My wife Alka (@alka_d) was recently narrating to me an incident. Those days her younger sister, Mridula (@mridulablog) was doing her PhD at IIT Kanpur and Alka had gone there to visit her. On her way back she had to catch a 4 PM train to Delhi. She went to the station on time. Along with the rest of the travellers who were waiting at the platform, she kept waiting but the train didn’t turn up. Although the situation has improved a bit under the new NDA government, the Indian railways have been synonymous with the trains running late and that evening wasn’t an exception. No news was forthcoming from the railway station staff and after a while even the staff was not there. She couldn’t have gone back because those days the communication was not as easy as it is these days and there was no way of finding out exactly when the train was going to arrive. People didn’t have mobile phones and besides, she didn’t want to needlessly hassle her sister by calling the IIT office just to tell her that the train was late.
But the delay was beyond the norm. The train wasn’t late by a couple of hours or even by 4–5 hours. When the night descended, the passengers spread their blankets and sheets on the platform and went to sleep, with their belongings tucked around them or under their heads as pillows. Unable to fall asleep, she kept sitting on the bench, reading a book sometimes, and sometimes just staring into the blankness.
The train arrived at 4 AM next morning. Alka was furious by that time and had no idea on whom to take out her anger as well as frustration. While making all sorts of plans in her head to at least yell at someone in the train or make angry enquiries, she was distracted from her rage by the reaction of, or rather the absence of any reaction from the passengers who had been patiently waiting for more than 12 hours. As soon as the train thundered into the platform, they quickly got up, rolled up their sheets, packed up their belongings and rushed into their respective compartments within a few seconds. There was not a single murmur of protest. Most of the passengers just went inside, spread the sheets on their berths (or wherever they could find some space) and resumed their sleeping. Of course an enquiry into the late arrival of a train was and even is, unheard of in India.
On the surface this incident doesn’t seem very extraordinary. Yes, the trains arrive late. Yes, people are totally used to it. And at that early hour, perhaps everybody was sleepy and was in no mood to protest or express anger. They didn’t mind that so many hours of their life had been wasted on that platform. They were thankful that at least the train had arrived and they were heading to their destinations.
But it tells you a lot about our culture and the way we treat our lives and each other.
Contrast this with another incident I wrote about recently. It was about this village in Bihar where villagers didn’t want a widow to cook food in a school and hence, gathered as a crowd, threatened the school administration and put a lock on the gates of the school.
When was it the last time you heard a crowd gathering because there is no school or a hospital or a college in the area? When was it the last time you heard the crowd came to the rescue of a person being harassed by goons. Worse, instead of coming to the rescue, these days people start making videos on their phones when someone is being beaten. In which country a minor girl can be raped in a moving train while the rest of the passengers watch? Ask the same passengers, the same onlookers to harass a widow, and it won’t even take a second to make them roll up their sleeves and get into action.
This is because as a country we are bullies. We don’t want to confront ruffians or corrupt politicians or powerful people moving in their expensive cars with their bodyguards. We will not organise protests because there is no electricity for our kids and no good schools and hospitals. We won’t scream in anger when attrocities are commited upon Dalits and other weaker sections of our population in the name of religion, caste and class. Pollution is killing our kids and we are fine with that. Our blood won’t boil when our own countrymen and women are forced to eat wild grass due to social and political apathy.
But we will easily abuse a beggar or threaten a rickshaw walla with dire consequences if it tries to charge us Rs. 10 extra.
Our anger and bravado shows up at wrong places and wrong instances and this is a big reason why after more than 65 years of independence our country still remains poor, caste-ridden and backward. We desperately need to start outraging for the right reasons.