Curfew or Bandh

Friday, 12th March, 1993. Bombay was under attack. 13 explosions that shook the city. Within this communal rage, as religion was tearing the city apart, humanity was bringing many of them together. In such a state of terror, people were stepping out of their houses to lend a helping hand, to give shelter, to provide food. And give blood instead of taking it.

Wednesday, 26th November, 2008. The crown of the city was burning. Taj had been encroached into and imploded with bombs. Mumbai, now, was not hiding under its blanket, but rather doing what it does best under adversity, come together. Help was offered, lives were lost, but the popularly termed “indomitable spirit” kept the city running.

Take the train blasts, the floods and any other real calamity and you’d see this city come out of its comforts, fight, help and survive. Without a drop of fear rolling down its forehead.

And now let’s see at the idiotic side of the city. Funny too. Purely because of how they react. Bruised, battered and torn, the spirited Mumbaikars shine through. But when the Wolf cries, they start shitting bricks.

While the collateral damage of the bomb blasts can be scaled in numbers, the collateral damage that these National Bandhs create in terms of fear is immeasurable. These bandhs have a legacy. Be it national or state specific. Strangely, I hardly remember the reasons behind these bandhs. The one-off I remember is that of a rumour of Bal Thackerey being arrested. Ego battles are often fought under the pretense of ‘sensitive issues’. For Kolkata, if there’s not a bandh at regular intervals, it starts feeling abnormal. It’s a culturally entrenched habit now. Coming back to these bandhs in question.

For some reason, they always pelt stones at the state transport buses. Irrespective what the reason for the bandh is these buses have to face the music. I pity the bus driver. The government shows balls by keeping the transport running, but the driver’s balls are always in his mouth when it comes to such things. His ‘What the hell have I done’ query always gets stoned. Trains are largely unaffected. Autos and cabs can also continue to ply. Even people can travel.

Take today, 31st May 2012, for instance. Today’s reason behind the bandh is to protest against the hike in fuel prices. Yes, the prices are rising, and something must be done about it. But shooting in the dark is not going to hit bull’s eye. Cabs and auto run on CNG now. So do these buses. The trains have no connection with the hike. Most of the people who travel with these modes of transport don’t own a vehicle. Most of them. Yet everyone involved in this Maslow’s world lives in fear. What for? And in fear of what? Before I left home the news channels were talking about the partial impact of the Bandh. And buses as usual had become breaking news, in every sense of the word. While some channels called it violence and showed glimpses of the buses, other channels were making a documentary on these buses. None of the passengers or drivers were injured. Yet, a dramatic turn of events. Fear was in stage 1 right now. Twitter on the other hand was advertising the joy of driving and riding in the empty streets of the city. That was irony making a guest appearance.

As I stepped out, I saw the Bombay of 80s. Unpopulated. Deserted. Calm. Yes, these were glimpses of romance the city one had. Two crows were catching up in the middle of the road. I guess they were tired of flying, because they chose to walk. In many ways, that too, was a rare sight. Then taking the situation at hand, a Western Classic starting running in front of my eyes. Soon, curfew scenes made their way in as well. Cops stationed at every corner. Eerie silence singing dark melody with the winds.

And then the panic calls began.  There is unrest near office. Next call – No cabs. Next call – They’ve started shutting offices. Next call – Beta, turn around, it’s scary out there. Next call – They’ve shut one of our offices, might shut the main office as well. Next call – I’ve asked a colleague to go back, you should go back too.

After all that chaos, I took a deep breath. I said; hold on a minute, what’s the reason again, PROTEST AGAINST RISING FUEL PRICES. At that point sanity came and slapped me in the face, it asked me to stop being stupid. I obliged and looked at this as one the shortest adventures, the only pseudo curfew experience I’ll ever have in this city. Because the city has proven time and again, when it’s under attack, it unites as a brutal force, but when it comes to fake alarms, it panics. So, I hailed an auto and went to the nearest cab stand. A cool cab greeted me with looks of uncertainty. Not cool at all. The 12 minute drive towards office began with nervous looks and a watchful eye. He spoke of fears and poverty and the government. Nothing new there, I said. And as we hit the highway, the skeptic stepped out and the driver stepped back in. He spoke of the pleasures of driving. Said 15 years back he could drive like this. As we cut into a by lane, the skeptic was back in the driver’s seat. Dropping me much before my destination, he took a U-turn and returned to living in fear.

As I reached office, I saw my junior walk in all smiling. She comes from a different city by the way. “I took the bus today. 1st time in Mumbai. It was so comfortable. Only 5 bucks.” It was heartening to see a bandh infested city welcoming a new tenant with open arms. This time irony had walked into office.

While India is holed up under the excuse of Bandh, Americans will be stepping out to witness the Manhattanhenge. Eternal sunshine and the spotless mind.

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