Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tears at the Rajghat

Something happened to me that day at the Rajghat in Delhi last June. I'm usually able to write out any given blogpost in one sitting, but I think there were so many cognitive interpretive layers in what I was experiencing that it took me a year to be able to understand all the things that had hit me all at once then. That almost never happens to me, I usually know exactly what I'm feeling and why. But it's taken me a year this time. I'm much better now, but I can never be the same person that I was then. Not at all. Has that ever happened to you, like when everything you ever believed in falls away and for a long time you don't know which end is up? You're as helpless as a newborn baby and wailing just about the same way as when you did when the warm world of the womb that you'd known for months slowly spat you out and, unbeknownst to you, had been repositioning you for the expulsion for a long time before. The betrayal! And as the old world fell away, the new one with all its awful noises and light and temperatures made you cry. It is at that time that you, a pruned blind piece of primal meat covered in body-slime, are at your most vulnerable. You need a parent from the new world to shield you, to tell you that everything will be alright, to make sure the predators from that new world don't sniff you out and eat the squishy lump of meat that is you.

Not everyone gets that parent.

The Rajghat incident happened when I was interning in reporting at NDTV in New Delhi. I tried writing this out a few months later at the end of August but couldn't get very far. All the pictures and colours and sounds and temperatures and textures that I was trying to convey were swirling so fast and phasing in and out of each other, I just couldn't separate each strand out long enough to lay out in writing before it curled up again and rolled away. It was like trying to unravel a jumble of sticky tape that had been glued onto itself. I'd try to straighten it out, but the tape would either stick to my fingers or upon its own self even more. So before long I balled up the whole mess and chucked it away. But it still lay there, gathering more dust on its exposed sticky parts. Like when you're trying to get all the colours of a Rubik's Cube right so it makes sense, but you just can't nomatter which way you spin it. You even try to cheat by changing the stickers, but that doesn't help. You never get to forget the things you left unresolved.

So why did I start crying that day?

I felt frustrated and helpless and a sense of doom. And I was tired. We all were. All the reporters and camera people who had been at the Rajghat that day, some from the previous day, covering the BJP's protest against the central Congress-led government's decision to lathi charge Baba Ramdev's demonstration a few days before. June was turning out to be a busy month politics-wise. I had been put on 5am shifts everyday so far and had been sent out to mostly wait on people everyday. Hang out at the Congress headquarters where I remember the ants floating in the drinking water cooler in the press room. Go find out about the people who had been injured at the lathi charge. I had even spoken to the doctors who had treated the injured. My cameraman and I had had to wait for 3-4 hours in the lobby of the GB Pant hospital to speak to the doctors who ran the place. It had been a depressing wait. We all had heat-related headaches and were suffering from heat-exhaustion, and we couldn't even go back to the newsroom because we had been ordered to get a story. I felt really bad for the camerapeople because they had to lug those huge cameras around. So we waited and waited in the lobby with another cameraperson from another channel too. They told me things. They told me that the Indian public deserved the kind of politicians and leaders it got because the people themselves were stupid. I remember sitting there in the horrible heat of Delhi in June. The lobby wasn't really a closed-door lobby. It was an open corridor to the outside. I remember I saw a mongoose running past me. A mongoose? In a hospital? I'd leapt and pointed it out to the cameraperson, but he hadn't been surprised at all. I had wanted to cover that story, of how rodents seemed to skip around quite freely in a famous goverment hospital in the capital of India. Animals carry diseases. They carry fleas. They can chew through equipment and patients' bodies. What kind of healthcare standard was this? Why did people care about movie stars and beauty pagaents when their government wasn't able to give them the living standards that any human being deserved? I shuddered at the thought of having to seek treatment at a hospital like that. In a country like that. In the country I had been born in.

We were eventually led in to the medical officer's office. Imagine my fury when I realised that she'd been in all along and that her secretary had been lying to us about how she hadn't been in the whole time. My cameraman and I had been baking outside and feeling quite ill for hours. Imagine my shock at how nice her office looked compared to the rest of the hospital that I'd seen. It was air-conditioned, nice shiny floors, couches, a beautiful shiny desk, like a corporate office. I doubted that the rest of the hospital, where cleanliness was really needed, was like that. The medical officer was nice enough to us though. We were offered ice-cold Coke. We felt grateful. In that kind of heat, one starts to feel like one is breathing fire. A couple of days later I would be laid up in my depressing rented room with heat stroke, lying flat on my back staring at the rickety fan, completely dehydrated and hungry, unable to raise my head because my booming heartbeats pounding on my eardrums wouldn't let me move enough to order food or water. I felt so pathetic and sorry for myself that day, and I was crying on the inside but couldn't on the outside because any sort of movement was making my heart pound even louder. I was scared. I thought I was going to die. I wondered what it was that I had been trying to prove to myself.

I'd discovered at the hospital that one woman was in a critical state because her spine had been damaged. She had died later, but the others had suffered non-fatal injuries. The information had been nothing great, the BJP themselves had read out the official statistics about the injured that had been released by the hospitals earlier. So why did they start comparing it to the Jalianwala Bagh massacre? That was another story I thought needed to be covered. Compare the statistics of how incomparable the two events had been, and that maybe it was grossly irresponsible for a democratic political party to chant slogans and stir up emotions and historical memories of an event where foreign occupiers had massacred the natives of India. Criticising one's own elected government in a democracy to the extent of its actions makes sense. Constantly repeating established inaccurate information despite knowing it is inaccurate is lying. Deception. At the political level. Political parties often have very passionate followers, most of whom get swept away by one-liner slogans and the charisma of their leaders. That is the nature of the mob. Riots, genocide, even wholesale ethnic cleansings have been the result of irresponsible political behaviour. All over the world. Throughout history. These things can effect people's identities for generations to come. People still talk about how Europe and its offshoot countries still demonise the rest of the world, the monolith Orient, as the digusting other. It's part of some of their national behavioural patterns even. And for what? Lies? The kind I was seeing in action in front of my very eyes? And I couldn't do anything about it because the system was so huge and big and in a flurry that there was no one who wanted to listen. And I was in reporting that month! If I didn't express these things, then who would! Why didn't the others?

I stood in horror a couple of days later at the Rajghat where the BJP was holding a protest against the Congress-run central government. I tried blogging about it a few months later, but I just wasn't able to, it was knocking the wind out of me. I'd abandoned the post after writing the following, after which I abandoned my life for about a year:

Picture this: a 29-year-old female NRI uncomfortably sitting on the edge of a low platform in the shadow of about 10 tripod-hoisted video cameras that look suspiciously like machine guns. The month is June, the city is Delhi, and that brings to mind words like inferno, fire and brimstone, heat exhaustion, and body filth. It is the second day of the BJP protest at the Rajghat. Swarms of sweaty shiny boney Indian people have gathered at the ineffective shamiana by the sectioned-off road. The police is there, the media (oh, the media!) is there, the big politicians are there. The NRI is tired. She has had about half a meal per day over the past week. She has been here since 6am when things were just warm. It is now well into the afternoon, and like a fever, the heat of the sun and the passion of the protesters has been rising, rising, rising. This is the most disgusting season of the year (second only to the monsoons a few weeks away). She has been leaking from every conceiveable pore, her precious skin now looks like burned toast, she has sweated and evaporated in turns so many times that she now has layers of body salt in the most frustrating of places, and there is no place she can go to for relief for miles. She is not even allowed to return to the newsroom, they told her to stay put. There is no escape.

So she sits at the foot of the cameras, facing the famous right-wing politicians and their supporters who are making very loud speeches and screeching rude slogans against the Congress party. They go on and on and on, and after a few hours, when the heat is unbearable, when the ear-drum damaging loudspeakers feel like they're installed inside her brain, howling the same cheap slogans and songs over and over and over and over and over again, when the followers begin to sway like as if in the (original) Dum Maaro Dum video, followers who have come from no-name villages from far and wide with their children in their gaudy best to touch the feet of these politicians who will just.not.stop.with.the.scree.ching...

The NRI saw other things too. From where she was crouched under the cameras she saw a circus. She saw people coming up to the cameras to declare their alleigance to the right-wingers by bringing God into politics. She saw token Muslim politicians puffing up their chests and calmly informing journalists that the Muslims of India are now beginning to realise that the right-wing is the only political segment that truly cares for them. She saw ugly sloganeering that involved bare-faced lying which people ended up believing just because it was repeated so many times. She was alarmed about people bowing down before the god-like politicians. But this was what was wrong with the whole Indian democracy - the politicians are the ones who are supposed to be bowing down to the people, not the other way round! What is wrong with the citizens of this country?!

Life cornered me that day, there was no escape. I'd been out at the protest all day. I'd been sent there by the input desk to keep an eye out for anything strange. It wasn't so hot that early in the morning, but it got hot soon. I was out there until around 3pm, and I couldn't leave any earlier because the desk wanted me out there even though nothing was happening, even though I felt like I'd been getting sicker and sicker and sicker because of being run ragged over the past week. There were so many reporters there from so many channels and newspapers, most of them hanging out, some of them changing shifts with those who had been there from the previous day. I envied the people with the OB vans, they were sitting somewhere where it was cool and dark.

I did enjoy walking around and talking to people for the first few hours. I wondered where the big politicians were. This was supposed to be a continous protest. Many of the followers had stayed out there overnight. I then found out that the star politicians had all gone home at night. They returned towards noon, freshly showered and well-rested and well-fed, unlike their followers who had stayed out at the protest overnight in the horrible heat. I wondered what the point of such a protest was. Napoleon I've heard used to sleep out on the battlefield with his soldiers. He used to wrap his cloak around himself and go off to sleep.

Everything was sleepy and slow until when the big politicians started showing up. That's when I heard one man calling someone on the phone and telling him to get some supporters out there because they seemed to have more police than party workers around. By then most of the reporters were sitting under the shamiana where all the video cameras had been set up from the day before. You didn't want to talk to a cameraperson that day. They were all very angry and snappy. And I totally understood how they felt too. Like they were wasting their time.

I noticed a lot of things I wished the reporters would bring up instead of just trying to get bites from the famous people. Someone told me that the women who were sitting up on the stage behind the famous politicians slept with them for important political positions. What! But these were aunties in bhhartiya naari saris and bindis and everything! Someone pointed out another famous politician up there who was known to run various transport companies as a front for an illegal money-making setup. All the reporters knew about him but couldn't prove anything because that politician used to keep his trail clean. But, but, but these were the politicians who were howling about corruption in the Congress. They had been using some really tacky low-brow slogans too - "Sonia jiski mummy hai, woh party nikammi hai." I mean, are you serious, this wasn't even intelligent, it was like some twisted version of kindergarten. At some point a train of people marched into the shamiana waving their fists in the air in support of the BJP. "They are hired," I was told.

It grew hotter. Noisier. More crowded. People were streaming in from the poorest parts of town with their families and approaching the top politicians where they sat on the stage with their arms folded and chins tilted upwards. The people touched the feet of their leaders. It was blind respect, something bordering worship.

The loudspeakers had been playing loud patriotic music the whole time. The leaders were sloganeering along with the music. For hours. 6am. 7am. 8am. 9am. 10am. 11am. 12pm. 1pm. 2pm. 3pm. My head had started hurting, but I had nowhere to go. I had been rotating between the same set of clothes every few days, I wore cheap black flip-flops on my feet. The sun was so bright and hot, my skin had started burning. The skin on my feet was pricking, but there was hardly any place were there was real shade in the severely overcrowded shamiana. There must've been around 100-200 people around, moving, sweating, talking, cheering, swaying to the songs on the loudspeaker that had started hurting my ears. The songs kept saying that India was great and that one's life had no meaning if it wasn't spent in service to one's nation. They said that India was the best country in the world. But it was not! There were rodents in hospitals, no city had a regular water supply, power shortages were common, the rich exploited the poor, and charismatic people made money off of the emotions of everyone else. Why did the songs have to be so loud, I felt like I was being programmed, like everyone was being programmed. I saw 1 token man with a Muslim cap and a black beard and baleful eyes sitting in the crowd with the party supporters. I don't think he was Muslim at all.

One of NDTV's reporters nudged me along to go stand next to LK Advani, the grand-daddy of the BJP. An anchor from CNN-IBN was speaking to him then. I stood next to where he sat. I can't remember what he was saying. I couldn't believe I was standing 2 inches away from the man that I had grown up seeing only in magazines or in newspapers overseas, the man whom the Muslims of India hated and feared, one of the men who have been named in riots that have resulted in the deaths of Muslims in Ayodhya, one of the men I grew up learning to fear. He was a lot smaller than I'd expected. Just an old man. Meticulously groomed, dressed very, very clean. Somebody I might've thought was neat and clean and educated if I had been someone else. He was just another human being - could've been my uncle, my teacher, my grandfather. He was just another person. How could someone so normal - educated even - do the things he had been accused of? Did he never think about the people who had died because of irresponsible politics, did he never think about someone like me, hoards of young people whose lives, identities were shaped by the words people like him uttered and the commands they issued?

I found a space under the tripods where the camerapeople still stood. I wanted water, I wanted to eat. They had been handing out little sealed cups of water which were hot as tea. My feet were still burning. I felt dirty and pathetic, like a little animal. It was so noisy and crowded. The NDTV reporter I had been shadowing had stepped away for a minute. I watched the circus play out before me from under the shadow of the tripods. Why was this not bothering anyone? Why were all the reporters simply telling the people at home about what they could see but not what they could not see? Isn't a journalist supposed to think, analyse, see through things? Suddenly an old man with his limbs in casts was carried onto the stage and almost placed in the laps of the big politicians who cradled him like a baby. They gave the old man a mike. He had been one of those who had been injured at the lathi charge at Baba Ramdev's demonstration a few days before. Everyone oohed and aahed as the man spoke about the horrible Congress party and then started calling out for Ram Rajya. Someone began to hand out brochures in Hindi about the Ram Janmbhhoomi while another man held up a large collage of newspaper articles that showed how evil the Congress was. People flocked towards the video cameras, eager to show their faces on international TV. One man standing in front of me cried out to the camera about how God had sent Baba Ramdev to the people and how the Congress had condemned the nation in the eyes of God because it had physically attacked God's messenger. And the politicians on the loudspeakers kept shouting about how the lathi charge had been the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, and that the Congress party was even worse than the British Raj. People cheered them along. And at least 2/3rds of the people there, including the people sloganeering, knew that the Jalianwala Bagh comparison was a complete lie. But they still said it!

A tear ran down my cheek. And another. And another. I wanted to get away. I felt like I was the only sane person in a madhouse.

The NDTV reporter showed up and saw me looking like a deer caught in headlights under those tripods. She took me away from the crowd and the noise and talked to me. I didn't know what to say. She had told me a while ago that economists are always excited about how India will have the greatest number of young people in the world because that metric predicts development. But then, she had said that 60% of those young Indian people were unskilled labour and would be dependent on the other 40% who would then exploit them. She had earlier pointed out to me the particularly anti-Muslim BJP politicians and how over the years the right-wing had tried to erase the contributions of Indian Muslims from Indian textbooks and had skewed how they were represented. I was told that they had even de-Islamised spoken Hindi by discouraging the use of any Urdu words. They had tried to

The reporter was a kind one. She asked me if I was okay. I had so many thoughts racing through me. I was thinking about 9/11 and how people had become viscious and terrible in America and in the world about Islam, how it had effected me for years, how I had tried to understand exactly what was happening and why. I told her that I just couldn't believe how easily a lie could be made into truth if it was repeated enough times. I had seen young people subscribing to right-wing ideologies everywhere in the world. Educated, intelligent people. I hadn't been able to understand them, but I had thought there might've been some truth to what they believed in. But then, who knows what's true, really? A few days ago I had asked another reporter why he never felt terrible about the things that went unreported about Baba Ramdev and how people like him exploited other people's misfortunes and troubles and dreams and feelings for money and power. "I can't help it if people think he's Jesus," I was told.

Jesus. God. Angels. Prophets. Crusades. Burning towers. Oil. Beards. Veils. Churches. The Pope. "Go back to the Middle East!" If a lie can be written in books and passed off as truth, if lies can be passed down in families, in entire communities, if these people then grow up to lead countries and cause the death of innocent people, if not even what one's own parents teach us about the nature of the universe may be true, if entire countries and movements and governments and national and regional identities can be based on a lie, if it has been happening for eons...

Some poor old people stopped by where the reporter and I were sitting. They had wanted to know if I was alright. I honestly didn't know what to say to them because I couldn't trust anyone around the place. The reporter simplified things for them and told them that I had grown up overseas and was feeling upset about the way things really were in India. The poor people immediately felt bad for me. "Dekho, bitiya," they said to me, "see how cruel the Congress is, they beat us at the lathi charge where we were following the great Baba Ramdev..."

I didn't even say anything. I just shook my head, my tears leaving dirty sticky trails across my sunburned red face. It was not the Congress that was making me cry or the BJP. Or Al-Qaeda or the Republican party or the Taleban. It was them. People who never questioned what they were told and wouldn't get it even if they saw it in front of them crying on a hot June day. Their leaders didn't care about them. Their leaders cared about no one. Leaders need followers. Everywhere in the world. In life you're either a king or a pawn, Napoleon is supposed to have said, an emperor or a fool. Who knows what's real anymore, who knows what really goes on behind the curtains of power. Who knows who wrote history. Who knew that this new world I was suddenly seeing - a world where people lied and didn't bat an eyelid about the staggering human consequences of their lies - could be so simple in its ugliness. And the only person who'd been missing from the whole scene throughout history? God.


Anonymous said...

Just read this post of yours. I can understand why it must have taken you a long time to pen it down. Reading it I felt like I could almost put myself in your place and feel all your frustrations and emotions. I'm glad you made it through though.

Anonymous said...

your writing moved me...

by the way, you might want to make a correction here:
"but you just can't nomatter which way you spin it"

Khadija Ejaz said...

Thank you for reading!