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I’d like to specify here that this post is issued in absolute selfish interest but not in any specific individual’s selfish interest! Once you have read through this, it will be clear that this is in the selfish interest of each one of us who takes pride in the home we live in.

We are a country where, every time a festival approaches, the first step to prepping up is to clean up the house that we live in and make it look as festive and bright as it possibly could. Walls painted, shelves dusted and floors polished to be squeaky clean. It is quite a stunning sight to see freshly painted homes lit up in colourful bright lights for Diwali!

What is shocking though is the apathy we have for the larger home that we live in. The street, the block or even the city we live in is in every sense our home too. We don’t seem to care too much about how the walls of this home are! We do look away or cover our noses whenever we see a filthy street corner where men have traditionally peed on posters of movie stars posing seductively or on posters of politicians wearing the most artificial smiles begging for votes. The fact that we seem to forget is that a problem does not disappear if you choose to ignore its existence! The need is to tackle the problem and the need is of great urgency. It is important to identify the problem and understand the causes.

  • Dimly lit and badly maintained street corners.
  • The tendency of the male species to mark territories wherever and whenever possible.
  • Rampant vandalism of public (our) property by people trying to sell products, services, entertainment or themselves.
  • Lack of a practical functioning maintenance system and the infrastructure to maintain the system itself.
  • Etc. etc. etc.
Typical example of a filthy pavement. This was ‘fixed’ later by the group ‘The Ugly Indians’.
Photo courtesy: The Ugly Indian facebook page 
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Column covered with posters of politicians.
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A private parking space is being washed right next to a space that has been ‘demarcated’ as a public dump where garbage gets collected. An example of our apathy!
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If you thought these were the causes that I had listed out, you were wrong. These are the elements that take advantage of the real cause and yes, these are all in a weird sense thriving in a brilliant symbiotic manner. Let me explain this in one simple statement. If there were no street corners that were not properly maintained, there would be no filthy walls and spaces where vandalism was rampant and that would deter the male species from being extremely territorial in the most shameless manner. The cause here for everything that makes us walk quicker and look away is our own apathy. The fact that we have lost all sense of civic responsibility and would rather look away if we could when we see the state of affairs is the root cause of this growing evil.

Haven’t we all, at some point or the other, taken a stand in an argument where a visitor from a foreign country (who sometimes maybe of Indian origin) has complained about the stench and filth that is exhibited in our public spaces. By talking about an issue which I think is a national shame, I don’t in any way imply that we as Indians should take any less pride in all the greatness that can be attributed to our nation, our home. The attempt here is to make my home even more beautiful than it already is. An attempt to paint the walls, polish the floors and dust the shelves!

About a year or so back, I chanced upon a group of anonymous individuals on Facebook who call themselves the Ugly Indians. After going through the page and seeing the work that this rapidly growing group of completely unrelated individuals made me wake up to the reality that it was time to act. A lot had be said, very little had been done. And yeah, it was wrong to call them unrelated, they did have one thing in common, they refused to look away. The first step of understanding what this group was all about was to accept that we were all Ugly Indians and there was a need to get rid of the ugliness. This group in the last 18 months or so has managed to cause a mini-revolution and has managed to raise awareness about the issue that is being discussed here. It is not surprising that this movement has been lauded by everyone who has come across this group on Facebook and they’ve even been reported on by national and international print media and even BBC radio. The point here is that, the Ugly Indians who take pride in their anonymity and have used it as a tool in their exploits, have shown us the way and it is now our responsibility to take it further.

The before and after photos clearly show the impact that the Ugly Indians have on a public space. For more such examples, visit the facebook page of this group or visit http://theuglyindian.com/

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I am sure that there would be many such groups or individuals who at some level have been aware and have done their bit to make their homes look and feel better. But we are a nation of more than a billion people and even if a small percentage of that population woke up to this, we would have a better case to argue next time someone spoke lowly about this beautiful home of ours.

Freedom of expression, especially in the arts, has taken quite a beating recently. This past week must have been quite stressful for anyone who believed in this freedom and believed in a strong, democratic and progressive India. It is quite disturbing to know that today; I might be taken to task for expressing my opinion and not because I directly offended a person or section of the society, but because someone who was not even remotely related to the expression decided on becoming the authority on offensive remarks and censorship.

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s novel was first published in 1988, well over two decades back and was promptly banned in India for its “blasphemous” contents and that decision was accepted by one and all (mostly). That I thought was enough of a measure to punish the “erring” author and we could have buried the issue then. The recent protests against his planned visit to India and the statement issued by the Darul Uloom Deoband asking for a life ban on the author are more than ridiculous. If a certain section of the society had a problem against the author for what he wrote in The Satanic Verses, they could have dragged him to the court of law for hurting their religious sentiments and then let the court decide on the due course of action. I am not in support of the author here or of his writings, I am more in support of his right to freedom of expression and more importantly, his right to be adjudged a “criminal” or a “wrongdoer” by only the court of law and not by a bunch of intolerant protesters.

Salman Rushdie holding a copy of the controversial The Satanic Verses. Photo Courtesy: http://www.guardian.co.uk

What takes this whole issue to a much higher-level of senselessness is the statement that if the author were to apologize for the blasphemy in his book, his wish to visit India and the Jaipur Literature Festival could be considered. Would an apology nullify the so-called damage that was done by the writings or in other words wash away Salman Rushdie’s “sins”? This in some ways points towards the insecurities of a country that boasts of a thousand years of proud existence and a history rarely seen elsewhere but can’t seem to get over 100 years of British oppression. As is so natural to us, we might as well blame this too on the British. In fact, I do sometimes think that that may be true to a certain extent, in this particular case!

I have grown up watching movies and reading books about the great freedom struggle that India went through and how it didn’t matter if we were of a particular caste or religion when we were facing a much larger issue. The point was to fight for a free India. We did get a free India for sure, but we lost the larger cause that kept all of us from getting into these irrelevant and worthless debates. After the feeling of elation that is felt after one achieves a tough goal, there is always a sense of restlessness that the wait for the next goal evokes. In this state of restlessness, there is a tendency to get involved in many inconsequential lesser issues. This I think is the state that we are in. It somehow points to a weird sense of insecurity that lies embedded in us and this, maybe, is what makes us extremely defensive.

How else can we explain the government’s reaction to comments made by the British television presenter Jeremy Clarkson on the BBC show, Top Gear? As an on-and-off viewer of the show, I know for a fact that Jeremy Clarkson is a prime example of the absurd and often satirical British humour. The man jokes on an almost regular basis about the Queen of the country of which he is a very respected citizen. We have a problem with him because he made controversial remarks about our lack of sanitation, our clothes and our history. But then, we had no problems with Danny Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire showing the slums in Mumbai and the lack of sanitation there. Even if we initially did have some minor issues with the movie, we were all but open to ignoring them once we realized that our very own music genius A.R.Rahman was to receive two Academy Awards for his music in the film.

The brouhaha and protests over M.F.Hussain’s objectionable paintings of our deities and Mother India and the shameful attack on the double amputee artist Balbir Krishan for painting on the theme of homosexuality are other glaring examples of this growing despicable intolerance and hypocrisy.

M.F.Hussain's controversial painting representing Mother India.

Artist Balbir Krishan with one of his works at the Lalit Kala Akademi. Photo Courtesy: http://www.tehelka.com

There are innumerable instances of our ‘selective’ intolerance and it would take forever to list them here, but for me, these are the signs of an extremely intolerant and insecure society which at a very general level lacks a sense of humour. And I would like to clarify, when I say ‘society’, I point at those who have the audacity to believe that what they want to hear or see is what should be said or shown!

Just a small observation that I couldn’t help but mention here, in some instances, we seem to be an overtly tolerant nation too. We don’t seem to mind tolerating the threats of various groups (some are even banned themselves!) and sections and see them murdering our right to enjoy the luxuries of living in a democratic country. It is commonplace today to have threats issued by groups like the MNS, the Bajrang Dal, Ram Sene and SIMI. What is amusing though is the reaction of the government and the police towards these statements. How else would you describe a reaction where the people who are threatened by these groups are asked to stay away or indoors to avoid getting into trouble? I always thought that the duty of the police and the government was to allow me my freedom and then guarantee my safety.

But then there may always be an argument that we are already asking for too much from our severely understaffed and underpaid police department and that they are doing the best that they could possibly do in this incredible nation of a billion people! That, for me, is the beauty of being in a democracy, there can always be arguments and there will always be opinions, even if there is no real freedom in the larger sense of the word!

Whilst pondering about how good 2011 had been to me, I couldn’t help but think about some of the people I had met that year and how they had, in one way or the other, managed to influence me.

I apologize if the title led you to think that this was about the television sitcom! This actually is about Mr. Raymond and the other Mr. Raymonds, who I’m sure all of us have chanced upon ever so often on the streets of Bangalore. Let me explain.

Last year, during my many visits to a site on Lavelle Road, I used to find finding a parking slot quite a challenge. On one such occasion when I was trying to move some bikes and make space to squeeze my bike in, I heard someone call out and say in immaculate English, “Good Morning, Sir. Let me help you with that.” I turned around to find this scruffy old man in an oversized dirty black tee smiling at me. After thanking him for offering to help, I parked my bike and walked to the café. When I returned to take my bike and leave, I gave the man a tenner, he smiled and said, “Thank You, Sir. Have a great day!” This then became a daily routine.

Later, I chanced upon the same man on St. Mark’s Road limping and walking towards Lavelle Road and I stopped to offer him a ride on my bike. The man refused at first and seemed to be a little surprised but then, on my insistence, agreed to let me take him to his ‘workplace’. During the short ride from near Noon Wines to Java City, I noticed that he, for some reason, was sitting right at the edge of the pillion and it worried me that he might slip and fall. His response, to my request for him to sit more comfortably, shocked me. He said that his clothes were very dirty and so he didn’t want to move any closer! He later told me that his name was Raymond D’Souza and that daily he collected five rupees from people who parked their bikes outside Java City on Lavelle Road. Mr. Raymond, had two children whom he had taken care of and had gotten them educated in one of the city’s finest schools, Frank Anthony Public School and that these children had abandoned him some years back. He had gone through a lot and yet had managed to smile at everyone whom he saw there. He explained that the smile was because he knew that everyone loved him and he had no reason to be sad!

As the days went by, I started meeting and chatting with Mr. Raymond, whenever I could find time. I had noticed that he had blisters on his feet and that walking all day long had really damaged his feet. At one point, I’d offered to get him some new shoes and clothes to wear and he had managed to amaze me again with his response. He refused saying that the way he looked and dressed helped him in getting a few bucks more as people felt sympathy for him and that if he had dressed better, they would think he was scamming them! Wasn’t he doing the same that most of us do when we dress in a particular manner to create the right impression, whether it is going for a meeting at work or going to the court to pay a fine for DUI? He was only trying to look the part and it worked for him, I guess!

During the many chats that I had with him, I had developed a lot of respect for him and I began to go to Lavelle Road almost everyday, even if it was only to check on him. Sometime in August or September, I think, he stopped coming for his job as the unofficial ‘parking attendant’. After a few days of his disappearance, I enquired with the security guards and others who were there and nobody seemed to have noticed his absence. It’s been more than 4 months now and there has been no trace of Mr. Raymond. I can only hope that he is doing fine wherever he is.

After getting to know Mr. Raymond, I realized that not every poor man on the streets of the city , who begged for money, would end up getting drunk later in the night. More importantly, how did it matter even if he did? And if I did doubt their intentions, did I bother to check even once if my suspicion was valid? This is when I am reminded of the quote by George Bernard Shaw, “Any belief worth having must survive doubt.” If I did not have the courage to check if my belief was rational, I had no right to doubt. And then, aren’t there scamsters in every section of the society? Would it be right to generalize and label the entire section based on a few instances?

Hoping that the next time someone sees a Mr. Raymond, they will think twice before doubting him!

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