The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Understanding India’s Aam Aadmi

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Understanding India’s Aam Aadmi

Illustration: Akshita Monga

It’s been 40 years since Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was first published, and we, as a species, are no closer to finding the answer to life, the universe, and everything. We probably never will in our lifetimes, but I am pretty sure Douglas Adams knew all along and never told us. I am also convinced that he was a time-travelling alien from a planet called Dungbat Garglesnuff, and had understood the ways of the world, and most importantly, that of digital watches.

What started as a BBC radio broadcast in 1978 is now perhaps one of the most widely known works of science-fiction. Initially thought to be a critique on British bureaucracy of the ’70s, it turned out to be one of the most prescient books of our times. Layered, profound, and hilarious, the book was Adams’s way of making sense of the senseless world we live in. It’s tragic that he didn’t live long enough to see just how influential the book would one day be – that Towel Day would be a thing.

The book begins with protagonist Arthur Dent’s home being demolished because a highway has to be constructed. Later, Earth is demolished because an Intergalactic Highway has to be constructed. In both cases, residents were warned through a circular placed on notice board in the unlikeliest of places, designed to be missed rather than noticed.

This hits home for an Indian, one who has lived most of his life in good ol’ Uttar Pradesh. The state is a special sort of hell, which comes to a visceral boil every time a new government is elected. Roads are deliberately damaged to get the bureaucratic wheels spinning, to give the ruling elite something to do in the name of a vague version of “vikas”. Time and again we have seen shanties demolished because a minister decided it would be a fine idea to inaugurate a highway, as a sign of progress.

Was Douglas Adams really only writing about Britain?

In every narcissistic, two-faced despot who masquerades as a leader, we see the embodiment of Zaphod Beeblebrox.

I hadn’t read the book until very recently, because I’ve always had great difficulty getting into funny books. Hear me out for a second before bombarding me with The Collected Verses of Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz. Comedy had always been a performative medium for me. When it came to books, I’d always read serious, thoughtful works about slow-burn espionage, big ideas, and dead kids coming to life (looking at you, Mr King). So drawn I was to the serious and the macabre, that I couldn’t imagine ever reading a whole book so drenched in laughs that it almost didn’t take itself seriously.

But I soon grew out of that phase. I felt I owed something to the world by not reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. FOMO had hit me like a shot of Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. And as has been said countless times by men and women wiser than me, the book is both a joyride and a scathing commentary of our times.

In every narcissistic, two-faced despot who masquerades as a leader, we see the embodiment of Zaphod Beeblebrox. Currently, the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest modern democracy are being run by two-faced despots. It’s hilarious how closely Beeblebrox’s mannerisms mirror that of Donald Trump, the manic self-publicising, the terrible personal relationships, and the very fact that the universe was shocked when he was elected president. While Adams had tyrannical leaders to derive inspiration from, even he couldn’t have known that America would be run by an actual celebrity overlord.

Meanwhile, Britain in the ’70s, much like India today, was a bureaucratic nightmare – Vogons are the literal personification of that. And Arthur Dent? Well, he is an Aam Aadmi caught in the crossfire, just trying to make sense of the world.

The parallels hardly end there. Ford Prefect acts more like an exposition device, and it seems that Adams wrote himself into that role. Ford is the literal embodiment of every journalist, writer, artist who is tired of their own nihilism but still trying their best not to succumb to the increasingly tyrannical nature of their times. And then, there’s a personal favourite, who captures today’s millennial existential angst as well as six seasons of Bojack Horseman – Marvin, the paranoid android. Some of the best chuckles in the series come from the android’s interactions with the hopeless world around him. “Life. Don’t talk to me about life,” the millennial in me imagines, as I sit contemplating the nature of the universe.

The book’s absurdity perfectly mirrors that of today’s India. We were promised our acche din but they are as elusive as a four-leaf clover. Social media has taken over every aspect of our existence. We are dismayed some of the time, disenchanted most of the time, and disturbed all of the time. We are angry and we need answers. Answers which are hard to get in the farce of a society we live in. In this, we can learn a lesson from Adams, who did what he was best at – made fun of our constant search for meaning in life and gave us the hilariously unsatisfactory answer. 42. The answer is all sorts of bullshit because we have never known the right questions to ask.

So it’s only fitting that the Ultimate Question is “How many roads must a man walk down?” a reference to Bob Dylan’s iconic “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It’s worth noting that the song itself was a cry against totalitarianism, an anthem for civil rights. The mention is not coincidental. It’s deliberate. Because this is just how the world turns: We walk down roads, not of our own making, propelled by regimes, told what to eat, what to wear, what to see, what to hear, one second, one minute, one hour closer to death. Isn’t that preposterous? Isn’t that something that should be laughed at?

Through the book, Adams provided a tether to grasp, a warm blanket (or towel) to hold on to, a meaning to the meaningless. There is some truth in the adage that every book has a time. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came to me now. And I am much, much better for it. There is unbridled joy in the book, and in the blank spaces between words, amidst the unsaid, there is profound wisdom.