Saturday, December 31, 2005

In the race to be first
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghEvery time I travel by road I check up whether there are any rail level crossings on the way. If there are, I add half an hour to two hours per level crossing to my estimate of how long it will take me to get to the destination. As the gates of level crossing close, queues of cars, buses, trucks, bullock carts and three-wheelers begin to grow longer and longer on either side. There are always people who refuse to join the queue and get in front of the line and make sure they block the traffic coming from the opposite directions.

As the gates open, there is a headlong clash between the opposing lines and several minutes are lost because no one is willing to give way. There is exchange of earthy abuse, often ending up in fisticuffs. It is entirely due to our contempt for discipline born of innate feeling of "me first and you be damned". You can see this phenomenon every day on our city roads when cars go past queues to be in front when road signals show red for halt.

It is not surprising that our impatience to be ahead of others results in tragedies in which scores of men, women and children are trampled to death. The latest tragedy took place in Chennai in the early hours of the morning. All they wanted were food coupons distributed at a school building every day to the same people. There was no need for anyone to be in desperate hurry. The "me first" instinct got the better of some of them; they killed others.

It was not a rare event in our lives. Wherever we assemble in large numbers as at railway stations (particularly on treacherous stairs of overbridges), at places of pilgrimage like Kumbh melas, temples on auspicious days, stampedes are likely to take place and kill many innocent people. Neither the police nor volunteers on duty can do very much to maintain discipline. It is we who have to learn it ourselves: it is us who are to blame when our bad behaviour deprives others of their lives.


Ela Bhatt

Ela BhattEla Bhatt’s autobiography is entirely about her work of organising illiterate, poverty-stricken women engaged in rag-picking, pulling push-carts, selling vegetables on pavements and other menial jobs.

Gujjus are a great people. When it comes to brains, their men can give the Tambrams much to think about. When it comes to beauty, their women compete on the level with Bong girls in the length of their hair and curvaceous figures. When it comes to hard work, they can put Punjabis to shame. Their business acumen can give Marwaris a run for their money. When it comes to goodness they have more of it than any other Indians. Bapu Gandhi who gave us freedom was one; Acharya Vinoba Bhave was another. Sardar Patel who demolished the princely order to make India one nation was yet another. And Gujarat has given us the most outstanding women of our times in Ela Bhatt. Unfortunately for India, Narendra Modi is also a Gujju. He is bent on destroying the good image these great sons and daughters have created of their state in the minds of all Indians.

If you doubt my sweeping assertions, I suggest you read the autobiography of Ela Bhatt: We are poor but so many: The Staff, of Self-employed Women of India (OUP). As the title indicates, it is not the story of her life — no Mills Boon, no sex, no matrimonial problems or hassles about raising children. It is entirely about her work of organising illiterate, poverty-stricken women engaged in rag-picking, pulling push-carts, selling vegetables on pavements, making salt, laundering and stitching other peoples’ clothes and doing other menial jobs. It has its own banks run by women. Helped by dedicated workers like Renana Jhabvala (daughter of the novelist Ruth Prawer and her architect husband Jhabvala), Namrata Bali, Miral Chatterjee, Reema Nanavaty, Rahima Shaikh, Jyoti Mecwan, Lalita Krishnaswamy, Jayshree Viyas and Manali Shah.

It goes from strength to strength. Ela Bhatt founded SEWA (Self-employed Women’s Association) in 1972. Today, it has more than 700,000 members, a third of them Muslims. Attempts were made to wreck the organisation; once by upper caste Hindus because it is helping the Dalits, then by Narendra Modi’s hoodlums because it was helping Muslims, victims of post-Godhra violence. SEWA survives and continues to expand its activities. Ela Bhatt continues to get recognition for work: doctorates from foreign universities, the Magasaysay Award, membership of the Rajya Sabha. In her life-story, she has very little to say about honours heaped on her: she is a true Karma Yogin.


Natwar’s swan song

He marched off the stage quoting an Urdu couplet which was so touching that I memorised it immediately and got down to translating it into English:

Parvaana hoon

Shamaa to ho, Raat to ho;

Marney key leye tayyaar hoon

Koee baat to ho

(I am a moth,

To burn myself, there must be flame

And the night to do the same;

Though I am ever ready to die

But I must know the reason why.)

Now that he has no office to go to, what will Natwar do? He is not a man to retire gracefully into oblivion. He has been bitten by the Choudhry-bug: he pines to be the top man of any organisation he forms. He may set up an ex-central cabinet ministers association and have himself elected president. He could then tender unsolicited advice to successive prime ministers. He also has literary ambitions and regards himself as an authority on E.M. Forster, (Passage to India). He met him during his years in Cambridge. The old sod who was then in residence at King’s College and was consorting with his lover, a London policeman. Or he may decide to settle scores with people who have said or written things not very complimentary about him. I am one of them. I fear the day he decides to put me in my place. Earlier, he wrote in a lofty tone in an article that he did not bother to read anything I wrote. However, he has an uncanny ability to guess what I had written without having read it. And let me ask: "How can anyone hope to battle with an antaryaami — one who knows secrets hidden in other peoples’ hearts?


Bhaichara bus

K.S.S. Ahluwalia of Amritsar has given an apt description of the newly operated Amritsar-Lahore-Amritsar bus service :

"Roadblocks removed, but speed breakers remain."