Where does one begin? There seem to be no auspicious beginnings. What one sees all around is a kind of end … a sinking feeling. That man being washed away in the flash floods of Hyderabad—one of our best urban habitats, with cheap real estate and rentals, varied food, and a buzzing IT sector—could be the image of our times. The screaming onlookers who watched helplessly lent the picture that additional metaphoric quality, a sense of our collective tragedies.
This is a piece on climate change … in a way. Not in the sense of weather patterns witnessing a millennial churn—though the third round of floods in Karnataka, together with the siege on humanity by a killer virus, could bring on an apocalyptic foreboding. Rude curtain calls appear everywhere. On too many things that matter to us—from the fluffy idli to the very fluffy Indian economy—dire words are being spoken.
On that last-named, it’s the IMF and our very own Gita Gopinath who are playing Cassandra. We may wish that India manages, miraculously, to overcome the prophecy, bouncing back from fastest ‘declining’ to fastest ‘growing’ yet again. But can we really ignore how we seem so very intent on pressing the mass suicide button on every aspect of collective social life?
Modern India is an ambitious experiment in creating symphonic beauty on a mammoth scale. History has bequeathed to us a civilisational continent: the product of a slow, tectonic fusion, ideas and effects melding into each other, shaping each other, at a glacial pace. The ugliness of power, conflict and cruelty marked it too—as the quote goes, “there is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism”. The deep gash of caste stalks us still, and Gandhi’s ‘Last Indian’ was still to be seen walking home barefoot this summer.
And yet, free India dared to challenge the stasis of millennia, dreamed and decreed equality. Its official proclamations of beauty and harmony may have been surface-level and pretentious—the ‘Mile sur mera tumhara’ spirit, with flashes of our natural polyglossia. But it was well-meaning, and held up a gentle template, a non-predatory, integrative ethos that sought to smooth out (at least, paper over) our ugly social realities with the hum of samvaad. On the ground, a kind of new India was being born, beginning to live that reality.
Now, we are throwing that baby away in the floodwaters. We are in the throes of a tandavam! An undeclared civil war of sorts, in which the national microphone has been snatched by the madcaps, extreme, unhinged, far from any possible centre of gravity. Witness our latest scrap … over the Tanishq ad. Mind you, no one was even questioning the Tatas about the propriety of selling jewellery in midst of a pandemic! Surreptitiously targeting the gullible Indian mind in festival season, encouraging wasteful expenditure when thrift may be in order.
Nor even about tying up womanhood with motherhood. The outrage, believe it or not, was about the social amity on show! ‘How dare you show peace?’ This is where we have reached. Apparently, Tanishq was trying to promote ‘love jihad’, not their branded jewellery. No matter how many calls were made to corporate spine (a mythical entity, to be sure), the troll-shot against our economic revival succeeded. The ad was withdrawn forthwith—a defeat that could be foretold was embraced.
What to make of this suspended animation our Republic has entered? A governor, on his letterhead, has written a formal missive to a chief minister mocking his allegiance to the Indian Constitution! A governor is well within his right, of course, to seek information from a CM, or upbraid him on executive overreach, if any. The battle scene here is Maharashtra, and the ‘secular/communal’ question is suicidal from any angle: Why can’t places of worship be opened if cinema halls can? The hon’ble Bhagat Singh Koshyari is a man apt to forget he is not a member of a political party talking to a former ally, but a constitutional functionary, whose primary duty is to … ah well.
A Dalit girl’s abused, broken body is set on fire in the dead of night, on a makeshift pyre ... like fugitives destroying evidence. Her parents are heckled by government, her wailing mother not allowed the last ritual embalming, not even a last look … before the police play khap enforcers, lighting the match for this sati of law and justice. We witness in silence. This is not just rural caste power speaking, Thakurs enforcing their old writ on village India.
This is that tumour spread to our modern institutions. A sign of our moral, ethical, constitutional surrender. Can any economy survive this descent into chaos? Prosperity needs stability, a semblance of equanimity and equality. Look east for wisdom—at our perennially mocked ‘poor neighbour’. While our social media tears asunder our own society, Bangladesh has overtaken us on just about all matrices. Before the year is out, IMF predicts, the economy will be one of those heads. What irony! What a fitting end for our long hubris, our vanity about being ‘plural’, ‘democratic’.
A mirror inversion has occurred: We are now them, and they us. We emulate them and squander away our strengths, our moral authority. A rogue anchor is now the chief priest of our jungle. We are being swept away by the flash floods of hate, like that man in Hyderabad, with all of us screaming ineffectually from the deck of the Titanic. And for every little bit of our moral, constitutional soil that gets eroded, there’s a Beijing waiting, to capture that real estate….
Resident Editor, Karnataka, The New Indian Express