It happened a few days ago. I was riding a rickshaw to Bandra station after attending the Times Litfest, and as often happens, I talk to the rickshaw driver. I get my story and blog ideas from common people like him, so this time, though my mind was a bit fuzzy from all the talk at the festival, I started a conversation.
He was a young man of 28, though he didn’t look his age. First I ask him if traffic is this bad on Hill Road. He says because of the Sea-Link Road traffic in these parts has increased. Travelling on the Sea-Link is smooth but it causes jams at either ends of it, leading to further chaos in parts like Hill Road where Bollywood celebrities like Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan live. (As you have guessed by now, I am a die-hard filmy person, though I don’t see Hindi films.) As far as asides go, here’s one: I pass the American Express Laundry, the alleged place where Salman’s car allegedly ran over and killed one person and injured a few others. (He was acquitted in the case today, Dec 10, 2015.)
The rickshawalla smiled often, turning his face to me as he spoke, honesty in his voice and in his eyes. The general view of Bombay’s rickshaw-drivers is of a rough individual who looks surly – sort of Gulshan Grover in a negative role – and doesn’t hesitate to fleece his customers. He broke that stereotype, in my mind, at least. His name is Shahid and he was from near Allahabad, 60 kilometres from where Amitabh lived, he said. In Bombay, he lived near the Bandra terminus and is married and had a child who died (Allah ko pyara ho gaya, he said.). Earning around 500-600 rupees a day, he is content with that income. He owns the vehicle and drives only for a limited period of time. Not particularly greedy, he doesn’t seek to earn more, or, for that matter, seems not ambitious at all. This is because most rickshaw drivers try to earn more by giving their vehicle to another driver in the night shift, so that he can earn more.
The economic theories I heard that day, the one expounded by Harvard professor of government theory Michael Sandel in particular, mentioned that inequalities are what drives people to extremism. Democracies should combat this trend by having a strong public discourse. I don’t know if people here know what discourse means. Have you watched those endless shouting matches on television and a bleary-eyed, bespectacled guy screaming “the Nation wants to know.” Then you get the drift. They – the majoritarians – would rather treat everything as their right, than engage in a public discourse. Well, something to that effect was said, considering my advancing age, and impaired hearing. (Sorry to mention, Times Litfest, the acoustics was abysmal, all I could hear were big booming echoes in the cavernous Mehboob Studios!) I wonder how a young man like Shahid could be so devoid of ambition. How could he not try to earn and give his wife a better life? Sandel said, because of inequalities, everyone should aspire for better incomes and better prospects in whatever they are doing. Agreeable, considering one per cent of Indians own fifty percent of the wealth of India. This man was not crazy for money and seemed very moral in his behaviour and dealing with customers. (When I flagged him, he willingly stopped, while most of his contemporaries just sped away.)
Sandel had also mentioned that money can’t buy morality and that people’s morals are what are being compromised. His topic was “What Money can’t buy.” This man, Shahid, one among the most moral men I have met, doesn’t want to compromise on his morality and is therefore content to lead his life without bitterness. Not for him the issue of religion, which is like a gorilla, sitting in our parliament, flinging everything – mikes, mike stands, speaker’s gavel, paper weights, etc. etc.
Today – that day, December 6 – being the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in the state from where he came from I asked him if there were riots and animosities in his village, where he grew up. He said there is no such thing. Riots are unknown in his village and people live in harmony. They go to Hindu weddings and invite Hindus to their weddings, and the atmosphere is not at all rancorous as I might have imagined. Or is he fibbing, or, has the situation changed after he left his village? I don’t know. That’s surprising because Allahabad is only 168 kilometres from Ayodhya where the Babri masjid was demolished.
I think the problem, as Sandel mentioned is the reluctance to have a public discourse about religion. As such political discourse in India mean a lot of shouting and accusations being flung at the others. “You are like that, so you must be hated,” is what we hear instead of a political or social discourse.
I also think a vast majority of people feel like Shahid. Then I think of the huge number of jobless youth being radicalised and deprived of a good future. Are these religious extremists doing the right thing? But why aren’t the voices of sanity being heard? Why aren’t they expressing their anguish? On this anniversary of the Babri masjid I have no answers. Those who seek to polarise religions without entering into a public discourse are doing the wrong thing, in my opinion.
And here’s a hat doff to Shahid, may his tribe increase and spread the message of amity and goodwill. I love that guy.