Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Getting Our House In Order

"Enough is Enough!." This slogan sums up the emotion in India after 26/11. The citizens of India have had enough. Or so it seems. The Mumbai terror attacks last month pushed an already edgy population over the brink. People were out on the streets demanding all kinds of things ranging from war to new politicians to army rule... it was perhaps the biggest such demonstration conducted in free India, in which people from every community, every walk of life, came out on the street in protest.

The politicians became the favored scapegoat - the masses called for their heads.

Each one of us Indians is quick to pass the buck. It's become sort of a habit - there's always someone or something else to blame - the system, the politicians, the corruption, the pollution, and when all else fails, there's always that final death blow to any constructive argument in favor of individual change - over-population!

I don't deny that mass displays of unity in the form of processions are necessary to convey strong messages of solidarity. However, I don't think that it's wise to let out all our steam in processions and think we've done our bit by going out there and lighting candles. My point is that processions should not be the end, but the beginning of a process of serious inidvidual change!

We blame politicians for "repeating the same lines" each time a terrorist attack happens, yet we are guilty of the same crime. We display our usual cynicism with the system in fits and starts and then go back to living our own lives just the way we used to.

We like to think that the onus of maintaining a mature, responsible state lies with the politicians. How convenient for us. I say that we're all responsible for the chaos, anarchy, and inefficiency that have become a part of 'the system' in India. And I'm not going to harp on that cliched message of 'Vote for the right people' to change the system. That's a whole debate in itself about who is right and who is not. And voting happens once in five years. I refuse to accept that my responsibilty as a citizen begins and ends once every five years. But there are many other ways in which each of us impacts the system. Each of us has a theatre of impact - we're constantly interacting with the system: on the roads, at toll plazas, at shops (where we consider an evasion of VAT as a personal victory). No one can claim isolation from the system.

It's ironical. This whole situation. We eloquently bemoan the corruption that has 'eaten into the political system.' Yet, when a policeman pulls us over for violating a traffic law, we're quick to pull out a hundred rupee note and bribe the officer. (It's a question of saving that extra hundred rupees, you know. Why spend more when I can get away with less?)

We bash the system for not having adequate laws to punish terrorists. Yet, we cannot spend those extra two minutes waiting for the traffic light to turn from red to green. It is below our dignity, of course, to obey the existing laws. (Laws are for terrorists and criminals, not for us.)

We call our politicians uncivilized, yet we don't have the decency to stop at a pedestrian crossing to let a mother and her little child cross the road.

When a VIP convoy disrupts traffic, we blurt out the choiciest of abuses. In one instant, all our other worries are forgotten and the suffering mass of humanity languishing in that traffic jam now has one common enemy - the VIP. The political activist in us takes instant birth - it wouldn't take much for us to begin a protest march right there, maybe pelt some stones, wave some flags, and generally create a whole lot of commotion. (It's a democracy, you know. Why should we tolerate the injustice meted out to us by these VIPS?)

We abuse VIPs when they disrupt traffic, yet, when the traffic on one side of the road is blocked up, we don't even blink an eyelid before zooming our cars into the lane meant for oncoming traffic. (If I can just get two cars ahead, you know, at least I would be..well...two cars ahead!)

I must say, we put chamaleons to shame.

We lament that India is so dirty. We write off this country as unhygeinic and revel in the cleanliness of foreign countries the moment we step out of an airport in a foreign land. (Oh India...there's so much dirt everywhere. Don't even talk about India. It's the politicians, you know. They just don't care. The whole system is messed up.)

Even war torn Sri Lanka struck me as squeaky clean when compared with India! So did Vietnam. In Delhi, I have seen plastic bags hurled out of the fanciest of cars. Uh...did i hear someone say that the dirt in India is because of illiteracy? The other day, a marketing group from Cadburys was offering free chocolates in our company cafeteria, as a part of their promotional campaign. Needless to say, within minutes, the floor of the cafeteria was littered with chocolate wrappers. A big dustbin stood in the corner - neglected.

I say to each fellow Indian: in order to protest against the system, we need to have earned a right to protest. When we blatantly flout the system and use it to our advantage, I say we have lost the moral right to criticize it. Before we go hurling abuses at politicians and Pakistan, let's show some decency and civility to each other on the streets of our own cities.

After Diwali night, the streets of our cities look like we've just about survived an overnight bombing raid. The place is littered with remnants of crackers. And then we say that Goddess Lakshmi visited our homes last night. I personally think she ran a million miles away from our homes. It's most likely she was nowhere close to India that night.

It doesn't take government resources for us to exercise self control and not throw that paper out the window onto the street. It doesn't take government resources for us to be patient and wait at the traffic light until our turn comes. It doesn't take government resources for us to desist from blaring our car horns at the drop of a hat. It doesn't take government resources for us to learn to wait in line, even if it means spending the extra few minutes. It doesn't take government resources for us to decide that we're going to stop taking the easy way out all the time.

It's this 'shortcut' culture at the micro level that is reflected in the 'shortcut' culture at the macro level. The collective consciousness of this country is but a manifestation of inidvidual consciousness multiplied by one billion. The country as a whole gives out a vibe of 'chalta hai.' No amount of bombing a neighbouring country is going to help us until we bomb our minds and evict the 'chalta hai' terrorist from within us!

I join the chorus to say 'Enough is Enough!' But I say that we've had enough of ourselves. It's time for us to change. Let's truly "be the change that we want to see." But first, we have to want that change.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Keeping the Faith

I have always believed that people are innately good. There’s a “nice” person in everyone. When I mention this to people, I often get a strange look that almost seems to say “yeah right!”

I’m not surprised at this reaction. In a day and age when bad news makes great headlines and good news isn’t so interesting anymore, it is easy for even the greatest optimist to turn cynical.

I am reminded of an incident that took place nearly four years ago when I was attending a week-long residential training session at a company farmhouse in New Delhi. After a hectic day of workshop sessions, I played a game of volleyball in the lawn along with my colleagues. It was an invigorating game. As I was walking back to my room, I noticed that my ring was missing. It was a gold ring with a beautiful red ruby stone, a gift from my grandmother before she passed away some years ago.

Without a second thought, I ran back to the lawn and began frantically searching in the grass. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack. And to make matters worse, the sun was setting; it would be pitch dark very soon. My colleagues joined the search too but it was in vain. Before I went to bed that night, I knew I had lost a precious heirloom that grandma had entrusted me with.

The next morning, I was up early and searched the grounds once more. Not a trace of the ring. Having given up all hope, I casually mentioned to the maintenance staff about the ring and to let me know if it turned up. My colleagues laughed at me, chiding my naiveté. Saurabh confidently proclaimed, “If they find it, they’ll keep it for themselves. What makes you think they’ll return a piece of gold with a real ruby?”

I didn’t respond. I thought to myself, “Miracles do happen.” My mind drifted back to the day that grandma had given me the ring, a sparkle in her eye as she passed on a ring that was once worn by my grandfather.

“Sir! Sir! Is this yours?” I was shaken out of my reverie by an eager voice. I saw Ravi bhai, the gardener, running towards me, his hand outstretched. In his palm, sparkling brighter than ever, was my ring. Ravi bhai looked happier than me. “I was trimming the bush when I found it, Sir!”

I knew, right then, that I would never give up on the power of goodness. I thanked Ravi bhai profusely and put in a good word for him with the staff management.