By Paromita Vohra
Mumbai, Monday 29th April
There have been ads on the radio, rich with meaning. Bombay people are being exhorted not to take the long weekend. One Hindi ‘Go Vote’ ad goes like this: a man/actor playing a daily wage worker says, “Building roads and flyovers and bridges is hard work. It’s toil and trouble. But then, when it’s complete we feel proud. We feel we’ve had a hand in building the country. But you – you don’t have to build roads and labour so much to contribute to the country. We’ll do that. You just have to lift a finger. So lift a finger (ungli uthao) and vote.”
— Dewang Ganatra (@RetardedHurt) April 29, 2019
I found this advertisement rather chill and hence, chilling. How comfortably it endorses a status quo for the middle class voter – that voting will ensure that you don’t have to give up your privilege and can expect to be served, citizen-client. Cut to Dil ne tumko chun liya hai, tum bhi mujhko chuno na, khwaab koi dekhta hai, tum bhi sapne buno na (buno na buno na buno na).
For many days people are telling me that it needs wisdom to vote. Maybe. But what it needs first is a voter ID and your name on the rolls.
I got a voter ID late in life – maybe around 12 years ago. Earlier had been difficult for a number of reasons. I’d never lived in one place with all the systematic progress that implies, my father being in the Air Force. But because he was in the Air Force, many things were simpler – there was a direct line to the system in some sense. By the time he retired and moved back to Delhi, I was already studying in Bombay. My father hoped I would return, but secretly I knew that despite a loving family, freedom for a young woman lay in being on her own; freedom to make some mistakes and figure out your path requires an absence of scrutiny just as much as it sometimes requires help and support. For me the former was more necessary because I was doing something that didn’t have a precedent and I needed that space to reveal it to myself, or reveal myself to it.
Because my father hoped I would return to live with the family, he put my name down on the family ration card, something everyone needed to make back then, whether they used it or not, as a piece of identification, proof of residence.
So there I was in Bombay, rationless (nothing to do with rational-ness, friends. Move along now). I lived with my aunt for a while and engagements with the nitty-gritty of the real world were limited. Then I moved out, rattled around the city, seeking an affordable rental for a film assistant before finding a home in a tenement colony. Here I found that not having proof of identification was a problem. Civilian life is different. You have to figure it out for yourself and there are no direct lines, only long ones. But it seems one paper always requires another – proof of being someone, from somewhere. I was unable to figure out how to do this for a while. Somehow, with the help of 1,000 rupees to one Jadhav, along the way I got a phone. For a while the bills did the job of ‘residence proof’. I kept trying to get a voter ID but somehow never succeeded. This made many things hard – bank loans, passports and so on (in fact, when I decided I’d get a passport from Delhi because of ration card status, my father helpfully informed me ki I have removed your name from it, as you have obviously decided to stay in Bombay…but that’s another story). So, through some exceptions made by folks, and some jugaad here and there, I managed – but always precariously.
Fifteen years ago when I moved to a new place – just to a parallel road – which I felt would be a ‘permanent residence’ or as close to one as I might ever admit to, I persisted a bit in trying to get a voter ID, and finally, after standing in line for two hours in the Ismail Yusuf College grounds, Jogeshwari East, whose sprawling greenery surprised me, I reached the counter only to have my papers examined and then told, “Hmm, this is not the counter for your side of the road. You have to go there,” pointing to another very long line. My face paled. Perhaps finding this response too arty, the man added, “After lunch.” It was enough to bring on the masala movie levels. “But why!” I wailed. “Sir, I’ve stood here for so long! Please do something na” – “kuchh karo na” being the universal Indian utterance that shows our belief in mai-baap, but also, human kindness. After all a person is not a call centre, and we can then hope for intercession, a Hail Mary, to be the exception. “Heh heh,” said the man. “Madam, you used to live in PMGP colony, no?” referring to my old home on the parallel road. “Yes! How do you know,” I said, feeling like perhaps this was the beginning of a connection that would bring a solution. “I also live there,” he answered chattily. I smiled with ingratiating bhaichara. “You should not have moved maybe. If you still lived there then this would be your counter.” He did not say this meanly, but with a kind of cheerful detachment as if describing a good scene in a movie. I felt stung and hugged at the same time. I also laughed, while feeling definitely on my own.
Anyway, another long line later, the deed was set in motion and in a few weeks, done. I had a voter ID. I have voted several times in several types of elections now. I have also been helped in getting other things and papers due to having a voter ID. Possessing an ID makes you feel less adrift in a difficult world. It helps you to belong, off and on, on a case-by-case basis.
I have always liked my neighbourhood, the much (unjustly) maligned Andheri East whose chief demerit seems to be that it is not Andheri West. For me this alone is enough to make it appealing, but I have positive reasons too. For many reasons, developmental and historical, Andheri East continues to be a highly mixed neighbourhood with big pockets of Christian and Muslim inhabitants and many buildings of mixed residents. It is also very mixed in class, with many different levels of bastis and baithi chaalis (row houses), again of mixed communities, including some Dalit bastis. I don’t know why it is so important for me to live like this. It’s not that I am necessarily fraternizing with one and all, with unity in diversity zeal, including my own building neighbours, beyond the transactional, or beyond the habitual, as with vegetable sellers of 25 years. I only know that it is so and that I am uncomfortable in places that don’t have this concurrent existence. I feel less alone when there are many parallel lives around me, is the best way I can describe this.
— Aman Sayyad. (@journo_aman) April 29, 2019
Standing in the voting line at the local municipal school, I felt this comfort of parallel lines which nevertheless intersect as if by magic, as if by a denial of geometric and scientific laws, but only for a moment of course, as flowers that bloom just for a day. Already I had met at the entrance a policeman from my local thana who had been part of a team that dealt with a theft in my house. “Kya madam, akele?” he said, as if he had ever seen me any other way! But that’s a general greeting, I feel, at least in my area. I wanted to cornily reply, “Nahin, akeli kahan hoon, sab toh hain yahan vote karne” but luckily having not taken complete leave of my social senses yet, I just gave him a constipated smile. My election paper, the little parchi with my booth number, I gave to another policeman who checked it and asked why I had two (I did). “Two parties’ karyakartas came and each gave me one.” He laughed, “But you can give only one vote.” I don’t know how he could be so pleasant in the sodden Bombay heat, but he was, as he sent me on to the correct line. Different sections of the area are allocated different classrooms to vote in. Standing in the wrong line in summer can be frustrating and lead to many fights and “kuchh karo na” situations, so it’s good we are checked.
In the dozen years it has been my voting centre the school has highly improved its looks, like an Oshiwara struggler, with a new building and a new sign with a new name outside. A couple of years ago my Uber driver assured me he was “aapke location pe” while outside the school, and on being pressed for more detail had informed me condescendingly, “Shamshaan ghat ke paas mein hoon madam.” “Shamshaan ghat!” I said in consternation, remembering the time Google Maps had tried to take us to Afghanistan when we were headed to the Bamiyan Hotel in Delhi. He then read out from that new sign: “Hridaysamrat Balasaheb Thackeray Shikshalaya (King of Hearts, Bal Thackeray School)”. “Shikshalaya! Shikshalaya is school not shamshaan, which is funeral ground,” I had said to him. “Oh yaya ok,” he had replied as if thinking in his mind “same difference really.” There was something about his spiky haircut and stylie jeans that made me suspect these would have been his thoughts, which made me act very stern with him throughout the ride, like a schoolteacher, thereby perhaps confirming his opinion.
Anyway, the school is in a big, shady ground. It’s a nice building, whitewashed, the colour of a creamy peda. I read a book in the line, as cell phones are not allowed, and it progressed slowly, like a sweaty, replete snake. At some point a woman got in front of me, looking dreamily into the distance, yaniki, with that insouciant, just-slipping-in-here air of line-breaking. “What are you doing madam? You are just coming in the line?” I asked mildly. “Heh heh, yes,” she said. “I was here only from before, but sitting in between actually, because my feet were paining. I came here straight from work, na.” Election day is not a holiday for everyone, definitely not domestic workers, so I felt wicked for objecting. My book was very absorbing so I just went back to it, smiling. Another policeman came to check our papers to ensure we were indeed standing in the right line. I’d put my stuff away and said, “Yes, yes, I’m in section 191”. “Perfect na?” asked the cop, which is a Marathi way of saying “Very sure, right?” I nodded earnestly, like a teacher’s pet, and immediately felt doubtful. After he left I sneaked a look and confirmed that I was perfect indeed.
One of the nicest things about the good municipal schools – because there are some, even as there are many that are decrepit and neglected – are the wall paintings. Multiplication tables, wise sayings (“Humility is the doorway to knowledge”), pictures of fruits and vegetables made the walls perky. A man in front of me tried to entertain his child who was giving me naughty grins which I occasionally returned from behind my book, by pointing out the drawings of different occupations on the wall alongside us. The drawings were quite nice, and had bilingual titles. “Hamal” (Marathi)/Lodar (Loader), “Kumbhar”/Poter (Potter). All the English spellings were comically wrong and, as if deeply aware of it, by the last drawing the sign painter had given up trying and a lady weaving baskets was simply titled “Borud” as if to say. “That’s it, ok? Anyway why do you need to know the English for borud?”
It was ok, because she was exactly opposite the entrance to the room with the EVM, where a man waited to let us in one at a time. An array of staff sat at their work. One checked my papers, my voter ID and called out my serial number, making me feel like I was actually, not just accidentally, in class and the teacher had called my roll number. I stopped myself from acting smart and saying “Present”, since many of the people who work on election duty are in fact municipal school teachers and may not have found it amusing, primarily because they have heard the joke many times. A lady painted my nail with election ink. A man made me sign upside down on the list. I voted. Another man bid me wait till the long wail of the machine indicated my vote had registered.
— ANI (@ANI) April 29, 2019
That’s a lot of people hard at work. They have to lift more than a finger to help us build the nation, it seems. Working on holidays on census duty, on election duty, to makes sure we ‘only have to lift a finger.’ Come on, it can’t be enough to just lift a finger, Mr/Ms./Mx. Advertising Person who wrote that radio spot! Surely you should be telling us and our badtameez dils that we have to lift more than a finger every day.
I went back out into the April heat and down the road, sweating, while all the involuntary officials and volunteers lined the streets under umbrellas, helping voters find their booths. It was too hot and I did lift a finger – all five actually to hail an auto.
17 seats of Mumbai metropolitan
region and parts of northern and western Maharashtra are voting today
(Photos: ANI) pic.twitter.com/xS0ovnmUhk
— NDTV (@ndtv) April 29, 2019
The fare came to Rs 18 and I handed him a 20. He grinned. “Chillar hai?” I glared and fished out eight rupees in coins with some sifting. He gave me back the 20. “Ten rupees more,” he said jauntily. “What!” I yelled. “How can you have no change? Isn’t it your duty to have some or only customer must!” “Madam, I was not actually plying the auto. I had come to vote na. Then I saw you standing in the heat and thought ok, I’ll drop you. That’s why I have no change na.”
He had immediately converted duty into favour, human kindness, or “kuchh karo na”. I gave him one of the many 10 rupee coins I hoard, like a schoolchild hoards tamarind seeds. “Fine, here you are.” He went off jauntily.
At home Facebook, Twitter, Instagram were full of inked-finger selfies and solemn declarations. Some wrote they wished that with this press of a button they could wish away hate, caste, gender, class, sexuality, injustices, roll back demonetisation, drought and also bad Netflix shows. I think that might take more than lifting a finger aka “kuchh karo na” (karo na karo na, kar lo na).
Anyway, I proceeded to make lunch and did not put on the radio. I wondered if I’d feel alone if I did not post an inked selfie. I didn’t. But I wrote this instead.