For a while now, I have been focusing on what writers call the “telling detail,” where you observe something but pick out the detail that is new and unusual.  In this piece, it was the housewife telling her Maharaj to make dal, sabzi, roti, and then breaking off to yell, “Saaku Saaku, lanja saaku.” or “Enough, enough, bribes, enough.”
Cults become movements by accident. The tipping point comes when the housewives get out on the streets

Shoba Narayan

Freedom Park in Bangalore is far away, geographically, from the Ramlila maidan in New Delhi. But on this drizzly Sunday, the two spaces seem to be psychologically in sync with each other, as large crowds of people gather peacefully to protest against corruption and support Anna Hazare. Two senior citizens hold hands to stay together amid the surging crowds. Children carrying homework trudge after their parents who want to expose their offspring to the workings of a democracy. Groups of young men ride in—two and three on a motorbike—carrying the national flag and banners. Speakers on stage hold forth in Kannada and when they say, “Jai Hind,” the entire crowd shouts in response. Everyone seems to be wearing an “I am Anna Hazare” button. But this piece is not about Hazare; it is not even about the Jan Lokpal Bill. It is about how observers become stakeholders and what happens after that.

I am in Freedom Park with about 20 people from my building. I came because they asked me to. Actually, it is for a reason more selfish and “matlabi” than that, but we’ll get into that later. With me are (if you’ll permit me some pride about Bangalore’s cosmopolitan population) the north Indian chief executive of Sobha Developers, a large construction company, and his family; the Bengali founder and managing director of DTDC, the courier company, and his wife; a Maharashtrian partner in Ernst and Young and his family; a Delhi Christian HR manager of a multinational and his family; a Sindhi paediatric surgeon and others. The point is that these people hardly epitomize the middle-class rage and outrage that is supposedly what this whole movement is about. They could live in their gated communities and cocoons, and be shielded from the corruption that lubricates registrations, licences and permits. They have minions to do all this for them; to get things done. Then why are they here? Why am I here?

Photo: PTI

Photo: PTI

I have a theory about mass movements: Follow the housewives. When the housewives get out on the streets (and my mother is one so I am not being derogatory here), that’s the moment to watch; that’s the tipping point. Students are supposed to protest, that’s de rigueur, a rite of passage. The poor, you could argue, get paid to protest. But the average Indian housewife doesn’t have the time— or interest—to protest. She has to wait for the “bai” (maid), she has to keep track of the iron-man, her kids’ homework, and her husband’s dabba. Her time, in other words, is valuable. It would take a lot for these women to get out on the streets and carry a banner. Yet, here they are, shouting slogans, in between giving the “maharaj” at home instructions about that night’s dinner. What’s in it for them?

Cults become movements by accident. Most of us housewives, or working women (and I include myself in this group) sit on the fence about most issues. We simply don’t have the passion that we did as students. But then, something happens that causes us to throw our hat in the ring; to go from being passive observers to being stakeholders; to take a stance. I have been sitting on the fence about this whole anti-corruption thing. I have close friends, such as Manish Sabharwal of TeamLease and Nitin Pai of Pragati magazine who have publicly, passionately and vociferously spoken out against the approach taken by Team Anna. I have other close friends in my building who are equally passionate, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. They have organized protest marches around our neighbourhood. I listen to their reasons for supporting Hazare and that sounds convincing, too. I never planned to go to Freedom Park and did so for a selfish reason that amounts to a barter: I’ll come to your protest marches if you’ll come to my meetings about recycling solid waste. I am over-simplifying, of course. I would not have gone to a Yeddyurappa protest rally no matter how much of a quid pro quo it afforded me within my community. My point is that people join movements for reasons that is impulsive and often contradictory. My husband, for instance, is philosophically against the Team Anna approach. Yet, he accompanied us for what I would call a “family and community” reason: to show allegiance to his wife and his building co-inhabitants. But once he got there, he was amazed at the turnout of people who hadn’t been paid and who didn’t need to be there. Was he swayed? I hope so.

Individuals and op-ed commentators have to present articulate, well-thought-out arguments for their stance. The “wisdom of crowds”, however, is by gut feel. Most people are for or against an issue, not because they can articulate it as well as, say, an Arundhati Roy, but for complicated, frequently contradictory and often, incoherent reasons. If I had to call it, I would say that I am pro-Hazare, even though I have deep qualms about this whole do-or-die method. But there it is. I’ve thrown my hat in the ring. Now that the government seems willing to talk; now that Team Anna has massive people’s support; now that they have the upper hand, I just hope that Messrs Hazare, Bedi and Kejriwal don’t screw it up for the rest of us who marched for them. I hope they play their cards well. I am a stakeholder, you see. I care about the outcome. Now.

Shoba Narayan writes the weekly column The Good Life for Lounge.

Comments are welcome [email protected]

Subscribe to my newsletter