High on the Desert Plain

Anushree Majumdar
High on the Desert Plain

It was a little after 7.30 pm when U2 launched into Sunday Bloody Sunday at the DY Patil Sports Stadium in Navi Mumbai on Sunday evening. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)

I can’t believe the news today
Oh, I can’t close my eyes
And make it go away
How long?
How long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
’Cause tonight, we can be as one
Tonight

It was a little after 7.30 pm when U2 launched into Sunday Bloody Sunday at the DY Patil Sports Stadium in Navi Mumbai on Sunday evening. There’d been some speculation in the crowd about the track order of the last-ever show of ‘The Joshua Tree Tour’ before the band took the stage: would they play The Joshua Tree album in sequence, or would they kick off with their high-energy, early 2000s offerings like Vertigo and Elevation; or worse, would AR Rahman open the show with Ahimsa, the track Bono and he have collaborated on? That fear was put to rest when The Edge played the opening riff of Sunday Bloody Sunday, and on cue, thousands of arms and cellphones went up like a wall, photographing, video-recording, documenting that we are here, we were there, the night U2 came to our town. It didn’t matter to us that there was no cellular network inside the stadium. What we didn’t know then, is that as we sang And the battle’s just begun/ There’s many lost, but tell me who has won, police forces had entered a central university in Delhi, exerting brute force over students under the cover of darkness.

When the concert began, Bono hailed India as an inspiration to the world. “We are pilgrims, you are our teachers,” he said, before promising a night of “rock and roll transcendence.” Since they arrived in Mumbai on Thursday evening, Bono and his band members, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr and Adam Clayton, travelled to Gujarat to visit Sabarmati Ashram; towards the end of the night, the 59-year-old frontman and activist spoke about Mahatma Gandhi and said, “India’s gift to the world is Ahimsa (non-violence).” In the week leading to the concert, with the country burning with protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, one cannot help but wonder, what does it mean to listen to U2’s The Joshua Tree in India today?

High on the Desert Plain

Members of Irish band U2 performed at Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium (Express Photo by Pradip Das)

Growing in the rocky desert of the American southwest, the Joshua tree rises towards the sun with its branches splayed wide, as though in prayer, as Joshua, the prophet from The Old Testament, is said to have done. This particular tour, presented in India by LiveNation and BookMyShow, is noteworthy for using the largest high-resolution LED screen ever seen in a live touring show — a Joshua tree rose above the

200 x 45 feet screen that treated us to spectacular visuals from California’s Death Valley, taken by Dutch filmmaker and long-time U2 collaborator, Anton Corbijn. The album was originally written about America, a country that for years has been viewed as a ‘promised land’; in its vastness lie salvation and desolation. The sum of all its parts make it great but nothing can hide the violence and the heartbreak of a dream that is only half-fulfilled.

The poetry of The Joshua Tree still resonates 32 years after its release because its themes — the personal, the spiritual and the political — continue to spark events around the world. Bullet the Blue Sky, about American activities in Central America, Red Hill Mining Town, about the UK miners’ strike in 1984-85, Mothers of the Disappeared, about the murdered political dissidents in Argentina in the late ’80s — these stories of injustice and inhumanity continue to play out in different parts of the globe. Bono’s voice today is no longer as angry or beseeching as it was in the original record, and though his platitudes rankle even the most ardent fan, one cannot deny that his words remain a clarion call for those who believe that art speaks truth to power.

“The women here know what we’re talking about, the minorities know what we’re talking about, the next-door neighbour knows what we’re talking about,” Bono said during the show, before launching into Ultraviolet (Light My Way), a song from their 1991 album, Achtung Baby. Performed against a backdrop of women’s movements from over the years, the screen lit up with the faces of those who have “rewritten history to make it herstory”: from Mary Wollstonecraft to Rosetta Tharpe, the Gulab Gang to Pussy Riot, from the late Kalpana Chawla to Arundhati Roy, the late Gauri Lankesh to Rana Ayyub, closely followed by Smriti Irani.

Twenty five songs later, which included Bad, Even Better Than the Real Thing, and Desire (which featured a surprise cameo by Oasis’ Noel Gallagher), U2 closed the two-hour-plus show with One, performed with Rahman and his daughters. As the 40,000-plus crowd exited the stadium, cellphones began to ping with news of the events in Delhi. Lyrics from One hung heavy in the air: We’re one, but we’re not the same/We get to carry each other, carry each other.