January 30, 2012: Yesterday, I saw a movie about a puppy named Bolt, who is conned into believing that he has super-powers that he uses for protecting the little girl who owns him. Midway through the movie, he realizes that he has no super-powers; he is just an ordinary, helpless puppy. He feels crushed by this realization.
So Bolt faces a choice: to quit? Or to believe that he is still a hero, and keep struggling against the forces of evil?
The thought that his little girl still needs a hero helps him make the right decision: keep fighting.
I think we activists face the same choice. India needs a hero; are you willing to try? Am I willing to try?
Yes, we are not cut out to be heroes. Yes, as individuals, we are full of weaknesses and limitations. But India needs heroes now. She cannot wait another 10 years for someone better to emerge. You and I are the only ones currently available. So we will have to say, “My motherland needs a hero. Yes, I shall be that hero, although I am weak, fallible and maybe even helpless.”
We are trying to improve governance with RTI applications, PILs, advocacy, letter-baazi and other methods. Sometimes we feel that our actions are powerful. We feel confident and courageous.
And at other times, we are crushed by the realization that our methods are inadequate, our actions are weak, and we are helpless in the face of a gigantic corrupt system. And then we say to ourselves, “Oh, forget it! Activism doesn’t work. So let’s just return to living our ordinary lives, and forget about the nation.”
I have had such moments lately. Overwhelmed by my own limitations — the many promises that I make to myself and others, but fail to keep – I sometimes think such thoughts. I think about withdrawing into my own private space again and gradually disappearing from the activist space.
My re-energizing moment – Picking up shit from the road
I want to share with you what happened on Friday morning, about 8.20 am. I was on my way to giving my weekly classes on ‘Creative English & Editing’ for Second Year law students at Vile Parle. In my bag were 4-5 old newspapers — discussion material. After getting off the suburban train and climbing the skywalk, I had a prayerful thought: “God, take my hand, take my mind, make me serve. Tell me clearly what you want. I’ll do it, I promise.”
Minutes later, at the other end of the skywalk near SV Road, I saw a large lump of shit. I saw it and passed by. And then I passed by a fallen piece of paper. I then knew what I must do. I picked up the paper, went back to where the shit was, picked it up neatly and put it into a large empty flower pot by the side – out of everybody’s path.
I felt happy. I had prevented the shit from spoiling someone’s day. If the shit had lay there long enough, a few people in the crowd would surely have stepped into it, and then walked, leaving a disgusting trail, for at least half an hour. Maybe they would have gotten into a rickshaw or train and ruined other people’s morning. Maybe they would have walked into their offices, and struggled in the washroom for half an hour to get the disgusting stuff out of the treads of his shoes. Or – if it was a businessman with an appointment – he might have cancelled it and just gone home to deal with the mess.
I felt energized. I had made my country and my city a bit better. And it was easy. I could do it, alone, quietly.
I thought about the previous day — Republic Day – when I had not done one single patriotic thing. Not one. I had not saluted a flag, not bought a flag from a street kid, not even watched the parade on TV, and not heard any patriotic songs by Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi. I hadn’t even thanked anybody who sent me Republic Day SMSes. But today, I had justified my existence to my country and my beloved Mumbai.
Shit versus Personal Honour
However, as I turned the corner and neared the college gate, happy and self-satisfied, there it was again. More shit, a few metres from the college gates. Three or four large lumps of what looked like dog poop, right where people would walk.
Now I was in a quandary. Should I or shouldn’t do a repeat performance? I could easily ignore it and walk around it; after all, that’s what everybody else was doing. And why was it my problem? It was not. It was the job of the municipal cleaners, who may have come in half an hour. Or maybe they had come and gone, and this was fresh poop.
Some of the students walking in might be in my class. What would they think or feel, if they saw me bending and picking up poop with newspapers? Would they still respect me? I wondered.
I could not just walk away from it. I had no excuse; I was carrying a bagful of old newspapers that I could tear up and use.
And so, for the second time that morning, I picked up poop from the road. This time, I threw it into a corner where nobody would walk.
My conscience as well as my hands were completely clean when I went up to class. We read 3-4 news items from the papers, and wrote about them. And then, near the end of our two-hour class, I told my students about my activities that morning. Going into flashback, I also mentioned how an activist friend – Vinita Singh — had scolded me over the phone, making me pick up my own dog’s shit from the road many, many months ago.
The collegians found the whole thing yucky, inspiring and hilarious… and yucky!
After we all had a good laugh together, and all the jokes had subsided, I asked them to write about it in any way that they wanted to. I explicitly gave them permission to make it a joke at my expense, or a fictionalized story or a factual account – anything they felt like doing.
Here are the pages from their notebooks: http://tinyurl.com/Students-on-shit-picking
I think they were definitely more witty and creative than usual. The headings are priceless!
Expressing our freedom with small acts of service
It’s not only about shit on the road. It’s about a lot of other things as well. There’s a simple way to improve our country, and it does not involve any special knowledge or skills. It’s by being alert and answering the call to action every time we hear it or see it.
Every now and then, driving along the highway, I see a rock left by a trucker who drove away after using it while repairing a punctured tyre. Or I see a divider block that has fallen onto the road.
Seeing this, I curse the carelessness of others, and drive on. And then I wage an inner battle. Sometimes – and not always — after driving a kilometer, I tell myself that I too am equally careless. Because of my carelessness in letting that stone just lie there, a motorcyclist may have a bad accident while trying to avoid it in the darkness. I visualize his mother, his wife and his children after the accident. And knowing that I cannot face his family members if I have to, I take a U-turn and return to the spot. I roll up my sleeves and do the job that I wish others would do. I take the stone out of the way of motorists.
Sometimes I see drunkards lying with their arms and legs on the road, in the path of traffic. And I realize that it could easily be… God forbid, my father, my son or myself. (No, we don’t have drinks in our family, but that’s only by the grace of God.) And so I lift that person out of harm’s way, and make him lie down in a safer place. Yes, it’s a dirty job because drunkards lie in their puke and piss. But having dirty hands won’t kill me, but a dirty conscience might; I don’t know how to live with the thought that the person I ignored had his foot crushed under a car.
So what am I saying here?
What I’m trying to say here is: Let’s not get too caught up with the methods of activism. It may be RTI, PILs, letter-baazi and petitioning, agitating on the road, organizing dharnas and morchas, fasting, public meetings or whatever. It may be all of those…
Or it may be none of those. I think our power to change the fortunes of India comes from our ability to do a job – not because it will bring us honour and fame, but because it needs doing. Life gives each one of us opportunities to be heroes many times over in our lifetime. It gifts us the opportunity to save many lives by just moving a rock out of the way.
Yes, we will ourselves never know how many lives we saved, and how many tears we wiped by preventing the bad news from happening… and maybe that’s for the best.
“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Now this bell tolling softly for another,
says to me, Thou must die…
No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…
Any man’s death diminishes me
Because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee. . . .
- from Meditation 17 by John Donne
There is anonymity and humility in such activism. There’s no reward for our ego, no Padma awards and recognitions, no newspaper reports. Just quiet self-satisfaction for the soul, and the knowledge that when I was called to serve, I served. Isn’t that wonderful?