The first Viceroy of the British Empire landed in India with specific instructions. There is a letter floating around the web that contains these directives. In my words, the letter says something to the effect of –
“India is a vast, beautiful country filled with culture, art and immense wealth. It is also filled with simpletons who have been living under royal rule. The princes of these dynasties are fighting among themselves for power, and the simpletons care nothing about culture or arts or the wealth. They are considerably happy with their daily wage and meal. But they are somehow united, bound by this vision of an ‘India’, the all providing motherland. Our goal should be to divide them on basis of caste and religion – the only thing they care vehemently about, the only common denominator. Your job will be to present the West and its ideals and lifestyle as better and something to aspire for. Once this is done, our path to complete domination will be clear of any hurdles. The simpletons and princes shall destroy themselves, with little effort from our side. Go forth.”
The British are no longer around, and so are the princes. All that remain are the simpletons, united in their differences, united in their collective destitute lives. United, in the plight of the commoners.
The thought appeared to me on my journey back to Bombay from a trip to Madhya Pradesh. Our seats were booked on a train that came all the way from West Bengal or Orissa or some such far flung state. The moment we got in, all twenty five of us with roughly fifty bags, we saw a teeming crowd of people. Six seven of them huddled on each berth, sleeping between the berths with their rusty, dirty metal suitcases blocking the gangway, their belongings wrapped in torn cloth tucked under their heads and under the seats, babies sleeping in makeshift cradles hung between berths. A thousand eyes peered down at us ‘city’ people smelling of deodorant, with clean but angry faces shouting at them to get off seats that we had booked in advance. It took us two hours to physically drag them out from their places, dislodge their baggage, wake their children and kick those dirty suitcases out of the way, and finally settle in our seats. They continued to stare at us, standing wherever they could, clutching their entire lives and their snot-faded kids who looked around bewildered and angry at being woken up. The women with us began complaining of the smell, and cautioned their husbands to secure luggage with chains, and sleep with camera bags and purses under their heads.
The night passed slowly. I don’t remember how and when sleep came over. When I woke up, the ‘illegal’ travellers had disappeared, leaving no trace of their existence, our bags and belongings intact. Nothing changed. No money stolen; the gangway clear. The peering, questioning, hurt eyes were gone.
What was left behind was a strange sadness in me.
I began wondering. I realised that this is how seventy percent of the country lives, travels and trundles along like tumbleweed. This is the real common man who is fighting for a square meal every single day of his life. This is the real India. These are the countless, nameless, faceless commoners, united in their struggle, united in the sheer helplessness of their lives. And I am no different. We are both the victims of a government that stopped caring long ago. We both travel in terribly cramped vehicles with no space to breathe. We live in fear, of not having a job to do the next day, of turning on the tap in the morning and not having any water, the fear of not having enough money for anything. We, the commoners and I, both fear the ‘Not’ in everything. And there isn’t a single thing we can do about it. Nothing at all. We will continue shifting from place to place in search of a better life, in search of a dream that threatens everyday to get increasingly unattainable. They will carry on, with their snot-faced children and their rusty dirty metal suitcases and their lives wrapped in filthy torn cloth; they will keep being thrown out of trains and buses, they will stand for twenty hours to reach a place that doesn’t welcome them, they will continue to defecate on the streets because the people who are supposed to build basic amenities for them are busy wiping their behinds with a few bills of the tax payer’s money. The commoners will keep coming in to the ‘better’ cities and build slums, because they have nowhere else to go, and no one else to turn to.
And I, another commoner like them, will keep working a thankless job; I will keep travelling in crowded trains, being pushed around on over bridges by people who think they are entitled to whatever space they can wrest out. I will continue to expect better, continue to dream of a house in a terribly overcrowded, overpriced city that I once loved, or thought I did.
To live without being alive, to expect without hope, to drift without destination – that and only that is the plight of the commoners.