Monday, May 16, 2016

It can't possibly be that simple! (Could it?)

This morning, I stood in the shortest queue ever to vote. It was all smooth sailing. The cop at the entrance told us which queue to join--no second guessing, waiting and finding out it's the wrong one! The queue was blessedly short; so short it was single file! People were relatively quiet.

Prior to the election, I was wondering about the candidates. No one had bothered to canvass in our neighbhourhood except the BJP and then too, it was not the candidate but one of those autos with a megaphone attached. The ruling party had changed candidates on us--not that we got to meet or learn about either.

We stood for a brief moment and looked over the giant EC poster with candidate photos. It was an easy decision as we looked at those interchangeable faces.

I thought the queue would be discussing candidates, mainly because they were on my mind.

But the conversation in the queue was far more pedestrian and predictable for a middle-class Indian neighbourhood. People had come clutching all kinds of paper--the Voter ID, booth slips, receipts from the EC, ration cards, even Aadhaar.

There was great consternation because the parties had not distributed booth slips. Why? All that information is on your voter ID! But I did not say, because I have never learnt to sound authoritative about paperwork.

The Election Commission has banned these slips, one woman voter pronounced. The others said, it's going very slowly because the slips are not there. I wanted to say, they have to check against all their registers so that no one votes in your name. It does not matter how many pieces of paper you bring. But I said nothing.

Then the couple behind murmured about first time voters. I was curious. The queue was full of people 40+ and senior citizens. She said (also the one with the EC ban information in the previous para) they have the most awareness and want to vote. He said, "The EC is trying for 100%." I couldn't resist, so I asked, "Will they manage it? 100%? What are the chances?" He said, "75-80." Then with the tone of an expert (because all men are experts), "75-80% is also good." She added in support, "100% is not possible. They don't allow postal and Internet voting." Then they got into a discussion about government officials and who had the postal vote. I lost interest, as I usually do when men acquire that expert-voice.

Senior citizens in their 60s and 70s kept cutting the queue and entering the booth to vote. At one point, the entire family in front of us entered with them. There were ten people in there at one go and polling officers could not function. They turned to my mother, 80+ and standing obediently outside the room, and said, "You cannot crowd the room." I said, "She is standing outside. We will not enter till you call us." Although another queue-cutter was pressing into my back as if it were a stampede. (What is it with us???)

The conversation between her and the couple behind me resumed.

Voting is our duty. It is alright to wait 15 minutes for your turn. Your sambar will not curdle and you can miss 10 minutes of the Vijay film for this.

These people are my age. Do they not remember what it was like in the pre-Seshan elections? The rough and tumble of the campaign. The noise. The violence. The booth-capturing. The dumping of votes. The hit and miss of being able to vote or not. Having voted in a January election but disappearing off the voter registry in May. Whole buildings appearing and disappearing. Dead people showing up in registers but those who voted last year not being found. Don't these people remember what elections and voting were like?

I was so proud to be voting with someone who had canvassed door-to-door for the Congress in the first election and worked as a polling agent. She was posted by the Press Information Bureau to the Election Commission for counting during the next election and has voted in every single election since Independence. She stood there quietly, in spite of having been unstable on her feet this morning. She had water with lime juice in her bag, Vertin, a fan and a towel, and no complaints.

And there was this twitchy lady who must be barely 60, cutting the queue and pushing me to get into the polling booth.

 From the voting mark on my finger,
you might conclude I had not voted but made a splash! 
The policeman said nothing to her, but addressed my mother, "Don't go in now." I was so annoyed. "She has worked in the first election. We know the rules and won't break them." He was a little startled.

In the queue, the second-guessing about what ID was acceptable, what procedure to follow, continued.

We stepped in, and had voted in under two minutes.

It really was that simple. Thank heaven, the people in the queue were not allowed to make rules--they would have set up an obstacle course where there was none! 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Am I really a writer?

Yesterday, I did a radio interview that was surreal for more than one reason. I thought I was going to talk about a Prajnya project. It turned out to be a literary show. I wondered what I was doing there but thought, and was reassured that we would still be talking about the project. Then, I got there and it was about paperbacks--which I have never written. But at that point, inertia set in with disbelief and while I kept trying to insert our agenda into theirs, somewhere along the way, the second layer of surreal set in--were they really interviewing me--ME?--as a writer?

Sure, I write. And someone told them I inspire others to write (thank you, you know who you are!), whereas I seem mostly to beg or bully people into writing. I write a lot--tweets, FB posts, email, SMS, blogposts, work writing. I said in the course of the interview, that I wrote 1000-2500 words most days. That may be quite inaccurate, but if you count the words I write in my head and the words I want to be writing, you would overshoot that number.

I do have publications to my credit--but yesterday, when she asked me, they seemed quite lame!

"What do you blog about?"
"Honestly, mostly about blogging! Or not writing! Or not having anything to say!"

"What is your beat for the column?"
(Should I confess it's hardly a column for how infrequently I write it? I let that pass!)
"Gender, politics, IR." O-kay, that's kind of true.

"What are your academic interests?"
Finally a question I can answer without pretension.

"What is the title of your upcoming book on disasters?"
The true disaster--I cannot remember the exact title! I am not expecting to promote the book but rather an election checklist for voters. I cannot remember and I cannot access the Internet from that studio.

Am I really a writer? Or am I just a person in love with words and with the act, the process of writing?

I went with the flow, quelling a sense of dishonesty as I sat there, because I was curious. I wanted to see what the masterplan was and I would never find out by resisting. I thought about the last year or so and how much writing has come to matter to me. I thought of the great joy I got--and get--from wandering around with a notebook and pen, writing down my travel notes. I thought of the longing I feel for those very rare times when I can do that. I thought of the thrill of saying, "I am going off to write this morning," which I could and did say in Colombo at least once a week and I never do in Chennai. Here were these people, who knew seriously less than nothing about me, calling me a writer and forcing me to admit that I was one, in spite of my misgivings--what is the masterplan?

Each time I have said, "I am going to write," or when I say, "This is my writing desk," I feel a happiness that nothing else gives me. Writing belongs to me as no other part of my life does. It's the only thing I own--the process and pleasure of writing.

As we talked, I mentioned the joy of writing as I travel. Seemed like a safe thing to do; after all, I post many of these travel notes on my website. Then, she asked me about the places I had kept notes on--Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Portugal--and it was like slipping through some subtle layer into another world. I forgot all about the election checklist, and just wanted to share the magic of those moments. The trees of Peradeniya Garden. The wind at Cabo de Roca. The memory of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing in an open-air amphitheatre.

If my joy in finding the words for those experiences makes me a writer, then I might be one.

But then it could have also been the old person's joy at finding a captive audience. I have lived here for over a dozen years and not one person has asked me about my own experiences in life--which have been very interesting and varied, and many, quite unusual. People here are content to transact, broadcast and leave. I remain to the most people in Chennai as featureless as a wall of plain acrylic--useful, practical and forgettable. The invitation to share unforgettable moments was irresistible.

When I write--truly write--I actually don't care about readers. I am quite sure no one is interested in my writing and so I write more or less for either the joy or the relief of the process itself. Because I don't expect people to read, I actually am freer in the moments when I write (like this) than when I do almost anything else. That freedom is addictive. I crave it.

I love the framing of an idea or an experience. I love choosing words. I love to arrange them elegantly and simply. I like to re-read and re-live.

But am I really a writer? None of these takes away from that feeling of being a rank impostor in the interview yesterday. I hadn't solicited the interview. I kept trying to correct them. And then, I gave up and enjoyed myself, talking about writing.

But that does not make me a writer. Or, does it?

There is a secondary question: Do I want to be a writer? Do I want to be a writer with everything that it means today--writing, pitching, rewriting, promoting, partying? Isn't what I love the act of sealing myself into a shell with just my thoughts and words? Who the heck are all these people milling about my words? That is the topic of another post!