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Magazine | Aug 18, 2008

Teen Deewarein
The three reasons why India is sinking into that murky cesspool
Jaideep Varma

This Independence Day, as the tricolour flutters in the breeze, do your thoughts travel to the quality of the air? As all five of our senses get assaulted at some point or the other by some form of muck, do you miss the one sense that 61 years of independence has not been able to activate—our civic sense?

Could some answers lie here?

Papa Ko Kehne Do: Indians need authority figures to tell them what to do. Given how little self-confidence we have as a people—our derivative popular films and music, and looking-to-the-West-for-approval fiction provide enough evidence of this—perhaps
we are unable to think as individuals what good social behaviour is. So, as the cliche goes, we will litter in Shivaji Nagar with poise, but turn into mice in Singapore. Abroad, we will follow every rule not out of sensitivity for others, but from fear of the consequences of breaking rules.

And what of our own authority figures? Two anecdotes:

Recently, at the New Delhi Railway Station, a uniformed policeman spots a harried young man looking for a dustbin to throw some junk in, laughs out aloud, beckons him and exhorts him to throw it on the tracks. "This is India, what dustbin you are looking for!"

Or even better. Paris, three decades ago. A promising Indian politician, a minister from the ruling party, visiting on work, gets off his official vehicle, saunters to a roadside bush and proceeds to urinate. A horrified Indian official nervously points out that this is not quite the norm in these parts. It is not known if the future prime minister is able to extract a famous pause, this time from his bladder.

Eeswar, Allah Tere Naam: With so many gods decorating our religious landscape, how can chaos be far behind? How can bhagwan Ram's joyous return to Ayodhya after 14 years not warrant ear-splitting mayhem, year after year? The old and sick need to loosen up perhaps, the very young need to be properly initiated into the glories of the land they have been fortunate to be born in. Hazardous splinters? What is a little danger on a day of such universal joy?

Lord Ganesha's and goddess Durga's journeys to watery depths are joyously celebrated on dry land with the longest traffic jams of the year, with some drunken revelry and convivial eve-teasing thrown in. Dandiya regales the unnecessarily harried sensibility with popular music taste from giant loudspeakers, while Holi brings forth the pleasures of being forcibly locked in at home.

Is it that Our ideological proximity to the gods give us the divine sanction to be unhygienic and anti-social?

Meanwhile, on a daily basis, noise-levels are higher than the permissible limit in many temples around our country. And most of them, including the one at Tirupati, have an unhygienic mess left behind by devotees everyday—a dust, as it were, that never settles.

Could this ideological proximity to the gods through our festivals and places of worship be providing us with divine sanction to be unhygienic and anti-social?

Main Azaad Hoon: So much freedom and how wonderfully we use it. We're free to hurl garbage into the public street or our neighbour's yard. We're free to spit with abandon from rickshaw drivers' seats and expensive cars. We're free to honk in the middle of the night to ask the nightwatchman to open the gate. We're free to urinate wherever a little foliage can camouflage our intent, and sometimes even that is not necessary. We're free to whistle and clap and talk noisily during the film screening. We're free to have our mobile ringing in a darkened cinema theatre.And on being asked to not speak on the mobile during the screening, we're free to say, "But it's important!" or "I have paid for my ticket, so you shut up!" or even, "But...I am talking about the film only!"

This is our country and we love it for the individual rights it gives us to be anti-social.

What impact does this have on our overall mindset, our work ethic, our national character? How do these seemingly small everyday acts of social insensitivity impact the bigger picture of India?

Or is that another story?

(Jaideep Varma is the author of Local, 2005, a novel, and a filmmaker.
His first feature film Hulla releases next month.)
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