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Geek culture

Dork knights

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I've got news for you - pop culture is nerd culture, " wrote American comedian and writer Patton Oswalt in 2010. And it wasn't a long time before globalisation, that old catalyst of great societal change, became the engine that powered geek culture in India. We've always been, after all, a land of arcane punditry and great geekery. Why, even our gods and mythological heroes were geeks, of a sort, who wrote (poetry, philosophy and scripture) and smote (evil mortals and demons) in equal measure. So while 'geeky' may be a modern concept of almost entirely American origin, generations of Indians - long conditioned to relentlessly pursue the acquisition of 'correct' knowledge - have been brought up to believe that only geeks shall truly inherit the earth. That's perhaps why N R Narayana Murthy and A P J Abdul Kalam, geeks by any yardstick, are every bit the youth icons that Sachin Tendulkar and Shah Rukh Khan are in modern India. More particularly, they are seen as men of both thought and deed, not of intellect alone.

WE LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE


Like their peers in the US, many young urban Indians now spend long hours using global networks (the internet, television, print) to consume vast amounts of the same pop culture products (movies, music, fiction, comic books, games) from across the world. This is also largely why geek culture in India is dominated by Western themes and content. In this geek subculture, knowledge acquired from such pursuits is not often worn lightly. It is traded in displays of geek bonding that will usually appear odd to outsiders. Cryptic references will be routinely dropped, and reputations will be made or unmade based on how quickly they are picked up, decoded and maybe supplemented with another equally clever one. Confused? Watch any episode of the popular US comedy sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. It might be the closest to you'd get to a wildlife documentary on this species, and even has an Indian character. It's also a geek favourite, naturally. Some indicators of geekdom in India are also rather striking. Comic book conventions (dubbed Comic Con, and styled after its San Deigo avatar) now attract hordes of young enthusiasts, many of whom even turn up in 'cosplay', short for costume play. "At the last Comic Con, we had over 100 cosplayers every day, " says Jatin Varma, organiser of these conventions in New Delhi. "Some of them had bought their costumes online, while others had surely put in several hours of work to recreate their favourite superhero costumes, " he adds. Gaming too has been quick to catch on with both competitions and prize money up. Analysts say gaming is a Rs 1, 000 crore market in India, and growing.

Geek staples have also become big business for Indian retailers. As Lijin Varghese, head of marketing for the Landmark chain of bookstores, puts it, "We are seeing huge increases in the popularity of tie-in merchandise. We imported some Star Wars action figures a while ago and they fairly flew off our shelves. And superhero-themed merchandise is always popular. We have also seen an explosion of interest in comics and graphic novels. They are among our fastest moving items. " And to think it all began with social exclusion.

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE NERD


So who or what is a geek exactly? Wikipedia, a geek lodestar, suggests that sci-fi author Robert Heinlein might have coined the term in the 1950s, while Urban Dictionary, another geek project, drolly states that geeks are "the people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult".

Americans first used the word 'nerd' to describe boringly studious individuals with little or no social skills in the 1950s. In US high school parlance, most boys were either 'jocks' (virile sportsmen ), 'dudes' (' normal' kids, not too bookish) or nerds, who, in the adolescent imagination, were expected to become scientists or accountants. And they never got the girls, even if they were geniuses. Icons like Albert Einstein also helped reinforce this stereotype, firmly imprinting himself in the public imagination as a genial old Jewish nerd who was awkward, wild-haired and shabbily dressed.

'Geek' began to be used later to denote those who displayed some nerd-like characteristics but weren't really social misfits. It was, and still remains, a more positive term. Geeks were also men of action.

But it was the advent of the computer age in conjunction with the rise of science fiction in popular entertainment that catapulted geek culture to centre-stage in the US over three decades ago.

With Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs came the age of the new geek gods. Associated subcultures of devoted fans soon sprang up. They avidly recalled earlier cultural influences - Star Trek and Dr Who, sci-fi legends (Asimov, Clarke et al), fantasy fiction pioneers like Tolkien and Robert E Howard, 'edgy' novelists like William Burroughs and new world cinema - and also thrilled to the new trends of personal computers, video games, blockbuster movies and music videos. They took comic books more seriously and cheered new experiments with form and substance in that medium. And ultimately, they began to form large fan communities. The geekiverse was born.

Some bits (comics, movies, music) trickled into India and were eagerly sucked up by a few. "It was difficult, even until the early 1990s, but some momentum slowly began to build, and bookshops began to stock more American comics, " points out Abhijit Jadhav, an HR professional and comic book collector.

Indian geekdom came of age only when the internet began to spread a few years later, putting cyberspace and all its goodies within reach of anyone with a good broadband connection. A new generation of geeks soon began to instantly look up everything they'd heard about or were rapidly learning. College campuses across India, especially engineering colleges, with their big servers and highspeed internet pipes, became the new geek hatcheries.

RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW


"The internet brings out the inner geek in all of us, " says Kunal Malhotra, a Delhi-based TV producer who trained as an engineer. "With access to boundless information and content, we can't help but become geeky in some ways. Smartphones are only going to increase this trend, " he adds, but clarifies that geeks are 'normal people with certain bookish sensibilities, and proud of it', not nerds.

By any yardstick, Ajit Shenoy would be termed a geek. His encyclopedic knowledge of geek touchstones and a vast collection of comics would give any US-based mega-geek a run for his money. Yet when asked if he thinks of himself as a geek, "Certainly not!" he snaps. "I consider myself a comics fan. In comic book terms, a geek would be to the aam aadmi what Dilton is to Archie, intelligent but not necessarily companionable. "

He still laments the limited hold of more serious comic art and narratives on the Indian geek imagination. "It is just that the success of a whole slew of recent superhero films appears to have made comics more acceptable. But that's about it, it's still a far cry from respectable. "

Varma would like to see Indian options evolve in the medium. "Comics are big, but for many people, Indian comics still mean just Amar Chitra Kathas, " he says. "I would like to see a local comics market develop, like the Japanese market for manga, but that will take some time. But the next big thing is going to be gaming, especially mobile gaming. "

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE NERD


Film is a principal stratum of geek society and a marker of just how geek culture is now pop culture in the US. Hollywood has entirely reconfigured itself over the last three decades to cater to geeks. Stars rise and fall based on the box-office fates of entirely geek-oriented summer 'tentpole' releases. While sci-fi, fantasy, action and superhero movies obviously rule the roost, the lingering ghost of American independent cinema is also a geek favourite. This usually leads to phrases like 'cult film' being thrown around.

A filmmaker like, say, Quentin Tarantino, who crams his films with endless film homage sequences and pop culture references, would be a particular geek delight. Looking up every one of those online and then dissecting them threadbare on forums has even become academically documented geek behavior. In India, it's also a mark of geeky sophistication to appreciate Hollywood's better approaches to film craft and show up Bollywood for its mostly mawkish ways. Odd Bolly gems like a Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (which probably owes it popularity entirely to geek love) are elevated to cult status and become rites of passage for new geeks.

The trivial pursuits of sport fandom, while a whole separate subculture, are also a major geek obsession. Indeed, some sports seem designed to delight Indian geeks. Cricket, with its intricate rules and endless statistical possibilities, clearly lives up to that old saw about being an Indian game discovered by the English. European club football, tennis and Formula One are other staples of Indian geekdom. And the net defines almost all geeks' relationships with each. As S Krishnaswamy, a Chennai-based automobile engineer, puts it, "The only things that prevent anyone from also building an F1 car are the huge sums of money and the networks involved. I can look up virtually any aspect of a car's construction process and performance in intricate detail today. "

It's also not just mutual passion that unites, hatred does too. Like most subcultures, geekery makes use of a vile 'other' to bond. Justin Bieber and Twilight, for instance, currently hover near the top of most geeks' hate-lists on prominent forums - some indication that geek culture is overwhelmingly male dominated.

But ironically, it's franchises like Twilight and the recently released The Hunger Games that might bring big change to geekdom, by prising it open to what has until now clearly been this social group's second sex. The nerds didn't get the girls because, among other things, girls just couldn't be nerds too. We know geeks are different. That just might make all the difference. Even in India.

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