ISOLATION IS HAZARDOUS TO HEALTH
Recently, while browsing through a website, I happened to listen to an audio recording of an interview given by the prominent journalist Mr. Lalit Surjan. When asked to surmise Chhattisgarh’s performance over the first five years of its existence, he made a rather succinct observation: “the ‘intellectual class’,” he lamented, “is silent.” However, the maddening silence of the intelligentsia constitutes only half the picture. The fact is infinitely more troubling: the total absence of debate in a state inhabited by over twenty million people indicates a fundamental lack of ‘collective conscience’ (a neo-psychoanalytic phrase adapted from Carl Gustav Jung’s somewhat mystical concept of collective unconscious). Are we- and here, I use the ‘we’ in its broadest possible sense comprising both the so-called intellectuals as well as the non-intellectuals- so self-absorbed with our own personal problems that we summarily overlook- even dismiss- those confronting the community?
Not too long ago, Ms. Arti Dhar, the then state correspondent of The Hindu, decided, admittedly against my advise, to use her state-awarded Chandulal Chandrakar Fellowship to research Raipur: the result was ‘Vignettes’, published by the Department of Public Relations. Despite the non-serious title, this book remains unique as the lone post-colonial successor to the antiquated District Gazetteer (last updated in the 1930s). A cursory reading of the book is enough to arrive at the frightening conclusion that Raipur is, for better and worse, all history and no culture. Or to be more precise: whatever culture there might have been was swallowed-up by the mushrooming City. Much like Sir VS Naipaul’s account of Indonesian, Pakistani and Iranian Islam, the city of Raipur is quickly erasing its past; but unlike these, it has failed to create- even through wholesale mimicry- its present. Consequently, this city exists in a space-time void.
To illustrate this, allow me to allude to two examples. A daily dose of dozens of deaths less than two hundred miles away evokes at best nonchalant pity: tribal bodies blown into thousand bits signify no more than a statistic: a dazzling newspaper headline, a Vidhan Sabha Q&A. Four years ago, I casually suggested to a grandson of a former chief minister that we- he and I- should both study Chhattisgarhi. Given that he harbors political ambition, I found his refusal mind-boggling: “Chhattisgarhi,” he politely told me, “is for the maids.” Today, such a reply would be deemed ‘politically incorrect’. In this sense atleast, one can speak of some progress: our rulers are finally beginning to realize the value of belatedly learning to speak- if not speaking- in the vernacular of those they feel they are born to rule. Cumulatively, both these instances point to a rather dismal state of affairs: one, a vast majority of our population, especially those residing in the rural hinterland, have- given the asymmetrical urban-centricity of popular media- no established channels for getting their voices heard; and two, the elite- including the intelligentsia- aren’t really interested in speaking-out.
Before I came to be domiciled in Raipur Central Jail- the past ten months of incarceration being the longest I’ve stayed in one place- there was no love lost between the city and me: indeed, my view of it mirrored Herr Gunter Grass’ infamous four-letter worded description of Calcutta (now: Kolkata). Not so anymore: the Raipur I’ve come to love, and feel a part of, lies within those garish red walls: the city of convicts. Suddenly, I see its manifestations in all sorts of places I’d never cared to notice before: in the loud greeting of a rickshaw puller, as he boisterously waves his hands at me; in the empty eyes of sun-scorched bodies perched atop pavements as the world moves around them in furious dizzy; in the deafening silences I hear everywhere I go. Yes: ‘I once was blind but now I see’. If only others like me, could do- and feel- the same.
The new state is much more than a politico-administrative entity: it is an Identity-in-the-making, which requires constant supplies of dialogue. The prison-wall, to me, is an objective metaphor for everything that prevents the two worlds- the world we live-in, and the world we happily ignore- from listening to, and understanding, each other. Gram Suraj- Dr. Raman Singh’s well-meaning program to reach out to the villages- does not encourage this dialogue: the impression is of one-sided communication. The chief minister, and his cabinet colleagues, sky-hop from village to village promising state-largesse with great fanfare: a road here, a building there. By the time Maina- the state-Eurocopter’s- rotor-blades come to a standstill at the Police Grounds, Chhattisgarh’s over twenty thousand villages and Panchayats are once again enveloped in an omnipresent silence.
Again, it would be unreasonable to put the blame for their absences squarely on the shoulders of governments, both past and present: governments, as a rule, rarely meet people’s expectations, which is why we have democracies, which allow us to routinely replace them. Indeed, the citizenry’s role does not end with pushing a button on the EVM: to hold governments accountable, it is necessary to make the constantly changing ‘will of the people’ known to them at all times, and not just during Assembly debates and elections.
A lot more needs to be done: Dialogue, Debate, Dissent. But the dialogue must take precedence over all else: without it, we- the so-called elite- are reduced to making empty noises in comfortable conference halls and seminar rooms; any debate we engage in is of purely academic interest and quickly forgotten; and dissent becomes restricted to polemical propaganda and dense, often sermonizing, editorials. Ofcourse, the elite- the urban-based, educated section of society- is expected to take the lead simply because they are better placed than the rest to do so.
Sadly, that is an obligation that we in Chhattisgarh have failed to fulfill.
After ten months of watching weekly Sunday-afternoon films on a black & white television monitor, it was only prophetic that the first movie I should see after coming out is aptly titled ‘Rang de Basanti’ (Colors of Spring). Despite its sad ending- all its protagonists are killed in a staged ‘encounter’- the message is clear: a call to arms for the disillusioned youth of India. Not surprisingly, media-commentators were quick to see the already cult-classic’s not-so-subtle influence in the midnight torch-lit processions to India Gate, protesting variously the Jessica Lal judgement and Mr. Arjun Singh’s Reservation proposals, and in favor of the NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan). The notable feature ofcourse is not so much the relocation of the site of protest- in this case, from Jantar Mantar to the more scenic Raj Path- as the fact that unorganized youth- who have nothing in common except their cause- almost suddenly dislodged organized socio-political outfits, who, compelled as they are by quintessential ‘votebank’ considerations, haven’t quite figured out what to do.
Raipur, not surprisingly, is a late entrant to contemporary Reservation Resistance (or Mandal-II): it was only after the Indian Medical Association called for a nationwide strike that our city-doctors decided to do a protest-march of their own. In this sense, one can’t really compare the Raipur strike with those of other metropolises: unlike its counterparts, the dissent here has been organized: a strictly formal response to a national call, lacking spontaneity. It is almost as if people elsewhere shouted us into waking-up. This is precisely what I mean by the total absence of debate in a state inhabited by over twenty million people [which] indicates a fundamental lack of ‘collective conscience’. Here is an issue that directly concerns the so-called elite (urban-based and educated component of society); and yet, dissent is diffused rather than indigenous.
Can we then be blamed from not taking up causes that don’t seem to directly concern us: the killing fields of Darbaguda where fifty tribals were blasted to smithereens while being herded to attend a Salwa Judum rally; rampant rural electricity-cuts making it increasingly impossible for farmers to irrigate fast-perishing crops; a spectacular 70% supply-determined inflation by the state’s cement cartel that has affectively crippled the housing and construction industry; the pathetic condition of tribals, who have- in the words of the hon’ble home minister- become ‘refugees’ in their own homelands, now kept in makeshift roadside ‘camps’; escalating land-costs fuelled by black-money pumped in by yet another cartel of government ministers, which has made the dream of living in a home of one’s own even more distant for the common man; the Kunkuri paddy-purchase scam where atleast two-hundred crores worth of non-produced paddy was purchased by the state government through ‘mandis’, then transported in non-existent trucks to be milled in non-existing rice mills to be stored in state-operated warehouses for redistribution to rural-workers engaged in non-existent food for work programs, to name only a few?
What will it take to wake us up from this unending ennui? Well, I can’t speak for others but ten months in jail- experiencing life stripped off all its colors, in the banality of black & white- makes it quite simply impossible for me go on living as before, turning a blind-eye and a deaf-ear to what is so obvious and altogether so real. Responding to a message I had posted on www.cg.net, one commentator responded thus: “an intimate experience of the police, courts and jails in india should be mandatory for any one aspiring to work for the poor in this country. and so amit’s stints in this regard are a good apprenticeship and he should in fact advise other young sons of high profile politicians … also to get the cbi to file charges against them and put them into jail.”
Despite the inherent witticism of this comment, an irrefutable point has been made: in order to truly awaken, it is necessary to rise above and look beyond our own particular conditions, to slip into others’ skins, and to share in their sufferings even if we can’t do a thing about them. With every passing moment, the walls grow higher: the more I think of it, the less commonality I find between the two worlds separated by these walls, which exist not so much outside Raipur Jail as they do in our own minds. The consumerist-culture based as it is on an ever-widening sense of individualism- notice, for instance, the break-up of families as children immigrate to ‘greener pastures’ in search of a better lifestyle- creates a chimera of false-comforts, and justifies hedonism through an all-encompassing denial of others’ miseries. The tendency is all the more pronounced in Raipur: a city in constant rush. In all my five years of my comings and goings, I haven’t come across one person who boasts of belonging to Raipur: most of the more prominent residents are only too happy to trace their roots to remote villages in distant states. The term ‘Raipuriya’ or ‘Raipuriyan’- whatever it is one would use to denote a citizen-inhabitant of the state’s capital- is simply not fashionable. That has to change.
Any civic society is founded on a sense of pride that comes from belonging to a place: it becomes as much a cause for celebration as it offers a reason for cultivating a sense of responsibility. More than anything else, Raipuriyans need to take pride in this city: its awful sounding names (Tatibandh); its haphazard streets and utter lack of traffic-sense; its incredibly fertile sense of imagination reflected in a Mephistophelean culture of bizarre gossips and rumor-mongering; its penchant for hiding dirty-secrets in a way that quickly becomes talk of town; the dilemma of its exorbitantly rich, torn as they are between a compelling desire to indulge in the most vulgar displays of wealth vs. the equally compelling need to hide their growing prosperity from omniscient eyes of political-aspirants and income-tax inspectors behind multistoried walls; the almost biological urge to be seen at the right places with the right- the rich & powerful- people; the tendency for gross exaggerations which has become second-nature to most (something in its water, I guess!). All these are quirks: traits that stereotype a city, and give it character- much like a person’s personality.
The peculiar problem with Raipur, then, is that it is an isolated island inhabited by numerous insular, self-sufficient islands, none of which seem to communicate- let alone interact- with each other. For instance, families form themselves into tidy little groups united by common neighborhood, business, caste etc. This is only to be expected. However while most cities provide spaces and opportunities for these groupings to come together and overlap- say at cinema halls, public parks, theatres etc.- we have a relative paucity of these in Raipur. Infact, even public spaces have become places to buttress an island’s- group’s- distinct identity: Chhattisgarh club has become the haunt of the bureaucracy while businessmen frequent VIP club. As the city grows rapidly, so does the isolation. What is needed therefore are forums where ‘people from all walks of life’ (forgive the cliché) can- if necessary, by rupturing the hitherto self-contained self-sufficiencies of socio-economic caucuses- be brought together. For instance, wouldn’t it be nice if some of our industrialists took time-off to be with convalescents at the Mekahara hospital, or with the inmates of Raipur Jail even? Or if our college-students decided to spend their summer-holidays not gallivanting on the Mall in Simla but in a not-so-distant village, basking in the flavors of rural life? And maybe for once, we could dispense with the Governor’s XI vs. Media XI type of exhibition cricket matches, and instead try one between Chief Minister’s XI vs. Rickshaw-pullers’ XI?
For the past one year, a dear friend of mine had been banished from Raipur to Raigarh to supervise the setting-up a sponge-iron plant. I asked him if he had made any new friends. He categorically told me ‘no’: all his friends were fellow sponge-iron plant industrialists! I don’t blame him: he has, after all, lived in Raipur all his life. Contrast this to what I discover everytime I visit Raigarh: the number of people who are ‘close friends of Navin Jindal’ increases in geometric proportion. It is not for nothing that Raigarhians boast of their city as ‘the cultural capital of Chhattisgarh’ (a claim strongly contested by Bilaspuriyans), which incidentally, is fast torpedoing into its ‘industrial capital’ as well.
Isolation is a two-way street. The more Raipuriyans isolate themselves from those around them as well as each other, the more isolated they themselves will become: the right of Raipuriyans to rule the state, conferred as it is by a piece of legislation, will fast lose its moral basis. Unless and until we learn to speak- and listen- to those around us, and to each other, we might soon find ourselves sitting on a surmounting hill of gunpowder, much like Nero- who is famously (if somewhat wrongly) depicted as playing his lyre while Rome burnt- before the cathartic fall of the Roman Empire.
All it will take to set the whole thing aflame is one tiny spark.
Amit Aishwarya Jogi
May 18, 2006
Friday, May 26, 2006
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