Catch up with the first part of Aman Sen’s childhood memories and reflections on the 1977 General Elections in India.
“What about you?” Mada asked me, “If you were voting today, who would you pick?
No one had ever asked my opinion on anything important. I tried to think of something intelligent to say but all I could do was parrot my mother’s feminist viewpoint that the country could benefit from having a woman at the top. He shot me a look of horror. Panic clouded his face and my political education began:
“Don’t you care about your goti? How shall I put this? If Sanjay comes to power, you will not have your little goti left. Forget having children, you won’t even be able to do soo-soo.”
I was oddly unsettled and instinctively clutched at my crotch. I was not sure what my little goti had to do with having children and a million questions popped in my mind. I managed to respond with a weak, “What nonsense!” imitating my father who yelled at underlings delinquent in their duties, with neither the conviction nor his authority.
Unfazed, he forged along. “Did you know that Morarji drinks his urine every morning? Fresh and steaming! Why you ask? For improving his health of course! Why else would he do that? Don’t let that Deshmukh fool you with his English medicine, we Indians have known what is good for us since thousands of years. He is eighty years old, our Morarji, and rides horses like a young prince.” He was alluding to Morarji Desai, one of the prominent leaders of the opposition currently in jail. Even though I lived in a country where everyone had medical advice to give — usually involving bitter Neem leaves soaked in a variety of liquids — this was still intriguing.
Slowly, due to Mada’s patient indoctrination in a language that would appeal to a young brain, I began to see the clear choice in the election, and sided with the man who chose to use the male genitalia to improve his health (Morarji later admitted to drinking 8 oz of his own urine a day in an infamous interview on 60 Minutes with Dan Rather). I
started wearing a Gandhi cap, in the style of Morarji, expressing my solidarity with the opposition party. Mada, proud of his pupil, had it bleached white, starched and ironed to make the perfect crease that was so stiff, it inflamed the skin around my head and gave me the appearance of someone tortured in a vise-like contraption.
“In an era when television was non-existent and the only good entertainment was a half-hour of movie songs on the state owned radio station, the elections were magical.”
In an era when television was non-existent and the only good entertainment was a half-hour of movie songs on the state owned radio station, the elections were magical. Mada’s pedagogy was performance art infused with conspiracy theories. He taught me political songs set to famous movie tunes. He told me about the chamar, the village cobbler, who disgusted with the emergency had made special chappals for the protestors to throw at the congress party candidates, by sewing in heavy stones inside the soles making the projectiles potent and sometimes deadly. We made up political slogans and sang them out loud in call and response:
Sickle and hammer? Communist party
Calf and cow? Indira gay aarti. (A send off to Indira )
Together, Mada and I threw cow-dung pies at posters of the Congress party, howling with laughter when the party workers came with a scraper to take down the offending poster. I took a page out of Gandhi’s playbook and practiced passive resistance and went on hunger strikes in hopes of changing the evening menu to something that didn’t involve mashed eggplants.
Mada made sure I knew all the election symbols: the plough carrying farmer — Haldhar (Morarji’s party), a cow suckling its calf (Indira’s party) and patiently taught me to tell apart the two CPIs, the Communist parties of India, both of them unimaginative enough to use the identical communist iconography of hammer, sickle and ear of corn in their symbols and only one of them brave enough to associate in parenthesis, the name of Marx.
I repeated: CPI, CPI(M).
See pee I, see pee I am, which sounded like Morarji’s existential motto.
Urino Ergo Sum.
My father, pausing briefly from his verbal fistfights with his friends, noticed me and intrigued and encouraged by my sudden interest in politics, invited me to go along with him as he toured the polling places on the Election Day. Dr. Deshmukh on the other hand was more worried about the skin marks around my head now turning a ghastly shade of purple.
On election day, I sat next to my father, squeezed in the front seat of a government issued Willy’s Jeep, of World War II vintage. It was the only vehicle besides a bullock cart to be able to traverse the muddy pothole filled roads to the villages where he oversaw the polling process.
Voting day in Indian villages is a festive one. A state mandated holiday brings the masses to the polling stations. Old and young, women in saris and women in burkas, men in dhotis and men in safari suits identifying themselves as bureaucrats of some merit, all stand in lines separated by gender. Children playing stick-stick, fling sharpened projectiles dangerously through the crowds, their play areas blurred by another group playing rubber ball cricket. Little babies swing from makeshift jhoolas tied to low hanging tree branches, while their mothers cook food and make tea on one burner kerosene stoves, dangerously close to everything flammable. Add a Ferris wheel and a few sugarcane juice pendals, it could just as well be the annual temple fair.
Much like rivaling shopkeepers selling coconuts at temple lines, polling agents associated with various parties form a miasmic front traveling with you and canvassing until you enter the hallowed polling booth. They also hand out chits identifying your name and home address so you could present it to the polling official to match it against the name in a ledger, the chits usually stamped with the symbol of their party, an ingenious way to appeal to the voter one last time.
Some people return triumphantly from the polling place and depending on their personality, either gently cradle the finger painted with the indelible ink or pierce the sky with it. Others walk out angry, frustrated and confused; for someone has already voted in their place. The motto of the Wild West of voting in India: the quick and the disenfranchised. Young people infused with party loyalty have found ways to make the indelible ink markings disappear, some of which probably include Neem leaves soaked in a variety of liquids, ready to vote again if the opportunity presented itself.
“The motto of the Wild West of voting in India: the quick and the disenfranchised.”
As we toured the polling places it became obvious that the right to exercise an anonymous vote, as guaranteed by the constitution was hardly fulfilled. The makeshift voting booths we witnessed, were often an old torn sari or a dhoti stretched around a bamboo scaffold. People quickly piled in and out of the booths, borrowing rubber stamps and witnessing the poll choices made by others, poll workers poked their heads in and hurried the voters along and polling agents found a way to sneak in with illiterate voters purporting to help them read the ballot.
The anonymity was further compromised by a sullen looking man sitting next to the ballot box, bored with his only job of pushing ballots deposited into the belly of the box using a standard issue foot ruler, to make room for new ones. He often pulled out the stubborn ballots that stuck out of the slot, opening them and slowly refolding them before pushing them into the box.
The gender-based voting lines were longer on the women’s side, mainly because many of the men were still drunk from the free booze, Mada had informed me. “Election time is a good time for us. See, women get money and rice to vote because they take care of children, men get booze because they have to forget that they have wives and children,” he expounded with a smile.
As I watched the first wave of voters openly cheering support for Morarji’s party, it struck me for the first time that change was possible if individuals united towards a common goal. About an hour after the polling stations opened, that opinion faced its first challenge when an old woman wearing a white sari, now painted beige by the swirling dusty summer winds, wobbled in, using a stick to steady herself. The thick glasses on her face enlarged her eyes, making her look perpetually excited and terrified at the same time and made her nose seem tiny in comparison. Deep cracks lined her face like the waterless rivers my father was trying to dam.
She was of an age when every identifier vanishes. One can’t tell the religion and social status just by looking at them, because old women of certain age are all treated the same way in every village household. They eat food given to them without complaints, sleep in a corner of the house and generally get out of the way both in terms of sound and sight, leading a vaporous existence. Voting was possibly one of her few opportunities in life to have a say, to make an impact, however small.
She located the person handling out the ballots, handed her voter identification chit and got straight to the point. Dangling the ballot in front of his face, she inquired in a shaky voice, “son, Amma’s party symbol? Show me?” using the maternal name for Indira in these parts.
I swallowed hard knowing very well that it was forbidden to intervene and disturb the polling process. Yet, I couldn’t let it go. My interpretation of a fair election was the one where everyone voted the way I wanted them to. I followed her into the booth determined to educate her and save her from making a grave mistake. Instead of engaging in a debate, as is wont in a politically aware society, I simply jabbed my finger at the symbol of the haldhar farmer on the ballot.
“My interpretation of a fair election was the one where everyone voted the way I wanted them to.”
“Here, vote here!” I fumed, employing the tone that one used with servants in these parts, the way I had seen it being used, for Mada had never allowed or tolerated such condescension in our interactions.
I noticed a look of panic immediately followed by disdain on the old woman’s face. Indian women, particularly those in villages, are accustomed to not having many private moments in their lives. They defecate in the bushes in a state of panic and fear of being found by a passerby. They take baths while fully clothed. They make love to their husbands while being surrounded by extended families. On that level, my intrusion was insignificant and she treated me that way by ignoring me and continuing to ink the rubber stamp. I became aware of the commotion I was causing and the stares of people were beginning to make me sweat. The sullen man with the ruler looked at us and snickered and warm blood rushed to my ears.
There was only one thing to do, only one way to redeem the situation and I acted. In one quick move, I snatched the ballot paper from her hand and ran to where my father was sitting and hid behind him. She followed me and stood in front of my father without speaking, fury writ large on her face.
The peons on duty tried to intervene and pull her away and the ballot officer offered her a replacement, but my father motioned them to stop. I still remember the look of disappointment on my father’s face as he pushed his chair back to face me, took the ballot from my hand and held it out to the old woman, gently asking her to go back to the polling booth. The woman snatched the ballot from my father’s hand much the way I had from hers, ignored his instructions, set the ballot on the table in front of him and emphatically stamped the symbol of Indira’s party.
I stood there watching, with tears streaming down my face. I was taken out of the room by my father’s driver and I stayed in the Jeep for the rest of the day. My father who till then ran a well-oiled voting operation was done in by one of his own.
The next few days were unbearable as we both waited for the election results. I felt vindicated when they announced that Indira’s party was soundly defeated, but the happiness did not last. We were still at the dawn of identity politics and the only thing that united the opposition was their collective hatred of Indira. Once she was out of the way, the flimsy coalition quickly came apart, corrupted by the power they fought so hard to get, enabling her ascent back to power. In two years, my father was back on election duty.
In spite of its short-lived success, Mada wholeheartedly approved of my activism, calling me little Morarji, but my father didn’t. And neither did Dr. Deshmukh. It may have been my imagination, but after the elections, Dr. Deshmukh’s shots seemed more painful and his medicines a tad more bitter than usual. When my father went back on election duty, I was not invited to join him.
The new government brought new ministers and new projects were approved. The local irrigation project got upgraded to a bigger structure where my father had deemed a smaller barrage to be sufficient. Needless to say my family moved and I never saw Mada again.
Although I stayed in India till I was 22, I never got the opportunity to vote. I left home to go to college when I was of voting age. I longed to register to vote but was thwarted by my father. He was paranoid that my being a voter registered in a different town would automatically remove my name from the government issued ration card that my family had used to buy essential supplies at fair price shops. So, my name stayed on the voter list in my hometown. Additional rice, oil and sugar for my family and subsidized notebooks for my sister’s homework were more valuable than my democratic right.
Recently there was an update of the voter list and the new electronic system forced my father to remove my name from the local voter list. He joked that it was for the best, for I may have “donated” my vote to the Congress party many times over the last few elections.
With my own disenfranchisement complete, I looked back on the experience of my first election and pondered the karmic nature of it all. My companion in disenfranchisement probably having gone to the grave, I alone bear the burden of my sin.
I watched wistfully from far as India votes for the biggest election in its history and the most talked-about since 1977. The focus of the opposition parties was on handing a similar verdict as 1977 to the ruling coalition, governed in proxy by the Italian born daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi.
I do still harbor some hope of voting in the U.S., having garnered a green card last year. It will be a bittersweet moment, severing ties with the country of my birth and taking up with my adopted land. Once I do, I will try to make up for lost time. I will eagerly look up the election schedule starting with those choosing local school committees to those anointing the leaders of the free world, voting early and often. The volunteers at the polling place at the senior center in Cambridge will recognize me and smile at my enthusiasm as I take my daughter into the polling booth and teach her the right way to do things. She and I will together push/pull/punch whatever technological implements one will be using to exercise my democratic right, indelible ink notwithstanding. Voting in India, however, will remain an unfulfilled dream.
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An engineer by training but a writer at heart, Aman runs his own company and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. This essay is a piece of memoir he wrote as part of an ongoing collection for his daughter. India as she knows it through annual visits is far different from the one he grew up in, and he hopes that a collection of these vignettes serves as a field guide for her to understand her father.