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Please, God, give us independence from what ails India

By Sheba Thayil
August 14, 2010 10:16 IST
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As Shah Rukh Khan and Yusuf Arakkal and Rana Dasgupta and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw stand for the best of us, there is too much in daily life that showcases us at our apathetic, or misguided, worst, says Sheba Thayil in this Independence Day column.

Come another midnight hour, there are many of us thinking: Please, God, give us independence from what ails India.

Don't get us wrong, we are as patriotic as the next helpless person standing in line at Shoppers' Stop, waiting for the cashier to get his codes and his mathematics and his mood together; we stand up for the national anthem at movies theatres and we adore the cultural richness of our unique chunk of planet Earth.

But that same embarrassment of riches throws up the worst national characteristics. As Shah Rukh Khan and Yusuf Arakkal and Rana Dasgupta and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw stand for the best of us, there is too much in daily life that showcases us at our apathetic, or misguided, worst.

We are each, they say, the centre of our universe. So let me speak only of what affects me this August 15, 2010. I live in Bengaluru, one of the most talked-about cities on the globe (if we're mentioned in US Elle on what colours the well-dressed girl is wearing, then we know we've reached the pinnacle of all ambition). You have heard of us as being sophisticated, hi-tech and 'the fastest-growing metro in Asia'.

Now how can I break this to you gently? As we speak, the electricity is off for the third time today; the garbage men have ignored the south corner of my locality, the water has not been supplied to my next-door neighbour's apartment for 48 hours, and the autorickshaw mafia that rules this city has raised their fares again -- while my salary remains the same.

The basic amenities for which I pay taxes, in other words, come and go like St Elmo's Fire.

A few days ago, two hijras attacked a couple of girls riding on a scooter, feeling them up and hurling abuse as is their wont. When the girls fought back, not a single well-heeled bystander raised a hand, or even an eyebrow. Some auto drivers ran to help. Yes, I get the irony. The police said there was nothing they could do, unless the girls filed an official complaint. And then?

As Sunil Khilnani says in The Idea of India, ours is a country where the State does not protect its citizens. So when some very bored men in nearby Mangalore dragged out girls sitting in a pub saying it was against Indian culture, we had to agree. What is in our culture are men dragging out girls from pubs.

The only response came not from the police but from a citizen in Delhi, a young writer who started the audacious Pink Chaddi campaign and showed us the power a single voice can hold.

We are, in Bengaluru, somewhat lifestyle-challenged, too. We must stop carousing at 11.30 pm so that the police have less work to do; dealing with those who come out of restaurants where they may have had a glass of beer with their meal is so tiring after all.

But why talk only of Bengaluru? See our workplaces. (Getting there is fraught with dangers peculiar to the subcontinent. Today, a 'disgruntled youth' boarded a train in Kolkata and flung acid on a number of women, for what reason only he and his God know). I recently escaped from an office where everyone was suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome (look around you, it's the same where you are).

Indian employees try to be more loyal than the King, which may be why there is always a maharaja and serf equation playing out at an office near you, (or maharani in my case; there is nothing worse than a female boss. Men are simple creatures, women come with deep-seated neuroses. Please don't bother mailing me about talking in generalities, remember this is my universe).

The King must show that he is King, and you must kiss his ring to prove your loyalty, at least in public.

What about the work, you ask? Since when was that the priority in an Indian workspace? Bill Gates's employees, meanwhile, call him Bill. And look where he is. And where they are.

Talking about where we are, sometimes geography is everything. I met a thirtysomething NRI recently who said, "Isn't it sad how we look at Pakistan as another country? We're not, really."

"Sssshhhh," I hissed, knowing we could be bludgeoned to death for such heresy.

But then again, we're not, really. Just because our leaders once decided to separate us according to religious boundaries, plunging the world into a geo-political nightmare, doesn't alter the facts.

We didn't have to wait for millions of years for our continents to physically separate, it took an idea to do that over a second, in earth time. And when that happened there was no King Solomon to show us that we could not split what can only stay healthy by staying whole.

Maybe we should liberate ourselves from this old chestnut of who is an enemy and achieve some independence of thought.

When we remember Nehru's 'At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom' speech soon, what life and freedom are we talking about? The fundamentals of life are denied us, liberty to dress and drink how, when and where we wish, a road without potholes to drive on, or the expectation of throwing on a switch and expecting there to be light.

In the midnight hour, the only light will be the one that shines from you, the individual.

If we can expect nothing from those who govern us, we must rely on ourselves. That's the only real independence we can talk about anymore.

If you are boarding a train or riding a scooter, carry pepper spray to deal with disgruntled youths and hijras.

If you want to get rid of garbage in your locality, hire a tempo and pay the locality layabouts to do it for you.

If you want to focus on your talents, start your own business; the majority of employers here have one cardinal talent you cannot hope to complement; egomania.

History, for better and worse, has always been made by individuals. There is nothing wrong with the Indian individual, if he will but think for himself. Left to our own devices, we will not bother getting married or having children to make other people happy; we will do it to make ourselves happy.

We will not think of the class differences between ourselves and our maids; we will pay them a suitable salary for the work they do and treat them as we would wish to be treated had we been born in their homes.

We will not ask our children to choose careers that make us look good; we will figure out where their talent and interest coincide and point the way.

We may even, one day, step forward when we see young girls being hassled at traffic lights by eunuchs, who knows.

I would like to think that if Gandhiji was around today, he would spearhead the ultimate independence movement to suit the times: stop the payment of taxes until our government provides for its people.

If we are still seeking security, electricity and water, groceries and gas at manageable prices, even the right to wear jeans to college (which some institutions in Bengaluru do not allow), something is so wrong we have no right to celebrate anything on August 15.

I, meanwhile, intend to do what I have done for years: I will switch to survival mode, since I can't switch on the lights, and sit tucked up in bed reading a good book (Chris Hitchens's Hitch-22 this year) by candlelight if I must, way beyond 11.30 pm, wearing nothing but shorts and a jockey vest, but with a glass of badam milk to show where my loyalties still lie.

Jai Hind.

Sheba Thayil is a Bangalore-based, not Bengaluru, professional struggling to keep her head and heart in the right place.

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