Thursday, November 27, 2008


Sitting up on a regular night, just hours away from my final exam of the second last term here on campus, my friend studying beside me answers his phone. He steps out to talk to his girlfriend for a minute and almost immediately comes back in.

"There's been another bomb blast in Bombay"

It doesn't hit you too hard at first. Preliminary reports suggest that the blast and the shootouts were a result of a gang war in the seaside metropolis. Fine. Let those bastards kill themselves. You feel sorry for those caught in the wake, but at least it wasn't a terrorist attack.

An hour later and your walking towards the night canteen to take a small chai & sutta break from all that contract law and what not. "At least it's not a terrorist attack" you repeat aloud to your friend. And then you step into the mess and see the live footage.

India is a country like no other. The sheer range of everything; monetary, social, geographical, cultural, linguistics; boggles the mind. A wise person once commented that man is happy because he believes he will be soon. This cannot be more true of anyplace than it is here. Despite all the flaws, the failings, the loopholes, the muck in the systems and laws in place, we do manage to carry on, always thinking that things will get better, soon.

This applies to terrorism as well. The country has a poor track record in this field, by any measure. The numbers just keep on increasing. Yet we fail to actually do anything about it. Every time a cycle explodes or a briefcase erupts, we denounce the act and then carry on. We contract extra security guards for a week, a month, put up a brave show, and then carry on; hoping that someone will do something about it.

Last night's attacks were unlike anything the country has seen before. From bombs in crowded lanes in Delhi, we have graduated to shopping complexes, five-star hotels and acclaimed pubs. Terrorism, it would seem, is catching up with the globalization express. It's not about killing people anymore, though the culprits are becoming alarmingly adept at this as well. It's about the sheer terror. "No place is safe", my friend mailed me. It's almost as if the terrorists have plastered signs across our television sets that say "You cannot hide. We will get you. Eventually." We all watched on television and heard on the radio, the reports streaming in about the climbing death toll, the rising number of attacks, the situation unfolding before our eyes and in our heads like a cheap patriotic film. For the first time, we saw the Taj beside the Gateway of India crowned with a halo of fire and smoke and scenes of people rushing to safety amidst exploding grenades.

In all this, we, the people of India, are mere spectators. We stand helplessly, clutching cups of tea and cell phones on automatic redial, watching, waiting. For not the first time in my life, I was just another face in the crowd. Not knowing what to do.

I cant believe the news today
Oh I cant close my eyes and make it go away
How long how long must we sing this song
How long how long

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


So I've had plenty of discussions regarding religion, how some believe that God is in control of everything while others believe that he's just there and lets things slide according to the laws of physics and what not. One thing most everyone agrees on is Karma. How Newton's third law applies to feelings as well.
Two cases in point follow.

In Bombay, during my Summer Internship, my office was in the area of Andheri. It was situated along the highway and at the junction where one has to take a turn off the highway to get to the Andheri station, which is how over half of Bombay commutes. So one fine evening (and it really was a fine evening, cloudy, windy and cool) I was catching an auto outside my office to head to the station for my weekly weekend trip to Churchgate, Colaba, and one of the numerous Bars/Restaurants there. After a not so brief wait, I finally managed to get hold of an empty auto. Immediately as I got in, I saw a young man (he couldn't have been more than two years older than I) emerge from the many by lanes of Bombay onto the road I was on in search of an auto as well. I asked to driver to stop and offered to give the young man a lift to the station. He smiled and agreed and got on.

In the short five minute ride, we discussed mundane things about the city, the weather, the ongoing IPL matches (which I never followed but loved Bullshitting my way through - actually I can't bullshit my way through them, just love bullshitting about how I bullshit about stuff; "all talk", I am, so I've been told). He asked me where I was going, I asked him the same, and we spoke half-heartedly with each other. When we got off, he reached for his wallet but I refused to accept his money, reasoning that I was going to pay the minimum ten rupees regardless of whether I had picked him up or not, and I paid the auto driver and walked off.

The Bombay local is known for the multitudes of passengers that throng the trains, stations and the roads that lead up to them. One author estimated that the trains carry more than the population of the state of New Zealand - every day. To travel on them, one needs to have one of a) a train pass - which are available for a fixed route; b) a set of coupons - which allow you to travel from and to any station till the coupons run out; and c) a normal run of the mill ticket purchased from the counter. The first two save you the hassle of waiting in line at the ticket counter, lines which often extend to infinity in the clammy heat of the Bombay Summer. This day was no different - save for the somewhat comforting weather, which was mostly nullified while standing in an enclosed space with about two hundred people.

So I'm standing in line, and counting till 100 and then backwards and then forwards and backwards to kill time. Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around expecting someone to ask me if he/she can cut in line and am all ready to decline when I see the young man whom I had given a lift earlier standing behind me to the side holding out a punched coupon for Churchgate station. He smiles in the way only good men know how to smile (or bad men who have been shown incredible acts of kindness, like how I would imagine the Raj smiled when they bowed before the Mahatma) and handed me the piece of paper, thanked me once more, and walked off.

The second incident occurred just two days back, in the city of Bangalore (where I am currently residing) and completed my theory of sowing what you reap. After going on a solitary KFC binge at the nearby mall, I was in an auto on the way back to campus, which is not six kilometres from the mall. Now the auto drivers in Bangalore are just obnoxious. All those who have ever had to travel by an autorickshaw in the city would know what I am talking about. They curse you, demand extra fares for the most inane reasons (I recall one person being told that his meter ran faster than the bike his friend had followed them on because the autorickshaw had three wheels and the bike only two) and get downright confrontational to the point of using violence if you do not acquiesce to their exorbitant demands. I've lived in Delhi for three years, and as an outsider, I can tell you that the rickshawallahs there are serious pains in the posteriors. But they seem like angels compared to the drivers here.

So I'm on my way back and the traffic is hell. It's rush hour in the Silicon Valley of India and all those young IT professionals with their large cars bought off thier hefty MNC salaries (which are actually dirt cheap for the MNCs) are crowded on Bannerghatta Road. My auto is stuck behind a long line of cars when these two men on a bike pull up on the right and ask the auto driver if he can let them pass in front of the auto so that they can get into the left lane. The auto driver gives them a glare, as always, which they assume to be consent. After all, you will never see a smiling autorickshaw driver in the Garden City.

The two men on the bike begin to make the pass in front of our man's auto when without warning (and no reason save to irk the bikers) the driver of the auto nudges his vehicle into the rear tire of the bike. Nothing serious of course, just a little bullying to remind them of who's boss.

Which backfired terribly of course. The two men immediately disembark from their two wheeler and step up to the side of the auto and begin what I must admit was one of the best vicarious highs of my life. They heaped abuses on him in the local dialect (which I unfortunately am unable to reproduce here) and slapped him around incessantly, each slap being followed by more insults and more slapping, each louder, harder, more spiteful than the last.

I sat in the back seat with a smile in my head. After all, it was the auto driver's fault. And more than that, though I firmly believe that "an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind", there are still those people who cannot understand any language other than the gospel of violence and dada-ism they preach. After a full five minutes, I got bored of the spectacle and intervened, pleading to the two bikers that he had been slapped enough and that I was getting late. With a slap and a slight, they broke away from the flustered driver and clambered back onto their Bajaj and sped off.

The scales do balance, as I have said earlier. The same auto driver whose humiliation I had passively partaken in turned out to be incredibly honest - his meter was not tampered with, as so many are in this city - and I decided to tip him for it, paying him the sixty rupees that was my reservation price for the ride back home.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A talk by Nikhil Dey

Adapted (actually copy pasted) from the assignment in the SocEn.

Nikhil Dey is unassuming. Be it his demeanour, his speech, his size, his attire (and despite the fact that he carries three cell phones with him); it would be hard to surmise that this man has rallied hundreds to thousands in Rajasthan to fight the blatant siphoning of welfare funds meant for ordinary people.

The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) currently employs 15 full time workers in Rajasthan and is not registered nor does it receive any formal or institutional funding. It carries out public audits of funds which are meant for widows, retired workers, people handicapped or disabled from work and people who are supposed to be paid minimum wages for their labour. These funds are drained off on en route by middlemen, mostly the government workers who are charged with distributing them.

Nikhil Dey admits that he has had a more privileged life than most. Having had an education both in India and abroad, he admits that growing up in urban India cut him off (as it has the rest of the 300 million odd who live in large metropolises) from the rest of rural India – when shifting to the U.S., he says it took him three days to adjust to the new environment, whereas it took him much longer when he stayed at a village for the first time. In many ways, this shift was a search for his own roots.

In 1990, Nikhil, along with Shankar Singh and Aruna Roy, decided to go to a village and live with the people; not to form an NGO, but have their work and their contributions be defined by the people they would be living and working with. They believed that true learning would come from experience and practical work. Further, to gain an understanding of what plagued the villagers, they took it upon themselves to live by the minimum wage – right from the very beginning.

They saw that there were several farmers with extremely small patches of land, who, during a period of drought or an off season, would migrate towards cities in search of jobs. They also discovered that acts such as the National Rural Employee Guarantee Act (NREG), which was meant to provide every able bodied person with one hundred days of paid labour, was being misused and the wages being tapped by government officials. Signatures were being forged on rosters and on pension registers and the people who truly deserved the funds were not getting them. The group realised that the creation of livelihoods alone could bring these people out of their poverty. Hence they formed the MKSS.

As the MKSS, they held rallies, staged short skits, and composed songs to reach out to the people. Nikhil claims that everyone has an inbuilt sense of justice and what he and his team mates set out to do was to provide the people with a platform to raise their concerns. The video shown in class has a scene where an old feeble man is asked whether he had leased any of his buffalos to the government. He replies by saying that he has no buffaloes. According to Nikhil, there are hundreds of such people who want justice, but who are individually, incapable of bringing it about. His answer lies in the collective voice of the people – the public audit of funds used by the government as well as muster rolls and pension lists.

To this effect, the Right to Information (RTI) Act has helped the movement to a great deal. The MKSS itself has been instrumental in bringing about this revolutionary law which it itself uses to gather the information mentioned above. The members of the MKSS go from door to door asking if a person whose name is on these records whether or not they have received the support which has been documented. Most of the times, the people themselves are not even aware that they are entitled for such aid.

To solve these problems, we need to be ‘connected’, says Nikhil. He describes the MKSS as a flock of geese, migrating in the ‘V’ formation with what he refers to as the ‘super-goose’ leading the flock. Once it grows tired, the ‘super-goose’ relinquishes its position at the front and allows another goose to take its place and the lead, while it falls back into obscurity, all for the greater good of the flock. As was put forward (to much applause and banging on desks) by one of the villagers to the officials; “We are worried whether RTI will bring us food or not. You are worried whether RTI coming in will leave you with power or not. But what we all should be asking for is, tomorrow, with RTI, will this country exist or not.”

Politics in today’s world, Nikhil says, has assumed a dirty connotation. More so has the term ‘power politics’, indeed the political arena is intended only to be legislative – to draft and amend laws and not to build bridges or towers. This is change in the definition of the seat of power is what he aims to achieve. After all, “democracy”, he says, “is about making the truth powerful, making those who don’t have power become truthful, and making the powerful also truthful.” Further, the power to effect this change lies in the people, as do the answers as to how to go about it. Nikhil admits that when posed with difficult problems, it is not the MKSS which has all the answers. However if more people participate, answers will be brought forward. Such a system truly would be of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Nikhil never started off thinking that they would get so big. Even now, he says he has to “pinch himself” to realise how far he and his friends have come. He understands the limitations of the individual and its frailty against the strength of the multiple, yet believes that the individual, while perhaps remaining incapable of changing the world, can still bring about incremental improvements. “Everyone’s own life is a revolution.” Whether or not we manage to change the world, we can control our own lives, our habits, the way we live, the relations we have with other people. A thought perhaps best summed up in a single sentence: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”