Saturday, April 18, 2009

Taming the shrew

I am reminded of my high school civics professor who was teaching us about the election commission. Civics classes used to be held thrice a week during the final periods; when the sun was too hot to bear and we were too distracted to listen. Yet we sat, quietly, most of the time lost in our own thoughts, because as chairman of the school, the professor couldn't be fooled. And none of us dared. Besides, his love for his country seemed so pure, that none of us had the heart to break him out of his reverie. So we let him drone, occasionally amused enough to listen but most of the time not spririted enough to believe that India was ever going to get anywhere. We'd inherited that attitude partly because of our age and partly because middle class India was fed up at that time. And we wondered if we were ever gonna have anything great to say besides counting every year, the number of years we had been independent. But my civics professor remembered the days of the youth, when he was full of hope for our young independent country, when everyone seemed honest and everyone seemed united. And he spoke fondly about democracy, about adult francise, and about the power of being able to decide your leaders. By the people, for the people, of the people, he would say. Stressing, in great british style, the world "by", "for" and "of". All of us wanted to pat him on his back and say "there, there old man, wake up, and look around, where has your beloved independence got us". With cable TV making its foray, we saw India and we saw resplendent foreign lands. And we didn't think too much of democracy. And of the electoral commission, the ones that set up electoral booths in the farthest of India's corners, from the might peaks of Kashmir to the horizon where the three seas meet, Kanyakumari, from the desert of Rajhasthan, to the "non-described" north eastern states ( I've never known much about those states except they simply get lumped as a north-eastern-mess), we had almost no regard. We weren't old enough to vote yet. And so we couldn't really be impressed by the feat of getting everyone to come and have the smallest say in choosing their government.

We simply were resigned to be lower than those glorious foreign lands. And this we took to be our burden, our albatross around neck, for sins that we hadn't ever committed. And somehow we all got old enough to vote and hardened enough not to bother. I've wanted to vote. But I've been appalled by who my choices were. Furthermore, I was appalled by how streets and roads of houses would go missing from the electoral list and how the few times I had a choice to make (SM Krishna for CM was something I felt strongly about, although they've packaged him off and sent him to Maharashtra while Deve Gowda and his rowdy lot seem to be either to sleepy to speak or to incoherent to be understood) my name was never there. And I too wondered why we could never manage to pull it together. Progress, consistently seemed to be happening, but it seemed like it was because the higer-ups were too dumb to stop it, instead of smart enough to initiate it. While a party needed to rein in a whole theme called Hindutva will forever be beyond me. And why scores of educated people supported them will continue to stupefy me. Perhaps because the only other option at that time, the Congress was getting too bulky and corrupt and complascent. Perhaps too, that we wanted something else to bind us all together apart from, "tonight we make a tryst with destiny". It seemed like it was a destiny with a twist instead. I took politician and crook to be synonymous. And government and incompetency to be synonymous.

And then, I guess my prefrontal cortex grew. The prefrontal cortex in the brain is the region of executive control, of judgement, and its evolution is one of the many things that mark humans as cultured and other apes and monkeys as uncultured. And we aren't born with a large prefrontal cortex. It grows through our lives, till about the age of 20. Until which time all of us show amazingly poor lack of judgment. The glorious years of teenage are stamps of poor judgment and many mistakes. And so today, with, what I hope is a fully developed prefrontal cortex, I see things in a better light.

I see, that democracy is not easy with a billion people. The one thing Indians seem to be able to take for granted is that we're a democratic country. And I remember once again, when my civics professor, thundered at us, apparently possessed with the words of the preamble to the Indian constitution. SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC, REPUBLIC. Now, the world(and by that I mean the who's who of the world) wants to bully us into give up our sovereignity, and many of our own threaten our secularity, and we seem cursed with the Congress's need to forever have a Gandhi at its helm ( though the Gandhis seem to have a more slowly grown prefrontal cortex- they do seem to make it up by occasionally listening to non Gandhians), we're not republic either, and socialism is always going to be a distant ideal. But democratic, we surely and truly are. And I begin to see that now and I am beginning to well up inside when I reflect that it couldn't have been easy.

We've been given our democracy. Along with that, we take up very seriously, the art of yelling, screaming, rioting and wearing our heart on our sleeves. It must be something about the tropical sun and the crowds and the dusty humidity but we're forever walking around with blood that's about to explode. And I mean it. And there are times when we need a collective, tight slap. Every one of us. And we seem bent on understanding democracy, the right to have a say, as really the right to veto. And yet we've come along haven't we ? Through fits and starts and apparently calculated risks. And the country I know today is vastly different from the country during the time of my civics classes. There's hope again, and that powerful feeling that perhaps, just perhaps, we might just make it to the top. And we're not going to give all that credit to those bumbling politicians, but we will continue to give them a chance. Elections happen systematically. And many of us seem to take it seriously. And we won't stand if we have no choice to make, even if the choices aren't all that appealing. Pranay Rai has made a living out of analyzing election news to death. And it must be because we take our chance to have a say seriously enough, to have that say counted and analyzed and leads to results which if disappointing, we quickly are ready to change our say the next time around. Poor voting records, notwithstanding, there are several that turn up and vote. Enough for the ticker tape to buzz, to buy pranay rai is ammonia free hair dye and for us to listen. Politicians come out on the roads with the loudest of speakerphones telling us what their garlanded leaders are going to do for us. And while some of us believe, the rest pooh pooh, but we're all affected by it, no matter how distant we want to be.

And this time we've manage to dispatch our cricket to south africa (not cancel it mind you), do our elections in tiny phases(not suspend it mind you )because we're all afraid of terrorism, but it only gives us reason to get stronger and fuller with our democracy. And its in our blood. In every household there's going to be the confusion about what to watch- cricket or the election. Both equally important. Both equally elements of self expression. And some households will consider buying a second TV to sort out this mess. This for me is progress, that we're finally able to have the cake and eat it too, love our cricket and get mad at our politicians too - because after over a half century of independence, now we can, and yes we can !!!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A lifetime of darkness

I have fond memories of the days of the powercut. That's how I learnt my first swear word. "Damn it". That's what my dad would say when the power went off. I learnt it quickly. Subsequent power cuts would be greeted by me with an "ooph damn it". I didn't know then it was a bad word. By the time I realized it was inappropriate, I also knew it was cool, and so there was no warrant for not using that word.

But Bangalore used to be rife with powercuts. Sometimes there would be a loud burst of a tranformer, sometimes terrible rain that cut off some cord somewhere, sometimes there would be nothing to tell you why it happened. I never used to bother. It used to be a good excuse to make a call to a friend anyway. Those were the days when there was just one phone, one corded phone attached to the wall, often sitting atop the telephone dictionaries. The ones that had holes into which you had to insert your stubby fingers and dial 7 whole digits. Those were the days of 7 digit phone. The was no such thing as a redial button. There was no caller ID. You simply had to dial again. and again and again until you got through. And I remember vividly how I had this one popular friend. Everyone would call her the moment the power went off (me included), and of course if you didn't get to your telephone quickly enough you'd be greeted with a "ee phone number samayadalli nirikshisavaagidhe, swalpa samayadanantara prayathnisi; this phone number is busy, please try after sometime, (oh and something in Hindi that I cannot seem to recollect). " The length of my "sometime" was as long as it took for me to put the phone back on the hook and get my finger back on to dialing. My fingers have ached and blistered, but I showed impressive will power. A will power that wasn't quite upto the mark when it came to finishing homework in the candle light. I channeled my parents' chiding of "Janani, don't read in such dim light, have the tubelight face your book, don't let the shadow of your head fall on it, you'll ruin your eyes". I channeled it into meaning that doing homework in dim candlelight would mean blinding myself and suddenly I valued my eyes a lot. And thus I would wait till the power came back on, throw a quick tantrum about needing to do my homework, postpone everyone's dinner until I was done (because I used to do the homework on the dining table and there'd be no place for food and utensils until I cleared up) and then and only then would there be any semblance of peace at home.

As I grew older, phones got fancier. Soon cordless telephones (imported of course) were making their way into everyone's homes. I might add that I am referring to middle class bangalore. I have no rosy eyed picture of India that as cordless phones were making their foray people were getting lifted above the poverty line. Nonetheless no one can disagree that our country has made a lot of progress over the years. Such progress of course didn't necessarily include continuous power supply. Mr erratic transformer was forever conspicuous only by his absence. Cordless phones may be cool enough, but every house would still have at least phone that didn't need a power supply and could get connected directly to the phone unit. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge bsnl continues to supply only that variety of phone when it grants a new phone connection. We got mildly fancier though. Our corded phone units now had buttons instead of "dial-me-ups". And so I continued to have phone calls with the same girl (her popularity never faded- ever, not until today when all of us have sprouted wings and are making some awkward attempts at flying independently) in the middle of the hall, loudly talking about some other girl who did something foolish.

It was sometime at this point that I was reaching adolescence, when my first pimples were erupting and my first sense of privacy was making its presence. It was downright ridiculous to hold a phone conversation in front of your parents. The moment the phone got handed to you (that thankful cordless device), you had to shut yourself behind the door and speak for the longest time. Thankfully it was around the sametime that KEB (karnataka electricity board) woke up to the idea of scheduled powercuts, which to me meant, I could schedule these private conversations. No more having to cut conversations when the power went off because the only place to you could talk was in the hall where everyone would be listening. Neither my mom or my dad are eavesdroppers or the type that insist on tracking their daughter's every movement. Having lived with powercuts long enough, all of us had a routine about what to do when the power went off. Some would nap. My mom managed to continue doing something in the kitched. If my aunt and uncle were around everyone would sit about and talk. I don't think the important happenings in my life such as "why x made a face when y mentioned z in class" mattered to them. Yet of course, I had to pretend that way for the sake of my ego. Just to underscore my dumbness, I used to have huge arguments with my dad about how stupid KEB was to schedule a powercut when everyone needed the power the most. Why not do it between noon and 2 pm I would argue. No one needed it then and it wouldn't be such a hassle (and I would still be at school) too. Of course my dad would say "they're trying to save the power that would get spent, there's no saving of power when you're not gonna spend it in the first place". I scoffed at that logic and went powering through with my idiocies.

And then there was the advent of the emergency light. These emergency lights were a miracle. Initially they too were "imported"; from "abroad" and from "foreign". Either US, or Dubai, or Singapore or one of those grand places. Every house would now have one of these. Every household identified a strategic location in the house such that most places got a hint of illumination. Some emergencies would even be tilted by cleverly placed piled up books so that the light would fall at the right angle. Once such strategic placement was found, they wouldn't be altered. These things also came with half-on buttons ; they would be off when connected to power supply. The moment the power went off, they'd come on. What magic! (It need be mentioned that there was a marked decrease in the swearing component at my house). And then these things got bulkier and all bling. The latest ones used to come with the standard 2 emergency lamps, a headlight, a siren, a radio and a clock. I never understood why anyone needed a siren. And the radio was pretty useless because we were still a few years away from privatizing FM radio. You couldn't read the clock unless you shone a candle on it (getting away from the candles were what we were trying to achieve with the emergency light!) And we were still a few years away from admitting that India was slightly shining. To not listen to AIR class India's way of civil disobedience. And then as we became more comfortable in our luxuries many households opted for two emergency lights. One that would stay in that carefully callibrated strategic position. One that could move around. And in all this we muddled through.

And then we had the UPS. Uninterrupted power supplies. That was when PC's started appearing in every home. Sales people quickly realized that no one would by them because they were worried such an expensive device would get ruined due to unexpected power cuts. Soon there were offers with PC's sold with free UPS with 2 hour backup. The 2 hour backup was a farce. Unless you weren't using the computer or doing these funny DOS operations (DOS was what computer class summer schools would teach scores of aspiring children; more correctly, the kids of scores of aspiring parents) such as chdir or mkdir it wouldn't last 2 hours. I used to play three games on the computer tetris and minesweeper on a windows 3.1 (oh what pixellated grayscale heaven that used to be) and prince and pacman on DOS mode. I know that I could never play too long with the UPS. And of course right after the power cut, the UPS would blare the loudest, most horrendous beep that almost made the siren from the good friend- the emergency light such a lovely melody. Soon enough UPS's were getting grander. There were those that would support a computer one lightbulb and one fan. And as we got better and better at our IT skills and got better and better at buying cars and scooters and complaining about roads and infrastructure and marking our movements with huge potholes behind us (a sort of Bangalore walk of fame like the one imitating the Hollywood walk of fame at LA for instance), huge UPs's would come and power up the entire home. It was now left to the poor lightposts to tell people that the area had a powercut.

And so we've emerged from darkness. Powercuts too have gotten rarer. I wonder if emergency light makers have shut shop because one no longer sees hordes of them making their way into homes. And I wonder what happened to those hideous kerosene driven generators that would stink up the whole of jayanagar's 4th block complexes. And I wonder what happened to those tiny burners at the vegetable shops inside the complex. No activity would stop in Bangalore when there was a powercut. Life simply went on as though nothing had happened. And I remember the one year I was in Singapore. An eventless year with uninterrupted power and no excitement. I'd write to my friends back in India that life is very boring if things always went like clockwork. Perhaps being enamored by power cuts is a distant relative of the Stockholm syndrome. Perhaps its what makes life colourful. I've forever been preoccupied with wondering what stories to tell my grandchildren. And surely, I'll tell them about all my antics during a power cut. But I wonder now whether my grandchildren will have interesting stories to tell their grandchildren. AndI think fondly of my grandmom's stories about the cinema guy that would come into the village and screen movies on white linen and wonder how boring a life she must think I lead. And I guess, grandmoms will always have stories to tell their grandchildren. And for that, I am thankful.