Bangalore Update - A City on Fire
There’s no derth of irony and drama when you live in India. This time, it made international news. The water crisis is global, but every nation has its water crisis heartbeat, and for South India, it happens to center around the Cauvery river. There has been a 150-year old dispute about how the water from this river needs to be shared between two neighboring States, and this article here articulates the politics behind this better than I ever could.
Article Link : http://scroll.in/article/816445/the-story-of-how-karnataka-and-tamil-nadu-mismanaged-their-water-and-then-blamed-each-other
Suffice to say that water sharing has been an emotional issue between the people of Tamil Nadu, and the people of Karnataka (Bangalore happens to be the capital of Karnataka).
Last week the supreme court ruled that Karnataka had to share more water than they had anticipated, and politicians decided it was time to set the city on fire.
The Bundh is something uniquely South Asian. It's a strike, a protest when everything in the city shuts down. It happens when a group of people have certain monetary or protocol demands (people working in transport, trade, or providing governmental services like the post, for example) and demonstrate the seriousness of their demands by shutting down the city until the government negotiates with them. These Bundhs are usually planned and we hear about them in newspapers, declaring a holiday for people at work and school. "All shops will be closed, and the roads silent from 6am to 6pm". Think of the Bundh as a token of expression: We, the people. Bundh literally means ‘close’ (i.e. in the "close this shop" sense of the word) in Hindi.
On Monday, September 12th, we were at work, just another day at my design and content laboratory, Write Leela Write. That’s when we learnt the Supreme Court had announced its ruling on the water distribution and some people had begun making ‘trouble’ in the city. The old fashioned Indian riot has much to do with burning tires, a symbol if you will, of how savagely pissed a group of people are. Take it up a notch and groups from various political factions will burn buses and other vehicles, anarchy at its spectacular best. The darkest and most violent riots have illustrated that we can rot our souls and blunt any sense of humanity. If you are interested to know our shameful history, you can look up the Gujarat Riots or the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
Political powers have supporters and unofficial mafia-type rings, they are usually motivated by power or money to kick up a fuss in the city. Deciphering a clear agenda and motivations for tearing up a city is a process that will drive you insane. Quite frankly, counting the threads on your average tire would be more productive. Suffice to say, burning tires on the roads were spotted. That’s Indian code for "go home and stay there". We started to get people out of our office, and that was around when we heard a truck on the outskirts of the city had been set ablaze.
Mob mentality rears an especially ugly head in India. We’re a tame bunch individually, most of us don’t let out so much as a peep when we’re asked to act on an opinion or social cause, but give us a valve when people can pool their frustrations, and you'll suddenly have a crowd of bat-shit crazy men with sticks, and ready to beat or burn anything in sight. That’s the whole point of an impromptu Bundh/Riot- anything can happen, a brief feeling of power for a few groups of men, and yes men, because I haven’t seen any motivated women physically assaulting or burning public property in my 32 years of existence. This is how Bangalore, a city of 9 million, the technological hub of Asia, is shut down because of a 1000 odd men from various factions deciding to show how patriotic they are to the cause of our State’s water.
Therefore, anything from Tamil Nadu sucks, any car or bus with a Tamil Nadu license plate is now in danger in Karnataka- yes, if you’re asking, uh, really? Wtf? So were we.
We all got home safe. Meanwhile, the parents of Bangalore rushed to schools to pick up their kids and get back to their houses, creating maddening traffic jams on the ironically vulnerable roads. Once home, I flipped the TV on and watched the hyperbole ensue. Accusations that the government had lost control were being thrown around lightly. Later that night 35 buses parked at the end of the city were burnt down by a group of ‘miscreants’, because the owner of the bus depot was Tamilian. The next day the city is shaking in fear, we’re holed up in our houses. The police perform well, extra forces of 15 thousand police are dispatched around the city and keep the tire burning to a minimum. We’ve lost a good 48 hours of work at this point, the right to go outside, eat, shop, do anything, because everything is closed. I find a vegetable shop open in the morning and I am ecstatic.
Bangalore is one of those funny cities - a place with cosmopolitan energy and spunk, the economy of the state runs on urban professionals who moved from middle class roots into upper-middle class Bangalore opportunities. Yet, the medieval approach to rioting, political agendas, and zealous identity politics (Tamil Nadu vs Karnataka) can pucker the smiling city in an hour flat.
But because of the stakes we hold, the technological leverage and the money we stand to make from overseas, it’s my opinion that the political forces can’t allow for the darkness to become overly violent, there must be a ruckus, but not one that will weigh heavy on our souls and question our basic sense of humanity.
I have a writer friend, Mahesh Natarajan, who writes micro-fiction on FB. His narratives are woven from our everyday. Today he posted a short story, based on this week. Instead of describing it, I’ll share it.
It is two days after the riots. People are getting back to normal. The roads are congested as usual.
"Do you notice something?" His perennial backseat driver asks. The streets are still singed with the burnt tires, a skeleton of an SUV pulled over to the curb, and uncleared signs of strife - chappals, garments. "Despite all of the damage, the roads are jammed as usual?" He says.
"Yes, but do you notice that nobody is honking much?" His companion persists. He lowers the windows - yes, it is quite quiet; everybody is behaving themselves. "I guess everyone is realizing they just want to go about their business quietly, huh." He says.
The signal has turned, and the traffic moves in an orderly fashion, carrying them in its quiet wave.
I read this and thought about trauma and good behavior. What is it about a collective negative experience, one where the majority can truly see an experience for what it is: nonsensical and cruel, and feeling the need to value the moments of normal with new vigor?
When I went back to work on Wednesday, I truly felt liberated, and it was really so stupid when I thought about it. For 48 hours, my right as a citizen to go to work, buy food, walk the roads had been revoked for no good reason. It is so silly, but when you have a basic thing like that revoked, you feel your freedom a little more, you understand that normal exists because most of the time, we know how to get along, most of the time, we know we’re fighting one triumphant experience – the mundane, the predictable, the everyday reassurance that after a long day of meetings, you’ll buy microwave popcorn at the store and settle down to watch Netflix. For a few days, we’ll all be grateful and proactive about celebrating the everyday, and maybe, just maybe, that’s why I love life in Bangalore.