On the rack in the railway carriage immediately opposite Clovis was a solidly wrought travelling bag, with a carefully written label, on which was inscribed, “J. P. Huddle, The Warren, Tilfield, near Slowborough. Immediately below the rack sat the human embodiment of the label, a solid, sedate individual, sedately dressed, sedately conversational. “I don’t know how it is,” he told his friend, “I’m not much over forty, but I seem to have settled down into a deep groove of elderly middle-age. we like everything to be exactly in its accustomed place; we like things to happen exactly at their appointed times; we like everything to be usual, orderly, punctual, methodical, to a hair’s breadth, to a minute. It distresses and upsets us if it is not so. For instance, to take a very trifling matter, a thrush has built its nest year after year in the catkin-tree on the lawn; this year, for no obvious reason, it is building in the ivy on the garden wall. We have said very little about it, but I think we both feel that the change is unnecessary, and just a little irritating.”
“Perhaps,” said the friend, “it is a different thrush.”
“We have suspected that,” said J. P. Huddle, “and I think it gives us even more cause for annoyance. We don’t feel that we want a change of thrush…”
[The Unrest-Cure, Saki]
I have found any number of men in Delhi this winter, ranging from judges of the Supreme Court to rash Uber drivers, who display a similar attitude to the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), as did J.P. Huddle towards the thrush, which had disturbed his sense of order.
It’s a small bird, with a loud song: the thrush.
When did we grow to be so orderly and punctual? When did we as a people stop being nosey and meddlesome and poking into everyone’s business? How is it that the focus of conversation is not what the protesters at Shaheen Bagh are saying, or for how long they have been saying it, but rather how they are blocking traffic?
I remember a train journey many many years ago between Delhi and Patna, where I shared a sleeper compartment with two men, strangers to each other and to me. As the train pulled out of the station, the older man regarded the younger one and asked, ‘Phamily hai ke singul hain? (Are you married or single?)’ The younger man looked a little embarrassed as he admitted that he was still single. “Naukri hai?” asked the older man. ‘Yes, yes…” he replied forcefully. “Arrey! Jab naukri hai to phamily kahe nahin hai? Kuch problem hai? (If you have a job, then why aren’t you married? Is there some problem?)” he asked pointedly.
“Ab utna personal mat jayiye, ladies bhi baithi hain (Don’t ask questions that are too personal. Even a woman is here)”, stammered the younger man. The lady in question was sitting poker faced, but hanging on to every word. Sadly for her, and at the older man’s suggestion, they decided to continue the conversation ‘in private’ and moved to the area outside the toilet. When they returned sometime later, the older man felt that I was at least owed a précis: “Problem hai, but there are any number of vaidh-hakims to help. He is getting anxious for nothing”.
I wonder if people still have these conversations in train compartments, or do they only now speak of great projects and New India. In the Metropolis at least, and with reference to dissenters, there is an urgent impatience with ‘irrelevant problems’.
A chance to reflect
There has been bad traffic, undoubtedly, but in a less hurried world, it could have been an occasion to also reflect on the increasing number of cars in the city, and the comparative low use of public transport. We could have had an entire election campaign centred on cars choking up street space, on the DND as a metaphor for heterogeneous time ferrying autos and Audis, on better public transport access, bicycle tracks, on talking about air quality and the environment generally, but somehow our debates now tend to focus on ‘inconvenience’ alone. It is such a self-limiting trope.
Interestingly, there was no discussion on why even during peak time traffic congestions on account of the protests, more people did not opt to use the metro? Do they feel safer in cars travelling from Noida to Delhi? There wasn’t much written on the supply-chains into the NCR and how they were being affected? Even for those inclined towards smooth governance, these could have been perfectly reasonable concerns, beyond the centrality of inconvenience.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), so focused on service delivery, could have channelled the debates into more productive areas, even if it wished to remain silent on the ethics of the protests. It could even now talk about the sociology of ghettoes like Shaheen Bagh: about the men and women who live there, with negligible civic amenities. It could discuss public spaces and parks, running water and proper sewage – for Shaheen Bagh.
The annoyance with questions and interruptions could be because of the hectic pace of our modern lives, although we aren’t at the moment buzzing with economic activity. It could also be because New India is constituted over WhatsApp forwards in terms of entirely parallel moral universes: those who have a renewal plan for the nation and those who don’t find themselves agreeing with it.
Thus to a significant number of people, the reasons for dissent and the ensuing ‘disorder’ seem like a fabrication meant only to cause inconvenience to the nation. On the other hand, ironically, disruptions to democratic expressions itself are taken in one’s stride. The constitutional courts, in as much as they reflect popular sentiment, seem to mind less that the state indiscriminately imposes laws banning all forms of assemblies in public places, or that the police violently disrupt marches and morchas, and worry more about the ‘inconveniences’ to quotidian life.
New India isn’t a warm place anymore. It is not worrying about what the protesters would do, if after two months of waiting, the Union government still refuses to meet them. “They have brought this upon themselves,” New India might say. It is becoming increasingly full of J.P. Huddles, who get very agitated about ‘radicalised’ thrushes, those who don’t abide by the plan, and those who are breaking away from set patterns.
In Saki’s story, Clovis decided to give J.P. Huddles an ‘unrest cure’ and created quite a havoc in Huddle’s daily routine. It’s not such a bad thing, the unrest cure. At least some people have been shaken out of their reverie.
Shahrukh Alam practices law.