April 18, 2009
The shallow waves rose imitating a distant range of hills, each hoping to climb as high as possible but soon failing faster than they rose.
Such was the analogy that the backwaters of the Arabian Sea off Ernakulam afforded me for the state of hope and faith in the democratic process in India, as I drifted closer to the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth.
Far away, the trees swayed on a seemingly dark and unwelcoming island. Yet the diamond-carpeted waters, which glistened under the soothing sun, ensured that one’s lust for destiny was kept alive.
Mattancherry has a unique romance about it—as one of the earliest trade links to Ernakulam town—and one can still find one-of-a-kind stalls offering the choicest peppers and turmeric.
As I stepped off the ferry with caution, an inane fear of falling gripped me. Perhaps it was a premonition of the dangers that were to surface in the hours ahead. Unaware, I trudged on. Thereafter, a short search to quench my famished soul placed me at home in an urbane café; but a different world lay quiet just 100 steps away.
The route to the Paradise Synagogue is a blessing for students of India. It revealed a town that may feed on fish but survived by faith. It’s a place where ancient and modern opulence is stained by smelly fatalism.
Temples, mosques and churches find themselves shabbily carved into the town’s unseemly architecture.
The predominant themes around here are rundown stalls, cracked walls of narrow homes and streets where goats and chicken run riot feasting on the mounds of garbage and rolling in the sewage. Rickshaws and tourists on cycles rake up a clamor as locals rest by the sides watching a parade of gazers float by.
Among them, I stood admiring the curious graffiti on the wall.
“Stop Israel’s war on Refugees,” read one, while posters nearby showed bleeding children from Gaza buried in the rubble of conflict and others carried images of the controversial Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen.
Intrigued, I pulled out my camera, as she called upon me, inquisitive about my origin. Her broken voice and alien tongue was aided by her naughty twelve-year-old grandson, who studied in the local school run for his community.
Come to think of it, there weren’t many schools here that were run by the state devoid of a link to a particular religion or community. But, that didn’t bother this child.
He enjoyed that fact that everybody in his class was like him in more ways that one. Anymore, however, he wasn’t willing to share with me. Tugging on the deep red flags and playing hopscotch along the politically painted roads was far more appealing for him.
As he swiftly negotiated the sickle and rested on the palm, I strained ahead in the heat and soon found myself in lustrous stores full of religious artwork, sculptures, colorful rosary beads and everything antique. However, little did I know that rummaging through the past in the numerous avenues available was where a vision for the evolving future would reveal itself.
Why the wall-work? Why the segregated schools? Why not a question or comment about the squalor around? These were questions that I asked, disguising myself as a tourist.
The common answer echoed the need to care for our own, as the state had failed over the years. It now demanded that you segregate yourself in order to grow, for it’s not enough to be a citizen.
Somber, as I waited to hop back on the ferry, pundits on the tube defined this policy. The divide and rule terminology is apparently outdated. Now we call it social engineering.
Tomorrow Never Comes
May 14, 2009
I should have taken the hint, but it probably was masked so transparently, so obviously that it didn’t even register. The night had been short and warning tales of crime had rendered me much more weary than usual, as we rode along in the dark of the 5 a.m. sun.
Summer showers had washed away the varnish on this town, and the ugliness of urban living flowed down the roads that tired souls called home. Soon the cracked tar paths gave way to a flat, cemented lane. Across it lay VIP Road.
It’s a world in itself; a land that connects to the others upon its utility and convenience. Still, I missed the cue.
Hours later, I found myself traversing the narrow lanes in the heart of the town. In the soothing evening light, the cacophony of the massive wholesale bazaar was a revelation regarding private enterprise in this country.
The sloppy, lazing cattle and bustling traders were nestled in the bosom of crumbling ancient architecture that was decorated with political colors fluttering atop unceremoniously.
A century ago was what it tasted like. It was a time that this town had earned its reputation as Manchester of Asia—a textile and industrial powerhouse that had played its part in the Indian freedom movement. But there’s little that self-rule, at least in principle, has yielded.
Electricity and water continue to be a major concern and the roads betray the sense of it being the state’s largest city. In fact, murmurs are abounding that since Kanpur hasn’t fancied the queen, and she has been poetic in returning the favor.
The flags along the dark roads, flanked with stores that kept lamps and lanterns handy, echoed the absence of the blue elephant. But it’s not the trampling giant alone that has pushed this industrious land to its deathbed.
Rather, it’s a product of a broader malaise that infects the entire state. All one need do is take a few steps across the pristine temple that juts out from a brick walk along the corner, and this demon comes alive like a mythological character.
The narrow street, divided by broken stones, is hidden underneath the mass of humanity that resides there.
Shredded old houses and wasted brick walls lie above stalls where laborious workers strive to earn their meals.
Experts in the area put together aluminum cages, craftsmen carving dull wood into floral textures and artisans adding glitter to designer cloth amid a squalor that is akin to images of wasted young lives in the war zones of Afghanistan and Gaza.
Yet it is identity politics along with some last minute monetary nudges that moves voters; no matter how hard is the pinch of the lack of basic facilities cutting across all divides.
The 2009 contest thus far, dominated by caste, religion and fear rather than positive debates around development and the future, merely resonates this.
The Congress’ Sri Prakash Jaiswal, the first face one saw parroting the UPA’s scripted lines after the numerous terror attacks in the country over the last few years, is the incumbent MP. It’s clearly not even worth it to waste print on his efforts, either at the local level or in Delhi.
The BJP has fielded five-time Kanpur Cantt MLA Satish Mahana; obviously, he’s considered to be a solid choice. However, stroll around the city and soon you will begin to wonder what he has to show for performance over the years—apart from a boost in personal assets.
The Samajwadi Party’s choice of Surendra Mohan Agarwal who ridiculously finds his moment of glory in finishing second in the 1998 MP race is widely seen as a strategic pick that would hurt Jaiswal. The buzz around him was about the Muslim and Vaishya votes, nothing to do with growth or development whatsoever.
Finally, the BSP’s Sukhada Mishra, an ailing Brahmin candidate who was a sudden surprise as the party dumped Mohammad Salim, has remained unheard of during the campaign. Wonder if these moves by Mayawati and Mulayam Singh can be viewed as signals of future action post May 16?
As I pondered whether to delve into number crunching and the mythical science of predicting alliances and elections, a huge glass door greeted me. It was the newest mall in Kanpur, located across a garbage-strewn railway crossing.
Pushing the door open, I paused. The sign above read “Entry” at the other end was “Exit” and mammoth central section was untouched. It was restricted for VIPs.
This time I took the hint.