June 17, 2006

Patriot next door

Discussion that's on here reminded me of something I wrote, but now can't remember if it got published. So I dug it out and it's hereby published hereinbelow.


Patriot Next Door

The thought came to me when reading a letter I got a few years ago.

This was after the Shiv Sena leader Anand Dighe died in Thane's Singhania hospital. The mob of his followers that had gathered there decided to "spontaneously" express their "grief" at his passing. So they destroyed the ground floor of the hospital. They looted and burned a showroom nearby, then burned a godown opposite. They stole petrol from several ambulances, overturned them and set them on fire. They smashed over 30 cars in the hospital compound, and three buses outside. They assaulted several journalists; two from Aaj Tak escaped death only by falling to the ground and feigning it.

Expressions of grief, didn't you know.

Worst of all, they chased patients all over the building, trying to batter down the doors some hid fearfully behind. One patient who had to run for his life was suffering from renal failure and had actually been in the bed adjacent to Dighe in the ICU. (The ICU!)

"I had given up hope," his son told MidDay. "I thought I would lose my father."

No, there's one possibly worse facet of this episode. This "spontaneous" expression of "grief" cost the city of Thane an entire hospital, because the Singhanias decided not to rebuild it.

Imagine Jaslok, or AIIMS, or Mass General in Boston, shutting down.

So I wrote an article about this moment of Indian shame. It brought me several dozen letters in response. One, more than the others, stuck in my mind. Stuck in my craw. For it had these intriguing sentences: "Yes, this was goondaism. But these were patriotic goondas. Why can't you keep that in mind? A patriotic goonda is any day preferable to a terrorist!"

As I said, that's when the thought came to me. This thought: if we are at a point where vandals are called "patriotic" and their vandalism thus explained away, where thugs know that merely calling themselves patriots means they won't be asked about their thuggery, where the phrase "patriotic goonda" doesn't strike us as the obscene oxymoron it is -- if this is where we are, this is a perverted patriotism indeed. It's one that calls into question the very meaning of patriotism.

People who destroy hospitals, who assault old and sick Indians, do serious damage to India. Period. Time we saw them in that clear light.

So who are the patriots, then? If you ignore -- as they should be ignored -- the fellows who loudly proclaim themselves patriots, or indeed the "patriotic goondas", the straightforward answer you will likely get from most people is: our soldiers. The brave men who stand at our borders, putting their lives on the line to protect us, ready to die for the country.

Admire the dedication of these exemplary Indians. Yet I sometimes think: surely we can find patriots closer to our homes. Quiet ones. Everyday Indians who live their everyday Indian lives and in so doing, sometimes make a small difference to others' lives.

There's the 70-year-old who shows up on the nearby seaside promenade early every morning, without fail. He gives his time to teach kids from the local municipal school that has a total of two teachers on its rolls: yes, two, of whom one has an alarming felicity with a rod and her students' limbs. But out on the promenade, this man lays out mats for the kids, plonks himself on one of the benches, and they go at it for an hour or more. No publicity, no reward. Unless you count the bright young faces looking eagerly up at him, hanging on his words, absorbing ideas instead of lashes. (I would count the faces).

There's the friend who, instead of whiling the day away playing cricket like the rest of us, walked to work the last time we had an enforced bandh in this city. Then she wrote to tell us why:
    I walked because I know that in the face of all this violence and hate, the humanity of the ordinary Indian is still alive, maybe hidden like a tuber but very much alive. I walked along with hundreds of others -- ordinary people who refused to be intimidated, and who know that a future for our country, our people and our children lies in health, jobs, education and conserving our environment. In justice and equality, not in wars, arms or yatras.
There's the successful paediatrician who gave up a stellar career in the US to return here, specifically to help children suffering from cerebral palsy, attention deficit disorders, autism and other such disabilities. With her husband, she started an organization that provides care for just such children, focusing on helping parents help their kids. Now two years old, it remains primarily funded by this couple themselves: meaning not just the rent and facilities, but salaries for 12 qualified professionals. In their centre at a busy South Bombay intersection, they see about 70 children a week. When you learn that there are some 150,000 such kids in Bombay alone, you understand the magnitude of the problem these two are up against, and why they are now trying to find funding to help them scale up their work. (Aside: they have recently managed that scale-up).

The fascinating thing about this vast country is this: wherever you travel, you'll find people like this. Now I have no idea whether they are willing to die for India. Nor do I particularly care, because it hardly matters. For these people seem willing to live for the country, for its people, every day. And because they are, I know this is a better India every day.

In my book, these ordinary Indians -- they could be your neighbours or friends, as they are mine -- are patriots. When we recognize that, we'll know just how to react to perversity like "patriotic goondas." But what's more important, we'll understand and celebrate patriotism -- not just in the remote and frigid wastes of Siachen, but around us each day.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

India is a democracy. The Shiv Sena continues to win elections in Thane. Apparently destroying hospitals doesn't hurt your popularity in this country.

The media too highlights these things as spontaneous outpourings of grief. During the violence in Bangalore after Rajkumar's death, it was common to read photo captions saying something like "mourning fans express their sorrow by burning tyres and breaking car windows", and they weren't being sarcastic.

Bombay Addict said...

just bbbbbrilliant !!! loved it - one your best pieces i've read.

Anonymous said...

Dilip bhai,
Interesting you bring up this event :) I was passing by the ill-fated hospital that very night, with a lady companion who I was escorting home after we'd gone to see her family off at the airport. Luckily we passed the place a mere 45minutes before the carnage began - there were folks in autos and cars whose vehicles were stoned at the Mulund-Thana checkpoint itself. I was surprised that there was no cable service when I switched on the telly after reaching home. Learnt of the news the next day. 'They burnt my baby!', Singhania said to TOI, standing beside the half-burnt remains of his microlite aircraft(remember the 'You don't have to be India's first microlite aviator to be a Raymond's man' TV ad?)

As it transpired, the 'patriots' attacked the Raymonds staff quarters nearby completely charring an employee's 3 day old car. Even as the goondas alleged medical neglect, a doctor on condition of anonymity said in the Thane Times that the political leader used to have his men smuggling cigarette packs and much worse substances to his bed!

The fun part was when a reporter pencilling notes onto a notepad was spotted by one of the thugs in the melee. Dropping his stuff, he picked up a stone and flung it at one of the buildings shouting 'Maro! Maro!'. That saved his skin.

Cable transmission was resumed 2 days later with a live telecast of Mumbai's most famous maverick delivering a eulogy at his deceased partyman's funeral.

Anonymous said...

Dilip, Cong goons ransacked and destoryed property in Mid-Day's office last year. Reason, Mid-day was critical of the govt's response to the deluge. Sorry to disappoint you, 'spontaneous reactions' isn't exactly a Shiv Sena monopoly as you'd like us all to believe.

Don't tell me that you know about the Mid-day incident, was posted in this very blog you refused to acknowledge it.

Anonymous said...

Dilip, the scum shall rule the earth, simply because the scum will always outnumber the rest, simply because the good are always in the minority. Do you know why the pyramid is shaped the way it is? Because the base is big. The base is big because there is more what makes the pyramid in the base. And it is usually the useless, and the scum who make up the base.