The doors to the metro parted. Roshan stared up and down the platform, eyeing the few stragglers that shuffled in. The train was surprisingly empty. Perhaps word hadn’t spread. Or perhaps the trains peopled by public-spirited, justice-loving citizens had hummed past earlier in the day. Feeling a stab of disappointment, he stepped in, a moment before the doors slid shut.
He contemplated the rows of empty seats – a rare luxury. Nervous energy, an unfamiliar sensation, kept him on his feet. No doubt he had expected company on this short commute, of strangers, and was annoyed to be left alone with his thoughts, but he would step into company soon. He was truly on the way. His palms prickled. Feeling one with the train as it hurtled towards his destination he allowed the significance of the moment to wash over him.
Roshan couldn’t help but feel that this was one of the defining moments of his life. In the past, he had scorned such occasions as insignificant rabble-rousing, feckless anti-statism from an otherwise dormant populace. Earnest friends had often asked, if not now, when? He’d dismissed the question each time. It was an unfair tactic, he reasoned, an oversimplification of the unfailingly complex issues at hand, each of which required threadbare discussion, something he never allowed himself to get entangled in. His arguments always kept up with his comrades’ desire to rush off to central Delhi; he was a master of intellectual self-defence, of shifting the goal-post till his adversary was exhausted. They always capitulated after a few rounds, leaving him somewhat pleased. He had come to look upon it as a triumph of his arguments, rather than his obduracy.
He had grown accustomed to watching streams of people – several of his friends often in tow – parade past and make headlines, only to see the issue soon peter out. He claimed to be a champion of democracy, yet he took the fizzling out of these protests as a vindication of his own views, of his conviction that one has to pick one’s battles. He had finally picked his.
A friend had once remarked, half in jest that had the youth of the 30’s and 40’s been cut from the same cloth as he, independence would have remained a distant dream. He had taken fierce exception; of course, he would have risen to the occasion had the circumstances demanded. The friend knew better than to probe the meaning of ‘had the circumstances demanded’ and Roshan was secretly grateful, for he didn’t know himself. He said all the right things, he knew, thought all the right things, read all the right articles, but somehow, he had never been moved to act. Some argument, some qualifier, some excuse had always provided cover, protecting him from the discomfort of facing his true disposition – that of a coward.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he thought, looking around at his few co-commuters, I have been a coward. He was almost disappointed when nobody gave him a second glance. To answer his friend, he knew deep down, as everyone always does, that he would have made for the classic colonial stooge. A civil servant, perhaps. Even a lowly clerk. Safe, cushy, cozy. Unlikely to suffer the slightest bother, let alone harm. No more, no more.
The moment of epiphany came the other day. The Indian state had opened fire on peaceful protests in some insignificant mofussil town. Of course, few were aware of the existence of the town, fewer still of the reason for the protest; perhaps this very fact made it a significant event in the eyes of the public. Roshan winced as he thought of the hapless martyrs – did they know their end was in sight when they gathered near the factory to seek its closure? The very thought was ludicrous, akin to the suggestion that he should expect to be greeted by a stream of bullets at the end of his air-conditioned journey. Roshan shuddered. The incident had taken its usual course already, in less than a fortnight. Opposition denouncement, government evasion, screamed debates on news channels, each more unpalatable than the last. Each new week churned out a fresh news cycle, pushing the town back into obscurity, till everything eventually died down.
But the image was unforgettable. Roshan could see it now, clearly, against the glass panel of the compartment window – a young, moustachioed police officer, standing atop a jeep, dressed somewhat incongruously in a white collared t-shirt and track pants, black sunglasses shielding his eyes from the punishing May sun, muscular forearms aiming an assault rifle at the unsuspecting public. The photograph had not captured them – it did not need to.
Another station passed. Roshan had always described himself as pro-state – not really a secret, but he had admitted it in as many words to only his most trusted friends, some who agreed with him, and those who were magnanimous enough not to question him. And, as he had often argued in the past, mostly to himself – why was that such a bad thing? The state was a large, unwieldy, lumbering being with many preoccupations, surely it was unfair to expect it to respond to each isolated incident swiftly and fittingly? Surely its merits ought to be tested over a period of time? Surely, he reasoned, when it came to picking action or inaction, an experiment of the audacity and scale of the Indian state deserved one’s patience and faith. But that image had snapped something inside him. Of course, he was not ready to cast his every opinion aside – one nebulous thought to the next and the next… it was too muddled, it made him restless, caused physical unease. That would take time, and many muttered self-discussions. No, his need for absolution was greater, more urgent.
Why was the train not filling up, he wondered as they passed a couple of stations and bored-looking commuters piled in or drifted out. He was giddy with excitement; he fancied himself an enlightened revolutionary, a man of his word, a true champion of the republic. The romance of the moment was almost too much to bear, as was the embarrassingly mundane nature of his surroundings. He suddenly felt inadequate. He ought to have dressed differently, symbolically, and used some other means of transport – a public bus perhaps, where, forced to rub armpits with his countrymen, he could feel even more a defender of the common interest. The cool air of the metro compartment began to feel like a knife against his cheek; the watch on his wrist a proclamation of his privilege; his tailored trousers no more cover than underpants.
He had chanced upon the Facebook post a couple of days earlier, no different than the hundreds he had ignored in the past. It was fairly simple – promising a peaceful march down one of the arterial roads of central Delhi, an apolitical one – responsible citizens making their voices heard, back home in time for dinner. Exactly the sort of dignified, responsible protest he ought to associate with. If not now, when?
He surveyed his co-passengers in a bid to identify more of his ilk. The shopping-laden women in front of him, busy clicking flattering pictures of themselves, were certainly not among them. The youth to his right had been a viable candidate until Roshan caught strains of the latest misogynistic Punjabi number blaring out of his earphones. His lip curled as he looked further afield.
He had not publicized it; he’d rather have that conversation after the fact. He was careful to bring it up only with people with whom he was not accustomed to having political discussions. Office colleagues made for a suitable audience. With the news blaring in the background, the previous day’s lunch table had been the perfect setting. He’d dropped it casually, as if in the habit of doing such things, and had basked in the muted, but impressed response – Priya’s raised eyebrow, Akshay’s brief nod of appreciation. Rashmi had even told him to be careful. Not that he was actually expecting any trouble – the event sounded far too peaceful for that – but, as his destination drew nearer, he couldn’t help but feel that his safety was not guaranteed. He was actually risking his life for something he believed in. His giddiness returned, and he lost himself in a pleasant reverie. He’d asked them, of course, if they’d like to join him, and they had said they might with an insincerity that was instantly recognizable.
A young girl, out of breath, flopped onto the seat to his left. Her bedraggled hair and rainbow-coloured jhola – no doubt purchased at a fund-raiser in support of the dying arts of some forgotten tribal community – another kind of public gathering Roshan studiously avoided. Would he have to change his mind about those, too? – gave her away as a student. He glanced sidelong at her; catching his eye, she shot him a half-smile. Roshan looked away. He was certain of her destination and purpose yet could not bring himself to ask her. As was usual for him in any situation bordering on the uncomfortable, he grabbed his phone and, though he had memorized the details of the venue, opened the sticky note he’d made. Perhaps she would notice and quip that she was going too. Though older than her by probably more than a couple of years, he allowed his mind to wander… the serendipitous encounter, right before they marched down Parliament Street, shoulder to shoulder, taking on the might of the Indian state, daring to admonish it for its wrongdoings, together… He was disappointed to see that she had busied herself with her own phone. No matter, he thought. They were sure to walk out together.
Patel Chowk station. Doors will open on the right. Please mind the gap.
He rose, lingered a moment, not daring to look back. Any moment now. The doors parted and Roshan stepped out, alone. He turned back only to see the girl grinning into her phone, her jhola on the seat he had just vacated.
Inexplicably, none of his friends had spoken of this event. Though they had stopped asking him along to others like it, someone would inevitably bring up an event or post about it somewhere or the other. This one seemed to be Roshan’s own little secret. Not that he was complaining, he thought as he stepped off the escalator.
The station looked like it might on any other day. He did not see the stream of people he had expected. As he crossed the turnstiles and began climbing the stairs leading out of the station, he heard a faint roar in the distance. Heart beating faster, the young girl forgotten, he quickened his steps.
‘What a nuisance,’ an old man descending the steps muttered, only spurring him on. Auto-wallahs loitered near the gate, calling out their fares.
‘No use, sahib,’ one of them said, as Roshan ascended the last flight of stairs. ‘The road is completely blocked… But follow me to my auto and I’ll take you wherever you want to go.’
Roshan ignored him. The clamour was louder now. He surfaced and paused. Well, at least the number of police barricades had lived up to his expectations.
The crowd was a hundred, one-fifty to the generous eye. The throngs of indignant righteous that Roshan had counted himself a part of seemed to be taking their time to turn up. Slowing down, he began to walk to the barricades. Ice-cream vendors crowded nearby. Sing-song slogans, erupting from different parts of the crowd, clashed with one another.
He expected someone to stop him, to question him, but was surprised at the ease with which he slipped through, unimpeded. Bored-looking, lathi-bearing policemen swarmed around, sipping tea. The administration had deemed the threat sufficient to deploy a company of Special Forces men. They stood at the corner of the street, perspiring in the late afternoon sun, guns held flaccid at their sides. Every so often, they shot indulgent glances at the crowd, like a champion wrestler eyeing a scrawny debutant.
Beyond the barricades, a festive atmosphere prevailed on the street. People were handing out flags, pamphlets, posters. To his utter disgust, Roshan realized that it was a political protest. The people were waving flags of the ruling party of Delhi, not one he was particularly averse to, but the apolitical, sophisticated gathering he had hoped for was not to be. Immediately, his enthusiasm dimmed. He shifted out of the way of a party volunteer handing out pamphlets denouncing the central government.
Central Government haye haye, haye haye! Down with the Central Government!
PM, kuchh toh bolo, kuchh toh bolo! PM, speak up, speak up!
The protestors broke into little circles, the lead sloganeers’ lusty yells competing with each other for attention. Gandhi caps bearing the local party symbol were visible on almost every head. Small-time pressmen mingled with the protesting crowd, taking impromptu interviews. Roshan watched people rushing to be part of the frame, squeezing against each other for a moment of screen-time. He drifted amongst the people, moving from one small gathering to the next, unable to escape the mounting realization that neither his presence nor his absence made any difference.
The grandness of the occasion, whatever little had ever been there, was dissipating with every passing moment. Roshan felt conspicuous and invisible at the same time. The people around him seemed to know one another, to have something to say or do. He ought to join in, to reach for a flag, feel part of it all, but he felt crippled, impotent, a nonentity in this pulsating horde. Someone had got hold of a loudspeaker and was extolling the virtues of the local government, thanking its dignitaries for extending their support to this spontaneous action against the evil deeds of the Centre. The protestors cheered and resumed their chanting with renewed fervour. Someone took up a new chant.
We want justice, we want justice!
Standing close by, the man looked around for support, raising his voice with every word. He gestured at Roshan to take it up, the first person to have acknowledged him. Feeling foolish but not wanting to give offence, Roshan spoke.
‘We want justice.’ His voice was feeble, audible only to himself. The people around him repeated the words with enthusiasm, their fists up in the air.
‘We want justice,’ Roshan said again, trying in vain to conjure the iconic image that had led him here, in a desperate bid to match the ardour of the crowd. He suddenly wished he had asked his friends to come or that the girl from the metro had followed him here. He imagined her safely at home, tucked away with a lover. Beads of perspiration trickled between his shoulder blades. He watched an energetic reporter rush to the lead chanter, who obliged by chanting even louder and yelling about accountability and impunity at the highest levels. He could have reached out and touched the man, but for all the proximity between them, Roshan could have been reading about him in the paper. He wanted to speak up too, to say something, anything, but the chanting man was swallowed up by the crowd and Roshan receded into oblivion again. He stepped onto the footpath, moving out of the way as a VIP arrived, his SUV parting the cheering crowd. He wished it was at least the chief minister – anything to make the occasion memorable, if not something to be cherished. But it was only some lowly MLA.
Roshan had drifted towards the milling Special Forces men. One of them was eating an ice-cream, the heavy gun slung over his other arm. Another made a joke to a passing protestor and they both threw back their heads and laughed. It would have made for a poignant moment, but all Roshan felt was anger and a hot shame – anger at this betrayal, this political carnival that had usurped his first act of direct democracy, and shame at the unmistakable conclusion that he did not belong here, could never be part of this, perhaps could not have been part of it even if it had been exactly what he had imagined.
He checked his watch. Nearly an hour had passed. His sweat-soaked T-shirt clung to him. The loudspeaker voice asked the public to move slowly and peacefully towards Parliament Street, less than a couple of hundred metres away. The crowd lurched forward; the security men near Roshan rose from their perches and sauntered after them, exuding a faint exasperation. A passerby in a Gandhi cap thrust a flag at Roshan. He clutched its flimsy stick, twirling it between his forefinger and thumb. Justice for Victims, the caption read on one side, Speak up, Mr. Prime Minister! on the other. An all-purpose flag, he thought. Disgusted, he threw it on the road and watched it land near the police barricades. Turning his back on the retreating crowd, Roshan stepped over the fallen flag, crossed the barricades and strode to the metro station. His first protest had lasted 58 minutes and elicited six words.
‘Well, how was it?’
Rashmi’s earnest question caught him by surprise.
‘How was what?’ he asked, setting the salt cellar back on the table, hoping for a quick change of subject.
‘Don’t be modest! The protest. Tell us all about it.’
Akshay, who had been discussing work with Priya in low tones, looked across. ‘Do tell,’ he said.
Roshan’s face grew hot. He’d scoured the papers, the Internet, the popular news channels for coverage of the protest, hoping not to find an incriminating image of himself, an awkward, gangly outsider with an impassive face and no sense of purpose, plastered all over for the world to see. To his relief, he had found none. A lingering sense of shame had suppressed the memory of that afternoon, up till this moment, with three sets of eyes trained on him.
‘It was, uh…’ He cleared his throat. ‘It was… quite something.’
No employee had yearned for a work call quite as much as him at that moment.
‘What do you mean? Come on, don’t be shy. We told you on Friday that we’ve never done this kind of thing before,’ Priya said.
And I still haven’t, Roshan thought to himself.
‘Sorry, Roshan, I hope it’s not difficult to talk about,’ Rashmi said.
‘No, it’s not like that… Maybe it is, a bit,’ he heard himself say.
‘It was… glorious. I’ve never seen a crowd like that in my life. People as far as the eye could see. The Centre had to send three units of Special Forces to contain them. Us.’
‘What was it like?’ Akshay sounded doubtful.
‘Simply marvellous! Thousands of people coming together in a spontaneous expression of compassion and power… it was a heady feeling. The plan was to march, but the response was so overwhelming and the number so large, we occupied the entire road, end to end. We didn’t need to march. The police were trying to stir up trouble, taunting us, provoking us. But the crowd was undaunted. It was meant to be a peaceful protest and stayed as such. A peaceful protest in the highest traditions of Indian democracy.’
‘Such a large protest and no media coverage?’
‘Surely, Priya,’ Roshan said, turning to her, ‘you don’t believe everything you read? The fourth estate has sold out to the highest bidder. They would never cover us. Ten seconds of footage would show the protest, the movement, for the awe-inspiring success it was… The government could never allow that to come to pass.’
‘Makes sense,’ Akshay said. ‘Yet –’
‘Leave him alone!’ Rashmi cried. ‘The man risked his neck, for heaven’s sake – you know what they do to brave journalists and the like these days, don’t you? A little less scepticism would be nice… Do go on, Roshan,’ she finished, flashing him a charming little smile.
Their conversation had piqued the curiosity of a couple of their other colleagues, including some from other departments who Roshan didn’t know. The pulled their chairs around.
‘I wouldn’t have gone in the ordinary course, you know,’ he continued, pausing to take a sip of water. ‘But what happened at Thoothukudi, it was…’
‘Unpardonable,’ supplied a youth with a goatee, who looked like he was fresh out of college. Roshan rewarded him with an appreciative look.
‘Unpardonable,’ he repeated. ‘A vile act! I just couldn’t sit still. If not now, when?’
A few in his audience nodded, looking solemn.
‘I have always held the Indian state in high regard… But sometimes, you just need to point your leaders in the right direction. And only the popular will works when it comes to this kind of thing.’
‘Wah!’ said the HR manager from the corner. ‘It’s wonderful to see young people like you, such busy jobs to boot, getting involved in something like this. Really inspiring.’
‘When we got there, there were only khaki policemen,’ Roshan said, cutting her off. ‘With lathis. They didn’t frighten us, so they did their best with their taunts and jibes, calling us -’
‘What, what did they say?’ Goatee’s friend asked. Roshan rested his eyes on her, taking in the scene. A few others, including – his heart skipped a beat – the CEO had taken their seats at nearby tables. He could tell that they were keeping an ear out for his response. The TV blared on, forgotten, in the background.
‘Liberal whores,’ he said, to a collective intake of breath. ‘Sell-outs. Bastard children of immoral, unpatriotic JNU graduates. Said that those people deserved what they got for spreading lies about the factory and not behaving themselves…’
‘And?’ Priya asked.
‘And that we’d get the same if we didn’t toe the line and go home. A couple of them had revolvers, and brandished them at us, saying they were authorized to use them if they deemed fit…’
There was shocked silence.
‘It’s only natural that the government wouldn’t want you to hear all this, you know. I’d request you to keep it all to yourself,’ Roshan said, shooting a beseeching look at Rashmi.
This was greeted by murmurs of ‘of course…’ and ‘never…’ and even ‘damn the police, corrupt, servile thugs…’
‘These goons didn’t frighten us. Some of the crowd even talked back, and got knocks on their heads… So did I, of course, but I managed to escape, I got lucky… It was only when the Special Forces rolled up in their armoured car, parting the crowds… I was scared then, I won’t deny it.’
‘Who wouldn’t be?’ Someone from the CEO’s table quipped. ‘They’re equipped with proper assault weapons, aren’t they?’
‘The very best,’ Roshan agreed. ‘It was a daunting sight. They lined the road, trying to intimidate us, push us in, make us beat a retreat. But the crowd was marvellous. Nobody knew who was in charge, yet everyone stuck to their positions, held up their banners, put on a good, peaceful show. Of course –’ he shovelled in a mouthful of rice, and took his time to chew. Nobody moved from their places.
‘Of course, a couple of Opposition leaders landed up to show solidarity towards the end.’
‘They should’ve been the ones organizing the protest.’
‘The movement. And yes, they should have,’ Roshan said, taking another thoughtful bite. ‘Needless to say, we made it clear that they were not welcome. Even the forces did nothing to help them, forgetting that they were their masters not too long ago… They had to scarper soon, or face the full wrath of the people.’
‘The best part, though,’ Roshan continued, ‘was the discipline of it all. It was an audacious, idealistic gathering. Yet, it was made up of like-minded individuals… There was none of the chest-thumping of the past. People came at the appointed hour, behaved themselves, made their point and left when asked to disperse…’
‘So you just left?’ Akshay asked. ‘Such a large movement of people, and it didn’t cause any chaos?’
‘Well, Akshay, the police had been kind enough to cordon off the area,’ Roshan said, flashing him a withering look. ‘And like I said, the crowd was so orderly, it was amazing to see. I myself simply walked back to the metro station and came home. The compartment was full of people from the protest – we didn’t know one another, we didn’t even speak much, yet we felt an indescribable solidarity, an empathy born of our common experience.’
‘What did you do then?’ asked a pretty girl from accounts whose name he could not remember. ‘What did you do after getting home, on Saturday night, the whole of Sunday? How did it feel?’
Roshan smiled. ‘I can’t say. I was in a bit of a daze. Came home and slept. Scoured the news for coverage all of Sunday, even the petty channels and papers, but there was nothing. As expected,’ he finished with a heavy sigh.
‘Hey, there’s something on about the Thoothukudi matter now!’ said someone near the TV. Heads turned away from Roshan the first time in nearly an hour.
Roshan stared straight ahead, his mouth dry.
… This is just in. The Prime Minister has finally broken his silence on what he terms the ‘horrific’ police action in Thoothukudi. All officials involved in the action stand suspended pending an independent probe into the matter. The factory in question has been sealed for the time being. The Opposition is already claiming this as its victory, attributing the PM’s orders to its incessant criticism…
Heads turned back to him.
‘You won, man,’ goatee said. A moment later, the cafeteria broke into spontaneous applause. Akshay reached out to thump Roshan on the back. They stopped when the CEO cleared his throat and walked up to their table. Roshan rose, unsteady on his feet.
‘It is because of people like you, beta,’ the CEO said, ‘that our democracy survives, and thrives.’ He reached out and gave Roshan’s clammy hand a vigorous, solemn shake. Ignoring the memory of the somewhat paunchy, detached Special Forces officer enjoying his Mother Dairy ice lolly, Roshan replied, looking the CEO straight in the eye, ‘You’re very welcome, Sir.’
Abhinav Kumar is a writer from Delhi, and has been writing actively for about three years. His stories have appeared in Open Road Review, Muse India, Earthen Lamp Journal and Reading Hour among others, and his poems have appeared in Indian Literature, The Bangalore Review and The Madras Mag.