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March 29, 2009. I set out to Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, India. Viewed from the skies, Kerala is a slender swale of land ensconced between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, a cartographical sleight-of-hand that an overwrought imagination might mistake for the upper lip of a young woman. I am making my way south to the capital from central Kerala, where my parents have retired. The train rumbles over rivers and streams that will dry out as the summer sun ascends in April. The train hoots its mechanical horn, awakening villagers in obscure villages in the dead of night. Somewhere along the way, frogs croak in the water-soaked paddy fields, young boys play cops-and-robbers amongst coconut trees and wilting palm fronds, and their sisters go about their homework. India is railway country.
I reached Kerala this morning. I am on a three-week journey to work for Shashi Tharoor’s election campaign for Member of Parliament (MP) of Thiruvananthapuram. The last time I saw and participated in an election was in seventh grade. Manhattan, Wall Street, subprime crises, or even derivative markets seem far removed here. The quietness of my parents’ home leaves me uncertain. Disoriented. As if the rest of the world and its worries don’t exist. Even the Indian Parliamentary election campaign—its posters and processions, its cacophony and conspiracies—seem like an afterthought here in my mother’s garden. Nature comes rushing in. Birds of unexpected plumage come forth, investigating the mud for insects and walking around like Roman proconsuls in ancient Jerusalem—imperious yet insecure. Assorted insects chirp, announcing the coming of spring. A cloud of mist has ascended from the ravines found everywhere in this northern district of Malapurram, our land of mountains.
If I were a sentimentalist, I would have described it as idyllic. Perhaps I am one, now.
Somewhere in the house, my mother, Amma, is talking about whether coffee or tea is a more appropriate morning drink. And somewhere else, my father, Achan, is showing me the bewildering array of vegetation that has grown since I was here last. Pumpkins, okra, yams, mango, and bitter gourd. The topsoil is wet and welcoming. From nowhere in particular, mushrooms sprout like a comical interlude in a Shakespearean drama. The leaves on the hibiscus have some perforations that Amma says is a new fungus. Then it occurs to her that one of my Communist cousins had blamed this vegetative affliction on “inimical American bioengineering interests.” The origin of my cousin’s reasoning is unclear to me. As it is to my mother. She couldn’t be bothered about the details of my cousin’s conspiracy theory. “He’s a fool,” she says. Then she corrects herself: “But he’s our fool.”
Anti-Americanism itself has become a parody of its own paranoid making. It tests the mildly discomforting boundaries of family relationships. Unconcerned with all this, and with the air of a romantic poet, Achan insists that even fungi have the right to grow on this earth. Amma, however, has a more utilitarian perspective and wonders if pesticides might be the answer. In this domestic back and forth, I wonder with some amazement how the two of them continue to find things to discuss, disagree about, fret over, and then still talk some more.
With politics on my mind, I can only think of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Left Democratic Front (LDF)—the two massive party apparatuses that control Kerala’s political future.
From the shores of New York, where I currently live, the Indian elections are at best a curiosity which feeds the democratic vanities of our imagination. The practical import of this chaotic process is elusive, perhaps even irrelevant, to the average American life.
In Manhattan last year, I volunteered for the Obama campaign. In the cold of October, I stood around Lexington Avenue, talked to hurried and harried subway riders and irritable housewives. Every so often, I was snubbed, occasionally shouted at by Hillary supporters and almost always benignly ignored by most passerbys. Yet, every once in a while, a kind stranger would talk and debate with me, about loose nukes or educational standards. I discovered that, in the end, individuals do want to be heard. To speak their minds. After our informal debates, they were content to let the participatory process go through its motions.
My daily work at an investment bank bears no such humanist instinct. I investigate properties of models used in interest rate derivatives trading and risk management; the dictatorship of their logic and the irrationality of financial markets prevail in simultaneity. In that austere and chaotic world, humans are nowhere.
My reasons for deciding to participate in Shashi Tharoor’s campaign are complex. The mind is a palimpsest, as written on many occasions, by many authors. Tharoor is one of those scribes. In some sense, his ability to straddle two worlds—the sublimely strange world of United Nations bureaucracy and the more popular and romantic world of writing and literature—is a marvel to me.
His campaign is well into its second week. The assessment from Malabar (northern Kerala) on his candidacy in Thiruvananthapuram—as per my very Leftist family, my politically agnostic parents, and my Muslim-League driver—is positive. Perhaps it is the strangely refreshing presence of his candidacy in Kerala’s dourly stodgy political landscape that makes him an interesting presence. Tharoor plays well on television. It is quite a sight to see the man—his obviously more urbane, suave, and mustache-less persona—battle it out with the crustacean elements of Kerala’s uniquely pre-Cambrian, pre-free market political environment. He seems wonderfully receptive and responsive to people. I cannot shake the feeling that he resembles a graduate student who takes his thesis defense very seriously. He is earnest and eager to please. And it is this genuine combination of self-confidence and humility, of sorts, that I suspect will endear him to the obstinate and obsequious forces that mark Kerala’s political landscape. I am hopeful.
Earlier, as I set out to Thiruvananthapuram, I realized that the coming days would be my first lessons in active politics. As I left home, my father hinted that the mundane quality of Indian life is a greater teacher
than the exhilaration of Indian politics. I don’t fully comprehend his claim. It has been more than five years since I have been on an Indian train. I have been on state transport buses, bullock carts, Airbus 380, and yachts, but the embryonic throbbing of the Indian railway is a particularly private pleasure. The romance of forgotten bridges, farmlands, and pastoral beauty, the exhilaration of hanging off the compartment doors, with the winds from all corners of India blowing through me. Suddenly, and for the first time, I feel I am at home.
The idea of democracy is inexhaustibly attractive. In the United States today, there has been a renaissance of political activism. Inevitably, visions arise of some pristine idyll of consensus, self-exploration, reason, and expansion of human capacities. A faint hope arises that through an electoral mechanism, the will of the people shall emerge forth, like a wellspring in a desert.
Yet, the practice of democracy as I experienced it in India is strangely disconcerting. In fundamental ways, this is no different from any other democracy, including the United States. Voices are rarely reasoned.
Tempers arise. Fluid sentiments give way to doctrinaire paroxysms. A whirlwind of lies and banalities looms often in the horizon. Inescapably, there is an aftermath. It is easy to mistake the froth of this hyper-reality for the reality of India: the India of its people, its mountains, fresh water ponds, water lilies, and syncretistic faith. Idealism finds that expedience is a natural port of call in these choppy waters.
Yet, underneath it all, despite these orgiastic rituals of elections and campaigning and horse-trading, the Indic life flows through with calm. It remains a monsoon civilization where rains set the tune to which crops and human activity dance. Here, once the campaign wheels come to a stop, as the ink begins to dry and as the edges of campaign posters wilt under the sun and come unpeeled, life in India shall rumble on, with or without democracy. That is the humbling lesson that our modern vanities must comprehend. It is clear to me that the idea of democracy needs India more than the idea of India needs democracy.
I am at a debate between candidates. Underneath a tree, the eyes of the audience flit back and forth between the candidates. I recognize them from their campaign posters. Ramachandran Nair (CPI); Krishna Das (BJP); Neela LohitaDas Nadar (BSP, a lower caste-consciousness based new entrant into Kerala); and Gangadharan Nair (NCP—a “motley crew” of unclear political affiliation). I notice Tharoor. From afar, the audience, too, notices and watches him—his mannerisms, remarkably patient demeanor, diction in Malayalam, professorial spectacles, and willingness to let the other person speak. All of this seems fairly different in Kerala’s politics.
Tharoor stands amongst the four other contestants as he waits for the multi-party debate to commence. Clumps of darkened clay lie around. Minor whorls of red dust rise up and are felled by their own internal restraint. A whiff of a rickshaw’s exhaust is in the air.
Behind the debating spot is a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. Like much of India’s
commemorative institutions, this structure is yellowed out. Its walls are in disrepair. In the foyer of this building are some of the Mahatma’s books. It seems it’s been months, if not years, since these pages have been looked at. His Experiments with Truth seem to have collected dust. The whole place is a relic, a forgotten mausoleum of Indian ideals.
Slowly the audience trickles in, on bicycles, rickshaws, on foot, and occasionally in cars. The cars seem inauthentic, un-Gandhian, I feel. I chide myself for thinking like a simpleton apparatchik. My mind snaps out of this twist, as I hear hoodlums from the BJP and the Left, who comprise the entire audience, begin to shout at each other. It had ostensibly begun as an attack against Tharoor. Chauvinism, fake and real, reigns. Some of these men display calibrated rage. Tharoor stares at the melee, bemused. His raspy voice is drowned out as he attempts to pacify the crowd. Like Canute and the waves, rapprochement seems difficult at first. He lets them play it out. The debate moderator scrambles to restore peace. Emotions rally. Reason wanes.
The dust stops swirling, and the afternoon sun rises. A muezzin, somewhere in the city, heads up into the minaret to announce the uniqueness of his God. “No God, but God.” I notice the flowers on the grounds.
Kerala stands on the edges of the Arabian Sea. Every seventh onslaught of these curly waves from the Arabian Sea accretes energy and rampages inwards. Unhesitant, the waves carry with them barnacles, sand, polyps, and a fistful of exultant marine creatures that toss and squiggle. The boys on the coast love this. They jump along, carefree, and unabashed. Darkened by the fierce tropical sun, their white teeth shine. They are the darlings of their mothers. The wary pride of their fathers. To them, the sea is their playground. To me, the sea seems endless. Infinite. Hostile. In this sun, the body tires and the brain slowly gives up on reality. Human activity seems irrelevant, never mind something as strange as “political campaigning.” There is no respite but the waters that sway nearby.
Yet, I know otherwise. Through these waters evolved the course of my people. From, what medieval Arabs called “the dark waters”emerged the history of modern India. Islam, spices, colonization, and the Mahatma who sailed in from South Africa—all have crossed these waters. Some of us owe our ancestry to those who swam in and swam out, leaving behind carefree children and heartbroken women. Giant catamarans lie on the sandy shores, like exoskeletons of long dead monsters. These darkened shells of enterprise float through the waters, shielding the fishermen, nurturing their hopes. The musculature of these fishermen glistens in the sun. Yet, they carry themselves around like world weary men, unsure about life on land and impressively certain about the inevitability of a capsized boat. India, far less the Indian State, doesn’t exist in their minds.
Women seem more in touch with the consequences and vanities of the Indian State. Near the catamarans, a group of women work on creating channels to divert rising sea water. Perhaps a futile project, I feel. I don’t have the heart to question their enterprise. They are employed by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme—a legislative fiat that guarantees 100 working days in a year.
This is a bit of populism that I originally had opposed, but I now see the human aspects of it. I realize the importance of publically funded intervention. Inescapably, questions of efficient allocation of resources arise in my mind, but amidst these huts and the depravity of their material conditions, it seems like an obscene question.
I walk up to the women. Their sweat, furrowed brows, and shy smiles are followed by reluctance to talk to a stranger. I smile and make small talk. Have you always worked here? Who pays for this? Have they heard of the elections coming up? What about Shashi Tharoor? One of them giggles at the mention of his name. The others look at her knowingly, stealthily.
A lanky social worker who oversees their project tells me that they knew Tharoor was once the United Nations Undersecretary General. He seems like a good man, they say. I am pleased. Perhaps this is a good sign. Perhaps the Rural Employment Scheme was a well-intentioned policy that would bear electoral gains. For the next five minutes, I laugh with them; they turn on their charm. I can’t help notice their bodies: middle aged and voluptuous.
They complain about the Left Government, about their Member of the Parliament who was never to be seen once elected, about the declining standards of schools and water. I smell anti-incumbency in the air. With none of the diffidence that I originally had, I ask, who will you vote for? And they unhesitatingly respond: the Left. I am puzzled. Noting my puzzlement, they clarify. At the Panchayat nearby, the workers under the Scheme were paid Rs. 250 per day, while they earn Rs. 125 per day. Unless Tharoor can guarantee that they will earn Rs. 250 as well, they have no intention of changing allegiances. Their reasoning leaves me puzzled. While, I do not know the details of their accusations, their tone contains truth. Their voices carry their hurt.
As I walk away from them, the series of thatched huts quivers as the winds lash on, a gathering mount of plastic refuse putrefies in the heat and a brilliant sun shines. Small acts of corruption pervade and impoverish daily life. This can be remedied. More important is that the faith of these men and women—resigned to their fates—be restored. That is the real challenge that a candidate like Tharoor faces. Like a patient with several broken bones, nurturing her back to movement and self-confidence is a gradual, patient act of charity. Charity, or agape in Latin, is love. I have faith that things can be changed. I must have faith in our better tomorrow.
The winds here are unlike my home in central Kerala, more particularly in Palakkad District where I was born. There, the elephantine Western Ghats loom large. They buffet the wind’s lashing and protect the valleys that lie ensconced in its bosom. There, the winds are perfumed by areca nuts, palm groves, the swaying mangos, lilting coconut trees, jasmine, and hibiscus on the hills. The paddy fields are everywhere.
Our geography demarcates the extent of our imagination. As we relish our natural beauties, we withdraw from the world. We form castes; we form dykes on our mind’s coast. We remain content in the unbearable melancholy of our self-inflicted insularity.
On the coast of southern Kerala, here in Thiruvananthapuram, the world is at our door step. Chinese fishing nets, Arab enterprise, Jewish consciousness and Roman coins all find their way onto these shores. My people have found ways to welcome them—to learn from and to assimilate them. Yet, this openness and enterprise comes at a cost: struggles over resources, disenchantment, and the creation of the “other” amongst our own ensues.
Much of Kerala is, as Dara Shikhoh once wrote about Indian sensibility, a majma-al-bahrain, the mingling of two oceans. Today these oceans seem polluted. They carry with them a stench—a stench of the leftovers of the dead from the Carboniferous era. And, in recent times, the despair of those left behind.
Into this ocean of discontent, the politician and the politically conscious have dived.
Keerthik Sasidharan works for a French investment bank in New York City.
Editor’s Note: On May 16, Shashi Tharoor was declared the MP from Thiruvananthapuram. He won by a margin of almost 100,000 votes.