I remember the night vividly. It was a few months ago, an evening of heavy unseasonal showers in Bangalore. We had finished dinner and were sitting upstairs in the guest room with the children, laughing and chatting. Suddenly, Swati asked: “What’s that noise?”
“It’s the rain,” I said, “It’s been like this all evening.” “No,” she disagreed, “something else, listen carefully.”
We paused. And heard the unusual sound: a mournful wail, over the rush of the rainfall. It was unnerving, like a dog howling, except that this sounded …human. We sat silently, listening for a few minutes.
After a bit, I cleared my throat and said, “Not sure what it is,” and continued as I looked out at the pounding rain, “nothing we can do about it.” Then I caught the look in her eyes, and said resignedly, “Okay, let me check it out,” shaking my head as I went down.
The rain drenched me to the bone in seconds as I ran out of the front door. Looking around the barely lit street, I saw a shadowy figure standing under a tree, just across from our window, head up, mouth wide open and wailing, a soul-wrenching sound. As I ran up to him, I took in the details: young man, in his early 20s. Slim, fair with angular features — a north Indian. Clutching a large wicker stand, shaped like an hour-glass with an aluminium tray on top — a pani puri vendor, the kind you see on street corners. He barely noticed as I held him by the shoulders and shouted over the sound of the rain and his own sobs: “Kya hua, kaun ho tum (What happened, who are you)?”
He kept wailing as I continued asking him questions, shaking him more vigorously each time. Finally, his sobbing broke. He said, “They stole my money, they took everything I had.”
As we stood under the pelting rain, I learnt from his broken words that he had been returning home after a day’s work, when — just minutes before — a few goons had pounced on him, beaten him up, taken his money and ran away. He had given chase, but soon lost them.
“That’s it? So you lost your money, why do you cry like somebody died?” I asked.
“You don’t understand, my boss will beat me up. I can’t go back like this.”
“Why can’t you go home? Who is your boss, and why do you stay with him?” I asked testily.
He said between sobbing breaths, “We are 20 of us, living in the quarters he has given. Each has to bring back a fixed sum every day. If we don’t, we get beaten up, and get no food for a week.”
I was astonished. “You’re a healthy young chap, how can anyone force you. Just leave, there are so many jobs in the city.”
He replied, “I can’t leave. My parents have sold me to him, I’m from a small village in UP, I have no way of going back.”
This wasn’t some academic debate in a coffee shop; his words were like shards of glass. I felt torn by conflicting emotions — suspicion that I was being taken for a ride; anger that this able-bodied young man was wringing his hands rather than taking control of his life. And as I stood there in the rain, confused, I suddenly felt something quite unsettling: I got a faint glimpse of the world as he saw it, a bleak and desolate place that overwhelms the spirit.
I gave him the money he had lost, and asked for his address, promising to bring the police and release them. He didn’t give me a specific address, just a general sense of a neighbourhood, frankly didn’t seem to want to. Strangely, he seemed keen to get back to the comfortable oppression of his trapped life. The tragedy of the situation — that losing a few hundred rupees was trivial compared with losing his whole life — was lost on him.
I’ve thought about that night many times. I still feel frustrated that the young man wasn’t taking control of his life. But I also remember the brief sense of how one’s will can be broken by feeling powerless. The issue of power is a complex subject with multiple dimensions, but the situation with the young man is a classic example of two types of power — one, the power for one’s own actions, or “power within”; and two, the power over the actions of others, or “power over”: the power of governments over citizens; Brahmins over Dalits; teachers over students; husbands over wives. The power of a domineering boss over a hapless pani puri vendor.
Changing this power relationship is incredibly difficult. Getting people to see and exercise the power within — getting empowered — is like opening a Pandora’s box, a process ridden with conflict and pain. It needs courage on the part of the oppressed, and also facilitators, to help in the transition. The sad fact is that there are millions of Indians who are caught in such power traps, each one a painful Pandora’s box waiting to be opened.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Mobius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org