Friday, September 30, 2005

The honourable Rustom Singh-ji of Morena

Did I ever mention my pursuit of the honourable Mr Rustom Singh, MLA, state minister for health, ex-cop and self-acknowledged polygot - or at least, bi-got (I really didn't intend the pun... no really, I swear), wearer of berets and moustaches?

So, there I was, at about 6 pm, in Morena, waiting for a chance to speak to the honourable state (cabinet) minister of public health, who happens to be in the town, which is also his constituency.

He is sitting in the front row of the pandal, waiting to ascend to the stage, along with some fifteen other gentlemen - local heavyweights all - at a function organised by the Nav Yug Manhar Gware Vaishya Maharaj Mahasen Samaj (okay, so I might have got the order of the words wrong, but I swear all these words stood, juxtaposed with themselves, up on the banner above Mr Rustam Singh's head).

And I am listening to the doyens of the Gware samaj buzz about business against a backdrop of hit-filmi sangeet, while watching the little cherubs of the Gware samaj dancing to win prizes in a freestyle, pop-sy dance competition, to an audience of semi-silk rustles of the semi-ghoonghat-bearing matrons of the Gware samaj, trying to ignore the persistently-consistently booming voice of the Gware Samaj emcee.

Just below the stage, four men stood with long wooden poles on their shoulders, strung with hundreds of marigold garlands.

The emcee invites, one by heavyweighted-named one representative of the Gware Samaj, up on the 'stayz' , to garland the honorable Rustom Singh-ji, MLA. (He broke the monotony by ordering some others to honour the slightly-less-honourable-but-equally-garland-worthy Gajaraj Singh Sikarwal-ji, rival politician from the same constituency).

First, Mr ABC-ji, local doctor, was invited, to marigold-garland Rustom Singh-ji. Then Mr BCD-ji, local marble-quarry owner, was invited, to marigold-garland Gajaraj Singh Sikarwal-ji. Then Mr CDE-ji, local independent-candidate-who-lost-the-election, was invited to garland both Rustom Singh-ji and Gajaraj singh Sikarwal-ji. Then Mr DEF-ji was invited.....

This went on. And on. And on.

The emcee enthusiastically goaded spectators - mostly restless children wearing lipstick and rustling mothers impatient to watch their children perform - to 'Hands Together!' for ABC or PQR personage, and "Swaagat kariye".

The emcee took a two-minute break from coordinating the 'swagat' brigade, to allow a lamp to be lit in front of the photograph of Maharaj Mahasen, who was also garlanded in marigold, incidentally. Then, everyone went back to their seats, and the marigolden-swaagat recommenced.

A sole note of confusion crept into the proceedings, when Mr GHI who was supposed to garland an old freedom fighter also sitting on the stage, ended up garlanding Rustam Singh-ji instead. Poor Mr emcee could only mutter, between the marathon garlanding: "Oh? Er... yes, yes. Aap bhi stayz pe aaiye. Swaagat! (you're also welcome.)"

With a morbid kind of fascination, I stayed tuned in.

I have never seen so much marigold, barring weddings. I never never seen 'swaagat' on this scale. Such endurance, such enthusiasm for garlanding political necks, such a lengthy list of 'community-leaders', I have never seen!

When the Mr A-Zs of the Gware samaj were run through, the emcee began inviting the Mrs ABCs of the community. However, there were much fewer women being invited up on the 'stayz'.

Then, it was the turn of the local boys - 'the youngster generation' - to take up the baton of this marigold marathon.

Finally, the emcee invited honorable mantri-ji to speak, thus: "Not a sound. I tell you, not a sound out of you all! The honourable mantri-ji will speak now."

The mantri-ji returned his compliments, by beginning his speech, thus:
"First of all, I want to admire the compere. He is truly, really, totally charming. His voice is so attractive. He is so natural. His English is wonderful... and I am impressed; you see, I speak both English and Hindi myself. I am impressed at his English. So wonderful. He is a truly attractive compere... what is your name, young man? Ah! I must congratulate the Gware community for having produced such wonderful younger generation...."

I was rather impressed myself, but I began to tune out.

Another, much more interesting conversation is happening at my shoulder. A young boy is shaking hands with my companion, a local activist working to counter female foeticide in the region.

He tells her, "Didi, you're doing good work. These people... they deserved it."

He is referring to the local campaign against doctors who perform sonography tests, without finishing the accompanying legalities. I discover that the boy is a cousin of a local radiologist, one whose clinic was on the blacklist, and whose license had been temporarily suspended, that is, until honourable Rustam Singh-ji took over the state public health portfolio. (My report, here and here).

The activist asks, "Is it true that the clinics had to pay up to get their licenses back?"

The boy shrugged, "6 lakhs. Pakki baat hai (it's a certainty)."

"All pooled in?"

"Hah! 6 lakhs each!"

"And it went to?"

The boy smiled a slow smile and nodded at the stage, where the honorable minister was poking public fun at his fellow-garlanded heavyweights, the ones who lost the last election, at any rate.


I wait to meet the honourable minister.
He has told me that he will speak to me after the Gware samaj function. After the function, he tells me he will speak to me after the dinner. After his dinner, he tells me he will speak to me after he has visited a colleague.

I wait for him at the circuit-house, hoping that he will eventually return here., before going back to Bhopal.

9 pm. I wait. 9.30 pm, I wait. 10 pm. I wait. 10.30 pm, I wait.

And then, a flash of whirring red-light topped ambassadors and the screech of tyres. Armed bodyguards and circuit-house karmchaaris rushing to put on their white caps, and bend their heads, by way of swaagat.

He doesn't arrive alone. There are at least 30-35 men with him. I sit my ground. I mean, a white-linen covered sofa. I'm not going away, I firmly decide.

After bantering with half the crowd, accepting compliments and flowers, turning down a marriage invitation and blessing those who touch his feet with a half-wave of the hand, he turns to me.

"Yes, madam?"

The honourable Ruston Singh speaks to me in English (sort of), throughout, despite my attempts at switching to Hindi, to spare both of us our individual linguistic pains.

When I ask a particularly uncomfortable question, he says, "I am only speaking to you in English because you're from Delhi. You Delhi people - you are all English. You see, I am equally comfortable in both languages. English and Hindi. I can even speak in our Morena-dialect. But you will not understand our moda-modi language."

I assure him, I will. Then, I add, "Actually, I'd prefer it if you speak in Hindi."

He leans back into the sofa, sighs with relief and promptly does so.

I promptly ask him more uncomfortable questions. Like how it was that the sonography-equipped clinics got back their licenses after he took over the public health portfolio in the state.

He denies it. "As a matter of fact, the licenses were suspended only when I took over. I master-minded the raids you see. You think the administration could do anything without my wanting it to?"

The activist accompanying me points out that the dates don't quite correspond - the raids happened, the licenses got cancelled, he took over as state health minister, pleas were filed, the directorate of health reinstated the licenses.... in that order.

At this point, the honourable Rustam Singh-ji lost his temper and raised his voice, all the while continuing to bless, with a half-wave, those who continued to touch his feet. "You know nothing! What do you know about Morena?....... But I have given you enough time. I have other things to do."

While another devotee dived towards his feet, the mantri-ji stood up, adjusted his beret, and stalked off into the cool recesses of the circuit-house.

I remain seated on the white-linen covered sofa, taking notes furiously. Taking down every single word.
[Cont, in the next post]


Suhail said...

Thought provoking. It's all nice for us city folks to talk about education and progress and all that..and the scenario in villages is polar opposite of what we see in cities. (However, I didn't get the idea why if the girl is educated they have to pay more dowry?)

My ex-landlord in Bangalore, a TamBrahm educated gentleman(Tamil Brahmins affectionately called TamBrahms), had two daughters and a son. His son told me that his dad is forcing both his elder sisters into engineering so that he'll have to pay less dowry if they were to get married to doctor/engineers. He also said, that he wanted to get into army/navy, but he fears his dad will order the same thing for him.

What gets my goat is all these so called patent-filing engineers, sharing my profession, who never flinch before demanding dowry or even if they are against it, never uttering a word against their parent's demands. An office colleague of mine said so much that in his particular community, if his parents don't demand it, his character will be suspected (disease? crack? addict? etc..etc crap). I had quite an argument with him on this, and he saw it fit not to invite me for his marriage ;)

Dowry is a curse of Indian society. And sadly, we see it more widespread in the more educated families and communities. One more thing to be feared is this notion gaining roots amongst the bride's family, that it is a matter of family's "izzat/shaan" crapology, to explicitly 'offer' a sizeable dowry even if the other party doesn't want it. Any ideas how a guy can avoid it, without having a tiff with his would-be's family? This is a serious question. One of my close cousins is facing this dilemna? And I have run out of ideas.

Annie Zaidi said...

no way out, suhail. somebody just has to stand up and break the cycle, and take the consequences.
I don't understand myself why the price goes up, if a girl i educated. maybe because the guy's side is likely to insist on a girl lesser educated. and if you get a more educated boy, the price goes up?

Mystic Bard said...

Hey Annie,Sooper journalism!!!Hats off!A really really thought provoking account that was.I agree with Suhail on the point that its really damn easy for us city folks to talk about education,anti-dowry stand and blah blah but the scene is poles apart for our counterparts in the villages.

Since I am currently working on a campaign on child marriage which still sticks its ugly head out in some parts of India,MP comes as one of those states which is leading in the count for child marriages - how bad/good was the case in the parts that you visited?Would like to have your two cents on that...

And ya this Rustom Singh guy seemed very creepy...(I was sure he would misbehave with you)

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