Saturday, April 9, 2011

From Jantar Mantar to India Gate on the 8th of April, 2011

As I woke up early Friday morning, I was engulfed by an anxious anticipation; an anticipation of something I had decided last night just before going to bed. That I would go to Jantar Mantar the next day. Considering how crowds can turn intimidating and lose their sanity in a matter of seconds, the act of going to the heart of it, did not sink in till I was actually on the way, on the Friday afternoon, when next to me came and sat an old man, who had brought along with him three young impressionable boys, who seemed to be from a small UP town. As one of the young boys asked the bus conductor to tell them when the stop to Jantar Mantar arrived, I felt re-assured. I was not alone. Slowly, as people climbed into the bus, stop after stop, I liked to think that all of them were co travelers to the same destination. For me, all roads, on that Friday afternoon, led to Jantar mantar.

Hamare Uncle ji humein le jaa rahe hain, udhar muft mein paani dilayenge .Kyun uncle ji!’, they said.

Ye Sheila dixit ka ghar hai’, they said.

Kiska ghar hai?.. padho…Hanumantaaya… haan wohi.. MLA honge.. idhar sare bade ministers rehte hain’, they said.

India Gate’, they said, as they gave each other contented smiles.

Everything outside seemed very normal. My whimsical expectation of seeing signs of protests and marches, or slogans, were dampened; the city was carrying about its normal business, like a quintessential professional. My voyeuristic impulse as a spectator of a possible spectacle was thrashed. As I hopped off the bus at the red signal on Janpath, I stole curious glances around me at possible fellows. Apart from the very mild traffic congestion that seemed plausible on any average working day, there were no jarring signs of security personnel with intimidating rifles, or volatile clusters of people . I took the left at the red light, that would lead me to Anna Hazareji , now on his fourth day of an indefinite fast for the cause of India Against Corruption.

I saw middle aged women, mothers and aunties, in sneakers and caps, with bottles of Bisleri , strolling back and forth on the road. Slowly there were parked cars, and groups of people , trickling into the Hazare vortex . A yellow Delhi police barricade marked the site of entry into the place of protest, right opposite Jantar Mantar, which seemed dead and redundant in such a volatile context. I entered and was overwhelmed.

Here was a sea of people. An ocean. Yet a very sane ocean. Without any streaks of violent vandalistic vendetta , the people who had come to see Anna Hazare, the ex-army official now, a social activist, on his sangharsh , knew the depth of the cause they had come for. Many of them, I am sure, would have had to deal with corruption at close quarters, at several points in their lives, and carried an earnest cause for concern. Many others, like me, college students, and young blood, who were equally earnestly invested in the cause through their conscience and a baggage free a-historical perspective of this nationwide movement. A movement which they wanted to embrace into their own personal histories and re-enforce their own voice as citizens of a very vulnerably amusing nation.

Anna tum sangharsh karo, hum tumhaare sath hain!

Cried the ocean in lilting waves.

I suddenly felt the urge to want to be taller than the rest, having no idea which way I was going, I simply nudged my way in. Sliding myself through the ocean, overcoming one person at a time, at times, feeling myself surrounded by good humored middle aged men, telling me ‘Is taraf aao beti, aap andar jake baith jao, bohot bheed hai’ , at times, finding myself cordoned off at points of no return, where I was absolutely at a loss as to which was the way to get myself to the heart of Anna’s audience, I somehow, ended up in the area, where people were sitting since morning, listening, chanting songs, cheering, encoring to ‘bharat mata ki jai’ and ‘vande mataram’ , and ‘jo bole so nihaal’ .I was finally a part of the nation come together. I could see I was among bank employees, government clerks, NGO workers in crisp cotton sarees and round red bindis, engineers and software professionals with their Iphones and Facebook constantly archiving the moment to virtual memory, home makers and their 12 year old daughters in pink hair clips, impressionable and warm blooded college students , and hundreds of small town boys, like the ones I met in the bus, all had come here, many , not knowing their place in this scheme of events, yet, wanting to be part of it , wanting to sign on a page of history , their presence and solidarity.

As I recovered from the thrust into this overwhelming event that engulfed me, I noticed how, there was this unstated assumed role that everybody had taken upon themselves, and an amusing traffic pattern of the people, had emerged, as a constant flux of floating visitors moved in front of the makeshift dais, where Anna ji sat, to get his ‘darshan’. The more static audience sat in front. Rimmed on the periphery by more standing people, and finally edged by a thick line of fire of media and television crew, with their cameras aimed to shoot, and their reporters, like dispatched satellites, speaking from dispersed corners of the crowd, seemed like lost lonely men and women, speaking to everybody yet nobody, and constantly on guard to measure the pulse of event. If you saw reporters shift base, automatically, a cluster of people would turn their heads that way. If one spotted a lady reporter with heavy make-up, touching up her face for the ‘citizen journalist byte’ of the day, naturally, for few moments, Anna’s cause would take the backseat, and the amusing glamour of the TV performance would hold sway. The crowd responded like mercury to its surrounding. It was this mercurial power of people, that had, over the past few days, taken up the simple yet strong rooted cause of India against corruption, and proliferated it into a national mitosis.

I saw Anna Hazare, medium built, lean, in a white muslin cotton kurta pyjama, and pleasantly calm and smiling, but without his trademark Gandhi topi. He was standing at one corner of the dais, hands clasped at the back, looking curious and pleased. A black clad street play group had just infused thunderous encores and a man with a pony tail, with a saffron kurta, was playing the electric guitar and singing Bollywood bhajans! Now and then, the slogans turned sinister, as groups would shout ‘Bhrashtachariyon ko phaansi do’ or ‘Sonia Gandhi nikammi hai’ ; those few odd moments which made me cringe and want to mute the crowd rather than see the apparently sane crowd suddenly lose its temperament in a weak moment. On the fringes of the concentrated crowd, were the mobile and vibrant moving clusters of independent slogans and flag wavers, common men turned into performers, their shirts turning into canvases for signatures and an odd family now and then posing as a family banner for people to click their picture! Anisha had joined me by then, and I felt no longer a lone crusader.

What was conspicuous to us two wide eyed JNUites was the stark absence of a JNU voice in this whole issue. On campus, JNU was sleeping, JNU was watching Saas bahu serials on Colors tv, JNU was playing cricket on the field, JNU was feeding dogs, JNU was sipping chai with an eerie nonchalance , and Anna Hazare was conspicuously absent in the voice of JNU. The question still haunts me. My reasoning led me to wonder if JNU found this issue too banal, too grass root level, too ‘non-intellectual’ to be dappled in? Why were there no posters, no leaflets, no talks on this issue? Why did the parties not find any enterprise in this cause? I missed the JNU voice at Jantar Mantar that day, and I wish, we were more in number for that sake. But I was content, Anisha was with me. After having tried several ‘view’ points from which we could see Anna ji, we were tired of peering above a million necks and standing tip toed. So I took a Kulfi-falooda break. Kulfi, with slimy worm like falooda turned pink by Rooafza ; topped by a sprinkling of guilt ridden conscience of eating in the vicinity of fasting satyagrahis!

It was time to march. Anna was giving his press conference, and things seemed to be looking up. The deadlock with the government seemed to be opening up in his favor. My job seemed to be done. I had given him my salaam, on behalf of all my folks back home, and now with a candle in hand, I decided to take the walk all the way to India Gate. But little did I know that half the crowd there had decided to do the same. So I found myself walking at brisk pace, with a sea of people that swarmed the roads, firmly yet very peacefully. Their pace was elusive. At times I was either too fast, or at times too slow.

What was appreciable was the nature of the march. They chanted slogans, encored, but all in goodwill. The roads seemed to make way for the sea. The cars stopped. The traffic police cheered and let the sea march. The security guards were there, not to restrict but to allow these people to exercise their freedom of expression. The police facilitated by rerouting traffic. It was a wonderful moment of collective jubilation of the wonder of the democracy that we are. The state did not, for once, curb and disrupt the flow. The state seemed to be listening.

with the others. Somebody had pointed out ‘Why do people light candles? Be it mourning or jubilation?’ I would like to think that it is the power and hope of light, in its more primal, innocent form, a small flame, that turns the space and therefore the idea it inhabits, sacrosanct.

As we took our place under a crescent moon , the monument seemed to benevolently accommodate its fiery and energetic people doing seemingly funny things in its shelter, all in the cause of an ‘idea’ of the ‘people’ , everything revolving within man’s sphere, watching him embracing the space around him to help him inscribe his own history, in hope of a solace that he will feel remembered as part of it, forever trying to give himself an irrational hope of the impossibility of death and evanescence.

It was time for coffee. The old man who came with his flaming kettle, asked for the plate and spoon we had been clanking the night with. He seemed happy. He had earned plate to eat from that night , like many others, who would find more spoons, dented steel plates and half burnt candles that they could take home and light. The sea had stormed the India Gate grounds and gone. Families with their 8 year olds trickled back to normal pace, the moongphali chana wala got back to his place, children started crying for balloons, and the family cameras and camera phones where back to clicking memoirs of the monument of the capital. It was calm again and the heat of the evening made way for a cooling breeze. Anisha and me had a subtle smile of self pride written on our faces. ‘The deadlock is over, Anna is to end the fast tomorrow at 10 am’ we heard from the news.

We were in a flux of the 21st century awakening, or so I would like to think. The corruption that had been seeping into the system, and corroding the foundations of the Indian machinery, seemed to be finally on everybody’s mind. It is just the beginning. But it is evident. People have become aware, and have taken the effort to express this awareness as a whole. And I have hope that this active awareness, instrumentalises and proliferates in the social conscience as a way of life.

I went home, having participated in my first peaceful and victorious protest , and a utopian vision of a 21st century Dandi march that had just taken place on the real and the virtual roads of the country, and in my city. I heart this country.

s r a j a n a k a i k i n i .n e w d e l h i, a p r i l 9th 2011