened to, and the standard Anu Malik fare of the late eighties and the early 90s – with dholaks and words drawn out of a total corpus of about 200 words. I had to wait a few months to spot MJ on the TV.
Then I finally saw MJ on TV. This guy was barely touching the floor, leaning at impossible angles, making a half dozen movements at any given second, was walking towards the camera like an action heroes do in the final scene with a ball of fire in the background, with microphone in hand – he didn’t look like anything I had seen before. I didn’t know a human body could have so many degrees of freedom. Visual medium celebrities come in predictable types – beautiful, sexy, funny, suave, macho, of superhuman physicality, tears and empathy inducing – like Oprah (and unintentionally, the Johars and Chopras). But this guy was completely different. The voice wasn’t like a man’s, the music made you want to get up and do something, the moans, the screeches, the movement were all so synchronised, and the words were simple enough for a ten year old. It was like a jungle cat completely coiling up before a 70 kmph dash towards a loner wildebeest in the Savannah. He encapsulated rapture and abandon. That’s how I was introduced to MJ.
Two years later it was 1991. My school was celebrating its centenary and celebrations planned were at a scale out little town hadn’t seen before. Every class was to perform a complex drill on a football field, and everybody was on the field under the 45 degree sun everyday, six hours a day, for three months. My batch, standard six, were to do a ‘break dance’ routine to a MJ medley – ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, ‘Man in the Mirror’, and probably ‘Billie Jean’. We practiced helicopter spins, jerky hand movements, moonwalks on the grass. Imagine this – 150 kids doing helicopter spins on a full sized football field with the mind pounding intro to ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. For months, that’s all we ever though about, exchanging tips on how to perfect the moves.
I had to wait for another two years before I could buy the first Michael Jackson album, but I did catch him on TV. Once I clapped so hard while watching him receive a lifetime achievement award (at age 34) my mom had to rap me on the knuckles to shut me up. It was 1993 when I bought ‘Dangerous’. The album cover had Michael Jackson’s eyes looking over a canvas of angels, Hans Christian Andersen creatures, and a dystopian Sci-Fi like picture of industrial machinery at the center. I turned the album on an archaic piece of ‘tape’. ‘Who is it’ was haunting and paranoid, and finally ‘Will you be there’
Like The River Jordan
And I Will Then Say To Thee
You Are My Friend
Like You Are My Brother
Love Me Like A Mother
Will You Be There?
Tell Me Will You Hold Me
When Wrong, Will You Skold Me
When Lost Will You Find Me?
Man, the pictures it paints for a teenager with intellectual pretensions and the kind of scowl Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes use to practice. And, I can’t even get started on ‘In the Closet’ –
One Thing in Life
You Must Understand
The Truth of Lust
Woman to Man
So Open the Door
And You Will See
There Are No Secrets
Make Your Move
Set Me Free
This was in the Princess Stephanie of Monaco’s voice. Such words hit you hard when testosterone is flooding every cell on your body on a daily basis. There was plenty of ‘back’ing and ‘fast forwarding’ and lyrics scrawled on geometry text books and Shakespeare.
I earned my first ‘paycheck’ two years later through a book fair quiz – the princely sum of 50 bucks, and promptly bought ‘Thriller’. By that time I knew there was a perennially sad guy called Kurt Cobain who had shot himself, and I had bought my first rock album (Rolling Stones) but MJ had a red bull effect on you that no pointless introspection inducing and gloom celebrating rock anthem could replace.
Then MJ arrived. His concert was on1st November 1996 in Bombay. Sad that us poor small town kids couldn’t even dream of seeing Him in flesh and blood, my school best buddy and I gave ourselves a substitute treat – we cleared the school walls to watch a Silk Smitha movie, in a run down theater called of all things – ‘Durand Institute’!
Soon came college, with its own codes of what constitutes coolness (Pink Floyd) and what constitutes reverse coolness (retro Hindi songs), and MJ didn’t feature anywhere. But he was always there, whenever I needed a bit of red bull.
Years later in June 2005, I was down with fever and watching news updates of MJ’s second major brush with the law. The one time most popular dude on the planet (that’s the finding of an actual survey, MJ was an international language, like Football) had degenerated into the biggest freak show on the planet.
This dude was distributing autographs at age five and was home tutored most of his life. All of us learn the rules of the barely held together installation of balls and wire called civilization by being kicked around in the playground. We learn how much is too much, the games, the careful dance of words and insinuations, by continuously getting beaten up, rapped on the knuckles, being cheated on, and doing all of the above to others. MJ was in a bubble all his life, and didn’t have such a playground. In many ways, he was like a feral child – the ones that are raised by wolves or are locked up in a dungeon - most of them never pick up any human language and rules of society. MJ was such a feral child and we judged him by our rules, while he was in his dungeon creating his own little world.
I am a card holding atheist and I wish I could believe in heaven. But goodbye old friend – RIP in your Neverland.