We’re all in it together

Midway through swotting for her geography exam, Ananya, my 15-year-old looked at her watch and said, urgently: “9pm. It’s time to pray for Japan”. I frowned at this unwarranted interruption. We were locating India’s various nuclear power plants from Kaiga to Narora on the map. But this stop-pray-for-Japan had a powerful appeal that went beyond geographic borders. The thought of a world collectively empathising – at the same time – with a stricken nation was hard to resist. We stopped and prayed.

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Midway through swotting for her geography exam, Ananya, my 15-year-old looked at her watch and said, urgently: “9pm. It’s time to pray for Japan”. I frowned at this unwarranted interruption. We were locating India’s various nuclear power plants from Kaiga to Narora on the map. But this stop-pray-for-Japan had a powerful appeal that went beyond geographic borders. The thought of a world collectively empathising – at the same time – with a stricken nation was hard to resist. We stopped and prayed.

On March 26, a few days from now, in another instance of simultaneous universal action, millions of people will switch off their lights to commemorate Earth Hour. This act has less to do with saving electricity and more to remind the world that it is possible to do with less. It’s a reminder, and a warning, of a potentially dark future.

In the time of social media, it is easy for causes to go viral. The ‘pink chaddi’ campaign launched by the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women after Sri Ram Sene thugs beat up women and men in a Mangalore pub in January 2009 collected 40,000 members within just one week. I don’t know how many panties were finally collected by the consortium or, for that matter, what the Ram Sene did with them. But not a peep has been heard from those fellows since.

Earth Hour is not a one-off campaign nor is it a response to a one-time provocation. Born in 2007 and organised by the World Wildlife Fund, this is a relatively young commemoration. Yet 1.3 billion people in 128 countries are already involved, and this year such places as Kota Kanabalu and Swaziland will be joining the party.

India signed up three years ago, and last year five million people reportedly switched off their lights. It is, according to the official website (www.earthhour.com) the ‘biggest environmental grassroots movement in history’. Next week, all over the world, those who are participating will switch off their lights between 8.30 and 9.30pm.

So, what happens at 9.31pm when the lights come back on? What life-altering meaning can 60 minutes contain? In India the idea of voluntary load shedding, over and above the power cuts we already endure, can be outright laughable.

I have mixed feelings about commemorative and largely symbolic actions. I think Valentine’s Day is ridiculous for anybody over the age of 16. I think mothers and fathers need 365 days, not one day randomly picked out for sentimental cards and wilted roses. I totally draw the line at hug your dentist, adopt a goldfish – or is it the other way around?

But some causes are larger than personal irritation. When you set aside a minute, a day, a week or a decade, you focus the world’s attention on the huge challenges that continue to confront us. You don’t have to be a girl in Djibouti to declare zero tolerance for female genital mutilation (February 6) and you don’t have to be disabled, autistic or diabetic to set aside a day (December 3, April 2 and November 14) to raise awareness around the world.

Yet, commemorative moments go beyond awareness-building. The point surely is to stop everything, even if it is for a minute, to remember events in history (Hiroshima, the Holocaust) that are so horrible that they must never be forgotten lest history repeats itself. Or else, pause from a maddening schedule to remember a life well lived. Can a minute’s silence on January 30, lead us to question the relevance of Gandhi to contemporary India? Or has his life been reduced to cliched tributes delivered by khadi-clad politicians?

But ultimately, simultaneous collective action – whether it’s a candle in the window or the simple act of switching off a light – links us to our collective humanity. It’s the symbolic equivalent of raising a fist and deciding what and who you stand for. On Saturday, March 26 at 8.30 pm, the lights will go out in my house. In doing so, I’ll be joining millions of fellow humans around the world to say: please, pause, think.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.

No spark to light our anger

The middle class, the one-time custodians of moral values, isn’t vigilant enough anymore, writes Namita Bhandare.

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At what point in our collective history did we lose our capacity for outrage? I am talking of middle class placidity in the face of outright corruption that seems to be piling up faster than the debris in Delhi’s national stadiums. Some, like the ongoing Commonwealth Games with new scams unfolding by the hour, will cause raised voices in drawing room conversation. Yet, today’s headlines seem destined to becoming tomorrow’s footnotes. We lurch from scam to scandal, but life goes on.

Rs 18,000 crores of foodgrain rots after being left out in the open because we don’t have the capacity to store it. The government sets up committees. And we in the middle classes agree that it’s a criminal waste but do we demand resignations or ask for accountability? We do not.

In Karnataka, we watch the resilient Reddy brothers, Karunakara, Somashekar and Janardhan, manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre moves in an intricate ballet of power and money, wondering (if at all we wonder) when the endgame will unfold. Corporate India’s biggest scandal, the Rs 7,000 crore Satyam fraud has not even reached trial stage. Madhu Koda, former Jharkhand CM arrested for alleged money laundering is out on parole making speeches in Parliament. Everywhere it’s the same story, different lead character. A Lalit Modi here or a Suresh Kalmadi there; an A. Raja in telecom or MLAs demanding cash for votes in Jharkhand. We watch. But we ask no questions.

Yet it was middle class outrage over the Bofors arms deal that led to electoral defeat for the Congress in 1989. No evidence of financial wrong-doing was ever found but the whiff of impropriety was enough to cause collateral damage to the Congress. In Maharashtra, A.R. Antulay was sent packing for asking for donations to a private trust in exchange for cement quotas.

Today, the middle class seems to have lost its will to shake the system. Where is that rage that could bring down governments and dismiss chief ministers? Is it that we are just overwhelmed by the sheer scale and regularity of scams? Multi-crore swindles reduced to snappy names — fodder scam, urea deal, hawala, match-fixing, Tehelka sting, oil-for-food — hit us with such regularity that they have dulled our response capacity.

The generation that demanded answers 20, 30 years ago wore values of decency, honesty and thrift as badges of pride. We called politicians our public servants, and that is how they behaved. Much before 24×7 television and streaming internet news updates, we were shaken by events whether in far-away Nellie or with under-trials in Bhagalpur. Now, the visual image has lost its ability to shock.

The post-90s liberalization generation has been lulled into complacency with washing machines and malls full of imported goods. We dream of becoming a superpower but see encounter killings as the expedient thing to do — why should the benefits of a legal system accrue to alleged terrorists and undesirables? The sensex not the torture of undertrials in some backwater is what moves us.

We react only to what directly concerns us, to our immediate environment. Middle-class outrage will still bring justice for Jessica Lall but we are unmoved by those killed for ‘honour’.

A suicide at La Martiniere school, Kolkata will cause angry debate, yet last week in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh where was the outrage over the death of 13-year-old Lakshmi, a dalit girl who committed suicide after being forced clean her school’s toilets? Why were no tears shed for her?

Outrage is a powerful tool in any democracy. In a fledgling democracy like ours where power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a few, it becomes even more important for the middle class to keep the fires of indignation alive. The have-nots are too busy waging a struggle for daily survival. Who will speak for these people? Who will demand accountability of those we elect? Who will stand up and say: enough? A great nation must be known for its moral standards. In India, the one-time custodians of those standards are simply not being vigilant enough.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer


The views expressed by the author are personal.

Will our real heroes stand up?

There is no dearth of role models in India. But those who get recognised are rarely deserving, writes Namita Bhandare.

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I’m in search of a hero. By hero I don’t necessarily mean someone of the male persuasion; anyone with heroic qualities that I can look up to and point my children towards will do. Anyone at all — male, female or transgender; Indian, Ethiopian or Belarusian.

My search received new impetus after the hero-dom of Steven Slater, the flight attendant who jettisoned himself via emergency chute off his aircraft following an altercation with a passenger. Slater was arrested and released on bail a few hours later. By then he had already become a ‘working class hero’ with two lakh followers on Facebook. Television, reliable barometer of public perception, has plans for a reality show.

That Slater’s halo had dimmed by week’s end tells us something about the nature of instant heroism. Yet, regardless of whether you see him as a hero or felon, one thing struck me and that is our desperate grasping for heroes in this unheroic age.

Society has always needed heroes: a plus-sized Everyman who stretches the limits of human possibility and embodies our best values. Because he stretches the boundaries of what we are capable of, he points to our limitations but he’s also the person we aspire to become.

In mythology, heroes taught society how to live. Today’s hero is a different creature, often confused with the famous and, worse, the infamous. Every year, MTV issues a list of its icons. News channels and media organisations name an ‘Indian of the Year’, sometimes it is Anil Ambani, at other times it is Shah Rukh Khan or M.S. Dhoni, even baby-faced Bollywood actor Shahid Kapoor.

Our icons seem to fall into three categories: business, film and sport. Who we choose as our icons says something about us and our values. If Slater is your hero, you need to ask why. What deep-rooted frustration with our mechanical lives did he show his finger to? If it is one (or the other) Ambani brother, we again need to question why. What is it about them that we wish to emulate in our own lives? Is it their bank balance, or is it something more? When people look up to a Narayana Murthy, the middle class boy who made good on the strength of hard work, do we see in him hope that we too can become successful like him?

Film stars are paid to play roles. Even when they’re not doing films or endorsing products, their choreographed public relations machinery rarely allows for spontaneity. To prop up someone who plays parts for a living, spouting other people’s lines, is to erect a fallacious god. What do actors really stand for? And why do we make them our icons? Sportsmen, in particular cricketers in India, are gods anyway. But they are gods for as long as they are at the top of their game. Public adulation is fickle, even if you discount match-fixing, super-sized egos, and performance at the cost of endorsements.

That’s not to say that we don’t have heroes. We do. But all too often they go unsung. That woman who runs a school for under-privileged children, that man who provides basic medical care for society’s deprived, those men and women who fight for the rights of those who do not have a voice: tigers, forests, tribals — they are the real heroes in today’s India. The media don’t tell their stories, there is little reader or advertiser support for them. Yet, their stories need to be told, and told again.

We need to tell them now when cynicism and corruption have become a part of the rhythm of our lives and when courage and sacrifice no longer hold the same value for us. We can no longer believe in our political leadership, so we heroworship celebrities with ephemeral fame. We confuse achievement with heroism, and we demand perfection from our icons, ready to dump them at the sight of a first wrinkle.

Above all, we need to tell the stories of our heroes because they help lift our eyes upwards. Right now we see a pedestal, but it is empty.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal