Sunday, May 13, 2012

Blast from the past

Many of you know that I am a big fan of black and white photographs. Specially, from the old times. So, a few days ago, when I read that a set of long lost photographic plates  were rediscovered, I was intrigued to say the least. And then, when I found those photographs online, I sat staring at them for hours. The plates were apparently wrapped in a newspaper which dates back to 1914, and sat  inside a shoebox for the greater part of a century. No one really knows who took the photographs, but they tell many an interesting tale. Provided of course, you know how to read the thousand words that a picture is always worth.

There are pictures of majestic gardens and valleys, of people bathing ceremonially in the many holy rivers of our country, and, of today's old buildings from colonial India, which shine in their new found glory of bricks and mortar, from the times when they were just inaugurated.

And amongst all these pictures from the India of the yesteryear's, which would have fascinated any westerner then and now, I found one that fascinated the Desi in me -- a picture of three Madaris (animal tamers), from those times, and their charges -- two sloth bears, two monkeys and a goat.

Of course, you and I both know that a hundred years have passed since. We know that the Madaris have disappeared from India's streets and today, people in remote villages in India watch Desi television soaps for entertainment, streamed 24/7 to them by satellite television. So, I was wondering what to make of this picture, in our century of entertainment -- by cable, satellite and internet.

And suddenly, another blast from the past came to the fore, and it helped me make some sense of this photograph.

Apparently, in 1949, two years after the British left, and took all their photographic plates hidden in shoe-boxes with them, we were still struggling to get our constitution right. And, India's famous cartoonist, Shankar, depicted the frustration of two of India's great leaders, Nehru and Ambedkar, with the slowness of the entire process. So, in the cartoon, they are shown whipping a snail representing the constituent assembly at that time. This cartoon, with appropriate explanations, is included in some government funded textbooks in India. And so, all of a sudden, our honorable members of parliament decided that this cartoon is derogatory in nature and insults two of India's great leaders, who in their their times, had probably taken a good look at the cartoon, and had a good laugh out of it.

The honorable Indian parliament, in all its wisdom, decided to spend one complete day of a taxpayer funded session, debating why the cartoon deserves to be dropped from government subsidized textbooks. And then, once that was promised, two of the academic advisers responsible for the book, and in my opinion, two of the few men left in our country with testicles, resigned.

The problem with today's India is that we have put the ordinary people of our freedom movement on such high pedestals in the last few decades, that we are willing to sacrifice the things they stood for, for the things that seem to be respectful to their memory. Things, like freedom of speech, that Nehru and Ambedkar would have died for, are now gladly sacrificed for votes, in the system, that has now been called psephocracy,  by some political pundits. What we are seeing today, portend dark times ahead -- for free speech and democracy in India.

When I took a second look at the lost photograph from 1912, I realized that perhaps, in today's India, the three animals in the photograph represent the three classes of the Indian people. The monkeys represent the ruling political class, which is playing around with our sentiments at our expense. The sloth bears represent the lazy bureaucracy, which has completely stopped working in the last  few years, in what has come to be known as "policy paralysis".

But, what about the goat? In case you haven't figured it out, it is the proverbial sacrificial goat, which represents the Indian citizen. Specially the tax payer. You and I, the sacrificial goats, have been restrained at the altar, and are waiting for the axe to fall.

One could argue though that our politicians are merely protecting their interests. They had to play to the gallery on a complete non-issue, as they have to get re-elected. And so, they were afraid of losing votes when they did what they did.

Fair enough. But then, if you look at the madari photograph again, you will see that there is a chicken from a hundred years ago, that I missed. From Caesar to Churchill, all politicians at some stage or the other, have shown great reverence to this much neglected bird. Specially, during times, when they had to dump their values -- for their votes.

So, to all our politicians, inspired by these two blasts from the past,  I have one thing to say in the language that they would surely understand -- cluck

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