Saturday, August 28, 2010

If we have no machines, must we perish?

I have always wondered why in India we have not been able to use science to empower the weak and the oppressed. More so, after I had seen a carpenter in England hack away on a raw piece of wood, single-handed; doing practically everything from sawing to chopping to slicing it off, even shaping it into objects of common use.
Quite simply, an ordinary worker in the West is equipped with all kinds of small handy machines that make his life hassle-free. All he needs is a bagful of simple machine tools to complete his routine chores, which for an average Indian workman, would make life burdensome, even miserable.
So, when a couple of years ago, Chandigarh Administration decided to convert local dhobi ghats into state-of-the-art washing marts, I was among those who had stood by and applauded quite generously. I felt that Chandigarh administration was not only people friendly, but was also making a genuine bid to soften up the tough, hard life of a neglected section of society.
Like other people in our society, who work with their hands, dhobis have to work under the most inhospitable conditions to make a living. Well, I thought, science was finally knocking at their door, giving them an open invitation to revolutionize their lives, only if they so desired.
During this period, I visited the dhobi ghat on several occasions. Every time, I saw the place buzzing with activity, as dhobis, young and old, ran around cheerily, loading dirty piles into the machines, switching them on, setting a program and then waiting for the washing cycle to complete itself.
On each of these occasions, I was impressed seeing their faces glow with a rare pride, and their immersion in work, total. It was as if they were born to work on these ‘machines,’ no strangers to this new found ‘mechanization.’ 
The other day, when I visited this dhobi ghat, again, after a gap of a year or more, I was quite shocked to see the place look deserted, almost gloomy. In the sultry afternoon heat, I could only spot a solitary young dhobi, going about his work, desultorily. He was busy drying up a pile of clothes he had manually washed.
Surprised, when I asked him the reason, he informed how the washing mart had closed down, and how things were now pretty much back to square one. On probing further, he revealed that the dhobis had run into trouble with the ‘authorities.’ 
Apart from charging them hefty rent, the ‘authorities’ insisted that they pay the exorbitant electricity bills of the Administration-owned machines, too. Stung by the blatant injustice of it all, I had expected him to turn plaintive and launch forth into a litany of complaints. On the contrary, he simply wound up the conversation, saying, “We are negotiating with the Administration. I’m sure, something positive would come off it.” In the face of an apparently provocative situation, I had found the young man’s composure, calmness and unnerving self-confidence almost unsettling.   
Puzzling over the response of the young dhobi, as I walked back home, it was as if someone whispered in my ears, “To heck with the machines. Science or no science – we, the poor and the neglected have our pride and dignity, too, and know how to preserve our ‘positive outlook.’

By Rana Nayar

Friday, August 27, 2010

Let’s not play such ‘Spoil-Sports’!

“You know, things were going just right, but this ‘media’ has queered the pitch!” Mr. Suresh Kalmadi was recently overheard, confiding to a close friend. “It’s all your fault. Why do you give them so much of freedom?” pat came the reply.
“Freedom? If we had our way, we’d gag them all and dump them in some stinking backyard. That’s where they really belong. Don’t they?” The Chairman of OC was now getting a little edgy. Sensing the pain behind his words, the friend offered a quick-fix reassurance, “You are right, they do stink. That’s because they are always out to raise a stink. And often enough, it’s over such trivial things.” “Trivial. Yes, that’s the word. I tell you, they have no sense of priorities.” It was as though the Chairman had found his voice, all over again.
“Yes, they always lose the big picture, and start swatting the flies. Trust them to do that!” The friend knew the magic of his words had begun to work on the Chairman. So, he picked up a little courage, “Can’t they see that country’s prestige is at stake? You tell me, what is more important, the Commonwealth Games or a few hundred crores? And how does it matter, if money changes hands. It’s our money, and it’ll remain with us. And once it comes into circulation, via London or Sydney, won’t it ultimately boost our own economy?”
“I wish, there were more patriots like you. That is the real rub. Patriotism is at a discount these days. I see a foreign hand here. All these news channels, I suspect, are on the pay rolls of a foreign agency. And this time, it’s not the Pakistanis, but the Chinese who are behind it. They put up such a spectacular show during the Olympics last year, and now that we were going headlong into our preparations for the Commonwealth Games, they felt threatened. They knew we’d outdo them. It’s plain and simple jealousy. Look at the way they have pulled all the plugs.” Having analyzed the situation threadbare, the Chairman now appeared more confident, even calmer.    
“I think, this is what you should have stated in your press conference. Why did you brandish that letter from the High Commissioner? That really put you in a tight spot. Don’t you think so?” The friend was trying to be sympathetic.
“Don’t talk about that! It’s all cooked up. That fellow Arnab has gone off the rocker. What does he think he is! Super Prime Minister or what? When our PM is not asking any questions, who is he?” The Chairman’s voice had a harsh, grating tone to it.     
“You are right. Arnab is the real spoil-sport! He doesn’t know what sportsman spirit is all about. After all, such things do happen, don’t they? It’s all in the game, no?” The friend was now downright obsequious. 
“To tell you very honestly, I often miss those golden years of license raj and Official Secrecy Act. Things were much simpler then. No prying eyes, no hidden cameras, no nosey journalists and no such bloody nonsense. ” The Chairman was almost bleary-eyed with nostalgia.
“Why the hell did you have to go in for things like ‘liberalization’ and RTI? It was perhaps Chanakya who once said, ‘Politics is the art of concealment.’” This time, the friend was not too sure.
“We, in the government and bureaucracy, have been ruing the day we decided to open things up. I think, the fissures have become so wide that all our ‘slips’ are showing.” The Chairman had unexpectedly turned reflective. 
I think, the Chairman has a point. After all, isn’t he our torch-bearer? It’s that Arnab fellow who needs a reality check. Doesn’t he know that our politicians have been playing hookey (not hockey) with us and our future, ever since they got the reins of our destiny in 1947?
Only, this time round, they have won all the medals (in corruption) much before the games could actually begin? Hurray!

 By Rana Nayar