Byline by M J Akbar: Smile of the banyan
Does one have to be as old as Anna Hazare to remember India’s freedom struggle?
We were sitting in the shade of a magnificent banyan, a marvel that dominated the single-storey brick structures and temple that constitute his work complex in the village Ralengansiddhi, some 90 minutes by car from Pune. So often during our conversation he addressed this question, sometimes to me and sometimes it seemed to himself: what was that marathon, non-violent war against the British all about? Had all we managed to do was replace white colonists with those of a darker hue?
We ate a simple lunch of local corn, yoghurt and roti, brought by an enthusiastic well-wisher, in a small slap-up building consisting of a claustrophobic living room stuffed with sofas, a dining room barely larger than the dining table, and a comparatively spacious washroom, a few minutes drive away. This was not built by the Anna trust, but by the Maharashtra government. The amenities were not meant for Anna, but for His Excellent Excellency the Governor, who had decided to bestow personal benediction upon Maharashtra’s most famous village. Apparently the His Majesty the Governor’s office decided that a plastic chair, or a charpoy, would be too uncomfortable for the Governor’s buttocks, and so put up this house for the two hours that His Notably Notable Honour would spend in the village. The shock at waste lingers in Anna’s voice as he repeats this anecdote. When he asked officials why they were wasting people’s money, they offered protocol as the excuse. Such protocol, said Anna, might have been considered necessary during British rule, but why was it still in place in free India?
There was a moment when he was young, said Anna, when he seriously contemplated suicide because he could not find a purpose to life. Then he chanced upon a book by Swami Vivekanand at a railway bookstall, and found his raison d’etre: service.
Quaint? Naive? A bit too pious for a world consumed in the terrifying struggle for the next promotion, the next holiday, the next slippery road to some extra income [source irrelevant]?
His smile is the antidote of cynicism, which is probably why Delhi – where most smiles are dipped in grease – dismisses him as either a sanctimonious humbug or, at best, “simple”. The second is the verdict of friends. Simplicity, it needs to be noted, is not a compliment in power-obsessed Delhi. In Ralegansiddhi, where emotions are untouched by mercenary need, Anna is loved precisely because he is without guile. His first name is not “Anna”. This appellation, meaning elder brother, is an amalgam of the respect and affection that captures the essence of his character.
This essence sparked some long-awaited fire in the young of urban India when Anna went on a fast because they understood, instinctively and instantly, that Anna’s reward lay in what he could give, not in what he could take away.
The band on his wagon is of course another story. There is no point in translating the Hindi phrase “Shivji’s baraat” as “Lord Shiva’s wedding” because the cultural chasm between the two is simply too wide. Suffice it to say that, along with the sincere, caring and honest, every hustler is also out with his trumpet, and every peacock and peahen has arrived to join the dance. One senses that Hazare is possibly less dangerous to the government than to the NGO industry, because so many do-gooders turn up with excess baggage, much of it slipped through the rules. When the rules fight back, such guardians of morality use the classic weapon of a hustle: drown out the alternative narrative by screaming at the top of your voice.
Politicians have the merit of being predictable. If there are votes on the bandwagon they will ride it at high speed, always wearing a safety belt of course. They prefer not to die, or even risk injury, in any impending crash. The hospital of politics can be very inhospitable. There will be a crash or two in the journey towards the creation of a national ombudsman for honesty, armed with effective powers that can slice through the comfort zone of wealth and authority. Some cuts to the draft of the proposed Lokpal bill might even be necessary for its arrival: I was aghast at the thought that the august Lokpal would be elected by a self-appointed club of worthies including Nobel Prize winners of Indian origin. V.S. Naipaul, where are you when we need you? The India you find despicable, your area of darkness, cries out for you!
The most important question was raised by Mayawati, even if she could not resist the temptation to politicize her question. Is the Indian corrupt or is the Indian Constitution corrupt? Why should we destroy the great edifice of our Constitution merely because those in power have lost their respect for it? Throw out the mucky bathwater, Anna, but please hold on to the baby.