Unrestricted international travel – the one thing that has been denied to millions across the world – has been mine, these past few months, through the act of reading for hours in an uninterrupted fashion. I read the political news of the day and then jump backward in time to read Tamil writings from the 5th-8th centuries. My mind reads modern English words, phrases, and paragraphs at lightning speed as I devour political news, and then slows down as I read and sound out unfamiliar words and verse in classical Tamil.
The psychic reading worlds that I move in could not be more different. And yet, the two worlds collided in a remarkable fashion in my head at the conclusion of the first Presidential debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. At the very end of the debate when asked about voting these were a snapshot of the responses.
Trump ranted, “As far as the ballot is concerned it is a disaster…they are sending millions of ballots all across the country. There is fraud, they found them in creeks, they found some with the name Trump in a waste paper basket, they are being sent all over the place…this is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen..there are many states all run by Democrats….one percent of ballots cast in 2016 were invalidated. We don’t like ‘em we don’t like ‘em and they throw them out.”
To this charge on mail-in voting, Joe Biden declared, “There is no fraud.”
I couldn’t believe that a sitting President would in such a cavalier manner dismiss the act of voting. Was he not responsible to ensure that there was indeed no fraud? The next day, the political pundits went after who won and who lost the debate. Trump was a bully, some said. Biden missed points when he could have made a stinging comeback others said. Ping-pong. You hit – I hit back. I was not interested in any of that.
When I heard that exchange, my mind careened backward all the way to the words of the fictional character Kannagi in the Tamil epic Silappadikaaram.
“Candron enkolo? Candron enkolo?”(Wise men, where are you?) she screams in agony on discovering her husband Kovalan is killed by the king’s men.
The Silppadikaram is considered one of the five great Tamil epics written by a Jain Prince Ilando Adigal. In the story, Kannagi and Kovalan are married with the blessing of the elders in their families. Their young lives are upended rudely when Kovalan falls in love with Madhavi, a courtesan dancer and he soon leaves Kannagi. After spending years with Madhavi, Kovalan realizes the folly of his ways and returns to his dutiful wife Kannagi.
They soon leave the kingdom ruled by the Cholas and travel to the land ruled by the Pandyas and enter its largest city Madurai. Here, Kovalan decides to sell his wife’s silambu (anklet) to make a fresh start in life and takes it to a jeweler in the marketplace. The cunning jeweler who also happens to be the royal jeweler sees the similarities between the Queen’s anklet and that of Kannagi’s. The jeweler had stolen the queen’s anklet and when Kovalan entered his workshop, he saw the perfect opportunity to frame the unsuspecting Kovalan for the theft. The jeweler hurries to the king and accuses Kovalan of theft. Dragged by the king’s men into court, Kovalan’s head is severed with one stroke and when Kannagi finds her husband dead, she screams in anger – “Candron enkolo?” (Wise men, where are you?)
The morning following the debate I wish that there had been 535 messages on social media and in every publication across the country. The 435 members in the House and 100 senators should have signed one statement which had just one sentence. “From now till election day, I will personally work to make sure that your vote is counted, regardless of whether it is a mailed-in ballot or if it is a ballot cast in person.”
Without the protection that my vote and every other vote will be counted, how can we even say that we live in a democracy? Forget the fact that we want a Republican or a Democrat based on our political beliefs. Where are the checks and balances in action that we read about in civics textbooks? Each one of the 535 representatives has been accorded the power they enjoy because of thousands of votes that have been cast in their favor. I should be able to take the fact that my vote will be counted for granted in a mature Western democracy.
When a sitting President talks of his own administration and says that they are sending millions of ballots all across the country and that there is massive fraud, where is the massive counter-response from legislators? To a President who relishes in the spectacle of political theater, can I not expect every legislator to stand in dramatic fashion as one to say, “Your vote will be counted. I will work to ensure that basic right for all the people I represent in my district, in my state.”
“Candron enkolo?” – Wise men, where are you? Kannagi howled within the fictional plot. Of course, these words were spoken at a time when only men could be counted amongst the king’s advisors and as those who upheld justice.
Today, I ask – Candron enkolo? – Wise men and women of both parties, where are you?
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a former editor of India Currents magazine.