Saturday, September 17, 2005

The "Sab Chalta Hai" Manoeuvre

I received an invite from the US consulate in Chennai. The letter said that my appointment had been scheduled for 9:45AM and that I should reach the consulate at 9:30AM. The letter made me feel at ease because the last time I had a visa interview was at the German Consulate at Chennai and the idea was to reach the gates earlier than the earliest. I reached Chennai from Bangalore early in the morning, booked a decent room in a motel at a walkable distance from the Chennai Railway Station, changed, had breakfast and left the motel at around 9AM to reach the consulate before 9:30AM.

What I saw at the Chennai consulate made me feel sad. I saw a long line of people standing at the consulate being controlled by all powerful herdsmen (I had earlier met a person in one of the narrow lanes of Carol Bagh, Delhi, who referred to them as Khaki Kutte. I was quite amused then but he was probably right with due apologies to the dog-kind). Most people in the line were of my age group, most of them applying for a student's visa to gain entry into the USA many of them accompanied by their friends and family.

My initial take on the long line was very naive. I thought that the long line was due to some delays at the consulate. Assuming that the appointments may have been delayed by an hour or two I stepped forward and asked one of the herdsmen as to when my turn would arrive. The man asked me to get back into the line saying that it would take a long time. Long time! How long? Asking was pointless. Well, I joined the line and after a bit of asking around realised that many people ahead of me were people who had appointments later than me, later not by 15 mins but by an hour or a couple of hours.

People with appointments at 11:45AM were standing at the very front (at 9:30AM) while I like a fool was stuck behind. I guess my chagrin and restlessness was quite visible that one of the herdsmen approached me with an offer. For a price of Rs 100 I could get to the front of the line, a position I should have held given my appointment time and the fact that the consulate inside the tall walls was not delaying processing. All negotiation was happening in the open view of people with above average education and wealth. Some of them proud of their exploits during the day and others wondering why they didn't reach earlier. Most of them should have been at home given that their appointments were at least a couple of hours away. Most of them looked God fearing, seemed to have begged for blessings all night long. The innocent looks on their faces masquerading the deep rooted moral malaise each one of them suffered from. None of them had the slightest shame that they were standing like cows being treated at will by the herdsmen. All they had to do was to stick by the appointment time printed on the letter from the consulate and they would have salvaged a lot of pride and would have been saved from the obvious humiliation. I guess they were too stubborn to feel the humiliation, people in their early twenties stubborn and desensitized given company in many cases by their more experienced and beyond repair parents.

In the name of getting street smart people end up being corrupt very young. I remember having boarded a bus with a few friends of mine (around 10yrs of age) when one of them suggested that some of us who looked less than 10 years old should ask for a half-ticket as the conductor will not be able to tell. The savings were to be minimal but why not make the smart move when one can. Give it a try at least!

There were parents who collaborated to divert the school bus route for their convenience, against the wishes of the school. It was not very difficult. All they had to do was pay a nominal amount to the driver for the detour. When I out of indignation asked them as to why they were doing something the school had strictly refused they were hurt and complained to my family of their son's rude behaviour! How kind of them that they were concerned about a stranger's child's behaviour! They were balming their conscience I guess.

Going back to the consulate, the consulate does not allow any stuff other than the required documents inside. There was this couple who was carrying a bag and some other stuff that they had to leave outside the consulate wall. So far so good. What I witnessed was evidence of the fact how wasted the herdsman and all others standing there were. The herdsman didn't like the fact that his pavement had been encroached by lesser mortals. The price the couple paid was that their stuff was kicked around at will, like a football. And again all this happened in the presence of hundred or more applicants. Well it was not happening to their luggage. So why bother. The kicking around of the stuff was probably kind of amusing. Good that no one stopped the rogue. The line had north, south, east and west Indians (many were there from Bangalore and Hyderabad, cities that are cosmopolitan). They were all united in their turning away. They included me too and I regret that in retrospect. I wanted to ask the moron to stop kicking around but resorted to the great Indian "sab chalta hai" manoeuvre.

A manoeuvre that we are so good at justifying and that is plain and simple selfish. One justification for any corrupt act being that since the government is corrupt what is the big deal anyway? Everyone is corrupt, that is the way the world is. We should keep up with the world etc. The problem with the manoeuvre is that we Indians can never claim individual freedom as claim to individual freedom and justice can't be an individual's effort. It has to be a concerted effort from the society (the educated middle class, the lesser mortals who are taken for a ride), the society needs to shout out loud in no unclear terms its right to individual freedom and justice for every single individual whose individual freedom and justice is at stake. People in the Bronx or Brooklyn, NY, (I am not sure) had decided to get together to patrol against hate crimes. The people included Blacks, Jews, Latin Americans. The Asians were conspicuous by their absence probably cocooned in a false sense of security turning a blind eye to anything that doesn't affect their individual selves!

All we can do is keep counting the many years of injustice meted out to us. Recently, I read about the Independence Rock fiasco where some thousands were taken for a ride by a whimsical officer. The organiser mentions that the entire rock loving crowd turned away from the venue disappointed but peacefully very different from what the scene that would emerge in case the occasion was Ganesh Chaturthi or Durga Pooja. I wonder why the crowd left peacefully and I don't intend to say that they should have gone around creating havoc venting their frustration in vain. Maybe they should have stayed there as a mark of protest, after all they were a few thousand. Was leaving a show of decency or just another easy manoeuvre? Would staying put have made any difference at all? Would the whimsical officer have thought twice before passing a similar order the next time? Would staying back have been more effective than just leaving and saying that this always happens to us? But then given our day to day conduct do we retain the right to protest or any justice at all?
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