The weight of the moon and the spectre of unemployment

While the current and former finance ministers engage in a verbal slugfest over the state of the Indian economy, two undeniable facts stare us in the face: First, of the alarming slowdown in the economy, which economists and experts have attributed to the witless demonetisation last year and the mismanaged roll-out of the goods and services tax this year; and, the consequent lack of new jobs. According to a report by Go Yamada, senior staff writer at Nikkei Asian Review, about 200 million Indians aged between six and 14 are in mandatory education and 100 million of them will enter the job market by 2025. “The nation’s low rate of job creation is not just a missed opportunity, but a cause for concern as well,” he writes (“‘Make in India’ stumbles on jobless growth”, May 31, 2017). 

This analysis was done when the economy was growing at 7 per cent; now, when the gross domestic product growth has fallen to 5.7 per cent in the first quarter of this fiscal year, the situation is quite likely to get grimmer. What effect the lack of jobs and a large population of unemployed youth can have on the social fabric is not unknown: A look at some of the films of the Seventies can serve as a timely reminder. Satyajit Ray’s Seemabaddha (1971) — the second of his city trilogy — begins with a shot of the employment exchange in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and a crowd of unemployed young men outside it. A voice over (of the protagonist Shyamal Chatterjee, played by Barun Chanda) informs the audience: “There are about 10 lakh (1 million) unemployed educated youth in Bengal; I don’t know the figure of the uneducated unemployed. Many feel the problem of unemployment is the root of all the other problems in the state.” 

Unemployed young men are at the protagonists of his two other city films of Ray: Jana Aranya (1975). In the former, Siddartha (Dhritiman Chatterjee), forced to drop out of medical studies due to the death of his father, roams around the streets of the city in search of a job, unsuccessfully. The film is framed by two interview scenes, illustrating the hapless situation the protagonist finds himself in. Early in the film, Siddartha appears for an interview in which he seems to be doing quite well, answering questions correctly and confidently, till he is asked: “What would you regard as the most significant and outstanding event of the last decade?” After a little thought, he replies: “The war in Vietnam”. 

INTERVIEWER: More significant than the landing on the moon?

SIDDARTHA: I think so sir

INTERVIEWER: Could you tell us why you think so?

SIDDARTHA: Because the moon landing... You see, we weren’t entirely unprepared for the moon landing... We knew it had to happen. I am not saying it wasn’t a remarkable achievement, but it wasn’t unpredictable. 

INTERVIEWER: Do you think the war Vietnam was unpredictable?

SIDDARTHA: Not the war itself but what it has revealed about the Vietnamese people, about their extraordinary power of resistance. Ordinary people, peasants, and no one knew they had it in them. It’s not a matter of technology, it’s plain human courage, and it takes your breath away.

INTERVIEWER: Are you a communist?

SIDDARTHA: I don’t think one has to be one to admire Vietnam, sir.

Through the rest of the film, he remains a mute spectator, as his brother gets embroiled in Naxalite politics and his sister negotiates the treacherous landscape of women working in a patriarchal world. Towards the end, he waits to be interviewed at another office, along with a large number of young men. It’s an existential, unending wait, in the heat, and as Siddartha waits, his frustration and anger rises, till he gives vent to it in an eventual outburst, ensuring that he doesn’t get the job — or any job — and is forced to leave the city.

The moon makes are reappearance in Jana Aranya. The protagonist, Somnath, a history graduate, is shown searching for a job. This is Calcutta in 1971 — the war in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) has resulted in an influx of more refugees into the city already bursting at the seams. Along with that is the Naxalite urban warfare, transforming Calcutta into what many would describe as the nightmare city. There are no jobs, but there are interviews aplenty, with questions ranging from: “What is the speed of light?” to “Which is the largest living creature?” Gradually, the questions — and those asking — merge into a firing squad of “How?”, “What?”, “Where?”, “When?”, ending with the ridiculous: “What is the weight of the moon?” Somnath protests feebly: “What has that to do with the job?” And, is immediately shut down: “That’s not for you to judge young man.” In complete defeat, he replies that he doesn’t know and is dismissed: “You may go now.” Unable to get a job, he goes into the business of order supply, resulting, at first, in minor compromises, and finally in absolute moral corruption.

Novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay, whose eponymous novel was the primary source for Ardhek Jibon, that it was inspired by his own fruitless search for a job. He also recalls how the unemployed young man becomes a stock figure in jokes: An unemployed youth learns that there is a vacancy at the Alipore zoo, where he is required to put on a costume of a gorilla and jump about in the cage. He readily agrees and tastes some success, with visitors crowding around his enclosure. But, one day, getting too enthusiastic, he jumps right out of his cage and falls into the neighbouring enclosure of the tiger. Frozen in fear, he waits for the big cat to kill him, but the tiger whispers in a human voice: “Don’t worry, I am an unemployed young man, too.”

While humour might serve as a temporary antidote in a desperate situation, the worsening condition is quite likely to seem unfunny very soon.

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