Sunday, December 14, 2008

Two points of madness

Two points quickly made themselves apparent in the wake of the recent madness that was the attacks on Mumbai, starting November 26th. One, people – articulate, moneyed, powerful people – are upset and frantic to ensure that something like this does not happen again. This, I understand.

What I do not understand are certain extreme, juvenile and surprisingly lazy demands from grown-ups who should be able to think through the consequences of their words.


Such a word, this one. We use it during cricket matches. We use it to describe a counter-terrorism operation. We use it to describe a terrorist strike. We use it to describe a verbal spat. We use it to describe separatist movements. We use it to describe non-separatist armed conflicts. We use it to describe breaking marriages.

War. On the front pages of the newspapers, everyday. Editorial teams putting together a checklist of things we should do to our neighbours. American politicians helpfully announcing in public that India plans to strike terror camps inside Pakistan (gee thanks!). Calls for compulsory military training... The rationale for these howls for war is that we are already at war and since we appear to have leads that point to a Pakistan-based terror group’s involvement, we should go invade the country. The ‘teach them a lesson they won’t forget’ rationale.

I sometimes wonder if this generation, the one that has not really lived through a real full-blown war, has begun to crave one. One of those things. Like disaster tourism, crisis tourism, the need to experience the thing physically. There was Kargil, but then Kargil was so far away. An inaccessible spot where the only people really threatened were the guys in uniform and the poor locals who had nowhere else to go. We saw the coffins on TV. We heard the boom-boom. But it wasn’t tangible, was it?

I remember asking my family about war once. I asked them for their memories because I had none. They all wrote back with faint, brushing encounters. The 1962 war. The 1971 war. My grandmother, knitting for the soldiers. Black paper on the windows. Windows tightly shut, dim lighting. Rationed sugar. Food rations. Strangers showing up at school to take kids away from the classroom, under the pretext of war.

And that was then. Before either nation had the nuclear option. Even if we don’t nuke each other, can you even imagine what a modern war would be like?

When the city was attacked by ten men with rifles and bombs, who were firing randomly, upon people of all religions and nationalities, we felt like the whole city was being held hostage. We hated the fact that other people died. But more than anything else, we hated the fact that we couldn’t go on living. That we were forced to be afraid. Afraid of eating out, taking a train, afraid of just being you and not knowing why you are a target. And if I was scared then, I am terrified now, when my country seems to be dragged towards the brink of war. Yet, I notice a glibness sneaking in, an easy, childlike enthusiasm for some fireworks. A 'War, finally!' attitude.

Can you imagine war, I want to ask people? Cowering inside your own house, perhaps feeling it shake, sticking black paper on windows, feeling like a target, day and night. Do you not understand the concept of ‘carpet bombing’ and ‘civilian targets’? Do you think that, while our soldiers are sent off to do battle at the borders, we will be able to sit around sipping coffee, making music, shopping at Linking Road? Do you think Bombay (or Delhi or any other major city) will not be a target? Can you imagine how afraid you will be then, because your kids are in school and you won’t know whether you should just pull them out until things are better, or what? Can you imagine contemplating a pleasant stroll down to the sea when there are bombers flying past, inches away from your bedroom window?

Three nights of a crisis, more or less in a limited part of South Mumbai, and we had an emerging black market for drinking water! And you want this country to go to war?

Who are we fooling about the real purpose of such a war? It is an extremely juvenile imagination that assumes that the extremist outfits based in Pakistan will be sending their cadre to enlist as jawans. It will be the same poor lot on that side, fighting because someone else has called for a war. It will be their little babies at risk. Their farms and schools and hospitals and hotels. And because we are such kindred cultures, they too will have people selling food and fuel on the black market. Probably drinking water too. And, I suspect, they will also try smuggling sugar across the border.

War, they want! War with who? The extremists across the border have been bombing their own country, for god’s sake! Those who came with bombs didn’t come in the name of a neighbouring country. They came from the nation called the lust for power, the nation of the psychologically damaged, whose leaders rarely sign up for suicide missions.

The truth is, people are calling for war because war is easily spoken of, and rarely experienced. All those people who are talking about aggressive action and military training, will they also agree to a compulsory stint in the armed forces? Will they let their children be put into uniform and sent off marching to lob a grenade or two across the border? Nobody minds getting a little toughie training. It adds to our sense of security. But just take a look at the composition of our armed forces. Take a look at what percentage of our officers come from the elite 1%, or even the upper middle classes. Take a look at the average soldier and what sort of options he had and why he signed up at all. He isn’t looking to save our collective backsides. He doesn’t lunch at the Oberoi and he sure as hell does not want to go to war. He’ll go if he has to, but I think he would appreciate it if we don’t sacrifice his head to humour a nation’s hurt ego.

And since we are on the subject of nations, there is that other point of madness: the calls for boycotting of elections, or worse, the notion that our cities and states are better off being ruled by CEOs. Corporates. Because ‘politicians’ are filthy so and sos, and we don’t want any of them.

If there is anything that scares me more than talk of war, it is this sort of talk that wants us to renege on our pledge to ourselves. To stop being a democracy. To turn into a theocracy or a collective of monarchies.

What on god’s earth is this ‘India’? A nation of what? A democratic nation? A sovereign, secular, socialist republic? That was the idea, yes. And look what we’ve done for over sixty years. We voted for religion. We voted for caste. We voted for sub-caste. We voted for class and privilege. We voted for whoever our parents or in-laws voted for. In short, we voted for ‘us’. That is, when we bothered to vote at all.

And now you have the gall to say: vote for ‘nobody’!

Why? Didn’t like your mug in the great national mirror called parliament? The Lok Sabha, the Vidhan Sabha, the city councils, the municipality: this is our face and if it smells like our unwashed armpits, it is because we like to bury our smuggy faces in our armpits so often.

I overheard a conversation in the train, recently. One woman telling another (in the first class compartment) that they should make friends with a third girl, who happens to work with the railways. Because, just in case they ever got caught ticketless, they could call her up and ask her to speak to her railways colleagues and get them off the hook. This is us. This isn’t our bureaucrats or our politicians. Us.

I am both appalled and wearied by the incessant chant, calling for heads to roll in the government, the police and intelligence. This blaming of politics and bureaucracy is just extremely lazy talk.

How blind are you that you cannot see that those heads are really ours? Our states, our cities already have CEOs. They are called ministers. The only difference between a minister and a corporate-style CEO is that the latter pretty much owns you, and you have almost zero power over him. He can fire you. You cannot fire him. Is this what we want India to become? A place where some rich dude rules us, can get rid of us, can silence us, and we cannot do anything to dislodge him?

If we don’t want this, then why do we keep saying it? Why have we gotten to the point that we cannot admit to ourselves that we are actually afraid of our responsibility in this great, big (and yes, flourishing) democracy?

We are, politically speaking, such an ignorant country that it makes me cringe to think of it. Forget elections. Many of us cannot even name our own prime minister and president and the local councillor or MLA. The vast majority of this country simply does not know! A lot of this has to do with illiteracy, yes, but a lot of it also has to do with not wanting to know. And it’s not just the poor and the illiterate. It is because anyone who can afford to takes pride in saying ‘Oh, but I am not a political person’. We want to cut ourselves off from the business of running a nation, or a city. We want the government to function like some sort of sub-contractual service provider. We don’t have leaders because we don’t want leaders. We wanted thekedaars; we got thekedaars!

Which is why I am doubly disturbed by this ‘vote for nobody’ campaign. Yes, I heard about 49O, and I know it is supposed to pressurize our political parties into choosing better candidates. But I am deeply concerned about the language used. To encourage people to vote in patterns that ensure that no clear winner emerges in any constituency is not a very healthy trend in a democracy. It is a lazy trend. It is lazy to just say ‘I choose nobody’ when you should be making an informed choice.

What is ‘nobody’? A ‘nobody’ is a negative. It is a political black hole, the kind that doesn’t do much for people who need light and gravity, both. Perhaps that is what they mean when they say ‘vote for nobody’. Perhaps this is our new face. A nobody face, which does not pretend to stand for anything and makes no excuses for its own ignorance or inaction.

And guess what, I too have had enough. I am tired of having to deal with a philosophy that seems to equate doing nothing with having done something.

We will not bother to vote. We will not bother to create lobbies that pressurize governments into listening to our demands, even in non-election years. We will not vote for independents, because we are suspicious of their non-political antecedents. We will not find out how democracy really functions in this country. We will not even give generously to charity. We will ignore the Bhopal gas tragedy victims and their demands for a proper clean-up job. We will not spend half an hour visiting a municipality office to register a complaint. We will not pay our unskilled employees decent wages. We will not show up at our candidates’ doorsteps, demanding to know what happened to electoral promises, to remind them of what happens when people take loans but don’t pay up. And we certainly will not vote for those who actually have given their lives to social work and bringing change.

Instead, we will pay bribes, kickbacks, commissions. Or else, if we have the connections, we will use a high-up functionary in the bureaucracy or government to bail us out when we get into trouble. And we will go on moaning about the state of the nation and how it can all be fixed if we just stop voting and start making war.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Mumbai, post.

The other day, I went shopping for veggies at the nearest supermarket, and found it almost empty. The girls employed there were kidding around with each other. I heard the word ‘terrorist’. One girl told another she’d set the terrorists after her friend. The other one alleged that she was one herself. Light laughter. Odd, somehow. Perhaps, necessary, somehow.

Yesterday, I’d stepped out with my own bag and a laptop, boarded a train and opened a book. My station arrived, I got off and ten seconds later, wondered why my shoulder felt light. I’d forgotten the laptop in the Ladies compartment.

In a mad rush, I turned back. I had no way of tracking down that same train even if I did follow it in the right direction. The train had started moving by then, so I jumped into the nearest compartment. I almost fell. A stranger reached out and grabbed me at the door, pulled me inside. Others asked me to sit down, catch my breath, relax. I was too worried to step away from the door.

Five years ago, I would have worried about somebody walking off with my laptop, about losing all the writing I’ve done over the last few years. Yesterday, I worried that somebody would notice an unclaimed bag and panic. I worried that somebody might call the cops and the machine might be either dismantled beyond salvaging, or that I would be called in to explain, and who knows if an explanation would be explanation enough.

A couple of days ago, a friend had told me about riding in an auto-rickshaw whose driver wasn’t in the mood for rules. He jumped a traffic light. The cops stopped him, asked for his papers. They asked him his name. Turned out to be a Muslim name. More questions. Many more questions. They wouldn’t just let him got with a fine and a warning.

A woman lives in our building. Introduced herself as ‘Nisha’. My mother, out of old habit, asked for her full name. She said, ‘Oh, it’s a long name, you won’t be able to pronounce it’. Turned out, her real name was ‘Badr-un-nisa’. Not that hard to pronounce, my mother said. If you’re familiar with it, Nisha said.

Another friend mentioned how, as part of a citizen’s initiative, she walked up to the nearest cop on duty and thanked him – the entire police force – for what the cops had done. He laughed in her face and said, why, because this time it was the big hotels, and all you rich people were in danger? He didn’t think our gratitude would last. So much cynicism, I thought, at a time like this? Odd, perhaps, but necessary, perhaps.

Yet another friend had minor shrapnel cuts on her chin. She had been out there with the other journalists, on the streets for two and a half nights. There was no food and drinking water was being sold on the black market. Spirit... city spirits.

Yesterday, I fretted and tried not to think unpleasant thoughts until the train stopped at the next station. I got off and ran back towards the Ladies compartment. The laptop was where I had left it, apparently untouched. Five years ago, I wonder if it would have been left alone.

By the time I found it, got hold of it and stepped down, the train had started moving again. I almost lost my balance. Once again, a stranger’s hands, and I didn’t fall, after all.

On my way back, in the compartment next to mine, a bunch of young women were talking rather loudly. One woman was asking if TADA was a place, because people were always being ‘put in TADA’. Somebody else said it was a special kind of jail. Another was explaining that it was a law. Somebody said something else about Tada-Bida. Light laughter. Odd, somehow. Perhaps, necessary somehow.
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