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Rahul Raina on the Concept of 'Masala'

Posted on 6th May 2021 by Mark Skinner

With its heady mix of celebrity stardom, fraud, blackmail and abduction, Rahul Raina's riotous satire of modern Indian society How to Kidnap the Rich is packed full of what the author terms 'masala.' For a thorough - and very entertaining - description of exactly what that means, read Raina's piece below.  

Indians care a lot about ‘masala’. It means spice, but I’m not talking about cooking. It means an interesting mix of wild and disparate elements, in life, in music, movies, that combine together to give something a uniquely Indian flavour, of rich, poor, connected, humble, comedy, humour, life’s whole tapestry clashing together and making something much greater than the sum of its parts.

The US college scam scandal of 2019 had pretty much everything you could want from a masala perspective. An unbelievably convoluted plot to defraud rich, exclusive colleges? Check. Unimaginably wealthy and connected parents trying to get their offspring a step up the ladder at any cost? Check. Corrupt lawyers and middlemen out for themselves? Check. Hapless university administrators being taken for a ride and often incriminating themselves multiple times in one email? Check, check and check.

Generally, people in the West are pretty good at hiding corruption. Whether it’s Icelandic tax evasion schemes, political party back-scratching, private school donations, the West has perfected fraud, I’d like to think, to a point where it’s invisible, refined, cultured even. In India, people don’t even try to hide corruption. MPs are elected to parliament promising to clean up the system and five years later have become millionaires and shrug their shoulders. University exam boards are so riddled with corruption that the Supreme Court says that there’s often no point to examinations any more. Exclusive private schools and universities that proudly proclaim their strict exam criteria let in the sons and daughters of the idle rich and two years later have new wings, swimming pools and theatres bearing the names of current students.

But the college scandal? It was right out of the Indian playbook. Everyone in India prepares for exams from the minute they’re born. There are 25 million Indians turning 18 every year, and they know there are only a few hundred thousand top university places, masters places, top multinational jobs. They study twelve, fifteen, eighteen hours a day from when they’re six years old – so can you blame a few parents for being desperate enough, rich enough, privileged enough for trying to short circuit the system?

That’s exactly what happened in the US, where the pressures around the education system are robbing children of their childhoods, putting them into ever more demanding extracurricular activities, internships, sports and music activities from when they’re in primary school. Mix in the film stars, the Felicity Huffmans and Lori Loughlins, the real estate tycoons and concerned foreign parents looking out for their children, and you have a fantastically Indian situation, of power, privilege and crimes so incompetently executed that they become funny. We know that film stars and crime, the rich and educational corruption, wealth and brazenness, go together like dosas and sambar, chutney and samosas. It’s just amazing how similar we’ve become. Fake test scores? Knowing exactly which athletic coach in which department to bribe with which fake student athlete? It’s the most Indian crime imaginable.

When I came to write How To Kidnap The Rich, it’s this mix of elements, this global mix of masala, that inspired me so much, how a uniquely Western situation isn’t really so unique after all, and can be mirrored in something ten thousand miles away that doesn’t involved Hollywood actors.

So many of my friends in India report identical experiences of a vastly unfair education system to my friends in the UK and US. With the rise of remote working and outsourcing due to the pandemic, many of these friends are going to be competing for the same jobs in the next decade. Jobs, crimes, cultures, are coming together in this new globalised, connected, work from home world of ours more than ever before. Long live the masala crime, I say.

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