We do not walk alone

Walking not alone
But with innumerable others
Talking occasionally
Of where we were
And where we will be
Whether we will also perish
Like the one
whose body could not carry him for long
Like those young lives
Which were lost in transit

I don’t walk alone
I walk with my comrades
All of us enslaved
by the shimmer of cities
by false hopes of a better life
by the wicked king
who hypnotised
us with his rhetoric
of religion, nation and friendship

Why do we,
Who built those penthouses
Those iconic metros
Those beautiful gardens
Nurtured those flowers
Brought ‘life’
to the emaciated, lifeless urban life,
Have to run away
Hungry, diseased, unsure and impoverished

We are not alone
Look at the roads
The buses and trains
Our number
Generates fear among Them
They beg us to stay back
For who would
Deliver them their lives
Who would stand quiet
Like lifeless slaves while the master shouts
Who would service their existence

The spring will again come
Not with us walking like this
The Gulmohar will blossom
With the bright Amaltas
Along those streets
Which we built
The sun will not take our lives
Sucking every bit of whatever is left within us
That Spring will be brought by us
By our refusal to work
Refusal to be led
Refusal to be oppressed
Refusal to be silent

1st May 2020

पतझड़ से उम्मीदों का जन्म

पतझड़ के मौसम ने रंग दिया इन सड़कों को
अरसों के बाद, बरसों के बाद
पत्तों को इतनी शांति से
सड़कों पर सोते देखा
किसी ने रौंदने की जुर्रत नहीं की
किसी ने उन्हें बेज़ुबान नहीं समझा
और अनचाहे रिश्तों की तरह
दरकीनार नहीं किया
कौन कहता है पेड़ों से जुदा होकर
उनकी हुस्न में कमी आयी हो
कौन कहता है उनकी दास्तान
अनचाहे रिश्तों की तरह है

उनकी जुदाई उन डालों से
एक नयी उमंग के साथ
एक नए कल के लिए
एक नयी दुनिया की तसव्वुर के साथ
होते हुए मैंने देखा बरसों के बाद

नयी कोंपलें फूटी
नए पत्ते निकले
नयी ज़िंदगी, नयी उम्मीदें
पतझड़ के बाद ही आयी
सड़कों पर बैठे, चलते, उड़ते
उन गुजरी हुई दास्तानो ने
नयी दुनिया की नक़्शे को
बनाने की उमीद जगायी

11th April 2020

Corona Narratives III:Enmity, Hatred and Livelihood in times of Communal Virus

Ahmad (name changed) has been our regular kabadiwallah (junk dealer). He would come whenever we called him to collect newspapers, empty bottles, old junk of any kind. Around two years back he took a lot of time to come and, in fact, told us that he could come only on Sunday. I was perplexed at this. When he came I asked him whether he was not there in Delhi and had gone to his village in Uttar Pradesh his answer proved my premonition right – that of an economy which is making most people’s lives miserable. He said sale and purchase of junk was not providing two time’s meal for his family so he has become a daily wager and does this junk-dealing only on Sundays. During this Coronavirus lockdown he must be finding it difficult to survive. When a few daily-wagers have become vegetable vendors he cannot even resort to this new profession because he could neither purchase/rent a cart nor could he manage to hide his identity very easily. And I started thinking about the forms that capitalism can take – demonising individuals and communities, forcing them to verge of hunger. People would die but the system would survive because it has developed mechanism to tide over its crisis. It has created a consensus and has an army of mercenaries at work doing this. They include analysts and intellectuals who ensure that our eyes miss the fundamental flaw – that lies with the structure of the system itself, which takes inequality, hunger and impoverishment as normal because its functionality is bound to produce and reproduce these aspects. Capitalism-in-crisis has resorted to a powerful pedagogical tool – spread lies to such an extent that they become truths which no one could nullify. Lies become convincingly true, much more truer than the truth thereby nullifying the idea of truth itself.

People must have watched the video that went viral and even news channels showed it – a vegetable vendor was being asked to produce his Aadhar card to ascertain his religious identity. In many cases they are beaten up. The social media went into its usual hyper-activity following discovery of infected persons at a programme of Tablighi Jammat, after all the Right-wing and the fence sitters needed something to once again vilify the Muslims. We have seen in last two decades or so the way social media has been used to create a division in society based on religion. It becoming increasingly clearer that anything majoritarian is beyond law and other instruments of state in our times because it has either merged with the state or it has become supra-state. That is the reason any shouting match (as nearly all TV channels are constantly under adrenalin rush) on television goes unnoticed by the law, which sometimes becomes hyperactive and does something called suo moto cognizance. It is capable enough to differentiate why certain developments qualify to be cognized as such and certain others do not.

It does not really matter today if houses and shops are razed to the ground in the heart of the nation by a planned act of violence in name of religion. Strange logic seems to be at work when one after another intellectuals and journalists are booked under UAPA on one hand while on the other hand high decibel hate factories (read TV channels) are given respite by justice system. The intellectuals who simply analyse, dissent and write are considered terrorists. It is a weird, dystopic world governed by the Snowmen that we are living in. Everyone is under constant watch under some pretext or the other. Across the world, surveillance has increased but we know that some are watched with more seriousness while others are not. The law also works differently while some are not arrested despite ample proofs and others are arrested with much swiftness. But it seems normal – those in power would always look the other way when their own cadres engage in acts of violence. However, the liberal bourgeois democracy, which survives on its own self-appreciation of being democratic, and objectivity, is seeing a new moment.

In everyday lives, the reality is that communalisation has seeped in. The vigorous campaign that was launched by the Right and their cohorts has gone down deep among the masses – something that the ruling class in crisis would also love. After all, it is easier to blame the others for any crisis – the German Nazis did it on Jews and communists and in India it can be done on the minorities. I was feeling uncomfortable in asking the vegetable vendor his name and his place of origin, which I usually do for rapport building. My fear came from what was being done to the vegetable vendors and what was being done to the Muslims. He confidently gave me his details, including the phone number so that I can contact him during lockdown for vegetables. Only the other day another vendor said how Muslims have spread the virus – and I realised the success of the Right in their agenda. They are being deprived of their everyday economic means. It has been ensured that we stop thinking rationally. A human relationship, bereft of religion or even with two individuals with different religious faiths coexisting, is becoming more and more impossible. Enmity and hatred is the principle that governs our lives today and it gets encouraged by the formal and informal structures of power. Imagine what would happen to those who are struggling to meet their ends meet. I am reminded of the poem that Nagarjun wrote in 1983:

तेरी खोपड़ी के अंदर (1983)

गले से
रुद्राक्ष की लम्बी माला
लटक रही थी
जोगिया कलरवाले
कुर्ते पर
दाहिने कान से
लाल फूल अटका पड़ा था,
चमक रहा था भाल पर
चंदन का पीला तिलक
वो अपना रिक्शा
मेरे निकट ले आया
“नमस्ते बाबाजी!”
संजीदगी में बोला
“किधर को ले चलूँ बाबाजी?”

मैं उसको गौर से देखने लगा
वो अच्छा-भला युवक था,
गंदमी सुरत का डबल-पतला!

बड़ी-बड़ी आँखे, सुरमई
चौड़ी पेशानी पर
चमक रहा था चंदन का टीका
लूँगी पीली थी
पैर ख़ाली थे

“चलो बाबाजी,
किधर ले चलूँ?
छीपी तालाब?

कि इतने में
एक और युवक
इन कानो में
फुसफुसाके कह गया –
“ख़बरदार, यह मुसलमान है
इसके रिक्शे पर
कभी ना बैठना आप!”
मगर अपना साथी
अ अ बोला –
“हम इसी का रिक्शा लेते है।“
हमने उससे कहा –
“हॉस्टल ले चलो,
हाँ-हाँ, मेरठ कालेज हॉस्टल ।“
हमे हॉस्टल के गेट पर
निहायत नरम आवाज़ मे
वो कहने लगा –
“बाबाजी, हम चुटैया भी रखेंगे
आठ-दस रोज़ की
भुखमरी के बाद
हमारे अंदर
य अक्किल फूटी है।

रुद्राक्ष के मनके
अच्छी मजूरी दिला रहे हैं

“बाबाजी, अब हम
चूट्टना भी रखेंगे माथे पे
अब हम चंदन का टीका भी
रोज़ लगाते रहेंगे
बाबाजी, अब हम
अपना नाम भी तो
‘परेम परकास’ बतलाते है
अपना रिक्शा लेकर
प्रेम प्रकाश जा रहा था
और हम डोनो
मिनटों उसे जाते हुए
देखते रहे
यों तो वो
कल्लू था –
कल्लू रिक्शावाला
यानी कालिमुद्दीन
मगर अब वो
‘परेम परकास’
कहलाना पसंद करेगा
कालिमुद्दीन तो
बख की भट्टी में
ख़ाक हो गया था

“जीयो बेटा प्रेम प्रकाश!
हाँ-हाँ, चोटी ज़रूर रख लो।
और हाँ, पूरनमासी के दिन
गढ़ की गंगा में डूब लगा आना!
हाँ-हाँ, तेरा यही लिबास
तेरे को रोजी-रोटी देगा !
लेकिन तू इतना तो ज़रूर करना
मुझे उस नाले के क़रीब
ले चलना कभी
उस नाले के क़रीब
जहां कल्लू का कुनबा रहता है!
मैं उसकी बूढ़ी दादी के पास,
बीमार अब्बाज़ान के पास
बैठकर चाय पी आऊँगा कभी!
कल्लू के नन्हे मुन्ने
मेरी दाढ़ी के बाल

Reads so true even today. It has not changed. It has aggravated and intensified. One needs to be worried at the generalisation of hatred.

Corona Narratives II:Informal Labour in Exceptional Times

Living in a locality, which is more heavily gated, quieter, and not very intrusive does not let you realise the impact that Corona pandemic is having on the informal labour. Ever since the pandemic hit the human race and more so after the Indians developed a true fear of this unforeseen phenomenon my neighbours have been doing everything that the prehistoric humans were doing – before gods were born. The inability to explain fire, flood and other natural disasters might have led people to worship those inexplicable powers. Gradually, the priestly class was born, which really reaped the advantage of this inexplicability and institutionalised ignorance to its own advantage. It made itself indispensable to human existence – from birth to death. My locality, like many others, has been doing the same. They have followed the High Priest and often requested the angry God/dess Corona to go away by dancing, beating utensils, clapping and blowing conch shells to the stage of ecstasy (being one with the god/dess) or by lighting candles and diyas and those who were too urban had held their mobile torches in hand. People around have been very disciplined. So, when in a family the husband asked his wife to stop ringing the bell because five minutes were up she responded that she will stop after the mantras which were being recited in the opposite house would stop. Religion and virus have developed an interesting relationship, which is evolving, since March 22, 2020.

In this ambience, due to lockdown and extra precaution that people have taken there are very vegetables vendors who come around the locality. Hardly anyone would be seen after ten o’clock. But something interesting happened on 6th April 2020, the day after the lighting of diyas and candles. There were too many vendors in the locality. I had to go to deliver meat and fish to someone and when I came to the main road there were unexpected number of vegetable and fruit vendors. This was inexplicable given that the Okhla Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market from where all these retailers source was under too much of surveillance after the Corona pandemic. Someone told me that many new people are now selling vegetables. As an example Praful who had a roaring flower business has put up vegetable stall in front of his shop. I could not contain myself and asked a few regular vendors about the increased number of vendors. Finally, I got the answer: many daily wagers who did not have any work for days have rented carts and are selling fruits and vegetables in order to survive.

This is an act of survival in these exceptional times. We know that many may not be able to sell sufficient to make huge profit. The effort must be to sell enough to pay rent for the cart and buy something to eat. The corona pandemic has slit open the underbelly of this ‘growing economy’ visible through the long marches that people undertook to escape cities which was killing them in absence of work. It has exposed to the blind, affluent and aspiring class of people that it was not sheer magic, it was not the work of a government but it was at the cost of these toiling masses who cannot survive without working a single day, unlike most of us, that the economy is ‘developing’. This class of people are switching jobs/work to survive, whether that will be sufficient or not is a big question. Capitalism will have to devise some illusion, invent some enemy to hide this crude reality, to convince these people that they will get work if certain other people do not take it away from them. They might be turned into mercenaries, ideologically influenced by the Right, of capital, which will be looking for ways to survive this post-pandemic crisis.

This shifting of jobs reminded me of an interview that I attended not as an aspirant but as an interviewer. It was for a job of mere Rs.18000/- monthly salary as an office assistant. And when it comes to deciding salaries somehow the decision-makers always believe they deserve more than anybody else and end up deciding a lower salary for any other person. The candidate was quite articulate for the job profile that we were looking for. I asked him about his earlier job and he responded that he worked in a corporate house and was earning more than double the amount but was asked to leave the job after he took leave due to some family exigencies. He was compelled to appear for the job of an Office Assistant though he himself was a supervisor in his earlier workplace. Another guy who was appearing worked in a medicine company had a similar story. The informal sector working environment at all levels is extremely oppressive whether it is in a corporate house or as an Adhoc faculty in a public university. In the former kind of job profile the workers are compelled to shift jobs and are not necessarily in a position to make choices like those in situations of seeking upward mobility. It is a question of survival for those workers. The Corona pandemic is showing same symptoms of depriving people of their work – daily wagers trying to survive as vegetable vendors is only one immediate example. This also shows one of the most oppressive characters of the informal sector – the perennial insecurity (which is celebrated to increase efficiency) and always-on-verge-of-hunger conditions. And imagine what it implies for an individual when the economy is completely informalised. There is no escape. One has to accept these conditions or rebel. There is always an effort by capital to subdue possibilities of rebellion through consensualisation and some amount of coercion. Those who ran away when the country was shut down will return to their work as daily wagers if it is available but many of them will be compelled to look for other possible jobs because the companies and offices will be laying off staff. The labour in general, and informal labour in particular, will be tested once again in these exceptional times.

Corona Narratives I:Being Democratic, Sensitive and an Unabashed Accumulator at the Same Time

An image is a powerful medium of pedagogy – it teaches without formally teaching us. It prepares a generation, which develops a particular understanding of the world through it.  Images have the power and potential to not reveal the fundamental characteristics of the system in whose belly lie these truths but paints the canvas with another colour and brush. The reason why so much of emphasis is put on images is self-explanatory.

Capitalism brings with itself a vulgarity which is unique. This uniqueness lies not in the way it displays richness amidst hunger and poverty because this shameless existed across societies in history founded on the basis of inequality and exploitation. It’s uniqueness lies in the fact that this display is accompanied with a farcical claim of pain and anguish at the high level of impoverishment. It calls itself democratic, defined along principles of Right to Life, Equality of Citizens etc. Pictures of a tall building standing amidst the slums in the former industrial hub of Bombay never remains the only example though that might be extreme. It is reflected in the everydayness of brazen inhumanity and inequality. Media, with its images induces us into an imagination of world where it is alright for poverty and huge richness to co-exist. It presents to us in the same image both the dimensions without discerning their realities and without explaining how it is inhuman to amass huge wealth at the cost of millions of people. The hungry, unwell, pregnant women walking for hundreds of kilometres to escape the precarity of a lockdown when presented along with the advertisements of a 2.4 crore flat presents not only the acuteness of inequality and exploitation but also demonstrates how our imagination is being shaped.  

There is a widening spectrum of shamelessness, which also provides legitimacy to this character of capitalism, when it shows thousands of precarious labourers thronging bus stations and railway stations on hand and a few lines later the same page asking you to buy a flat which would start costing from 2.4 crores onwards. Capitalism has produced a class, which is not ready to accept that it is responsible for the destruction of the planet and creation of new diseases. This class, which took pride in its globalised identity also ensured that it globalised diseases. The holidaying and honeymooning in ‘foreign’ land as well as ‘travelling for work’ has also meant that the diseases travel with them back home and infect not their family but those who cannot afford to go to those ‘foreign’ lands for any of those works. The disease, this time, was not brought to the houses by the ‘filthy’, ‘unhealthy’ and ‘unhygienic’ cheap labour cleaning utensils and dusting our households or those who work at our workplace but it has been rather thrust on everyone by those who bought their labour power. Anyhow, their unhygienic and unhealthy conditions have been produced by this very system which extracts every bit of their life to ensure a great life for itself, pushing them into this situation.

We know that the labour force is segmented – it being not so simple as exploiters and exploited. There are many who are exploited but who are also exploiters, which does not make them realise that they also sell their labour power. The vast pool of reserve army of labour allows them to become exploiters, buying labour power of others at a price they can afford. This class is also a mercenary class, which fights battles for capital. In other words, the system expands its mercenaries through segmentation of labour force – the owners of capital at the top are exploiting the labour power of a huge class of people, who do not realise this because they are sufficiently paid wages to lead a life of luxury at the cost of another huge army of people, who service them at a much lower wage. This hierarchical arrangement of wages (through a functionalist understanding) allows for the creation of a class, which would advocate democracy, equality, transparency and so on principally but will be quiet when it comes to answering questions about itself, what it does in everyday life. This segment is also further sub-segmented into illusory categories of upper, middle and lower segments, united through aspirations and an understanding of the capitalist system that there are possibilities to go up the ladder – enforced by the fact that a property dealer can become President, a sweetshop owner can own university or a second hand car dealer can own chain of schools and so on. This exercise has allowed for a huge army of mercenaries for the system to exist, which shields the exploitative and oppressive system against possible discontent.

This is also the army, which responds differentially to call for charity and donations, allowing the system to tide over possible time of extreme contradictions visible in times like pandemic of corona virus. Freire, in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, interestingly gave us the idea of false and true generosity. He showed how the oppressor tries to soften its impact through “false generosity”. “In order to have the continued opportunity to express their “generosity,” the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this “generosity,” which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source. True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity”. 

Why is there so much demand from the state to show generosity towards hungry and unwell people? Or why is the state becoming so ‘generous’? Those people marching out of cities towards their homes in remote villages of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh or other states are symbols of something seriously wrong with this system. If that wrong was corrected this call for generosity from Prime Minister and Chief Minister would not have arisen. As Freire said if one starts questioning the “source” of problems the powers that be get threatened. Without talking of anything grand, why is it so difficult to announce that each migrant workers will be provided minimum wages till they get back to work, waving of electricity and water charges and best of medical facilities. They should have been allowed to be where they were with these facilities. The state could not do that. Why? Those people who marched to their homes are the underbelly of this system. They cannot survive a lockdown, which can be afforded by only few people, those who run the system and the mercenary class which helps it run the system.

Image courtesy: Scroll