The taxi was taking me from my tem-ple-suburb in Chennai to the Central Station. It was 5 in the morning, the Shatabdi I was taking to Bengaluru being scheduled to leave at 6.30.
There was virtually no traffic on the roads. The taxi driver sent up a silent prayer as we crossed the neighbourhood shrine and moved ahead. At that pre-dawn hour, the Marina was a ribbon of alluring tar. The vehicle cruised over it. The only ‘impediments’ were the traffic lights that the driver ignored. After he had sped through the first red signal, and then the second, I decided I must tell him that he was doing something wrong and dangerous. But at the third signal the light turned green and he breezed past it, as licit as he was fleet. I lectured him, nonetheless. Rules are rules, I said. He heard me without expression. I could imagine his thoughts: When there is no traffic why the hell should a mere red light impede my silken glide? Needless to say, we reached the station in record time.
Seated in the air-conditioned comfort of my chair car, I was ruminating on the paradox of indiscipline in our deeply religious society when I noticed that at least three of the large seat-windows in my coach had big holes in them. Cellophane had been stuck on the coach side of the shattered panes.
These holes were ‘wayside wounds’, I gathered, tell-tale marks left by stones hurled at them for no particular reason by ‘urchins’. No reason, except bucolic tedium leading to mischief? I thought of little Apu in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. And then of deeper ‘reasons’ for the stone-shot, such as deprivation and despondency turning into resentment against symbols of plenitude such as this food-laden train. As the Shatabdi moved seamlessly into the Tamil countryside, buildings giving way to huts and roads to fields, the train of my thoughts kept going back to the taciturn taxi driver noiselessly cutting traffic lights along the Marina… lack of discipline… jumping signals… no respect… When I was woken out of my reverie by a thud. A stone, I thought, this must be a stone. But no, it was a kid just across the aisle playing with the snap-up blind of his seat-window. He had let the blind go flying up to hit its pelmet. He was on ‘this’ side of the Great Divide. Cool Child inside, Angry Child outside. The image of Gustav Vigeland’s Angry Child, the 20th century masterpiece in Oslo’s Vigeland Park draws almost as many visitors as Edvard Munch’s Scream. The boy is yelling, his tiny fists clenched, one foot raised, another dug into the earth, in deep, deranged anger.
Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David, is also about a youth’s anger. The Florentine depicts that shepherd readying for single combat against the giant Goliath. David’s eyes are a study in concentration. Bernini, sculpting the same moment a 100 years later, has David twist his entire frame like a discus-thrower. In Bernini’s David it is not the eyes but the pursed mouth that shows the concentration of the aim. Both depict confrontation, but controlled. Control… direction… discipline… Where do we find them now? The wounded glass-panes and the happy boy beside them were now a metaphor impossible to ignore. How long can those two co-exist ?
A couple of days later I witnessed a scene that did not give me an answer, only deepened the question. At Bengaluru airport, two flights of the same airline to the same destination were getting delayed. Passengers were restive. They asked two young women at the airline counter for some clarity on what was happening. There was no explanation, only dead silence. Then the ‘restiveness’ escalated. The two women promptly vanished, their places taken by two men, equally nervous. The more they hedged, the more enraged the passengers became. Hindi displaced English as the main language of that uni-directional communication. And ‘aap’, descended to ‘tu’ in no time. A crew member pleaded, “Give us two minutes, Sir, two minutes’, doing an abject namaskar.
These shouting, gesticulating, volatile men were air-mile earners, frequent fliers, some of them booked to fly business class. I am sure they would have displayed their anger very differently had this delay occurred in Frankfurt, London, Paris, New York or even Dubai or Singapore. In the US, the behaviour of some of these passengers could well have had airport alarm bells ring.
Equally, had this delay happened in any of those international airports, the airline would not have kept the passengers so callously in the dark. There would have been minute-to-minute announcements, with senior airline officials explaining the problem, offering profuse apologies to the passengers, apart from tangible compensations. But ‘this is India only’. After a delay of over five hours for the first flight and over an hour for the second, the two delayed flights were clubbed and everyone found a seat. What left me shocked was the mad scramble the passengers made to get into the aircraft. United as a phalanx until a minute earlier, the passengers were now back to being themselves, each for himself. Are we, as a people, more civilised than our ancestors were?
We are better fed, shod, clothed than they. All that signifies progress. But is being civilised about progress? Or is it about evolution? It is about how we see ourselves in relation to others and to other things that do not belong to us but to others and to everyone. Including their time and their self-respect.
Generalisations are wrong. And what follows could be wrong but I say it in the belief that it holds good of rather more than a microscopic section of We the People of India: We observe vows but play around laws. We donate generously, but pay our rates, dues and taxes grimacing. We draw the last drop of juice out of a tetrapack carton but will not turn off a flowing public tap. We hold on to anything and everything that belongs to us as to dear life, but public property is not ‘ours’. If we do not wrench, slash, write over, tread underfoot, vandalise and, in agitations, smash and burn public property ourselves, we don’t intervene to stop that happening all around us.
To this pattern, there are, of course, great and ennobling exceptions. Come a crisis, and we bond in a way that could make anyone anywhere proud. But when no crisis looms, when no enemy strikes, when no trauma cuts the skin, when bullying can overawe the vulnerable, one thing matters above all else: immediate self-interest.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009 The views expressed by the author are personal