Sunday, November 26, 2006

Nani ka ghar

Like many other children my age, summer vacations meant going to my nani's home for a long period of time (more than a month). So till I was around 12, I would spend a month in this really really old house, which was built sometime in the 1920s (or the date on it claimed).

My nani lived in the Hazratganj locality of Lucknow, which is a commercial area. There were no playmates for me in the nearby area, so I spent a whole month each year just roaming around the house and visiting other relatives. Coming from Delhi, with its entertainment channel DD-Metro, Lucknow used to be a huge culture shock. With no TV and no friends, the house itself was the only place where I could amuse myself.

So onto a description of this house. Like I said, it was a very old house, and reflected the prevailing mindset at that time. The fact that rooms did not have attached bathrooms was one of them which struck me immediately. All the electrical fixtures too belonged to a by-gone era. The wiring was all visible, the switch-boards were mounted on the walls. The fans were of a breed which I saw next in my hostel room!

But apart from these changes which were visible, I was fascinated by what I couldnt see. There were many rooms and cupboards all over the house which were locked with big heavy locks. My vivid imagination ran wild with their possible contents. After alot of pestering, I was able to get some of them unlocked. And was I right about their contents!!

Old dusty toys which were mostly broken. As someone who had spent a large part of his childhood playing with GI Joes (which I regularly got on each birthday) and other electronic wizardry, these toys without even a clockwork mechanism appeared to be from other planet.

More addictive than this was the treasure of old comics which I dug out from somewhere. The were stashes of them all over the house and each time I thought I had found the last of them, there was another one waiting to be found. These comics too were quite old. They were the Indrajaal comics, containing the mythical tales of the Phantom and the magical tales of Mandrake.

Of these, Phantom was my favourite, although that may have something to do with the fact that there were more Phantom comics. The stories of the first masked hero, who was respectfully addressed as the chalta firta pret or the "ghost who walks" had a very vivid description of the whole Phantom mythology. Most of the stories concerned the current Phantom (the 21st one), but in many the exploits of his ancestors were recollected, usually by the Phantom reading old family records or by Old Man Moz, who was probably as old as the records themselves.

The Phantom had a skull cave, which contained many treasures that had been lost for centuries ... Excalibur, Charlemagne's crown, the asp that bit Cleopatra, Alexander's diamond cup etc etc. In addition to these, the Phantom possessed the gold beach of Keela-Wi (made of gold dust). There was a jade hut there in which each Phantom spent his wedding night (although I did not realize what this fuss about THE night was ;) ). At home, my parents mostly tried to steer me away from comics and each summers, this was a welcome break.

Of course, these comics were at best, a temporary solution to my loneliness. There was an element of mystery about some rooms on the terrace, where I rarely went. The huge terrace was a place where I was not allowed to go alone. After doing the same things, exploring the same places and reading the same comics, I still was BORED.

Once some cousins of my age shifted to Lucknow, I would spend little time in this house where I had spent many magical moments. Playing cricket or computer games or cards was definitely more appealing than moping around indoors. Soon I stopped going there altogether.

One fine day in college (almost 10 years later), when I was supposed to make a quiz, I thought that I will put a question on the Phantom. After some researching on the net, all my old memories started rushing back. All that I had read in the comics made more sense, as I had a complete picture of the Phantom myth now. And with the comics, I remembered about the times I had spent in the house. A time, when summer vacation meant VACATION; where there were no board exams or summer projects of MTPs to worry about.

I sometimes miss that place which I have all but forgotten. With no one living there now for years, it would probably be in a dreadful condition. I have no desire to see it again. I want my last childish recollection of it be a happy one.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Democracy ka tamasha

Every society tries to organise itself and comes up with a system of governance to ensure that order prevails and it is not engulfed by the darkness of chaos. Our founding fathers opted for a democratic system of governance, since it was the reigning favourite at that time. It still is the favourite, with the Big Brother of the World (aka US) trying to bring it to any country which doesn’t bow to it. As a side note, certain countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are exempt since they are the “good guys”.

This creature called democracy is supposedly based on the will of the majority. How is it different from mob-rule, I do not know and will leave the user to ponder on. I often wonder if the majority demands something like all people should not wear clothes, is it legally and morally enforceable ? Usually it is a simple matter of passing a law or two, perhaps even amending the Constitution. Courts can be taken care off by putting it in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, along the lines of what the Tamil Nadu government did on the issue of reservation.

Democracy assumes that the electorate supports the candidates on issues. There are no permanent loyalties or captive vote-banks. This compels the winning candidates to actually fulfill their promises. The group of people (or party) getting the majority form the government whereas the remaining people are in the Opposition. The Opposition’s role is not, as the name suggests to oppose the government, but rather to offer constructive criticism. It can try to be the “inner-voice” of the government, although Sonia Gandhi’s “inner voice” is doing that for the moment. Another prerequisite for democracy is a free media and an independent judiciary.

Let us now reflect on the current situation prevailing in our country. Voters are unable to break away from caste or religious loyalties. Each group is looked upon as a vote-bank to be cultivated. The influx of Bangladeshis in the NE is a part of this trend. This kind of divisive politics has led to fragmentation of legislatures, with big parties relying on the support of 1-2 MP parties to form governments. An extreme example of this can be seen in Jharkhand where an independent MLA has become the CM!! (Incidentally, this article has been motivated by the absurdity of the said situation). With this kind of fragmentation, every group in the minority becomes more important than the majority. A vocal minority can get books and movies banned. As explained earlier, the judiciary is an irritant which can easily be taken care off by our politicians (who only value the oft quoted “junta ki adalat”). The media, which is supposed to help us make informed decisions is too busy tracking Lakme Fashion Week or John Abraham’s cold.

In such a gloomy scenario, uneducated voters are paid for their votes. Although, given the state of student politics, where the electorate is supposedly educated, violence and money make a potent combination. With such issues, comes the trivialisation of the electoral issues. The public may want free power or colour TV or free pay, but they should not be given the same. Responsible parents do not give into all the demands of their children. The case here shouldn’t be any different. But with unstable coalitions, politicians cant be blamed for playing Santa Claus to all and sundry. Nobody likes a Santa who doesn’t give presents to the naughty children, especially the naughty children.

The present system of democracy based on the noble ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity has been corrupted and needs to be fixed or replaced with something better. At each stage of human civilisation, people have tried to think of a better system of governance. Unfortunately in today’s world, democracy has become a dogma, which cannot be questioned. Anyone doing so runs the risk of being labeled a fascist or elitist or whatever-ist.

Indian society is facing challenges on all the three foundations of demcracy. Equality should be understood as equality before the law and equality of opportunity. With it should come the acceptance that all of us are different and can never be “equal”. No efforts should be made to impose an artificial equality, as the government is doing in the case of reservations in jobs and educational institutes. The global economy is not going to be bothered with our noble intentions and leave us far behind.

Liberty too is an interesting concept. My liberty stops where yours begins, but that holds the same for you too. Today people take offense at the slightest pretext making us an intolerant society as a whole. Fraternity cannot be present if we look upon others with an “us or them” approach that was made famous by George Bush.

To sum up, the system is screwed but something needs to be done to stem the rot to make a conducive atmosphere for a successful democracy. For every verdict of 1977, we have people voting for petty personal gains. For every bill passed, we have ten others that were stalled due to the House being adjourned. Of course, the honest tax paying public is paying for this “democratic experiment”. All the deadwood bureaucracy and politicians are supported by the public, which is being taken for a ride more expensive than the Palace on Wheels.

This section of society is growing quite fast, with the middle-class increasing at a very fast pace. But it is a very silent section of people, who are kicked into action only when their comfortable lives are threatened. Hundreds of people are killed by terrorism or Naxalite violence, but the middle class only takes notice when someone like Jessica Lal is shot dead in the heart of the Capital. This apathy does not augur well for the middle-class. It takes to the roads to protest against reservation, but is too busy to go out and vote. The day of election is a public holiday to enable people to vote, not to take a well deserved break by waking up late.

Arm-chair politics makes good drawing room conversation, but doesn’t do anyone any good, except perhaps the speaker’s ego! Instead of making grandiose plans of changing the system by far-fetched means, voting and convincing others around you to vote would be far more effective. You cannot be heard in a democracy unless you speak up and voting is the means by which you can express yourself. At the cost of sounding tacky, I would like to end by saying be the change you want to be!