Conversations on the 55664 Passenger from Silchar to Agartala

It was 7 in the morning and I was feeling crabby because I hadn’t sufficiently recovered from the exertions of the previous day. But I had a train to catch within an hour and Silchar wasn’t a place to linger for more than a night. I needed a cup of tea but as it turned out, the restaurant at the Center Palace Hotel had run out of milk and couldn’t figure out how to make tea without it. So I left the hotel in a huff swearing never to stay there ever again.

I entered Coach B1 of the Silchar-Agartala Passenger in a bad mood. When I saw that my seat, a window seat, was occupied by a short, bald man in an undershirt, I flipped out. I bawled at him to vacate it immediately because it belonged to me. The man laughed and asked me why I was getting so angry. He shifted a bit closer to the window to make more more space on the middle seat and requested me to occupy it. This made me even angrier but before I could burst an artery, the ticket collector arrived. I told the TC that the short, bald dude was sitting on the seat assigned to me. The TC turned to me and said, “Aap ki umar kya hai? Bacchon jaisi harkat kar rahe ho. Baithiye chup chaap.” (How old are you? Stop acting like a child. Sit quietly.”)

The man occupying my seat smiled victoriously, grabbed a flask and poured a cup of hot chai for me in reconciliation, which had the effect of calming my nerves immediately. He happily poured another cup and in a matter of seconds, had become my best friend in the entire world. His name was Fayyaz, he said, and he worked as a garment merchant in Kanpur. He had to visit Agartala every month to monitor some of the vendors there, a tough 4 day train journey to and fro. I asked him why he didn’t just fly in and he said it was too expensive and the train journey sometimes helped him build business connections with people on the way.

On cue, a wiry, young man sitting opposite to us introduced himself to Fayyaz as a garment merchant from North Lakhimpur. His name was Vivek and he too had to travel up and down to Agartala frequently to see how things were going with his vendors. The two began conversing on the intricacies of the garment trade, how the middlemen were getting fickler, how the profit margin had been tightening, how the quality of merchandise was going down and both had a common cause until Fayyaz brought up the sticky topics of demonetisation and GST driving his business down the deep end.

Vivek revealed himself to be a card-carrying supporter of the BJP and began vociferously defending the government’s contentious policies. He conceded that his business had been hit in the short term but it was a small sacrifice to make for the greater good. He took a snide dig at Fayyaz saying the reason businessmen like him didn’t like the Modi government’s economic policies was because it was meant to clean things up, something people used to the old underhanded way of doing things wouldn’t be happy about.

Seeing that matters were heating up a little, the gentleman seated in a corner, who was a professor of Tribal Studies at a college in Agartala and who had been quiet until this moment, chimed in to lighten things up with his own remarks about the Communist Government that he had to endure in Tripura. “The Communists also said they would never let any corruption happen in their rule,” he said, “There was a time when we believed everything they did was right. But look at them today, except for Manik babu (the then CM of Tripura), many are corrupt to the core. The same is true of the BJP. Modi may be clean but his image may camouflage the corruption done by other people in the government.”

“The word corruption doesn’t exist in the DNA of the BJP,” said Vivek, vehemently, “something you Communists would never understand.”

The Professor laughed and said, ”Son, when I was your age, I was a hardcore Communist too but today I know that was a mistake. It takes time to learn things. I hope you don’t have to learn the bitter truths about your beliefs as brutally as some of us have. But I’ll tell you one thing, if Tripura goes to polls tomorrow, Modi is sure to win because I went to one of his rallies and the way he bowled over the crowd that day, a crowd that had been cheering for Manik Sarkar and the Communists for 20 years, nobody stands a chance.”(Tripura would go to polls in a couple of months after I made this journey and the BJP won a landslide victory in the state overthrowing the Communist government that had been in power for 20 years.)

He then turned his attention to a woman and her 8 year old daughter who were sitting on the window seat opposite to Fayyaz and who had been quietly listening to us talk and asked them where they were from. They were originally from Sylhet, they said, and were on their way back from visiting relatives in Silchar to Agartala where they lived. The girl was unhappy about the fact that they were returning because she found Silchar, with its malls and restaurants and cinemas, a lot more fun. Agartala was too boring, she said, because she had to go to school and she loved her cousins in Silchar whose company she sorely missed.

The Professor’s eyes perked up when he heard this. “You’re from Sylhet?”, he said, a cheek-reddening smile brightening up his face, “I grew up in Sylhet.” He then turned to me and said, “Sylhetis are the most snobbish people you’ll ever meet. Nothing you do can ever satisfy their high standards. They think they’re the most intelligent, that they write the best books and that they’re the best cooks in the world. If you go to England, every curry house or “Indian” restaurant has  a Sylheti chef in the kitchen.” The woman laughed and nodded in affirmation.

Vivek appeared pained to find himself in this confluence of Sylhetis in an Indian train. “If you like Sylhet so much, why don’t you go live there?”, he said, making no attempt to mask his anger. The Professor smiled at him and said, “Because our family lost everything we had after the 1971 war and the only place we could go was across the border to India. I’m sure these two have the same story. If you look at Tripura in the map, you’ll see that it is surrounded by Bangladesh. The only original inhabitants here are the tribal people. How do you tell whether a Bengali is from India or Bangladesh?”

“All that is fine but our country is already overpopulated. How do you expect us to accommodate people who come from outside? If you go by religion. India is the only big Hindu country in the world. So it makes sense to give more opportunities to Hindus who are jobless here, right?”

“Tell me one thing. When you go seek vendors in the market in Agartala, do you ask them what religion they belong to before you transact business?”

“No, I don’t because I have no problems with Indian muslims. I only have a problem with Bangladeshi muslims who take Indian jobs. They’re here only because of the Communists. India already has too many people. Why do we need more?”

The Professor sighed and looked at Fayyaz and asked him if he agreed with Vivek. To his astonishment, Fayyaz said he did. “Then I have nothing to say,” he said, “There’s nothing I can say that will change your mind. But if you ever need tips on where to eat in Agartala, this Bangladeshi will always be at your service.” The  Professor pulled me aside and said, “You seem to be the only person doing anything useful in Tripura. So make sure you go to Chabimura. It’s fairly remote but it’s the most beautiful place in the state, even more than Unakoti and Matabari. Hope you have a good time here.”

After this, the Professor didn’t say a word until the end of the journey while Fayyaz and Vivek gabbed among themselves about the garment business. All of us got off at Jogendranagar instead of Agartala because it was closer to the city centre where we had to fight the dust and the logjammed traffic to cross over and find a rickshaw that would take us to Agartala.

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As India goes to vote…

I began traveling in 2009 and spent two months in Kumaon and Garhwal in April-May 2009 in peak election season. And here I am again in April 2019, in the interiors of Kumaon in another bitter election season. The situations are identical. In 2009, the opposition was hardly anywhere to be seen and the ruling party was strutting around confidently through the region. The only difference in 2019 is that the ruling party then is the opposition now and vice versa.

I had also been traveling from the South of India through Warangal, Nagpur, Bhopal, Jhansi, Agra and Delhi to get here, traveling in 2nd and 3rd class sleeper coaches, eating in the cheapest and most populated places I could find, talking to people and eavesdropping on conversations to get a sense for myself if anything had changed in all these years. And the truth from my own individual experience, and this may disappoint some of my anti-bhakt friends, is that people haven’t changed as much as they think they have. I heard people talk about turning mosques into temples and beating up people belonging to communities they don’t approve of back in 2009 and I heard some of the same talk in 2019. That some of these fantasies have turned into reality in the last 5 years only makes them happier but they have always wanted them to happen.

People (and by this I mean real people, not the ones on twitter) are also a lot more complex and sophisticated in their beliefs than they’re given credit for. I have heard “bhakts” openly making fun of BJP campaigns and acknowledging the failure of some of the promises and “libtards” ridiculing Rahul Gandhi and the tame, confused campaigns run by the Congress party. This tendency on part of the liberals (and I’m pointing the finger at them because they clutter my facebook feed a lot more than the bhakts and because the essential idea of liberalism is to acknowledge the complexity of a situation or an individual without putting them in a convenient bracket) to look down on all Modi supporters as some dumb, stupid mass that needs to be condemned for merely saying some things they don’t like is not just idiotic but also terribly counter productive. Treat them as human beings with a sense of humor even if what they say might repulse you and you might be able to have a conversation that may lead to a change of mind and heart. If anything, the liberals have facilitated the “divide” in this country as much as the people they accuse of by being so contemptuous of people they disagree with.

Also, and I say this knowing perfectly well that I might be labelled a “bhakt”, this idea of India being a communally harmonious utopia before Modi came to power is a ridiculous notion. India has always had communal tensions running underneath. Look at any of the statistics running through the years, from back in the ’80s, and you’ll find, even in the years when a lot went unrecorded, a string of communal incidents throughout the country. It’s always been a reality and the true trigger for the explosion in violence was not 2014 but 1984 and then 1992. Yeah, the Modi years have been violent and a lot of it has been disturbing and some of it has been enabled by a government showing an unwillingness to act but that has been true of previous governments as well. Bihar in the 90s, as a passenger reminded me when I countered his suggestion that things had improved in the country, was a nightmare to live in and people he personally knew had been abducted and murdered for merely walking on the street in the evening. Everyone knew who had them killed but none went to jail. Another passenger, a Sikh, told me of the time in 2008 when his small hamlet was surrounded by thugs belonging to a particular religion and beat everyone up because one of the women in his village has the temerity to run away with a boy from theirs. Mob violence has always been a bitter reality in the hinterlands of India and no government in history has done anything about it.

That’s not to say that governments shouldn’t be held accountable. Every government should and in an ideal world, every government would. I don’t see it happening to this government because as complex and sophisticated people are, they also vote for people they “like”. They’re willing to put up with demonetisation, violence, joblessness and a whole lot of annoyance and discomfort if they see the person they like in power. And strangely enough, what the liberals and the opposition appear to have done by focusing their attacks on just two men is make them more likeable to people. This morning I asked a chaiwallah who had just voted BJP if he had always been a BJP supporter. He said no, he had voted Sonia Gandhi in 2009. I asked why he had changed his mind. He said, “Kyonki tabhi Soniaji bahut acchi thi. Ab Modiji achhe hai. Itni gaaliyan padti hai unko phir bhi itna kaam karte hai. Desh ko aage bada rahe hai.” (“Because back then, Sonia Gandhi was very good. Now Modi is good. He keeps working despite the fact that people shower him with abuse. He makes the country move forward.”)

So yeah, whether you like it or not, at the moment people appear to be liking Modi a whole lot more than Rahul Gandhi and I would be very suprised if that isn’t reflected in the way they vote.

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