Hola, comrades. It’s been a year since our peace rally (that’s what we called it, although the mood there was anything but). Haven’t seen you or heard from you since. Are you all dead? Are you all in a coma? Or does there have to be another terrorist attack before we can flood the roads again with our fury, yelling ourselves hoarse demanding justice and the disrobing of inept politicians?
Download the weekly lounge podcast here
There’s something gruesome and unimaginative about that, isn’t there? The fact that we need the death of others to get the old anger going. Or maybe that’s not enough either. Our city and country have witnessed deadly bomb blasts for decades, and none of them have provoked spontaneous peace rallies like the attacks last year.
It seems Bollywood and television have made our need for narratives non-negotiable. We must have a beginning, middle and end; identifiable villains, clear-cut heroes, dramatic tension, and a satisfying denouement. Not even terrorist attacks will move us unless the mayhem has been relayed live on our TVs, allowing us to keep track of the death count like the score of a Test match. In retrospect, the “peace rally” in December last year was more like the commemoration of a great show, a vociferous send-off for a fultu paisa vasool tamasha. By then, the terrorists were dead and the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and Nariman House were under control. The city felt safe enough to don “I love Mumbai” T-shirts, step out of our air-conditioned abodes, and converge on the refined streets leading to the Gateway of India.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
So what did we think we would achieve through that rally?
For the thousands of youngsters who participated, it was possibly the first public protest of their lives. Not even the most pickled cynic could remain unmoved by the sight of all those fledgling men and women with their shining faces and well-groomed hair screaming “Vande Mataram” and “Bharat mata ki jai”. As groups of banner-waving citizens arrived in endless waves, and as the streets remained packed well into the night, it felt as if a comatose city had finally awakened. Who in Mumbai had witnessed such civic rage in recent years, expressed in such deafening volume? Doctors, clerks, housewives and clergymen jostled with students, executives, businessmen and tourists. Hindi speakers and Marathi speakers, Hindus and Muslims, townies and suburbanites, rich and poor...the thousands who had bothered to venture out that cool evening had fused into a collective citizen entity that was enraged and hell-bent on showing it.
Now that a year has passed since that rally, it might be a good idea to take stock. Have all our demands been met? Have all our targets been vanquished?
We denounced our corrupt politicians. But the uncles are still as inept as ever—over-promising, under-delivering, and slapping each other around (in the legislative assembly, no less!).
We demanded justice. But the injustices being meted out to us haven’t abated in number or in potency: Power cuts, water cuts, a creaking justice system, failing infrastructure, and over-crowded suburban trains continue to remain the narratives of our city. There hasn’t been another terrorist attack since last November. But let’s not forget that prior to the Mumbai attacks, there had been bomb blasts in Jaipur, Bangalore, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Kanpur, which no government agency could prevent. Terrorists had a great run last year. And this year of peace might just be a gestation period for sleeper cells who are preparing to unleash a fresh instalment of destruction. Meanwhile, our city continues to remain on high alert and we’ve all been turned into paranoid vigilantes by official circulars that exhort us to watch for suspicious objects and report the presence of strangers in our neighbourhood. Is this why we pay taxes, to be our own security guards?
We were fools to think that the removal of Maharashtra’s chief minister after the attacks signalled a victory for our collective voice. The gentleman is back as the Union minister of heavy industries, back in the running for the highest post of our state. At least one of our wishes has come true: Pakistan is self-destructing. If only we could credit ourselves for it.
In the final reckoning it appears that last year’s peace rally was little more than the ineffectual outpouring of hysterics. It was not the start of a movement of socially engaged citizens; rather, that peace rally was an event unto itself, an act of mass masturbation meant to assuage our feelings of helplessness in the face of terror and administrative indifference. It was as if we were shouting at our own cowardice; voicing in cathartic screeches the tragedy of our own political apathy that has made us passive observers of the active degradation of our neighbourhoods, our cities and our nation. It helped that we were a mob, one among thousands. It allowed us to say and do things we wouldn’t have the gumption to do as individuals. Nubile girls, pumped up young men and middle-aged folks screamed “We want justice!” as they lined up in the parade that merely went around the block and back. How convenient that our protests were addressed to no one in particular, that we were screeching into the backs of those before us.
Albert Einstein described an insane person as someone who does the same thing over and over again and expects different results. If only we were insane as a society. It would mean we expected things to change. We are a clever, clever people. We do the same things over and over again—we vote, we pay taxes, and when it gets too much, we take to the streets and have a gala time waving our fists at imaginary windmills. We know nothing will change, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Comrades, in case you survive the next terrorist attack and feel the need to expend some righteous rage, save yourself the embarrassment of another “peace rally”. Go jog in the park. Go yell at your spouse or shrink. If nothing works, go catch a movie or something. Three Idiots will be out soon. Enjoy.
Altaf Tyrewala is the Mumbai-based author of No God in Sight.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org