May 19, 2007

Mayawati and Middle-classy Citizenship

Why I am afraid of Mayawati - by Hindol Sengupta

"We, the middle-class, educated, metro-bred,Christian-education raised, young. We, the backbone of the knowledge,entrepreneurial economy. We, who have no representation. We have no voice.We have no one who speaks our language, our idiom."

Hindol Sengupta represetns the invisible middle-class voter, who is also the vociferous political economic agent. Sengupta seems to have assumed the 'objective' point of view (that the middle-classes are supposed to be capable of) in imagining that the middle-classes are immune to corruption. Cambridge-educated leaders, judges, bureaucrats, corporate top bosses across the world have not exactly lived up to the rational, squeaky clean, mega-efficient, accountable portrait that Sengupta seems to have painted.

I think Sengupta hints at something more than the 'objective' middle class worldview- he mentions the enormous power wielded by the middle-class- in terms social capital, economic power, access to global economy and opportunities arising through the global window, but does not seem to think much of it. He mentions that the middle-classes don't matter as a vote-bank, but forgets that our higher judiciary and top bureaucracy is entirely middle-class, and hence, a large part of the middle-class worldview resonates in the state machinery already. Sengupta seems to have ignored or underestimated the role played by agencies like the Planning Commission, other non-elected governing bodies, which are significant avenues of power and influence especially in an unwieldy democracy.

On the other hand, had a Mayawati or Yadav been the key solution to caste-marginalisation, UP and Bihar would not pick up guns everytime an election was around. Had the CP(I)M been representative of the 'proleteriat' it would not be feeding land to big corporates today. I think our intellectual urge to analyse drives us sometimes to simplify power equations, because the other option would be to leave the puzzle unsolved, which is an urge I identify with but wish away...

May 17, 2007

The fable of Democracy

The 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendments ingrain in our systems Direct Democracy. It is imagined that we will sit in little circles in the local club or Ward office or primary school and talk about civic amenities, poverty-alleviation, infrastructure, civil works, irrigation, malls, slums putting on our Rational Citizen masks.

Khanna Uncle from down the road would argue vehemently and circulate a briefing paper on dogs shitting on the road, and Radha the Tamilian household help would vociferously defend the encroachments of the illegal tenements of Tamil ghetto, and I would prepare a status report on the power crisis in the area with suggestions on how to tackle the deficit. The way we used to sit in a circle in school and college and discussed issues, and formulated agenda and felt quite pleased that so-n-so had won the election over so-n-so-else.

Similarly the Constitutional imagination of a panchayat is that the thakur and the yadav, the Gowda and the Dalit women and the Brahmin and the landless labourer will discuss agriculture and rural economy with equal vigour. And the Panchayat will take an equitous decision, communicate with the Block level panchayat, who will coordinate plans with other panchayats and consolidate the vision of participatory decision-making. And the State Governments would be pleased to meet the autonomous citizen glowing in emancipation and grant funds for them to realise the true meaning of democratic citizenship.

Of course, it is hackneyed to add that the wife of a landless labourer is not easily going to speak out against the moneylender to whom her jewellery are pawned. But one might also think whether a citizen really wants to auto-govern, or whether she is more or less happy with some authoritarian governing, as long the powercuts aren't too long, and there are good schools and roads. Where we read our democracy fable wrong, possibly, is in this imagination of the citizen as separate, complete agent. To think this agent votes for the guy that her husband votes for, to think that this agent will not always be sure what she thinks of the matter in concern, to think that some of us 'complete citizens' may be mesmerised by a political speech of a handsome man- somewhat taints the fable of democracy.

In any event, how did we come to presuming in people a natural desire for participatory governance? Do our families take participatory decisions -our schools, our colleges, our caste panchayats, our development authorities, our corporations? Then why do we feed ourselves this fable that outside of our social lives, professional lives, family lives, communal lives, whatever little self we have left will be yearning for active participation, for equality, transparency and the whole hog?

Unequal people become equal, autonomous, complete citizens in the tale of democracy.... and panchayats live on to tell tales of eloped lovers, forbidden village wells and stripped women sarpanches.

May 12, 2007

Identity and Fish-markets

Mine is not the Gogol (of Namesake fame) brand of jitteriness of identity. Rather Ashima's. Which pushes me a generation behind, in the world of genres of identity battles. A yearning for the mustard-pungent, smoke smelling of rotting glowers and burning coconut fibre, of narrow alleys, florally-bent second-storey railings, of a language in which I used to dream. A script I used to write on long sheets, taking time convoluting the loops and swirls, and admiring it in winter sun.

Like the Gujju businessman in Kaneida, I think if and when I go back, it will all fit into my pristine memory, mornings will be muggy, crossroads will be bustling, men will buy fish and women will buy masala. And there will be no broad roads connecting the airport and Rajarhat, no farmers evicted on the way to VIP Road, no malls with sliding doors, no cosmopolitan pubs, no neoliberal communism.

And CR Park brightened me up. Its not like being back, but you assume the guy selling you bori and paanch phoron speaks Bangla. And the fish-section (it's not really a fish market, the way Bongs know it) stinks, of stale ice more than fish, flies hover around ice slabs, and you chit-chat with the maach guy.

So I took the identity-bull by the horns, and cooked maach, and it turned out okay!!! Cheers to the jingoistic Bengali....

May 8, 2007

Of Madness and Civilisation

The stories of creation and destruction prodded by whatever it is that creates mischief in the human mind- is it what we call today 'development'? Could it have been called 'civilisation' at some point? And 'war'/'conquest' at some other time? To play with the world around like its all clay, and make sandcastles and ships and doll-houses and break them as you like and make them again. And sometimes for fun, put people in through the little windows, and make them talk and dance and drink wine and pull them out whenever you like.

Then some put on messiah-masks and are Protectors and Conservators and Lawgivers and Justicegivers. And say 'You have done grave wrong, off you go', and 'You have been thrown out on the street that is meant for people to walk on, so I will pick you up and put you in one little corner' and 'You go clean the river, and plant trees and paint the mountains so we can get a feel of the Pristine and Natural and the Original'. Is it also play of some kind? Where the game is called Putting Things Where They Belong.

It's also a little bit like a home-mama. She punishes and rewards. She does justice all the time. She likes things in their right place. She hates untidiness and dirt and disorder. She stands for health and happiness and freshness and discipline. She takes our madness and makes us civilised.

This is an ode to the governing mama- that moulds madness into civilisation.

May 2, 2007

Rains have descended on this scorched city. Not in a relentless downpour. Not in a daylong conservation with the window-pane. Rains bring back musty, forgotten memories. Like dog-eared books embedded in cartons. The dust has to be beaten out of them. They have to be flipped through, carefully, in the sun.

Rains open up hidden cartons in my memory. Of waterlogged Loudon Street. Muddy football matches. Wet cigarettes. Elaichi chai. Ganja on the hostel terrace. Sticky kurtas and motorcycle-boys.

The cowbelt seems a little awkward around rains. Somewhat like an old friend who now lives in another world. Unlike in Bengal, where rains were like your next-door buddy peeping in through the window and tempting you to unknown exploits.

Maybe I just carry around that feeling from my growing-up days in Bengal. The promise of of the unknown.

May 1, 2007

Peoples and Places

In Bangalore, on Sundays, I used to walk down the stretch of MG road beginning near KC Das, turn into Brigade Road, amidst its shopaholic-auntie-sunday-boyfriend-outing millions, eat a softie at Nilgiris, sometimes meet a friend for beer at Pecos, and walk back along Residency Road. Homeward. This Sunday sojourn used to be my 'soak-in-the-sights-n-sounds-of-the-city' time. Also time dedicated to uninterrupted people-watching. Tall, bald white men, with dark, curly-haired lady-friends flirting over coffee. Engineering college boys in clusters, surrounding their lone woman friend. Laughing. Teasing. Clingy newly-married wives with their arms entangled in the elbows of bush-shirted, short-cropped, information-technology hubbies. Women getting out of Foodworld. With teenage sons carrying huge polythene bags of Herscheys, cartoned juice, family pack of detergent, basmati rice, frozen ham. Hippies buying city maps on the pavement.

In Delhi, I haven't found a good enough equivalent yet. But in winter, I did the odd afternoon-walk from Juma Masjid, through the Meena Baazaar, Chandni Chowk multitudes. The mandatory hour at Darya Ganj. Metro back from Chawri Baazaar. And some walks around Lutyen's, ending in Janpath shopping trip.

***

Last winter, I spent a month in Delhi. And A took me to the India Coffee House behind Regal. We put our feet up, smoked cigarettes, ate mutton dosas, and diluted coffee. One of my most memorable evenings in Delhi. The CP India Coffee House somehow reminds me of Calcutta. Though the people-watching benefits are of a different kind. There are mehndi-haired government servants chatting over chai at all times. Sometimes long-haired drummers with intelligent, charming, PhD women. Sometimes sixty-something men in khadi half-shirts, talking about globalisation. And monkeys from the Hanuman Mandir, negotiating space with middle-class chitchat.....