A DARK, desolate stretch of road connected the Daliganj Bridge with Balrampur Hospital in Lucknow. Between the two landmarks lay Beli Gaarad, a name mutated from a British officer’s who once guarded the colonial governor’s fortress called The Residency.
The Residency became a deserted ghost monument in the 1950s-1960s, spawning legends of headless white men and women sobbing facelessly. They had suffered the fury of a formidable Hindu-Muslim solidarity, the ghost story went, exposing a singular brutality that stalked both sides in the failed uprising of 1857.
It was on this stretch that the bicycle thieves struck. Their method of stealing bicycles from unsuspecting riders was co-opted in the political rise of the Indian right. The idea of distracting people with hateful mirages is akin to the happenings on the desolate stretch of road along the British-built Beli Gaarad.
The robbers struck in a pair always. The lead carried a stick, one end of which was laced with animal filth. The other waited by a thicket. As the rider approached, his arrival signalled by the kerosene headlamp that was mandatory those days for bicycles and rickshaws, the man with the stick would smear the quarry with the stinky muck.
How is hoarding of food any different from the cornering of shares at the bourse?
The resultant encounter involved a chase along the uneven ground, inevitably on foot. The waiting man would then make good with the abandoned bicycle, while his colleague ensured that he was never caught, which was how it almost always was.
The Beli Gaarad robbers may not have known of their invention’s future. But mark how a right-wing MP shrewdly timed his gambit the other day, right in the midst of a raging pandemic, as he allowed the filth in his mind to flow onto his tongue about a community being undeserving of democratic rights. And before we knew it, the filth had hit the fan.
People behaved as though the virus had taken privilege leave in India. There have been other similar ways in recent days to keep the vulnerable and the dispossessed from posing questions. Where are the safety kits for the doctors and the nurses and the ward boys? Why were Indian ventilators being exported until mid-March when the country needed them direly?
The first Covid-19 case in India was found in Kerala on Jan 30. On Feb 24, Donald Trump was enjoying the largest crowd of admirers in Gujarat that he will ever meet. And as late as March, the government was denying a serious threat from the virus.
How neatly was the MP’s comment timed to distract from the urgent line of inquiry. How easily people have followed the Pied Piper’s wayward prescriptions to suspend their pain and urgent needs. It is true for most countries, including Trump’s America. Luckily, the virus has also exposed the limits of common greed. The UN secretary general put it quaintly: the strongest health system is as strong as the weakest. You leave one fellow out, poor or rich, and the virus will strike back with fury. The neoliberal scorn for health budgets and climate change is struggling on its knees against its fury.
Vittorio De Sica made the Bicycle Thief in 1948 as a commentary on the post-war rush for jobs amid absent economic security. But he only got one side of the story, the missing side being the thief’s compulsions. What are the compelling circumstances at work on both sides, the thief’s and his quarry’s?
How was De Sica’s story different from any Dickensian nightmare of early capitalism, from Fagin’s or Bill Sikes’, or Oliver and Nancy’s story?
Cut to modern methods. Hoarders of grain or medicine in times of war or calamities such as the one we are faced with today are, in fact, practising what is couched in deliberately softer terms, as free market capitalism. In a free market, you buy cheap and sell for a big or small profit. The carpetbaggers of the American north who raided the vanquished south after the Civil War were only buying from distress sale, not unlike the big pharmas that exploit global suffering but break no capitalist rule.
There is an old Dev Anand movie called Kaala Bazaar, or ‘black market’, in which the heroine invites the hero to give up cornering movie tickets for selling them at a princely sum to cinema addicts. This way the hero would win her, but not before crooning memorable songs penned by a leftist poet.
Yet, theatre and sports or airline tickets, to name a few, are sold legally online these days, usually at unchecked prices. How is hoarding of food, therefore, any different from the cornering of shares at the bourse? How shall we regard a tycoon from India, who features in Forbes and flaunts a private wealth of $55 billion or so, against the raging pandemic? A single Indian’s riches measure manifold his country’s grudging health budget for 2020-21. Does he sleep well these days? Are people not hoarding money when the government kitty is running on a wing and a prayer? By capitalist ethics, they are not.
In the old days, when the local sahukar, the village moneylender, hoarded grains during a drought or some other bad month, the suffering peasants raided his home, locked him up and carried out an equal distribution of food. The viral pandemic has the unbridled power to change the way politics and economics divide and exploit people, and pollute the air and water we need to survive.
The World Health Organisation estimates that seven million people die every year from exposure to polluted air, the inevitable result of our greed. The coronavirus is telling us to behave ourselves. It is asking us to explore a system in which everyone has a bicycle — the cleanest transport — without a need to steal one. It is showing us the clearest sky we have seen in ages as a reward, and as a dire warning.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2020