Among Top 5 in India
Cartoonist,poet,social activist,development banker, documentary filmmaker,reader of books and realities,
ponderer of questions milling around.
It is true:
all bits were heedless, one time things;
a catching up at the end,
some sort of a reckoning,
was never on the cards.
What washes up is: children`s families,
newspapers, TV, books, etc
or a soiled notion
that there just might be another life,
another chance yet.
It started when I spotted the packets of aam papad stacked in the makeshift stalls. Those born in the pre-globalized India will remember this tangy-sweet unique thing made out of sugared and boiled raw mango. Sold by itinerant vendors of such folk goodies, calling out to the children and adults about their tantalizing wares, walking down the streets in the lazy, long afternoons of pre-smartphone youth, aam papad remains for us a memorial pillar of the magical side of childhood. Globalized India has lost quite a lot too.
It was the packaging actually. It was done clumsily, using the standard transparent, yellow, plastic paper used by corporate sweet companies like Haldiram, Bikanerwala, etc but done inexpertly, perhaps by hand – using up too much paper. Haldiram types also now keep aam papad in their in their shops occasionally but these are sleekly and uniformly packaged in standardized and economical design. Even the aam papad taste has been standardized. But here these were all different, packets varying from stall to stall, handmade and amateurish. Even the rectangular slices of the aam papad were of different thickness and shapes.
So much ineptitude, such neglect of profitability, in this day and age when profiteering is considered the same as profit-making! Who are these people? What is all this?
Then I saw that the entire winding lane that connects Mumbai’s S V Road and V S Road and hosts a modest Prabhadevi Temple was lined by scores of such temporary stalls selling much non corporate merchandise. It was a full moon festival centered around the temple and the stalls were part of the festival market. The temple was busy but not thronged by devotees comfortably going inside with thalis of offerings and returning with tilak on foreheads and reassurance in the hearts. Instead of the normal one cow of the lane on other days there were several tethered cows today; tethered around bundles of juicy green grass, and devotees bought some grass from the cows` keepers to feed the happy, sleepy cows for gaining divine merit. There were the usual balloonwallas, earthen utensils and lampwallas, a man with two show monkeys, the usual brightly dressed children clutching anxious fingers, and I looked for and eventually found that mysterious man of my own childhood with a pole half-covered by a thick, sweet, sticky spiral running along its length. You paid your money and the man took a small stick and unrolled from the huge tantalizing pole a tiny sweet, spiral of the coloured, gummy paste for you to lick at leisure. I waited to see children haltingly approach this smiling man and buy their little magical stick to slobber over. It was another, bygone era recreated. Or is it that it was always there and it was I who had wandered away from it in order to live what I thought of as life?
All this on a full moon day, Purnima. Then I remembered that such a modest mela came here every month on almost all Purnima days. Only I had not noticed before. Here was a lifestyle governed by the lunar calendar. There were nearly a hundred stalls. Most had the standard product mix of puffed grain (rice and corn), gur in cute, retro-looking ingot shapes, aam papad as already described, brightly hand painted earthen idols of Ganapati, Gauri and other current gods. Other stalls had jewellery of beads, bindis and bangles looking like photos of excavation-exhibits from Harappan archeological sites, and much similar things which pass below the radar of corporate markets — one or two stalls had calendars of Nehru, Patel, Gandhi etc. Prayer booklets, dhoop sticks and agarbattis. All life.
And then one or two stalls that took my breath away. Small heaps of dimpled, red, wild berries (picked from thorny bushes) called ber, green, sweet and sour jamphal, which have four fins like torpedos, unevenly shaped, antique looking bel fruits – favourite of Lord Shiva and its sweet pulp supposedly good for digestion, wild green jeera bunched in neat bundles, and many small fruits and herbs whose names I did not know but which were both unfamiliar and intimately familiar at the same time. The whole table of the stall was like a visitation from a lifetime left behind, evoking memories and dreams, ungraspable ancestral symbols and forebodings, reminding me that like all of us I too was some sort of an exile.
An exhausted woman, who must have spent weeks alongwith her village womenfolk picking these things from their forested land (after bribing the forest guard) and who must have spent the small hours of the morning arranging these offerings in neat piles of her stall. Now she sat at the back watching with tired but proud eyes her husband negotiating prices with the city stickers like me. I saw Marathi matrons with knowing eyes, some accompanied by digital-generation schoolgoing daughters, making gentle bargains for this exotica from the past with a touch of childhood memories and deference for valuable things left behind unwillingly. Marketing chaps would call this Minor Forest Produce. But this market and the labour underlying it exists even today, and surfaces once every month — on full moon days – and finds customers to complete the product-cycle with enough profit to finance a meagre existence in the hinterland. This happens in Mumbai, in India, in the 21st century – of rampant Washington Consensus. By the Lunar Calendar. I looked up to see the moon – it was evening. I saw it as the familiar swollen, yellowed orb low in the sky! But no. It was the glowing neon logo of some famous builder on top of a towering building – one among scores of them clustering the horizon. The moon was still hidden behind these buildings, but it was there.
I stood and looked at the whole scene again, now with a historical eye. At one end of this winding impromtu market, on the S V Road, are the glittering giant car showrooms of Ferrari, Bugatti, Porsche, Lamborghini and Tata Motors and Hyundai – each showroom the size of a mini airport covering the ground floors of the new, tall skyscrapers, some still under construction. At the other end of the lane are the middle-class co-op. housing society flats resisting the slow but sure approaching tsunami of the builder-driven future skyscrapers bordering the Mahim bay – where the Portuguese had first set up their military base. The lane was less than 100 yards from the old Century Mills area. The co-op. 3-storey housing surrounding it were white-collar outgrowths of the old labour tenements – “chawls” — which had served the now extinct textile mills, each factory site now the base of a rising skyscraper. This was the one end of the old Girnigaum — “a village of factories” – now renamed Girgaum, the other end being the chowpatty on the Marine Drive. Here was the March of History – of Bombay turning to Mumbai – the global sow of Progress whose tits suckle modern politicians, tycoons, and Schools of Business. The Solar Calendar zone of the ruling classes.
But in the interstices there struggles and survives despite the terms of trade weighted against it the unbanishable Purnima driven monthly market of the below–the–radar economy. The Lunar Calendar zone, of the working classes. This is one face of the much-hyped Resilient Spirit of the city – which is not the televised Peace Runs by the chic after an atrocity — the working class fighting and resisting the post-Soviet Union capitalism; a new capitalism which wears the government mega dole-made masks of Orwellian Reforms. The other face is, of course, the overladen local trains of Mumbai. I looked up along a canyon between the skyscrapers and finally saw the moon, the real one, not a neon.
I walked back again through the unevenly lined stalls marveling at their historical function, thinking about the ancient Lunar Calendar. And I finally succumbed to the magical man with the coloured, sweet python wrapped around his pole and bought a stick of that sweet. What is wrong with lunar calendar? Why has it fallen into disrepute, if not disuse? What is a calendar? It is a chart to record and plan the passage of time. Come to it, what is time? Time is nothing but the space to live out our lives. There is nothing more visible to everybody and more user-friendly than the moon to mark time. The sun looks the same all year around and just marks the day and night – which is useful to mark daily labour and sleep, sure — but is a very short term measure.
The moon handles longer term avtivities! Nearly all crops (except sugarcane) get sown and harvested – the most important function of a calendar – within months, often two or more crops a year. Babies get born within months. Most economic cycles of work – naturally related to the produce of crops – get completed within months. Rural Money lenders even today charge interest — also related to crops – at monthly rates. All lived life gets nicely handled by a lunar calendar. Most important of all, the moon is much more pleasing to the eye and helpfully waxes and wanes to provide analog reminder of the passage of time! So, what displaced the lunar calendar which handled time in an easy, human-scale manner? Not surprisingly all cultures since ancient times evolved their own lunar calendars. Even the Aristotlean calendar of seven concentric rotating heavenly spheres had an annual calendar of lunar months with an year-end correcting thingummy. And it is worth remembering that the Aristotlean calendar – indeed, the whole Aristotlean physics, then called Natural Philosphy, including astronomy, tides, eclipses, season, geometry, statics, dynamics, mathematics, life, and all that — lasted more than 1500 years. Upto Galileo-Copernicus-Newton, when the Solar Calendar was born. Why was this born? Because European feudal economies, saturated and stagnating within their old mode, were wanting to do long-term oceanic shipping (now helped by compass navigation) looking for products and labour globally to plunder and exploit better. In short, the Solar Calendar came with the onset of capitalism. Globalization began with capitalism.
Happily walking through my local, pre-capitalist market I was about to pop my magical stick of sweet gum into my mouth when my diabetic calorie- consciousness – as constant as class- consciousness – kicked in and stopped me. Okay, the lunar calendar needs a year-end correction to align with the current solar calendar but what is so terribly wrong with that? I walked up to the magic man with the sweet python-pole, with the children thronging him mesmerized and gave away my stick to a baffled boy. The magic man smiled. Little paper flags stuck into his sweet python fluttered cheerfully in the breeze.
I had reached the end of the lane where there was a triangular, corner shop so cute and so common in the old parts of Bombay. It still had name City Light Café in faded letters of masonry. But now one half, along one arm of the triangle, was a pharmacy shop and the other arm had a mobile phone outlet. I looked at the city entering into the night, its tall towers glittering sharply in the dark sky, and wondered at the heart-breaking inequity of it. This is what gross inequity, enacted on a vast economic scale, looks like! The very textile mills with their workers, their chawls, which had given economic value to this land were coldly closed down and scattered to the winds of history by patient, back-room political machinations of cold blooded builders so as to encash that very value as capital gains – in these glittering high` rise towers of a global template. This city is built upon the graves of cruel, iniquitous displacements and usurpations. Perhaps all cities of the world are like that.
I could not ponder on this enigma because my senses were assailed by the peak evening traffic of speeding, blaring, honking vehicles. The ground beneath my feet shook as behemoth buses of BEST hurtled past. These were the streets in which small forays in my little Hyundai brought my heart to my mouth, and in the same streets these monsters were being driven by superhuman drivers at unbelievable speeds between the red lights. I looked at one bus. Its destination was Kurla Depot, and it had started from the govt. secretariat in Nariman Point. Those who know the city would understand how arduous this route can be. That these drivers can reach their destinations, through this apocalyptic traffic, every day, and keep their schedules and nerves is an astounding, unsung feat. Kurla!
Ah, I realized with a strange uplifting tugging at my heart, that lo and hehold, Kurla too has its own lunar calendar. There too on full moon days and nights there gathers, centered around the convenient temple or a dargah, a similar congregation of people and produce from the hinterland who live and persevere below the radar of the official economy. And Kurla too was and still is a major residential area of industrial and white-collar labour. The old social and economic networks of the city have not been fully uprooted by the Development parade. I watched the massed traffic. A new model of Mercedes was impatiently trying to find its way through the slow moving jam.
Why only Kurla? The whole of old Bombay, except the narrow strip of British and Parsi thugs from Malabar Hill to the Fort profiting from the opium trade with China — the entire city really — was nothing but factories and the surrounding labour tenements — chawls. From Girgaum Chowpatty, via the mid-section of Parel, Dadar, Sion, Kurla, etc to far areas like Ghatkopar, Malad, Mulund and Vikhroli. Now the factories are all dead or gone. Malls and Multiplexes have come. Chawls had sensed the winds of change early and had slowly converted, using instincts of organized labour, to 3-storey Co-op. housing societies, as their workers too had changed in the next generation from the underclass, collarless and blue-collar to middle-class white-collar who now move around on motorbikes, with laptops inside appropriately designed backpacks. On full moon days or even without full moon the working class of the city has built, using the lunar calendar and melas and temples and dargahs, its economic trenches and ramparts for a protracted defensive warfare against the Animal Spirits of the corporate oligarchies of India ceremonially unleashed by Manmohan Singh in 1991. Hm, come to it, this is not only about Mumbai either.
The single, most powerful word today, in media and government spheres is: Market. It is the Name of the Dominant God today, in India and the world, and all older “national” gods have become its subservient vaahans –vehicles, very much like the earlier tribal totemic gods had done with the “national” gods. It reigns globally, imperially, realtime, and 24×7; and it uses the Solar Calendar.
Which people in India have come under its way? Recently some think tank in Singapore or Sweden, or Sarajevo had estimated India’s middle class as 30 million – 3 crore people – and there was widespread outrage and consternation; even the FM had to issue a Statement. But that is nothing. We have always known the figure more or less. Total central govt employees, both civil and military, including retired pensioners are around 1.5 crore. Add the police and paramilitary forces and state government employees of about the same number, it becomes 3 crores. Add all private sector employees of about 2 crore and the total kitty is 5 crore people. These are the catchment of Market. That is all. If we then add the odd rural people employed in organized kulak agriculture/horticulture and all transportation and all shops, and workshops, another 5 crore can be added at best. So 10 crore – less than 10% of India’s population — is the catchment of Market Forces, and use Solar Calendar to live lives that are poor imitations of the American Idol template. This narrow segment of the population is the India seen by the World Bank, G-8, Boeing, General Motors, Monsanto, Shell, Burger King, Cola Cola, Star TV, Nike – that lot. This is the India that dominates the Idea of India and foreshortens it. This thin crust is the bankable of India, the Visible India – credible or incredible – ruled by 24×7 solar calendar.
The Purnima markets at Prabhadevi Lane represent the Invisible India, 90% of the people of this Jambudwipa – from Phagwara, through Pilibhit, Purnea and Parbhani to Perambudur. Mercifully left out of most of the wordy privileges of the Constitution, the pompous Institutions of governance of democracy, the deep calculations of the global think tanks and the bloodsucking machinations of the Markets, this Invisible India hangs on to its ancient lunar calendar, labours on month by month with the waxing and waning of the moon and of their fickle fortunes, fights and survives in the gaps, penumbras and interstices of the Orwellian juggernaut called the Economy. Births, marriages, deaths take place along old patterns. Even the local money lenders, using monthly interest rates, do not really ever get rich and buy a Mercedes or more away to Mumbai – they stay on in the same old villages; at best make a 2-storey house there. Is this a small space? Is this a small and trivial phenomenon? No. Quite the opposite. This 90% Invisible India is the real dark matter of this land surviving for centuries despite all odds under a lunar calendar.
We knew this all along, of course, at the back of our minds – luckily still out of reach of the media overkill, the stultifying 360 degree badgering of Market Forces which makes up more Orwellian things like Discourse or ,lately, Narrative. Not only we, but 90% of the world – from Bagota, through Botswana, Bosnia, Burdwan to Borneo – get to know it afresh every day simply from our working life. That the 24×7, global, Markets That Never Sleep, or Where The Sun Does Not Set, where the Solar Calendar rules,digitally exact, all these are only skin deep and work only for 10% of this planet’s people.
What we don’t quite realize is that this 10% world of the Solar Calendar is not a big deal. It has a shallow hold on the world. Its frontages and masquerades and parades are overwhelming and mind numbing, yes, but if we avert our eyes from the wide angled glare of its narratives and disourses, we find that most of world – 90% actually — has slipped through its grasp, even in today’s Late Capitalism stage. The full moon bazaar in Prabhadevi Lane is the living proof — for those who need this proof. Things are not so bad! The demise of the Soviet Union is not the end of the world. May be it is a blessing actually. History has not ended at all. Far from it. It is yet to begin really. Long live lunar calendars.
I see a woman running a vada-paav roadside stall, finally sitting down tired at the end of a hard day of making and selling the stuff, chatting with another woman, may be her last customer and friend. They are smiling, spent, content. The moon has risen up clear in the sky, beyond and above the tall skyscrapers under construction all around.