Inexplicably, I remember a tiny bit of news from January 1 1997: somewhere in this city, a woman pushed her two daughters to their deaths off the terrace of their block of flats, and then jumped herself. Days later, her family and the police were still baffled by this tragedy; then we all moved on to other things. Over eight years on, I remember only the incident. Not the names, the place, nothing more.
No, something more. The residents of the building were, naturally, very upset about what happened. But by what, specifically? The fate of the one remaining daughter, suddenly mother- and sister-less at 11? Or of the woman's distraught husband? Or wondering what problem might have driven her to take this ghastly step?
None of the above. No, they told the press that they were worried that the incident had "ruined the reputation" of the building.
In other words, "what will people think?"
I'll tell you what I think, anyway, and forgive me for being blunt: I think you in that building are callous nutcases. So tell me about your building's reputation.
Remember the 1994 "plague" in Surat? What about it caused the most hand-wringing, brought out the most anguish, at least as expressed by our politicians? The deaths of dozens of people? The filthy state of that city? The hoarding and shortage of drugs? The crowded conditions in which millions of citizens live, which makes an outbreak of plague in a slum horrifying to contemplate?
All vital problems. But something else altogether was on the minds of the men who lead us: the country's prestige.
Our international image has suffered, they told us. You see, they told us, the world had begun to see us as one more of those Asian tigers. Suddenly, a disease that brought back memories of the Dark Ages reared its black head, crushing that glossy image. All over again, they told us, foreigners will see us as a poor and overcrowded, dirty and unhealthy nation.
I wanted to say, and forgive me again for being blunt: I couldn't care less what foreigners think. But I think you guys who obsess about the image of the country in the wake of a deadly disease are more callous nutcases. So what image are we talking about?
But this is familiar territory. Horrible violence in Gujarat, 2002, and what worries too many people? The beating our "image" will take abroad. The continuing lack of justice for the victims of the 1984 (!) Bhopal gas leak, and what's one response to the calls for such justice? That the protesters will "scare away" foreign investors. Grotesque police attacks on Honda workers in Gurgaon a few days ago, and what are two major sources of fretting? The "damage to the economy" and that we will lose our attraction as an investment destination. Rain like we've never seen it in Bombay, leaving hundreds dead, and what does one TV channel make a noise about? "The Dream of Shanghai is Broken".
Image, prestige, dreams: when did these ephemeral things come to matter more to so many than human suffering? Is this, as P Sainath writes, the "new India"? A country where the image matters more than Indians themselves?
Surat, fortunately, found a Municipal Commissioner after the plague who was less obsessed with prestige than with simply identifying the city's problems and doing his job to solve them. That's why, less than three years after the plague, Surat was recognized as the cleanest city in India.
Now there's an image. Not a nutcase.