Is this the India we want?
A country in which citizens are murdered or attacked for being rational; for being critical, for raising a voice of dissent; for just being themselves, Muslim or Dalit or women. Intimidation, threats. Hatred. Lynching. Sickening violence. Students and teachers given the choice between being leashed in thought and word, or being hounded as seditious. Institutions built over the years weakened. The economy and development turned into exercises that mock the needs and aspirations of most people. The secularism, the scientific temper and the rights promised in our Constitution subverted every day. Our democracy, our India, frayed.
But this is our country. It belongs to us, and we belong to it. We have each other for support. We have our poems and songs and films and essays and fiction and art. Our diverse voices.
What is the India we want?
Listen to our fellow citizens speak of the country they don’t want and the India they want on the series India 2019 on the Indian Cultural Forum and Guftugu.
Two men who left this world not so long ago were walking along, sharing rugby jokes and a cigarette. One a poet; the other a techie. They came to a shed inside which sat a learned-looking man of high-caste and another not-so, covered in dust, sweat and a tattered t-shirt. Not-so talked. High-caste listened.
The poet nudged his friend. “That man with the sacred thread and shendi… It’s Adi Sankara!”
“Chatting up a ruffian?”
They stepped closer.
“…In the end, I had to close down my hotel. From Barauni to Beguserai, my little shack was the favourite eating place for our people. My speciality? Rat-fry. If you are the leaves-and-stalks type of person, you have my sympathies. No festivity can be complete without succulent, spicy chunks of rat.”
“Why did the hotel close down?”
“The eating of certain types of meat has been forbidden for some time now. Not rat meat, but the big animal, the one which gets all the attention. Apparently, it’s a sin to eat the animal. It’s a greater sin to deprive hungry people of inexpensive meat. We musahars, we call it ‘peep’ and consider it second-best, after rat. A single beast feeds fifty! So what do people do when ‘peep’ is denied to them? They resort to the white flesh of chicken. Oh sorrow! That’s tasteless meat reserved for the sick, the elderly, the little babies and weak women. Not quite the same. Then? There was a shortage of bird meat. So factories came up everywhere, quickly turning eggs into fat clucking birds. Within days. Some hanky-panky, no doubt. These fat, sickly, somewhat unreal birds began to spread a dangerous disease. They were killed off double-quick, every one of them, by special killing-squads. Only, instead of killing, you call it culling. Doesn’t sound cruel.”
“There are other sources of meat,” said high-caste. “Goat, sheep… pig.”
“Pig-meat is quite good, but pigs disappeared fast. Too much demand. As for goats and sheep, hhn. ‘You cannot afford our meat’, is what I hear them bleat if I so much as look at them.” He stopped, having just noticed the techie and the poet.
“We were passing by, and heard,” said the techie. “Do go on.”
“We musahars thought we were clever to have chosen rat above the others – a free source of strength and health. A sackful of rat was enough for three days at the hotel, with enough to spare for the family. The tragedy came when all the other meat-yielding beasts were finished. And the people who abhorred rat meat and shunned us for generations because we ate them, started to hunt rats. Rats began to vanish.” His eyes filled with tears. “Bright boys, my sons. How will they grow big and strong without rat?”
“We fretted and pined; we starved. Along with some younger men I formed a gang and schemed with an older man whose family had an aged animal that was well past usefulness. We could take it for a modest sum and a few days of free labour on his rice fields. On a night of the new moon we went in stealth and lifted off the beast. Next day the meat was shared. Just think! In my hand, a plastic bag of meat and bone. In my stomach, gurgling anticipation. Head spinning with greed. ‘Look what I got!’ I’d announce to the family, holding aloft the bag. 'Meat! Meat that’s almost as noble and nutritious as our very own rat. Woman! Waste no time! Grind the spices!’”
“I was tripping along, almost running towards our home, when I was felled by a hefty blow and landed on my wretched face, this face… sprawled on the ground I could see the plastic bag open, the pieces of meat glistening dully in the evening sun, coated with mud, not spice. In my ears, the sound of blows, the thud-thud-thud of kicking and hitting, but not a squeal from my friend, Safroze. He died, clutching the bag of meat to his stomach. It could not be prized out of his gripping fingers as they stiffened.”
“I read about it in the papers,” said the techie.
“Safroze was only seventeen. I was grabbed by my shirt, this shirt which was brand new by the way, and a gift. I tried to pull away and it tore. The abuse that poured into my ears, they’re not fit for you to hear. ‘You have defiled this ground with meat,’ they said. Clean it up. My hands were tied behind me, I was pushed down on my knees and made to pick each piece with my teeth and put it in the plastic bag.”
“I thought I would withstand the shame, crawl away and tell my wife I had got into a fight. But my two boys coming back from school saw me. They saw… I got up and spat the meat from between my teeth at my adversaries and said I would not do what they told me to. I followed Safroze, who was also there.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He sniffed. “I wish I could have a puff,” he said, having smelt nicotine.
“Sure. I have an emergency supply,” the poet said, reaching for a stub in his pocket. “The words on your T-shirt… what did they say?”
“I can barely read the alphabet on my own. A group of people had come to our town. They gave away these t-shirts. I remember the lady who handed out mine. I told her I liked the bright blue of the shirt very much. I offered her a kullad of chai. I would have served them all an excellent meal of rat-fry and roti. The lady listened to me ranting about my hotel shutting down.”
“ ‘You must think how and why you lost your hotel,’ she said. ‘Only then you can make corrections.’”
“Corrections? What corrections?”
“You lost your freedom to eat rat. Another lost his freedom to think, to argue, to ask questions, to seek justice. Who took away these freedoms?”
“If anything, I was more confused, and told her so.”
“ ‘Think’, she said and walked away.”
Just then there was a movement outside. The techie hurried out and brought a tall blue-eyed man with flaxen hair. “Gilbert Khetmar. A scientist from Germany. He’s been here eighty years.”
“1938… You lived in Hitler’s Germany?” asked the poet. “What was it like?”
“The rulers decided who must live, and who must die. Slowly, surely, they replaced real facts with rumours and propaganda; real science with Junk Science. We Germans are an intelligent race, and most of us knew it was junk to say that epileptics, the blind, the deaf, the deformed would harm our race by producing afflicted children; that Jews were an inferior race. But we were too passive and indifferent, thinking that we were safe. We made it easy for the rulers who began to add criminals, petty thieves and political dissenters to the list of those who must be done away with. I was a scientist and a coward who let these horrors slide past me, until my own daughter was taken away because she married a Jew. I protested; I cried for help, for justice. But I had to watch them drag her away, hours after her wedding. Only then did I begin to protest. I was one of the 20,000 Germans who spoke out. The rulers added us to the list of ‘lives unworthy of being lived – Lebenswerts Leben’.” He looked at the poet. “You are a writer? You would have qualified.”
Shankara lowered his face into his hands. The poet addressed him. “We need you more than ever now. You are our spiritual ancestor, with millions of followers, after 1200 years. There are monks who live in monasteries named after you. Your sainthood is being celebrated every moment. I happen to be an admirer. You said the Supreme Being – the Collective Good Force, as I like to call it – resides in every one of us. I think I understand. I’m not so sure.”
Shankara smiled. “What better time to find out? So many followers, so much devotion and din… Now my followers kill in the name of dharma. Death for eating!” He spoke, as if to himself. “I left when I realised the significance of my power over people. Too much power results in self-love, which leads to self-decay.”
His listeners were all silent; each travelling back in time to what he knew, and what he regretted. “If we were to return to earth, to our country and our homes, what changes would we wish for?” he asked.
“The freedom to eat rat-meat or any other meat!”
“To find a woman to love,” said the techie, colour rising to his ears. “When I do, it should be a person of my choice, never mind if she’s not Gujarati. Never mind if she is not Hindu.”
“Down with Junk Science!” cried Gilbert, blue eyes gleaming. “Science must always, always be true.”
“Less stupidity and more kindness,” said the poet. “A lot more kindness. Father to son, daughter to mother, husband to wife. Kindness to strangers whose habits and beliefs are strange.”
Shankara was the last to speak. “The two most dangerous of gunas available to man,” said he. “Are Fear and Hatred. Weed them out, I beg you…”
Three men (two big and burly; the third shaven-headed, dressed in a monk’s garb) appeared at the entrance, blocking all light. One of the burlies, his face vaguely recognisable, said:
“Your conversation has been recorded. Get up and face your trial.” He pointed to Sankara and the musahar. “You two first.” The shaven-headed monk made a grab for the musahar, the torn T-shirt stitched itself back making the words legible.