RIP, Democracy! And Now For Some Chilled Beer...
We were on National Highway 34, M and I, trying to make our way from Delhi to Dehradun, when we were `kanwariyaad.’ Fixed in our positions on the large double road as we faced the full force of orange t-shirt clad kanwariyas on top of large trucks, fitted with DJs, ear-splitting speakers, bright lights and ganja. We were on the left side of the road but were very quickly edged off it altogether.
It was the last day of the annual pilgrimage of shiv bhakts from various parts of north and central India to Haridwar and the mouth of the Ganges in Uttarakhand. And the kanwars were no longer nimble-footed pilgrims carrying ganga-jal in kanwars or earthen pots suspended from a pole. They were muscular, `trishuled-up’ and menacing. And on the wrong side of the road, coming straight at us, in the full view of a nonplussed, bystander-police.
This was the end of democracy M and I said to each other. It did not matter that the national highway all the way from Delhi to Dehradun—or most of it at any rate—was turned into a large orange sewer with lakhs of people out on the road to assert only one thing. Their ability to take over and destroy the highway by bathing on it, defecating on it, trashing and breaking the odd car- with the state as their willing accomplice and enabler. Or so it seemed.
The police diverted us to several dirt-tracks to enable this hostile take-over. And as we crossed Modinagar and inched our way to Saharanpur, we saw giant-sized hoardings plastered with faces of local municipal corporators.
Where did the municipal corporations get the money for these ginormous ads? And t-shirts and trucks and DJs? Assuming they weren’t spending tax payer’s money, whoever their sponsors were, they obviously didn’t think anything of bringing the highway down in order to display raw power.
Our immediate response was to turn up the music in the car and slowly worm our way through this colossus, one dirt-track at a time. What music was appropriate? “This is the end…my trusted friend, the end?” (aka The Doors). And then I thought about other coping methods. I was going to deal with this death-blow to law and order, elected representatives, the constitution like I did with the death of my father. Not take it so seriously. Laugh. Regard the loss, fight back, but also find stories that made sense when sense and sensibility were trashed and discarded by the mob.
Can Offend, Will Offend
I thought of the person who had been part of exactly such mobs and part of the Sangh Parivar – the VHP, RSS, Bajrang Dal and BJP who had showed me that actually, even this sabre-rattling Hindu army, when you look close, does not always have to be taken seriously. I lived in the house of one such person as he was the subject of my research for a book I have been writing. It was dark and time for dinner when I decided to say to him with all the irreverence I could muster, “I eat beef and have eaten beef in Gujarat”.
There was so much drama in the silence that followed that it was deafening. A quiet gnashing of teeth. The cacophonic absence of sound. After a significant pause, my devastated host turned to me and asked, “Why? Kyun Kyun?” I replied in the same provocative vein. “Because I like the taste of it.”
Now my host was unable to cope. I had slept beside his wife and one-year old daughter on their charpoys laid out in the front porch of his home. He had trusted me. Now he had to contend with something as offensive to him as the killing of his mother. He looked away. His friend who was part of this conversation we were having, crouched over the embers of a fire; spoke on his behalf. “You’ve said what you had to, that’s all very well. But you should know that ordinarily, if we so much as see people carrying cows in their truck, we way lay the truck and break their legs.”
“What are you going to do now?” I continued perversely. “You’ve invited the enemy into your home!” My host couldn’t take it anymore. In this story, I was doing to him what the kanwariyas on the national highway were doing to M and me. I had trashed everything he believed in and done it because I could. His pride and reputation for being the strong Hindu leader in his village wouldn’t let him eject me from his home. So he turned to the ridiculous for some help. He went into a continuous loop for the next few hours. He repeated over and over, “You eat cows, I eat camels and dogs. You eat cows, I eat camels and dogs.” He was trying to offend me back and find a way out of his own predicament, derailed and shoved off the highway as he felt he was.
Then he calmed down. It was nearly midnight. And my host decided to keep his word. We were to do a long and difficult interview about his life. It included a confession about something deeply troubling that he had agreed to speak to me about but was postponing until now. Until I had literally shattered him with my brazen offense.
Joined in ‘Sin’
He sat down on the charpoy, looked up at the stars and talked on tape about his own culpability and crimes for the next two hours. He opened up his most vulnerable space and let himself be thoroughly exposed. I was astounded, deeply moved, and puzzled. I asked a couple of people that had worked in Gujarat, in its saffronized spaces. “Why did he confess his deepest, darkest secrets to me on tape after I had offended him so deeply?” I asked.
One of the replies was, “Well until now, he had put you on a pedestal as someone he was talking to because you were ethically uncompromised. Now in his head, after your confession, the tables have turned. His misdemeanors as someone who has waylaid trucks of people carrying cows are minor compared to what you have done. In his eyes, by eating a cow you have done the equivalent of killing and eating his mother. So now he can unburden himself to you”.
As M and I drove into Dehradun, the kanwariyas disappeared, the hills loomed large. It had rained. It was time for some pakoras and beer. I confessed that I am a poor practitioner of the very tolerance and accommodation I preach. Unlike my absolutely fabulous Afghan friend Masoud.
It was another day and another road trip and my friend had come to India on a work trip and wanted to see the Taj. Masoud can charm anyone – man, woman, animal, tree. He chatted with our taxi driver and discovered he was from Kurukshetra, “the land of the Mahabharata.” The discussion veered around to the subject of “those cow-eating Muslims.” Masoud grinned widely, his white teeth gleaming in the evening light. “Yes, yes, those bloody Muslims. Kill them all,” he said, laughing with the taxi driver.
(Revati Laul is a Delhi based journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ forthcoming from Context/Westland in November 2018. She tweets @revatilaul. This is a personal account. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)