Wednesday, January 26, 2011
The two vehicles stopped abreast of each other at the traffic signal. Both were spotless white in colour. They were SUVs- big and muscular- that took up most of the road’s width and made the other waiting vehicles look small and humble.
The drivers of the two vehicles glared at each other and spat on the road. Their employers sat behind, not looking at each other. Both men were dressed in the whitest of starched whites and their faces hidden behind the darkest of dark glasses. They were the humble servants of us ordinary folk. Out of respect, we called them our netas. It was just unfortunate that they belonged to opposing political parties.
It is said that when elephants fight, it is the ants that suffer. And so it was proved that day.
The light turned green and both vehicles surged forward. As it was in their politics, so it was on the road. Each wanted to get ahead of the other. The inevitable happened.
There was a scraping sound followed by a screech of the brakes as both vehicles stopped. The drivers jumped out to survey the damage. It was intolerable, they concluded. A’s driver shouted at B’s driver. B’s driver shouted back. First, they argued about each other’s eyesight; then compared each other to the less intelligent of animals. Then they quickly settled down to discussing each other’s ancestry and the legitimacy of their families. Each driver invoked his master’s name and described what he could do to the other. As this also did not end the argument A and B both decided to take matters in their hands.
A abused B’s driver and B abused A’s. Threats were repeated and exchanged. Those who witnessed the argument were overawed by their claims of power and their god-like capacity for retribution.
To the constable on duty it was a situation far more complex than shopping for groceries for his superior’s wife. As he watched the scene in the middle of the traffic junction, he wished he had not opted for duty here. But he had no choice. Traffic had piled up in all directions. He went up to the two men and requested them to continue their discussions somewhere else; and would they please move their cars?
“He tried to kill me”, they shouted, fingers now pointing at each other.
“Looks more like an accident to me,” the constable replied.
“Are you calling me a liar?” they shouted again, finger now pointing at the policeman. Having decided that the situation was beyond his capacity to manage, he called his superior and went back to his seat in the shade.
It was the media’s day out on the following morning. Depending on their political leaning, they reported that B assaulted A or vice versa. The few that did not take sides published both stories- on different pages. Readers complained that they were confused. One TV channel ran a prime time discussion on how unsafe traffic signals had become. An expert suggested that, like ambulances and emergency vehicles, politicians also should be allowed to drive through the red light. Someone pointed out that they were doing it anyway and the discussion ended.
A’s followers organized a public meeting to protest against the attack on him, offer a thanksgiving prayer for his providential escape and to reward his driver for the courage he showed in protecting his master. Not to be outdone, B’s followers organized a similar meeting.
A then accused the police of bias and not doing anything to “bring to book the perpetrators of the dastardly attack” His followers demonstrated their displeasure by calling for a public strike. They then set a few buses on fire. The next day, B’s followers protested against “the conspiracy to tarnish” their leader’s image. They also organized a public strike and burnt a few more buses. The score remained even
The police chief went on air and declared that he would not tolerate acts of lawlessness and that those caught damaging public property would be punished. This had the desired effect in that everyone turned against him. He was transferred out of the city and investigations turned over to the CBI. But peace remained elusive
A and B took their quarrel to the state assembly. It was so serious that the speaker allowed one hour daily for a discussion on the situation. He rested his chin on his hands while the honorable members debated with their lungs and- to emphasize their point- threw shoes and furniture at one another. At the end of the hour, he would adjourn the proceedings and go home.
When it became clear that nothing would work, the party chiefs met. The venue was a five star hotel in a hill station and the discussions lasted most of the night. Naturally, the media was kept out.
In the morning, citizens came out their homes to see hoardings with pictures of A and B in an embrace and smiling down on them. Their parties had decided to merge. Both A and B promised to work for the betterment of society. There were firecrackers and celebrations all around. This time, buses were damaged not out of anger, but out of the revelers' exuberance. Peace had returned at last
But loose ends had to be tied. The police constable who was on duty that day was reprimanded for filing a false report and transferred to a far off place. The CBI closed the case on the grounds of lack of proper evidence and reliable witnesses.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
It was time for the elections. Lofty ideals were rediscovered and manifestos dusted off and given a contemporary appeal. The candidates realized that they could not give away the moon. So they promised TV Sets, pilgrimages to places of one’s choice, mobile phones to young people, and the like. Candidates with more constrained resources offered liberal supplies of the locally made fermented stuff. One person talked about garbage management and public transport. Everybody laughed at him and no one attended his meetings. He quit the race.
I commented to my wife that, except for the one who dropped out, the candidates were being quite practical with their promises.
“Who wants a TV or a mobile phone?” she sniffed, “I prefer the pilgrimage”.
I am not a great one for pilgrimages but, I thought, what if this chap wins? A few days by myself with the wife away is not such a bad idea, after all. Thus, the engineer’s head overruled the heart of a loving husband. I decided to vote for my wife’s candidate.
There were issues in plenty and breathtakingly global in scope. So it came about that my maid worried about the melting Antarctic ice. “But it will mean more water for us, no?” she asked hopefully. The wife took the easy route- she told the maid to speak to me about it. My candidate, P, promised a world class sports complex. I was impressed although I knew I could not afford the tickets to get inside.
Silly, old fashioned me, fretting about potholed roads, unlit streets and uncleared garbage. I must to accept that the world has moved on. After all, this is a land of seven hundred million mobile phone users.
P’s benevolent pictures smiled down us from his campaign posters. We were urged to remember his deeds. How could we forget? He got us an additional water line in the middle of summer and helped the paanwala set up shop on the footpath. My grocer was grateful to P for being able to extend his shop to the pavement. In fact, there was hardly anyone who was not affected by P’s munificence.
And thus we cantered towards voting day.
As the big day neared, I set out on an evening walk to compensate for several consecutive mornings of lethargy and late rising. It was cool and I made brisk progress as I dodged assassination attempts by the scores of vehicles that used my road. I saw P walking in my direction. I was surprised to see him alone at this time. P believed in two kilometer visibility in the densest fog. On a normal day he would be walking with a half dozen people and chat up the dozens he would come across.
Apparently, it was not a normal day.
As P came closer, I noticed that he looked worried and distracted.
“Hello”, I greeted him. I was game for some small talk and local gossip.
P looked at me sadly and with a touch of bitterness said, “Your foreigner friend has brought me lot of trouble”.
That was not possible. J’s meeting with P had lasted about five minutes. I said as much.
“Do you want to know?” he warmed up, “My family wants a toilet in my home”.
“Ahhh…” was all I could say.
“The people, too. They are saying that they have waited for too long”
“That should not be too difficult once you are elected”
“After all that I have done for them...” P was at the point of tears, “They just don’t seem to understand”
I decided that it was best not to say anything.
“There was no problem all these years; and now, this”
I nodded my head in sympathy. P’s beneficiaries lived on public land, got free electricity and water. They should not have anything to complain about.
“They have a lot to be grateful about”, I said to P.
“They are laughing at me now,” P’s voice was almost a wail, “They want a promise from me that if I get elected, I will....get one built”. He almost choked on the last few words.
I excused myself and walked on.
Election Day came and went. Those who took their civic responsibilities or their candidates seriously lined up at the polling booths to vote. The uncaring ones left town.
We had nothing to do till counting day. So we analyzed in detail the winning prospects of every candidate and consequences of his victory. Overnight we had all become experts.
It was counting day at least. P was noticeably nervous. The possibility that some of his faithful could have voted against him had made him even more jittery. To make matters even more difficult, his family threatened to revolt if they had to “go to the backside” after the elections.
As the counting progressed, it became clear that it was going to be a very close contest. P could not sit still any longer. He began pacing outside the counting hall. His faithful scurried behind, trying to calm him.
P clutched his stomach. The tension was getting to him. He looked around in desperation. The only place he could go to was the inside the building and he was not allowed to enter even on “urgent compassionate grounds”.
When he could not bear it any longer, he ran around the corner crying, “I promise, let me go please, I promise”
How do the Americans say it? You can run, but you can't hide, baby.