Three tragic political tales
The climb upstairs is steep and rickety. At the landing, a door leads into a dark, old-fashioned conference area. Everything is musty and dusty, as though no one has been here in twenty years. This is partly the effect of the dark wood finish on everything and the indeterminate shade of the upholstery on the chairs. One tiptoes on in towards the relative hum of human occupation and activity in the small partitioned rooms in the back.
This is the area where the housekeeping staff were meant to come and go as they waited on the occupants of the front-rooms. The placement of party functionaries in this space begins to tell our story for us. Steel desks, steel chairs, the ubiquitous Godrej cupboards, and files that are metamorphosing organically into dust add further definition to the cubicles. The windows are high, and the cracked glass in a couple of them provides gateways to the pigeons that come and go like old friendly neighbors.
He sits there, behind a pile of files, with a pedestal fan and a telephone for company. Almost a still-life composition, except for that fan. In a few years, I think, I could not tell him apart from the files or the furniture. They would have all been transformed into the same basic matter.
He has sat in this chair, at this desk, for decades now. The still-point of a turbulent political universe. As he has sat here, filing memos, checking proofs, placing print orders for pamphlets and posters, paying electricity and phone bills and carefully filing minutes to meetings in the outer room, the men in the outer room have played one of the world’s longest running games of musical chairs. As they have wearied of one political affiliation, they have simply risen and moved over to another, in the fashion of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. He has kept the tea and jam sandwiches replenished and the dishes clean so they could keep moving.
His party affiliation is simply a function of theirs. He does not ask questions. Or at least, he appears not to. He does not explain or defend the games that are played outside his door. For decades, he has simply recorded the changes, not in the manner of an anthropologist or a historian, but that of an accounting clerk.
One looks at him, and then at the room outside, empty now but only until the next round of musical chairs. Someone has entered the outside room and lingers there, as if in wait. The man inside pays no heed. He continues to work, in defiance of the lethargy that around him. I prepare to leave. He continues about his tasks. The filing, the accounts, the publicity—nothing changes except a few nouns. As I leave, I know that he will be there working for the next few decades. His life is in that room.
The waiting pall-bearers
Pakka hutments reminiscent of the back barracks in a cantonment. White plaster walls surrounded by a verandah that keeps out the harsh rays of the sun. Everything is white and light. The walls. The seat and sofa covers. The starched kurtas. Outside the May sun catches on the bales of white khadi that workers will buy. I wonder if the fabric is cheaper here.
Inside one of the offices, an impromptu party is taking place. Like a favorite niece, I am always greeted here with tea and sometimes jilebis, sometimes samosas. The warmth of the welcome in these outhouses is unmatched in the corridors of power.
The conversation, in which I do not really participate, is about elections and tickets. It turns to areas of the party’s strengths and weaknesses. Young people should join and strengthen the party. Young people whose families have served the party before them. People with education and ideas and honesty. And then, the talk turns to what ails the party. Through three generations, these men have watched the party change.
They have endured the Indian sun in rallies. They have walked miles. They have borne the wounds of a lathi-charge or two. They have flooded the jails. They have written bye-laws. They have cyclo-styled memos. They have kept vigil and hunger-strikes. They have fasted in relays. They have spun and they have scavenged and they have made salt. They have campaigned. They have celebrated and they have come to terms with failure. They have defended civil rights and they have watched as foot-soldiers when those rights were violated. They have watched people come and go from the party as children do from a parental home. Their cell-mates are leaders. The leaders should be cell-mates. They know this. But this is their life.
"I left my home to join the movement. The cause was my life and no price was too high. I did not complete my education. I wore khadi. I went to jail. I did not marry until after Independence—I was quite old by then. Had my children late. The party was my father, my mother, my family. When I became a house-holder, they took care of me."
"I organize rallies and all those cheering crowds. When he needs me, I am at the end of the phone, day or night. If, in return for this, he takes care of me, is there anything so wrong with that? You may see him as corrupt and feudal, but he is my family. He takes care of his own."
"I was young and like the children who followed the Pied Piper, I left everything and followed him. I did his work. I gave my life to the cause of my country. What you see around you, this is my life. Yes, yes, I have a wife and children and with God’s grace, they are all doing well. But what you see around you is my world."
"We have been here all our lives. The party is dying. We are watching and waiting to bear its coffin."
Cul-de-sac in a labyrinth
The three-wheeler can only go so far. I walk down the quiet residential back-alley. There is no need to consult the directions I have written down. The heavily armed security guards are a reliable signpost.
When they are finally done checking my papers and my backpack, I enter the house. It is like entering the night; it is that dark indoors. I walk through a long corridor. There are small rooms on the side. Maybe one of them is an office, another a kitchen. It is not a very big place, however the darkness makes it seem that way as I walk in. Long before I can perceive an end to this journey, I hear film songs blaring shrilly from a radio somewhere.
There he is. Very casually dressed, like a retired man with nowhere to go. He is seated on a steel folding-chair that barely holds him. Next to him is a dining-table that has seen and forgotten better days. And at the far end of the long room, behind him, a window that is shut almost all the way. In contrast to this funerary scene, play loudly the tawdry and exuberant lyrics of the film song.
Our conversation is interrupted by phone calls. Some of them are simple discussions. One of them is an invitation. He must come. How can the event take place without him?
But, try to understand…
No, no, sir, it is unthinkable. Sir, your presence…
Please, understand my problem…
Impossible, sir! We are counting on you!
(Tired of the discussion) Alright, I will see… if I can find transport, I will come.
He disconnects and looks at me. Do I see him? He cannot even hop into a three-wheeler and go anywhere, because the three-wheeler will not transport him and his posse of security guards. If there is no secure vehicle, he is grounded.
The singers know no such constraints. Their voices and suggestions go places they had best avoid. He has journeyed all his life, sometimes sure, sometimes stumbling, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. He has arrived. The death-threats attest to that. And now he can go nowhere. This is the end of the road.
Somewhere in the middle of the 1980s, I stopped noticing news about violence. Death, destruction, pillage, encounters, arson, bomb-blasts. All very sad. But the ability to respond everyday with outrage and grief just wore away. But today, I came home with a heavy heart. I walked in through the door, put my backpack down, and the tears wouldn’t stop.
There is someone out there grieving for the dead, for the fatalities of war and carnage. Who will grieve for the living, silenced and marginalized by everyday politics itself? What is the value of a life given quietly to service and given apparently in vain?
East Lansing 8-12-00
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