The local municipal councilor in my neighborhood in suburban Mumbai, R Kelkar, is a young Maharashtrian man from that much-derided political party whose mention causes seizures among liberal urban journalists. For me, he is the go-to person, I imagine, for all my civic woes given his party controls the municipality, electorally. I don’t know his religious views, whether he beats up people from Uttar Pradesh, is a fascist or steals money. He left a flyer under my door which talked about how he’s trying to improve the neighborhood (a new park here, a road widening there) ending with “Peoples – Any probs, questions – Twit me” and he left his twitter handle.
I did. I asked him something about where the water in the neighbourhood comes from. He replied in five minutes. And we began a general conversation about whether the area is going to hell, builders’ lobbies, why we have no parks, his utopian ideal for Bandra etc.
The few roads he along-with his Maharashtrian colleagues govern are perhaps among the most cosmopolitan and urban in the country, which sometimes is a bit alienating for him. “Boss, this area is all top posh English speaking, foreigners, who knows what. I get scared to speak sometimes, I don’t know what language they will reply with”, he said, but added, “but I am getting confident daily. I will learn. You will see.” He said his greatest lament was that no one in the neighbourhood called him to chat about these things and we should have coffee sometime. He ended with, “See boss, anytime there is problem, all these hi fi english speaking peoples, they jump and say we are not doing anything, get out. But do they even know what I am doing? What all roads and drains I have built daily. Reading about how they manage monsoon in Singapore and all. I am saying, twit me, Facebook is there. Sms. Give suggestions no. But no. Only when there is crisis, they go to TV and blame. This is not done no. If my English was better, I would say, I challenge you.” He ended the conversation (when I told him I write scripts) saying that his favourite movie was The Dark Knight (“Bollywood is all crap boss. Can they ever have a guy liked the joker? Never.) He hung up. A fallen tree had smashed a paan shop. He had to investigate.
There is an assumption (compounding in the age of the internet) that there’s an Us and Them out there. Us being urban, educated, cosmopolitan, trying to get on with life, making global choices of what we eat, watch, what ideas we access, where we socialise, what we wear, how we love. And Them being speakers of the vernacular, conservative arranged marriage-supporting, David Dhawan-loving provincial backward illiterate sort. “They” who run the guts of our civic systems, (politics, municipalities, police and security) that are somehow different from us. Assumptions being crass, cheap, racist clusters of mobs, making men corrupt, venal, moustached, watchers of thrusting Katrina Kaif music videos blaring at bomb-bursting noise levels during religious festivals. “They” who enjoy creating jams and watching bridges and homes collapse in the monsoons while lining their pockets.
R Kelkar should essentially fit into that stereotype, he has the credentials, the political background, the marching with the supremo’s body, the orange tilak. Except his Chris Nolan fandom, his tweeting, his vision for civic improvement might confuse us. How can a Shiv Sena councilor not be a thieving backward man? He is curious, well read, forward thinking? Where do we slot him? If he’s like us, how do we complain and to whom?
Few weeks had passed, I had to restart the conversation.
“I am trying to read about Napolean in Marathi ok and now also, sushis I tried for the first time. Loved it. Outlook should be global basically open-minded. That’s my views. People say, this place is becoming too many foreigners. Stop it. I say, good no? We learn from the world. In MBA they say best practices. But whatever I do, these penthouse flat people no, they talk to me like I am some driver. I have an MA boss. In civil engineering. What do they have? Audi? So?”
He however does admit that his views are unique among his colleagues. They find him too forward-thinking. As Noel Coward had said about stereotypes, it is the only thing that’s true and not true simultaneously.
In the age of arm-chair commentary, where for every event there are a million opinions, the need to blame someone (anyone) for any crisis (the government, the civic system, politicians, police etc) is only going to increase. It is the easiest thing to do because one doesn’t have to actually get up and do anything. Once, journalism meant going somewhere, finding out something and telling the rest of us that couldn’t go. Today, journalism is you and me and everyone with followers experiencing things and tweeting – and newspapers and TV are just catching up and using their brand to confirm or deny it. Often late.
On these pages, I’d written about the messiah Arnab Goswami’s debating skills where I applauded his skill at hearing an answer before a panelist has actually said anything. But today, a year on, I feel like we live in a post-Arnab world. He still has his debates and they are widely watched. People complain his competitors are lagging and so on, but fundamentally – the medium has changed, en route to obsolescence. What they’re discussing on TV or in newspaper headlines isn’t the days hot news anymore, its whatever was trending on facebook and Twitter the day before, discussed a day late. And a comment or update, however irresponsible or insane or anonymous, guides opinion. The phone and the citizen – “you, me, us” are saying “they them whoever” messed up. Journalism follows. In today’s world, everyone is Arnab Goswami.
I often sit and home and between two cups of tea, without actually getting out of a chair, pass judgments on two possible future Indian Prime Ministerial candidates, American defectors, Mumbai rains, anything I can think of, with the certainty that they will be considered the ramblings of a fool and ignored. In the old days, what would be referred to as “unemployed”. But they are not. They are shared, commented on, passed off as thoughtful, replied to, sometimes a column based on the comment is requested. It is like giving inmates keys to the prison. Nothing stops me from writing (indeed as many do) “Pot holes on roads every monsoon. Everyone in the BMC is a thief and a crook. Arrest my councilor” without ever bothering to find out anything about a Mr Kelkar and what he does. I go to make another cup of tea, I perhaps return to x number of likes and re-tweets, there’s nothing stopping it from being a debate topic on nightly news the next night with people demanding his head.
Social networks have been incredible in shifting power from institutions to each one of us, so there are no “authorities” anymore that can control/ suppress things. Although I’m sure they try, 600 million young people on their Micromax phones vs 150 aging ministers is a battle long lost. The only kind of control the government can do now is damage-control when public opinion is against them, which is often.
However, “the people” – in theory a lovely idea – are faceless and, therefore, have the convenience of being opinionated and unaccountable at the same time. Sort of like an unstoppable mother-in-law. Churchill once wittily remarked that the biggest argument against democracy was a 5-minute conversation with the average voter.
Mr Kelkar sensibly concludes, “Of course there is theft and corruption in politics but none of us start our day thinking, let us see how we can cheat people. There’s a lot of good also. Whether its Congress or BJP, sure they are trying to get political mileage out of a national crisis but they are also helping and trying to do good no? It’s our country also after all. They care also. And human beings, little bad, little good, nobody is perfect.”
It’s a logical point. Whatever the accusations are, from the BCCI to Congress to whatever the next fashionable scandal will be, its much easier for us to sit back and write in a little white box – “He is a thief, fire him, kill him etc.” without knowing the history of anything or the story behind anything. Human beings are involved, there’s complexity, there’s great leadership, there’s petty theft, there’s love for nation, betrayal of it, only grey, like life. Nothing that can fit in 140 characters.
Our conversation ended, we had our worlds to return to. “They” beckoned Kelkar – a blocked drain had to be cleared up so a certain building could get sanitation. A charming night lay ahead for him. I had to return to Us. Which meant get back to my Twitter to accuse people like him of being useless.