A Late Evening In India

A Late Evening In India

by Ramesh Mahadevan
PJ and self are good friends. We have known each other since we were this small. Whereas I had decided to go abroad and lust after money, PJ decided to stay put in India and lust after money. I always hang around him every time I hit Madras and he gives me those insightful 'state of the nation' summaries. "These days, it is fashionable in India to get married early in life, like when you are in your early twenties. Bart Simpson is already well-known here" he would update me. We were walking down a major thoroughfare in the city. Because of a strike by workers at the milk processing plant, which was now a couple of days old, we couldn't get our customary cup of chai and were walking like zombies deprived of their chai.

Just then there was a big commotion. Some volunteers belonging to some political party, who could easily be mistaken for some goondas, were gently persuading (with minimum force) the shopkeepers to shut their shops.

"Oh, those are the DMK people. They all have a tattoo of river Cauvery on their left ear lobe. They are organizing a bandh in support of Mandal Commission". explained my friend.

"But isn't DMK the ruling party ? How can the government go on strike."

"You don't understand. Tomorrow the Opposition party has called for a bandh in support of the Mandal committee. So this is a preemptive bandh."

After the shopkeepers shuttered down their shops, a bunch of thugs from the opposition AIADMK party appeared from nowhere and requested the shopkeepers to open the shops and not observe the bandh. After they left, the newly created MMK party grassroots appeared and forced the shopkeepers to observe the bandh. Then AnnaMMK party cadres eventually appeared and forced open the shutters.

As we were watching this bandh of wits, a bunch of kindergarten kids were trooping out in a procession and we nearly got trampled. I stopped one of them and asked them why they were marching.

"We are marching in support of Ramjhanmabhoomi."

"Aren't you kind of too small to be doing this kind of things, Pappu"

"God, don't tell me you are one of those who is always insensitive to the Hindus and treat us like step children. Don't hurt Hindu sentiments. Guru Sri Dalmiaji zindabad. I even attended the Kar Seva. We won't rest till we find Balaji Jhanmabhoomi in Andhra and Kali Jhanmabhoomi in Bengal."

"While you are at it, you must also fight for Manasarovar and Mount Kailash, which are also very holy Hindu places. Get them from the Chinese. I am sure you can do it."

The air was filled with "Mandir Banenge" "Masjid thodenge" as the children filed past, much to the chagrin of their teacher. Just hastily, they beat a retreat, when a huge crowd of who seemed like high school kids were marching in from the opposite side, shouting slogans.

"Release Baba Amte, Don't build the dam" said the loudest one "Save the ecosystem. We won't attend classes unless the globe stopped warming."

I was very moved by the heightened awareness in my own country to all the environmental issues. As if by coincidence, another massive procession appeared from a side road, this time made up of what seemed like college students. Some of them appeared to have been students for a long time. "Stop the atrocity of the police and down with the Principal."

I looked at my friend for explanation. He said "Maybe these are the kids protesting the Principal because he didn't let them copy in the exams. (By the way, this really happened) It can be also against the police for being a little too harsh during the Samantha Fox concert held in Madras recently."

An enthusiastic student was just about to set fire to a bus to convey his grievance eloquently. The conductor and the driver ran out of the bus. In a jiffy there was an altercation between them and the students. The bus crew then stopped all the other buses and thus began a 'wild cat' strike of the city buses. The auto scooter rickshaws were already on a strike to protest the mounting cost of diesel and weren't going to ply their machines till the government subsidized diesel.

We moved away from the scene to relative safety. As we crossed one of those monstrous office kind of building, a sea of humanity was gushing out. "We are on strike" said a loud voice "Government, be fair to millions of telephone workers."

I managed to talk to that 'worker'. "Sir, with due respect to your grievances, don't you think it is unfair to hold an entire population at ransom and cut an essential service like telephone. When you had your last strike, my friend's mother had died in India and they could not reach him for weeks."

"I sympathize with you. But you only see inconveniences to a few people and not government's atrocities and the welfare of downtrodden workers."

"You workers are paid a lot of money and you want to exploit the fluid political situation for even more gains. India is the only country where the workers demand their rights without caring about their responsibilities. Workers who screw up essential services with random strikes should be punished very severly" I managed to say, before he started getting uncontrollably angry. The mob would have killed me had it not for the neon lights suddenly dying down all around us. "They are having a strike in the atomic power plant, saar, because the staff cafetaria raised the price of a cup of coffee" said someone. (By the way, this episode is true) Stumbling in the approaching darkness, we reached a post office to mail a letter and the postman inside told us "Don't mail any letters sir, we are on strike. It is all the fault of the government. They employed pensioners temporarily to clear the huge holiday backlog. Our union doesn't want efficient outsiders to do our work. We will work overtime and get that money and clear the mail rush over the next few months." (This is also true, by the way)

My friend then gave me the first lecture of Strike 101. There are several kinds of strikes and agitations. There is 'go slow' and 'sit-in' strikes and 'work to rule'. And flashy 'wild cat', 'sympathetic' strikes. There are dharnas as opposed to 'gheraos'. There are 'calling in sick' and strikes where workers actually sabotage installations. The 'rasta rukho' strikes are different from 'rail rukho'. The 'Jail bharo' kind of agitation is different from 'courting arrest' in terms of who gets arrested. The lawyers were on strike and the doctors were on strike. Some of the strikers can get very novel. When the bank tellers were on strike, they doled out money only in five paise coins to customers to protest something or the other. The vegetable vendors went on strike and made their point by selling onions with extra pungent aroma, driving everyone nuts. The musicians went on strike and only sang Malkauns for a month before the government intervened.

The farmers were on strike as well. "The government is going to give us free electricity. And a lot of our loans are written off and a lot of us don't pay any income taxes. But we need free fertilizer and seeds and water and this agitation will not stop till our demands are met. We belong to the 'channa daal sowing' caste. The government should stop the repression of our caste and improve our lot". The rural areas were anyway turned into near war zones by the sympathizers of People's War Group and their Naxalite counterparts. On tuesdays, thursdays and saturdays there were dharnas in sympathy of LTTE Tigers and on other days there were dharnas against the LTTE. The BJP and the other organizations are already on a relay-hunger strike. This is an interesting concept. You go on a hunger strike for eight hours and then someone else will take over your spot. This way you go on a hunger strike and still don't kill yourself.

"At least the South is insulated from a lot of goings on." said my friend "In the East, the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) is on a war footing and life is paralyzed. They have a nexus with LTTE and AP naxalites. In Punjab, at least a dozen people are killed everyday. Kashmir is another story. Then there are movements for a separate statehood for Jharkhand. The hindi heartland is terrorized by VHP. Add to this other assorted caste and communal violence. India is one big jungle, like it used to be, eons ago."

"I have visited India so many times since I moved to the US." I remarked in response "I have never seen so much civil strife any time. I think the quality of civil life is probably the worst since independence. The next time on, you people should vote for some strong persons to power who would control the situation and get the country running, whatever maybe her political ideology. I don't know how you guys even manage to live and maintain your sanity."

"Thanks for being condescending. You know, NRI guys like you expect miracles in India. You guys can't stand Indian conditions even for a few weeks of your visit even though millions of us are having to put up with this throughout our lives. And you lived in India only a short while ago"

"No no, my point was more in the sense of ...."

My friend wasn't listening. He went on. "You are greatly inconvenienced by train delays, people not standing in line, corruption, people not being punctual, offices not working efficiently, traffic not moving smoothly and so forth. You have a ready solution for everything .."

"No no, you misunderstood me. We too discuss these things at length on bboards and Indian problems are foremost in our minds."

"How can you be sensitive to all this ? After all, you come here to cleanse your guilt and do a lot of shopping, be it shopping for spices or wives. You flash your dollars and green cards and then go back home to your Honda Accords. We don't need you and your pathetic sounding American accents. Down with NRIs."

His clarion call immediately attracted the attention of several youths, which progressed into a large crowd chanting "We don't need escapists" "Down with NRI unpatriotic dogs". The shops closed their shutters one more time. The traffic came to a standstill. I quickly hailed a cab, (the cheaper auto-scooter richshaws were on strike, remember ?) promised him a hefty tip and rushed to my concert, to which I had a front row ticket. 

Copyright(R) Mahadevan Ramesh