25 October 2010

In the land of contradiction

India was once known as the land of milk and honey. Then it was known as the land of the corrupt and the poor. Then it was known as the land of Slumdog Millionaire. Now it's oft known as the Land of Plenty. I don't argue with any of this. All of it is true and sometimes untrue as well. I've realised that to try and give India any kind of singularity, whether in name or deed or verse is a futile task. So I'd like to add another name. The Land of Contradiction. Perhaps you've heard this one before as well.

It was a Friday evening. I was out with my friend M, shopping, drinking, eating. Doing the things that the idle upper middle class do. An indulgence that neither of us begrudged ourselves because we know ourselves. Until we came upon this sight. If Henri Cartier-Bresson were still alive, he might have turned this into an iconic image in his own inimitable style. As it happened, there were only two women, laden with shopping bags and a throbbing conscience, debating if they should take a photograph of this cruel slice of life. The throbbing conscience won and they decided not to.

But let me describe it for you. There was a mall. With a hideous McDonald's fronting it. There was a wooden bench upon which sat the life-size figure of Ronald the Clown with his arms spreadeagled across the back of the bench. Pressed to the left side of old Ronald, as if sheltered by a father figure, was a little urchin boy. Fast asleep. His very real, child's palm pressed against Ronald's wooden ribcage, his mouth half-open in deep, innocent sleep, unresponsive to the noise and din of a busy Bombay street.

We stood there for a long time, not knowing whether to wake him up and feed him or take a picture of the unbelievable cruelty of urban life or to inform the security guard that he shouldn't wake him up and shoo him away like an errant pigeon soiling their pristine doorstep.

So we continued to stand there, an internal debate marring our faces. Then a lady emerged with a doggy bag from inside and tried to shake him awake and give him a burger. He moved but his eyes didn't open. He changed positions, snuggled further into the hard clown's side and continued to emit sounds of deep sleep. She shook her head helplessly and looked at us. We shook our heads too. Helplessness and lack of true wisdom speak the same universal language.

Finally, life intruded. We went our way and the kind lady went hers. The clown looked on. Unaware in his wooden heart of how truly unfunny the situation was.

And the child slept on. Unperturbed. The peaceful sleep that still weighs on my conscience.