A short story I wrote last month for the MOOC I just completed. Not so much a story as an extrapolation of reality...based on one of the conversations I had about the current situation in North India. The setting and characters are fictional, the clampdown is not! Longer than my usual post at 1300+ words (5 mins).
Please read and share if you agree that citizenship should not be based on religion and India should remain open to refugees, regardless of their faith.
Deepak slams the curved receiver down on its cradle. He does not aim quite right, it sits at an awkward angle, his annoyance goes up a notch at having to correct it. This froglike thing is no longer familiar, nearly all calls come in on his cell now. When did he lose the ability to function without a mobile phone? He tries to cast his mind back but he is too frazzled to think too long on it, his mind jumps from one jumble of thoughts to another. The internet has been cut off for ten days. The mayhem this is causing is in itself quite enough, without the smart-Alecky HR guys at the HQ breathing down his neck about the deadlines. Don’t they get the newspapers? Deepak had asked Anish sarcastically, but the latter said nonchalantly there was no news of the shutdown in the ones over there.
He realises this may well be true. No idea how much news is being reported out of this place. There must be a clampdown on all communications, not just the internet. How much is the media allowed to report? Most of the mainstream media has been bought over anyway and acts as the regime’s propaganda arm. There are autorickshaws and vans with loudhailers blaring out announcements on the shutdown being extended. Section 144 is being extended too, along with a 9 to 6 curfew. Metro stations are closed as well, entire sections in the so called sensitive areas. The old city – Mirganj, Ayeshabag, Gulabganj, Fatehpura, Mandi, all made into islands. Incommunicado. And his office plonk in the middle.
Fortunately his home is located in a relatively ‘new’ area. Also lucky that he had resisted his wife’s idea of giving up the landline last year. Seema does not see any reason to continue - no-one uses it anymore, they all use cells for everything, what is the point of hanging onto it? But Deepak had waved her off. The telephone was installed by his father when the property was built. Deepak even remembers the first call made to his aunt in Delhi. The bills are still issued in his father’s name, that needs to be changed – the old man passed away a year ago. He has been putting it off, one way of hanging onto memories. The phone has come in useful though, these last ten days. Deepak sighs and gets up. If he could only figure out some way of meeting the HR requirements without having to get online. And way more important, how was he going to notify the production guys of the order that came in three days ago? This internet clampdown is just too much. Digital India, indeed!
Schools have closed a week early for the winter break. The police and Rapid Action Force have flag marches daily. Protesters and police clashed for a week before the clampdown happened. And still some forty odd people have managed to get within a hundred yards of the Chief Minister’s residence and left coiled turbans and scarves in lieu of a protest. A friend gives him the news, it is all word of mouth now, nothing on the TV or radio. The official message on the loop is - the city is calm, the police is in perfect control, the communications will be restored as soon as possible, citizens should not pay heed to malicious rumours. The ministers are brewing the usual cup of disinformation. Deepak does not trust any of them, not the Honourable Prime Minister, the Chief Minister or the Home Minister. Dishonourable, the whole lot of them.
Seema is on day shift at the airport this week. Planes are flying in and out still. No online check-ins though, the queues are a nightmare, Seema’s nerves are just as frazzled as his. Deepak sits at the table, three instead of two as usual. His mother, Usha, serves him and Sonali before filling her own plate. Having her father around for lunch is a rare luxury for Sonali.
“Papa, are you going to be home always?”
“No, angel, it’s just for a few days.”
“How many days?”
“Till your school re-opens.”
“Really? When will my school open?”
“In the New Year.”
“So is your office closed also?”
“No, I’m still working.”
“So why are you working here? Why aren’t you going to the office?”
“The Metro is closed, it’s difficult to get there.”
“Why is the Metro closed?”
Usha interrupts, “there are bad people about” and he simultaneously says, “because of the protests.” Sonali looks at her grandmother and father by turn, then resumes the questioning.
“So, the people at these po-po-potests are bad?”
Deepak shoots an exasperated look at Usha. “Nope, they aren’t.”
But Usha refuses to be quelled. “Yes, they're bad. They are anti-nationals. They’re destroying the country, burning cars and buses – is that a mark of a good person or what?”
Deepak feels a familiar anger rising again. He is too quick to lose his temper nowadays, on edge, fed up of this whole show of might by the regime. He takes on Usha directly, though he observes the usual respectful form of address.
“How can you say that? For all we know, it could have been the CM’s henchmen who’ve gone on a rampage to discredit the protesters. What’s needed is a proper independent enquiry. I mean, all those people killed – the police haven’t given the post-mortem reports yet. Does that seem okay to you? Is the police force supposed to shoot at unarmed protesters? India is still a democracy, isn't it? Protesting isn’t a crime! –”
Usha stops him mid-flow. “Your father voted for Atal-ji. He was a good PM.”
“Amma, that was twenty years ago. And Atal Vihari Vajpayee was a very different man from the current incumbent, and the charlatan we have for CM here. This regime is communalising our entire politics. There are more criminals in power than any time in modern history. Rapists and crooks and enablers of crooks, most of them.”
Sonali chimes in, ”what is a rapist, Papa?”
“Sweetie, it is someone who – who – does not respect women.”
“How does someone not respect women?”
Deepak hunts around desperately for an answer. Usha comes to his rescue. “Remember dear, what Mama told you about bad touch? No-one should touch a woman without her permission - that's what disrespecting is.”
She resumes her conversation with her son directly. “I’m not sure the protesters are all good people either. Why are they against everything that this man does? Just because a working class man has connected with the masses better than the elites and liberals, all of them can’t bear it. Sore losers.”
Deepak’s anger dissipates to dejection. “No, it isn’t that. You know I myself voted for this party in 2014. But they have failed on every promise. And now that they have managed to claw back into power on a campaign of lies and polarisation, they are creating an India I don’t like. No law and order, freedoms rolled back, the economy is in slowdown, the likes of which I haven’t seen in my entire working life, and all they can do is bring in an obnoxious law? And then when people protest, shoot them in the back? Did you hear about the student who was blinded because of the police brutality? You expect people won’t protest after that? Everybody is out on the streets, people are outraged!”
“Are you going to potest, Papa?”
Sonali’s high, clear voice breaks into the pause and stills his anger completely. He looks down at his plate, where the remnants of his lunch have congealed. The answer is so simple, why did he not think of it before? He gets up from the table and goes to his daughter, puts his arm around her little shoulders, less than the length of his forearm. Fragile, and yet, so full of promise. What kind of a country will she be growing up to? To this ruined dream of Gandhi and Nehru and Ambedkar and Patel?
“Yes, sweetheart. I am,” Deepak says firmly to her, and turns to Usha. “I’m driving to Delhi tomorrow, Amma. There’s some stuff I have to get to HQ anyway. I hear something’s being planned, there's a sit in at Jantar Mantar everyday – and protest week starting on New Year's. I’ll be joining that.”