Nostalgia part 2: the noughties and how they came to nought

I wrote about the 90s here. I haven’t much reflected on the noughties – I did in the earlier post touch upon a combination of rising aspirations and rising cynicism in that decade – but two separate events brought the period back to my mind.

One was a forum thread on best movies in each decade and, relative to the other decades including the ’10s, I struggled to name really, really memorable movies that had touched me from the 00s. The other is that I am reading Obama’s new book and he is describing the meltdown.

I think the meltdown was in many ways the perfect, whilst also terribly cruel, culmination of a decade in which things seemed to be going swimmingly well…for some of us.

Maybe that is why I have difficulty recalling that period. Because some part of my mind is probably scarred by the bruises of shattered aspirations. Even while India did not, at least immediately, suffer much blowback from the crisis, it was already clear that things wouldn’t be the same.

Oh, but how wonderful it would have been were it not for the crisis! But was it really?

What about Iraq, is the immediate counterpoint that comes to my mind. The economic boom we rode was juxtaposed against the wanton destruction of a country that had no part, none whatsoever, in the 9/11 attacks on the US. And the US strikes were premised on the purported presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). WMDs that, as it turned out, were never found. Rumsfeld quipped, “Shit happens.”

It was a remark that incensed me then and still does to date. But it summed up the times aptly. With the economic gravy train now speeding more like a bullet train, we didn’t care, let’s be honest. No we didn’t, really, not beyond venting our perfunctory dose of indignation at the Imperial States of America.

Yes, this was the decade in which we (as in people living outside the USA) came to perceive a thinly veiled hubris of invincibility in US’ actions and loathed them for it. Perhaps the hubris had always been there but it was as if a curtain had been lifted in the Bush era. In his Hollywood-like pronouncement right after 9/11: “Wanted: Osama Dead or Alive” or the later statement “In the War against Terror, you’re either with us or against us”, the styling of the war on Iraq as Operation Shock and Awe to Rumsfeld’s unapologetic apology of “Shit Happens”. It did feel from the outside as if the US had mistaken war games for, uh, games. Games without the terrible real world consequences that they had wrought.

But again, what did we really do? Did India, then a still non-aligned nation and in fact governed by a multi party alliance supported by the Communists, rally around the Third World in opposition to the war or build bridges with voices of dissent in France? Nope. If anything, we doted on Bush as the first US President who was ready to do business with India. And that was true enough, yes. But we learned to compartmentalize the ‘Bad Bush’, the one who was blowing up Iraq, from the ‘Good Bush’, the one who would let India keep its nuclear facilities. We did that again with Trump, by the way.

It was then a decade of immense possibilities but also immense hypocrisy. To pick up the thread from my previous post, this was the decade in which we got malls. We started pushing trolleys in supermarkets where we once used to shop in crowded and dinghy markets (without the super). Mumbai and Pune were brought closer by a world-class expressway. Uh, I don’t know about Chinese highways or the Autobahn but I have been on a bunch of Interstates in the US and the section after Lonavla (towards Pune) compares well, I kid you not.

We got airconditioned cafes that were more like lounges where you could take your own sweet time to sip the coffee and devote more of your time to conversing with your companion. We got more and more of the glass-fronted office complexes that are ‘normal’ today but were almost entirely novel back then. And these complexes housed not just a who’s who of India but verily of the world as more and more MNCs headed to India to grab opportunities.

Yup, in a world of endless possibilities, grabbing opportunities was the no.1 priority. Real estate was already beginning to get costly but still within reach of the middle class and many families, including mine, upgraded our living conditions more than significantly in this decade. It was the perfect opportunity. Our cars improved, first steadily, then dramatically. And just forget about the mobile phones. At least here in India, we did eke out most of the decade content with those bulky and clunky Nokia phones but the more affluent and more ‘with it’ amongst us could already be seen upgrading to phones that cost a five figure sum in Indian rupees (or about two hundred and fifty dollars in noughties rupees). Believe it or not, that sounded like a lot to us.

The chartered accountant under whom I apprenticed had already got himself a Blackberry by 2007 or so. It was around 2007 too that the Indian stock market ascended dizzying heights. Said chartered accountant had a junior partner in his firm who traded a lot in the stock market.

I knew nothing then about the impending housing crash in the US, that we were about to witness the greatest ‘main street’ crash since the Great Depression. I did sense, however, that the valuations on the stock market (and I mean the Indian one, not even Wall Street) were starting to look out of whack. I remembered what I had read in Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad – that when people who normally stay a North Pole away from the stock markets start asking where they should invest is the time to book your profits and get the hell out. I told this junior partner (and my immediate boss) to do so and he scoffed, seeing me as a Negative Nancy of sorts. I told my mother too and after repeated haranguing, she listened.

I had the satisfaction of being proved right even without knowing everything that had been going on. The markets tanked in early 2008 and we picked up some stocks on the rebound. We picked up a bit too early because it had another dip before getting back on steady footing. But we did sell those stocks for a handsome profit years later. My junior partner on the other hand made a big loss.

It wasn’t a devastating loss for him, he was ok. But it was for many others, especially those on the other side of the Greenwich Meridian. Much like the characters of the wonderful movie The Big Short, I felt empty even in ‘victory’. It was a pyrrhic victory. I had prevailed over the excessively exuberant. But in the wake of this ‘victory’ lay utter economic carnage.

A new US President bookended the chapter of endless possibilities by achieving what had hitherto been inconceivable – of winning the top job in the world as a black man. Alas, the road to recovery that lay in front of him, in front of us was long and arduous. And not only did he not possess the superhuman powers that his fans seemed to believe he did, he turned out to be an incremental reformer, a cautious moderate and hardly the swashbuckling populist he had been mistaken to be. He did a decent job of turning things around but as we know now, he left too many high and dry in the process and those turned to Trump in 2016 when faced with the prospect of a Hillary Clinton Presidency to cap Obama’s.

But much as I came to be a trenchant and cynical critic of Obama over the years, he had set himself up for a task he was always bound to fail in. Rather, we set him up for failure.

Because what we wanted was impossible. In truth, what we wanted from him was the noughties back. But the noughties could never come back. The noughties were built on the back of a phony real estate market and a phony war. Neither in and of themselves were desirable in the least. But it was they in tandem that propelled the best of all times, at least for those of us who lived through those times and weren’t in, uh, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Afghanistan…you get the drift.

When the real estate market in the US collapsed, it was described as a house of cards. But what also had turned out to be a house of cards was our collective aspiration for a tomorrow that would keep getting better and better. That tomorrow looks increasingly distant and covid has taken away the one fig leaf the eternal optimists used to offer us – that world conditions are empirically better than ever before. No, in 2020, they are not going to be better than 2019 or 2018.

It seemed like we were just about to take off for the stars when the ladder got pulled away from below us, leaving us to fall and fall hard. And the thought that our starry-eyed dreams were built on a foundation of lies and deceit is a heck of a hard swallow.

Well, in the words of a famous philosopher, the one with the best words, ‘it is what it is’.

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