I have had enough. I announce that I have become a revolutionary activist. I will overtly and covertly push the nation towards my goal. What I want is straight lines. That is all. A bit of urban order and beauty on the streets, that is all. I wish the end of our feral civic freedoms, of our zigzagness, that daft rural informality in everything, and that look of surprise on an Indian’s face when a mishap occurs as the most logical outcome of his actions. As an Indian, my standards for urban beauty are so low that all I want is to see traffic in straight orderly lines of vehicles. Even a traffic jam where cars wait one behind the other in straight lines and in silence will do.
I want other people to fight for this because I am very busy. But I don’t expect any career activist or even one of those good fellows with a ‘moral compass’ to fight for straight lines. The thing about Indians is that we are obsessed with grand useless things— like culture, identity, ideology and obscenity. But what life is almost entirely made up of are little things. Like going in a car some place, or walking to a local market. And India makes little things unpleasant.
For many years, I waited for a new kind of activist to rise—the useful kind, the activist for small things. The type of person who will create a campaign for small liberations, like silencing the boors who speak on the phone inside a theatre, or creating a community of Indians who would block the path of any vehicle that drives on the wrong side of the road. But our activists are all grand people. You take any contemporary ‘humanitarian’ and ask what exactly has this guy achieved, and you will realize they are just people who say the right things, important things, nice things, but have not transformed much on the ground.
So I have to do it myself.
Is there a particular per capita income that a nation achieves after which people start driving like they do in advanced countries? When they start driving in lanes, stopping behind white lines, letting pedestrians cross without trying to beat them to it in some unspoken game. When traffic signals don’t turn to blinking orange for reasons no one knows; when all signals work all the time. When the edges of roads are not ambiguous and can be seen as distinct from curb-side pavements. When all trains have automatic doors, and air-conditioning is not considered a special favour.
These things do not require a society to be very rich. In fact, as a middle-income nation, India already has the money to look good. Yet, it looks ugly, out of habit. At the street level, most nations look richer than they actually are; India in plain sight looks poorer than it actually is.
My cause is hard because the sort of beauty I am talking about, beauty in public spaces, has a formidable foe—India itself. The country’s general urban ugliness is not intended, but it is not without reason.
In wealthy nations, the ambient affluence makes it miserable to be poor, or to be even someone who is going through a rough patch. Their ancient buildings are grand, the new shine, and everything suggests people are doing well. It is disturbing for the poor and the other luckless. India, on the other hand, makes you feel everyone is doing poorly. In fact, India makes you feel you’re doing better than most people. Its vast urban ugliness is about that. After the British ruined us, we were poor for many decades, and ugly public spaces reassured most Indians that they are not alone, or that public spaces belonged to them. Order on the streets was a form of aesthetic beauty that made Indians feel like outsiders in their own nation.
But then, a nation is a habit. And Indians have grown used to some shine. Swanky airports and air-conditioned metro stations are not fiefdoms of the rich, as some has-been intellectuals have claimed. Rather, they are proper public spaces today. In that way, the time has come for a more complex form of beauty, and it can be enforced without alienating Indians.
There is a mistake that India makes when it tries to enforce good ideas. It does not recognize that it has to do its part first before asking people to do theirs. First design good roads, fill all the potholes, mark all the lines, ban the traffic department from having fun with blinking orange lights, ensure that all signals work at all times, and only then can people be expected to follow order. To be authoritarian, you first have to be useful. But how can I influence India to do all this?
Trying to do anything good in India without the support of politics is mere posturing. As I am incapable of winning an election even on my lane (especially my lane), I can only try to influence some politicians. I need to identify one district where a politician who is a secret fan of straight-lines and beauty has considerable sway, and which can become a national model for public aesthetics and order. It will not be hard for me to convince him or her that order and beauty are so rare in India that they would be instantly noticeable, compared to other forms of social good, which are abstract. Also, I will try to convince other authoritarian politicians that the best way to discourage agitations is to make order sacred. It is very expensive to break law and order on the road when there is law and order in the first place.
I will adopt other tactics, too, but I can’t tell you. I believe I will succeed because I do this for myself, for selfish reasons, the only kind of revolution that can succeed. I have already said too much.
(Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous)
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