I distinctly remember the discomfort in each of my bones as I took those tentative steps inside McDonalds, for the first time. The film was about to start and I was terribly hungry. Next to the ticket window, the clown-ish mascot of McDonalds — the only eatery around — sat smiling with its arms stretched on the bench. Mocking at my helplessness, it said, “Finally!”
Inside, it felt like a frame straight out of a Hollywood movie. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone came and whispered to me, “Go sit on the second bench towards your right. There’s a film shoot on. That’s the camera! Don’t stare into it. Go!” Thankfully, nobody did. Else, I’d have hit the door instantly.
Everyone inside did everything just right. They seemed too self-assured, knew where to go, what to order, how to order, where to sit and how to eat. As if in a western dance performance, the measured smiles and calculated swings thrilled me, more so for I could barely bring myself to think of holding my own in as alien a setting as it felt. For me, it was like an aquarium. The only difference was that I had to enter it and act as smooth as a fish.
You may ask, what’s wrong with me? The problem is that it felt like a world in itself, and more importantly, one that completely disregarded the real one. The rules of a McDonaldized world were different. So were the parameters of intelligence. It may be all about knowing how much cheese you should want, whether to go for a shake or a coke, where to get the sauce from and whether to order French fries or not. Yet, it is more important to be sure about your choices beforehand for you get little time to decide. There are people behind you in the queue who have learnt their lessons well. They know of combo meals and extra cheese! And they are in a hurry! You must risk being taken for a retard if you cannot act smart. You must know how to smile at the girl taking the order without meaning anything at all. You must know that it’s a sin to ask for water! Drink Coke instead! And of course, you shouldn’t expect any warmth from any corner. You don’t get anything real in a performance.
McDonalds makes you feel like an outsider until you convert into one of ‘them’. It intimidates your identity and shakes up your confidence by sending out a message like, “Where have you been? … Ok, catch up!” That is, until you become a regular! And when you do, it turns all ‘natural’ – like always, like everywhere.
In November 2007, I rode through entire Kerala on a bike and while on my back, I met a terrible accident close to Ooty. With the help of people around – physical and financial for I was very short on cash – I landed in a small town in the Nilgiris: Gudlur.
While getting my bike repaired, I happened to notice a tribal woman walking the road. She was wrapped in a white cloth and was very dark in colour. Her hair, almost fully white, was clearly not very well done. She walked with a strange jerk in her body and her eyes seemed to be searching always. Suddenly, she ran across the road towards the tea shop right next to the auto-mechanic shop where I stood. Reaching up to a bench, slowly she opened her fist. There were coins in it, lots of coins. Spreading them all on the bench she started counting. Making small heaps and then counting the heaps, she counted her money. The exercise didn’t assure her. So she performed it again. And again! And looked very confused at the end, every time! Finally, she walked up to the owner’s desk and spread her coins there yet again. Through his eyes perhaps, he took her in confidence and gave her 10 rupee notes in exchange. Sad to lose all her coins and still not sure as to whether she had got all her money, she came out shaking from top to toe.
And then she walked up to me, begging for money like an untrained child. Only her eyes spoke, but they too didn’t try to evoke pity. They merely enquired whether I could give her some money. Her hands were reluctantly half-outstretched and her entire body looked off-balance. One would imagine that she had just received electric shocks. I, though very short on cash, gave her a ten rupee note. The moment it touched her palm, she acted as if she was plugged once again. Not knowing how to express gratitude, or even smile, she didn’t know what to do. About turn with a sudden jerk and she walked off! She wasn’t civilized of course. And she was afraid!
Elsewhere, we both were not beggars. Yet, out of our zones in the mouth of a tragedy, we shared the same fate. It was only fitting that I helped her as much as I could.
There are rules and there are conventions. Breaking the rules is punished and breaking the conventions is condemned. The former is a legal overstepping whereas the latter stands for cultural overstepping. However, while rules can be read out of the rulebooks, conventions are nowhere to be found. It is only when one engages positively with the cultural frameworks, however alien to begin with, that one can acquaint oneself of them.
For example, when Martin Crowe hit Andy Roberts over his head for a six at Taunton in 1984, he proved his competence through his authoritative talent and responded to the short stuff he ducked but didn’t appreciate. What he failed to realize though was that he had broken a convention. When you are as young as he was and facing a West-Indian quickie, you show respect. Peter Willey at gully informed him of the sin right after, “Oh dear … that was very silly of you.” The beamers he received searching for his head soon taught him a lesson on fear.
Fear. What welcomed me when I first entered a city school after five years of education in the remotest of villages was fear. What was beating in my chest when I first tried to board a local train in Mumbai was also fear. And it was fear that garlanded me from behind when I first got off the bus at Imphal.
What follows the first pangs of fear is a relatively longer process of reconciliation the duration of which can only be determined by taking into account how peripheral the subject is and how close to the core he wishes to reach. It is during this while that one engages with the rules and conventions; even unwritten rules and written conventions. However, what holds the key is the spirit that backs the effort and most importantly, preparedness of the mind.
Sadly, those on the periphery are always found lacking in preparedness when the floodgates are opened. Governments pass orders with mere signatures and countless lives, far too distant to matter, are forced to reconcile with their sorry destinies. These orders, legislations and policies are the cornerstones of our administrative practice.
However, that there is a world trying to live out there under the blanket of fear of each of these policy decisions is of hardly any interest to most. It is the world at the periphery – geographical, psychological, historical, political, social or economic – I speak of. Unlike our metropolis and in fact, every urban space in proportion to how urban in spirit it is, they don’t buy food, culture, entertainment, information and even character. Being on the periphery means to them holding on to a certain truth they believe in. It is this truth they fear govt. policies threaten to wipe out. It is this truth that is too dear to them.
Fear of losing one of the many dear truths to the ‘universal lie’, Saramago remarked in his Nobel lecture, was peculiar of our blind age. This universal lie is what those forest dwellers of Bandhavgarh and people of Imphal valley or Naga Hills – struggling to make ends meet on the margins of the nationalist spirit and Indian polity – see as a conspiracy. Yet, out development hungry urban middle class is not moved, not even interested. Slowly we are approaching a double-edged disaster – of one tribe wanting to strengthen the universal lie and many others trying to save their plural truths.
It is this one huge monolithic tribe safeguarding and strengthening the universal lie from their privileged positions that inhabits our cities – big or small. Cities: the most parasitic units of our society have always upheld one or another, but always a universal lie. Be it empty theorizing from the academia or naïve ideological rallying on the streets, their universal nature has been the source of nothing but fear for each one of the peripheral truths. Ironical though it may sound considering the melting pot argument favouring them, the heat generated to melt all differences is the heat of universal lie – a certain rpm around the axis of modernity or science, for example. That plurality is gassed with this heat is an aspect few care to notice.
Every falsity needs keepers. In this case, there are modern institutions. What better example than the Armed Forces – adored and respected by metropolis though feared and detested by the disturbed areas on the margins of Indian nation. Another would be the forest department, supposed protector of forests and wildlife. Ask any forest dweller what he fears the most and it shall invariably turn out to be a forest officer.
The institutions we see as our saviours are a threat to their peaceful existence. Their only protector is their distance from the centre. What those on the periphery fear the most is intervention. What those close to the centre want the most is intervention, or regulation which is more or less a synonym for governance – directed towards their own benefits of course. Yes, of course it is not as black and white as it may sound, but to overlook the difference between the two grays at opposite ends of the spectrum would be nothing less than a crime.
The gray on the margins is the result of many years of adding a little black to their white, or could be seen as the universal lie infiltrating into one of the plural truths. The tribal population of those ousted from the forests and left with no land to live off, trying to earn a living out of the coal mines and hence depending on govt. policies is that gray. After having learned to breathe through the fine mesh of army convoys, having to send your own son to join the armed forces for the lack of a healthy socio-economic atmosphere around is that gray. The tensile strength of the fabric of any society is not a constant but a variable that does get manipulated.
While on our way through tribal villages close to Amarkantak, we spotted a few women breaking stones. The broken stones would eventually be sold at a cruel rate to the contractor who would make enormous money by selling a truckload to his client. As a mere experiment, we walked up to those women and enquired about whether they sought permission from the government for breaking stones. Without posing a single argument, they were about to leave before we apologized and requested them to resume work, but not without telling them that we had no authority and they shouldn’t pay heed to just about anybody. Try questioning someone breaking traffic rules on Delhi roads to see the difference for yourself.
The difference is that of fear. When fear settles in communities, it becomes its own enforcer. Nothing else matters. The only truth that remains is that of an endless conflict – of opposing interests, worldviews, lifestyles, even methods of resistance.
Commenting on our civilization’s failure to partner with the nature without confronting or destroying it, Amitav Ghosh declares, “Only in fiction can a reconciliation be affected between the quest of a scientist determined to prevent the disappearance of a species and the needs of a fisherman who must hunt in order to live.”
But I must add, one enemy fiction must always be wary of is: the truth. Whenever fiction tries to speak the truth, it shall cease to be fiction and lose its potency, even meaning. As long as it is satisfied being that one shade out of many on the canvas – a shade neither too bright, nor of the crown, nor of the painter’s signature, it shall contain all our truths.
Reconciliation: the natural antidote of fear.
Fiction: the grandfather of plurality, the ultimate protector of a truth that does not claim to be ‘the truth’.
Truth: the universal lie.