Friday, February 25, 2011

The Pecking order

On this Republic day, amidst all the flowery and routine mobile messages, I received a very thought provoking sms from an ex-colleague. It said:

“The best index to a person’s character is

(a) how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and

(b) how he treats people who can’t fight back.”

I do not know what made Narayanan sir sent this on the Republic Day but the sms made me think about the character of people around me….and also about my own behaviour to others. Meanwhile, in my last weekly telephonic discussion with my 94 year old grandfather, I asked him what is new and happening in my hometown. He informed me that Lucknow’s street royale- Hazratganj is getting a facelift and that he is not so happy about it. He reasoned that in front of his eyes things have changed so much for the worse that he feels very cynical about any change. As an example, he told me that he worked for 10 years in pre independence India and 29 years in independent India. Once, when India was still under the “foreign” rule of racist Brits, he reached in front of the lift in the State Secretariat to go to the topmost floor. Before he could reach, the lift had already started with two British officers inside the lift. One of them, on seeing him, asked the liftman to take the lift down and asked him to step in. Today outside the same lift, they have a notice in big font- “FOR CHIEF MINISTER’S USE ONLY”. Before I could react to this story he gave me another one. Once in connection with his work he went to a district office where a truckful of foodgrain was being unloaded by 5-6 labourers when it suddenly started raining. The collector, a British man, who was supervising the work standing in the veranda, immediately took off his shirt and started carrying sacks of grains on his back. My grandfather told me that even he and two of his colleagues were standing with the DM but they never thought of doing the same, till he started doing it. He asked me if I can think of any collector today doing the same. He very painfully commented, had it been so, food grains would not be rotting in FCI godowns. I wanted to say a lot to him in defence of my times and my contemporary world - but I could not. I do understand that things are no longer that simple but I fail to see why we should let them be so.
No, I do not mean to generalize anything by re-telling these stories here, but the more I see officialdom around me, the more I realize the presence of an extremely feudal, discriminatory and almost racist mindset. A senior colleague once jokingly told me that Seniority is the biggest caste system in bureaucracy, but  I can tell you about many more forms of discrimination...happily accepted in our 'modern' times. The new formed caste systems in our minds come from power quotients, financial status, at times from cultural and social biases as well. In our public dealings, irrespective of our position, we have a mental hierarchy of people. Well dressed, well off, English speaking people…even if they are rude, receive much better treatment even from the cabbies, shopkeepers etc. On the contrary a weak old simple pensioner has very little chance of getting a fair hearing in a public office. Sad but true, we are no longer the people who respected simplicity in a person. Of course, we have very high sounding laws to protect equality of every human being, but in our social milieu we are getting more and more racist and worse, we blame one another for starting the wrong trend.

Interestingly, even those who complain about others’ snobbish and snooty behavior, do not fail to return the same to those below them in social, financial hierarchy. Just as an example, in most modern houses, even if the maid is virtually bringing your child up, cooking and cleaning the house , she remains, a step lower. She won’t eat with the family and in many cases would not even eat the same food. Even in workplaces, those who work for you, by some unwritten rule, do not deserve a kind treatment. I have even heard a theory that, if one is too kind to one’s peon or driver, they get pampered. Many, in the position of power have a similar high and mighty attitude towards their clients. Especially so in the government and in professional services. What an irony that Public service officers look down upon those they are supposed to “serve”.
 The discrimination starts from home. I stopped going to the residents meeting of my colony after I found that I was the only one who found no issues in children  from the servant quarters’ playing with children of other residents (the high and mighty officers)  . I was zapped by the reasoning given for this. It was an almost unanimous demand that children living in outhouses should not be given entry to the sporting facility and garden etc, meant for officers and their families. Some even had issues with other residents (subordinate officers) using these facilities (And we talk about end of untouchability !!!). Very generously someone suggested that the families living in the out houses should be given a separate area to sit out rather than coming to the same garden which we use.
Home, office, street - there is no end of discriminations. At times I wonder why the children do not ask parents uncomfortable questions after learning the story of Gandhi being thrown out of railway compartment in South Africa . I read somewhere that in the idea of swaraj a very prominent sentiment was to learn the best of British System and merge it with the concept of “Ramraj”. Unfortunately, in both systems, in the words of George Orwell, “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS".
No wonder a poet wrote about the world around him:
घरों पे नाम थे, नामों के साथ ओहदे थे

बहुत तलाश किया कोई आदमी ना मिला

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Those Stranger than Fiction Moments

“Salander assessed the situation and saw that it was anything but under control. Her brain was working at high speed . Click, click, click. She still held the crowbar in her hand but she knew that it was a feeble weapon against a man who could not feel pain. She was locked inside an area of about a thousand square meters with a murderous robot from hell.”

My heart skipped multiple beats at once but then the car braked and I realized , I was in my car and , unfortunately, about to enter the office building . Life is tough if you are reading a crime thriller and happen to have never ending work at office. 24 hours seem too less for a day. For next 10 hours my eyes followed the usual office sights, my brain mechanically responded to others but my mind was with Lizbeth Salander- facing a life threat in a remote place. That brings me to the question, I intend to ask here.

Have you ever seen a murder? Or a suicide? A really bad accident, an attack or may be a narrow escape from death …an armed revolution, a terrorist attack or a  war? Come to think of it ,how often we go through such dramatic moments . Not very frequent ..isn’t it? But we love to read about them, love to watch them on TV/cinema screens .It is a sort of simulated kind of pleasure. A sensation of things going terribly bad combined with the relief that its only fiction . Probably that is why we love watching horror movies too. Of course we knew there are no evil spirits or Hannibal the Cannibal at loose, while watching the movies at night - but the sleep was disturbed anyways . Have you ever thought how you’d have reacted if such incidents actually happen to you. I was thinking about it since last few days for no particular reason .

We all have some stories that remain glued in one corner of our mind for ages. Stories that haunt us in contemplative moments, stories that come back to us unexpectedly ….stories for which we yearn for a different ending (or may be not). There is a good genre of fiction which weaves stories with completely unexpected endings. I can think of reading O’Henry and Roald Dahl. They wrote stories that make me jump with the sudden turn of events . Sometimes a subtle unveiling of facts turning the happenings upside down and at others , a tale coming to a dramatic climax just to turn back in the last sentence . I do not generally read racy thrillers or pulp fiction so I am not really use to increasing heartbeat with the turning of pages. But recently, I made an exception . I was reading millennium trilogy by Steig Larson . I would confess that I read these books mainly because I was fascinated by a very unusual heroine –Lisbeth Salander , a hacker with tattooed body and almost anti social attitude . Surprisingly, the books made me realize (once again) the need for drama in life . If not real, at least virtual.

Hitchcock once said that –“Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” To paraphrase : Life is drama with a bad editing and unwritten climax . Of course we love it that way. Mostly, we rue the fact that the ending is not for us to decide , but we love it nonetheless. A life without a dash of conflict and colour will not be a complete one. Indians specially love the drama in life. Look at our takes on very minor issues of day to day life- drivers yelling in traffic jams, women bargaining with vegetable sellers , children throwing tantrums, colleagues gossiping with full concentration, housewives watching tearjerkers and politicians giving speeches. Its not hard to find drama in real life . But that seems to be insufficient for us. We search for heavier doses of it in fiction and gossip.

Interestingly, its often the tragic tales that stick to mind most unknowingly . I remembered a story that haunts me for years. It was a short story by Tagore where an eccentric old man wanted to hide his wealth for his long lost grandson and decided to bury a child with the money, to guard it as yaksha . He found an orphan on street and decided to sacrifice him for this work. In the end this orphan turned out to be his own grandson . I cannot imagine the plight of that old man. I can’t help thinking “what if…”. Then I thought of a Prakash Jha movie titled Parinati. Something similar to Tagore’s story – here an innkeeper and his wife were convinced by a merchant to give away their son . They did it so that the son will get education, they can’t afford , but could not help missing him badly. The merchant had promised to send the son back after he is settled in life. The couple started mugging and killing the travelers staying in the inn so that one day they can pass on wealth to their long lost son. One day a charming young man comes from the city and they kill him too. Only to realize that it was their son who wanted to surprise them. The story never died in my mind. I have no explanation why. I have not witnessed such drama in my life, neither do I really yearn for it, but I wonder how people survive such incidents. A crime committed on you may be still easy to forget than the guilt of doing something terribly wrong. Losing a loved one accidentally or by your own mistake must be horrible to live with. Yes, it is great fun to watch murders and mysteries in the movies but I am very sure it would be devastating to live through any such real life drama . One of my university professor lost his son, daughter , son in law and nephew in a car accident. It happened just a day after the daughter’s marriage when the brother was driving the newlyweds to their new home. I shudder to think of the family that lived this tragedy ever since .

It is funny that when I am trying to recall the stranger than fiction moments of life, I cannot think of anything happy. Is it because we take our blessing for granted and fail to see the magic in it ? Why is it that life’s drama is most visible in fights and deaths…in struggle and defeats and not the other way round . Many of us will remember the TV  images of twin towers burning or the attack in Mumbai but would not remember the face of an Olympic winner .  

Why should drama be always tragic- the Greeks believed in the power of tragedies in a major way. The Asian theatre traditions- be it Sanskrit plays or the Japanese Noh plays disagreed. In Indian classical plays – essentially woven in a background of love and mistaken identities, the stories always ended happily. The good triumphed over the evil . So why do our mind carries tragedies for longer than it should. Why can’t in life too we can choose the genre of the drama around us . I have no answer to that question. But if it comes to choose- I know my choice would definitely be a Rom Com for life around me .