Saturday, July 12, 2008

The King

I assumed the man before me to be drunk. Even in India, I didn't expect to see someone placing a coconut on the ground, lying down, picking it up, walking a yard or two, and then repeating the trick.

Suppressing my amusement, I noticed that he was not alone. Leading the way were a gaggle of musicians, while behind him followed a crowd of women, their saris forming a protective rainbow of colour. And then there was the entourage. Two other men joined him for coconut duties, with a few other people sweeping dirt from The King's path, before pampering and massaging him during the frequent breaks.

Why The King? first I was told he was the Chief Minister of Khajurao, the small town in Madhya Pradesh famous for its raunchy medieval temples. Then someone told me he was the mayor's husband. Either way, The King. And a BJP man to boot. This was his way of fulfilling a promise he had made way back when, that if such and such should happen to him, he would 'coconut-stride' (to coin a term) the two miles from his home to the Shiva Temple, and lay on a great celebration for the whole town.

I couldn't find out for sure whether this was some pre-ordained religious ritual, but I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't. Rather, this was rural Indian life in full bloom, with local politicians securing their subjects' allegiance through charismatic acts, and - at the end of the day - food.

Anyway, with nothing else scheduled (my game of cricket with local children having ended right at the point I took my first wicket), I decided to join in. My welcome was second only to that of The King himself. Of particular interest was my camera, and the publicity opportunities the scheming politicians seemed to think it offered them (as if wanderingsatlan would support the BJP).

Shashi Tharoor astutely notes that poorer countries have far more public festivities than richer ones. India has more than any other countries in the world. The poor have no money for holidays; public celebrations offer an opportunity to forget the difficulties of day-to-day life. The accuracy of this was confirmed when I saw a toothless rickshaw driver park his bike as if crossing the finishing line in the Tour de France, before launching himself straight into the chanting of Sita Ram. A day for dignity, without degradation.

The coconuts meant the march took a while, and I had time for a leisurely lunch. Eventually, the procession made it to the centre of town, where The King and his wife led the faithful in their uits of the temple.

Returning a few hours later, the carnival had barely begun. Crucially, food was distributed, in the form of generous helpings of filling, sweet cereals. To begin to understand poverty, you only need to see what happens when free food is given out. Devoured with relish by all concerned, one less mea to worry about, I was left with no doubt who the people of Khajurao would be voting for in the future.

Of course, this was a minor event. But with western eyes focused on the ongoing political wranglings concerning the US-Indian nuclear deal, it's worth remembering what's important to the vast majority of Indian citizens. They don't care about issues that are unlikely to impact on their lives; they care about being able to put food on the table. With double-digit inflation in India, this remains a life or death issue, one that - in the absence of good policy - will leave people vulnerable to local demagogues, like The King, for some time to come.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Sometimes people do pilgrimage in a series of full pranams -- stretching full-length on the ground, getting up, doing it again... sometimes people roll to a temple, or around it. I saw a Tamil movie once in which a woman rolled around a temple in order to get a child. For most people, of course, it's not a publicity opportunity.