Seriously though, where are the oldies? We’ve been crying ourselves hoarse over kindergarten lessons in moral science – ‘don’t be a bully’, ‘don’t call them names’, ‘love thy neighbour!’ – and the people who taught us all this stuff are nowhere to be seen. Its a Curious-Case-of-Benjamin-Button with dads and uncles avoiding us like kids on a never-ending sulk as we youngsters try and cajole them into behaving like responsible adults. From steering dinner-table conversations with political ‘fun-facts’ to sending ‘must watch!’ videos on whatsapp groups we’d rather exit, we have tried every your turf, your rules, no cheating, way possible to engage Generation X in the struggle for a free and secular India. We have reasoned, argued, and even pleaded with the Xs to join the younger generations on the streets, waive a flag, raise a slogan. And we have failed. That’s right. Time for us to accept as every parent must at some point in their parenting life-span: we have tried, we have failed, and we really don’t know what else to do.
The marvel of old-India’s apathy to the mayhem that confronts the country has been the subject of young-India’s daily tea-time conversations for several months now. There seems to be a general consensus that it all stems from bottled-up resentment over the partition (India-Pakistan) which likely dominated the childhood of the present old-folks and left deep scars of Hindu-Muslim animosity in their minds. Unfortunately, the birth of an independent India was so married to the ideas of equality and secularism that it was considered distasteful to talk about classifications like ‘rich and poor’, ‘upper caste and untouchables’, ‘Hindu and Muslim’ in public. Particularly those who aspired to belong to the elite classes by birth, education or money had to conform and keep a lid on their resentment against the ‘other community’.
But all that’s gone now. Politics and the internet have normalised hate in our daily lives and the educated, middle-aged, Indian, man is beyond himself with relief. He can vent all he wants, to whoever he wants, about whoever he wants. And who can argue with him? He received the lordship of his household at birth and he really couldn’t be bothered with what his kids think because ‘you weren’t there when we were partitioned so don’t you tell me right from wrong.’
After expectantly searching a crowd too many for someone senior to lead the way at protest marches, preamble readings, door-to-door campaigns, I had given up on the entire lot of oldies. I had accepted their all-knowing indifference as a deliberate political choice and decided not to waste any more tea on the subject.
You can imagine my surprise then at stepping into a McDonald’s last Tuesday – expecting to meet the rumoured ‘power-house’ of the door-to-door awareness campaigns on India’s controversial citizenship law – and finding myself waved at by a very enthusiastic old man. He was wearing a white blazer, a white shirt and beige pants. His receding hairline was all white and combed to perfection. Too old, I thought, as I continued to look around for other probable suspects. He stood up and strode across the room to me with surprising deft, ‘Beti, are you here for the awareness campaign?’. The wrinkles on his face danced as he spoke. His front two teeth were missing.
Too, too, old, I thought. Baby boomer? Totally, must be 80 or something. ‘Yes uncle, are you Trivedi?’ (name changed for anonymity)
‘Yes yes, come. Let’s get something to drink while we wait for the others’, he said.
As we slid into a nearby table and waited for our drinks, this man told me that he was an IIT professor with some intense specialisation in physics. He had been a professor for thirty years, held an emeritus position for another five, and had recently retired. He had also taught at a US University for several years along the way, but he had felt compelled to come back to India because – this is where I nearly choked on my strawberry milkshake to keep from laughing – he believed that India had far more scientific potential than the States.
Later that evening, I followed him and some other volunteers into Delhi’s impoverished neighbourhoods, down by-lanes nestled in the shadows of the city’s dazzling gated colonies. He approached people with a friendly smile, spoke about this policy and that and patiently countered fiction with fact. Most conversations ended with him patting backs or shaking hands and handing his audience little yellow booklets. Some times he got into yelling jousts and had to be pulled away. Either way, he walked on. No tea breaks, no sitting down. Just a bit of pulling the blazer closer and rubbing the hands to keep warm. On and on, hour after hour, street after street.
‘Power-house’ was not an apt description for this man of zeal and purpose. It may have even been an insult. After four hours of keeping up with him, I was exhausted to my bones. I could tell from his gait that his half-a-century-older legs were nowhere close to yielding. The pain shooting up mine had long overtaken my pretensions of youthful tenacity. Defeated, I bent the knee, ‘Professor, I think I will head home now. I have some legal work to finish’.
‘Oh, accha beti, we will wrap up here as well I think. Just let me say goodbye to this last gentleman’.
Fifteen minutes later, he was still exchanging booklets. I put my aching foot down, ‘Professor, I think I will be going now. Do you want me to drop you somewhere? I have a car.’
‘That will be so kind of you. Thank you’.
On the way, he offered me one of the little yellow booklets he was carrying. ‘A few of us professors got together and wrote this. It has some facts and quotes describing the richness of India’s religious co-existence’. This time my laughter gave way, ‘Professor sir, you have probably noticed that there are hardly any people from your generation in this movement. You must have seen the partition. You must have been around when the Kashmiri Pandits were expelled from Kashmir. How can you still believe in India’s harmony after seeing all that in your lifetime?’
He responded without a beat, ‘I believe it when I see you kids! I see you and I feel happy that we succeeded in shielding our children from the hatred of our times… Our only responsibility now is to give you the future you want. You are fighting for peace, for freedom, and I will die defending your right to have it… We must all believe in a better future, beti…otherwise, our past will have no meaning!’ His eyebrows reached for his forehead and his hands slapped his knees as he spoke. His face lit up with pride.
I wanted to hug him. I had the feeling that I had run into the sheltering arms of a loving grand-parent from an unfair parental onslaught. Why are you spreading fake news and don’t tell us about history and you kids think secularism is fashionable and where were you when the Kashmiri Pandits were forced out of Kashmir and have you heard Mr. X’s speech calling for a third partition and have you seen that video of women taking money? A lump welled up in my throat. I turned my gaze away from him and stared at the road ahead.
He placed the yellow booklet on my lap. ‘We will be meeting day after to discuss printing some more material for awareness campaigns. Tum aana beti, varna hum buddhe toh baatein hi karte reh jayenge’. He giggled, showing all of his deserted gums. I smiled back.
He got off in a market place. ‘I will try to engage a few people here and then walk home. You carry on’.
I left him standing on a pavement, white and wise, yellow booklets in hand.
(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)