To most, reunions are about rekindling past bonds. To some, they are about reigniting past bombs.
If you are called upon to decide on a matter of grave import, especially one in the public domain, how do you ensure you are judging well rather than being judgmental?
This compelling thought lies at the heart of the all-time classic 12 Angry Men. Penned by Reginald Rose in 1954, the play has been adapted into several formats and languages across the world, and continues to do so 60 years on. I myself have seen a Hollywood movie (the legendary Sidney Lumet’s 1957 version, starring luminaries such as Henry Fonda and Lee Cobb), a Bollywood film (1986’s Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, featuring a who’s-who of theatre and cinema stalwarts – Pankaj Kapur, Annu Kapoor, KK Raina – and directed by another great, Basu Chatterjee), a school play (performed by Standard XII students), and most recently, a contemporised version (by as-if-presciently-named-for-this-play Rage Productions of Mumbai). ‘Contemporised’ because, conscious of the need to be inclusive, the play is now named 12 Angry Jurors and features an almost equal number of women (five) in the cast.
The story though remains the same. An 18-year boy (technically, some would say a man) is accused of murdering his abusive father. The court proceedings over, the 12-member jury (the 12 in the title) now moves to the inner room to decide – and if needed, deliberate – on the boy’s fate. However, there seems to be no need for deliberation, as 11 have decided ‘Guilty’. But wait, as one has decided ‘Not Guilty’, there seems to be need for some discussion. The 11 though are flummoxed: how can one person not believe the boy is guilty when all evidence, witnesses, and as damningly, an overwhelming majority of them are saying so? What starts off as a tiny spark ignited by Juror 8 (the one believing the boy is innocent) leads slowly but surely toward an incendiary climax, as not just thoughts and arguments but accusations and threats are exchanged (the anger in the title). So, do the jurors remain enraged till the end, or do they become placative and reach a unanimous decision one way or the other (the requirement of the court)? In case you haven’t seen the play or any of its avatars, will leave you to discover the denouement for yourself.
What is worth deliberating on however are the themes the play / movie explores. The tendency to evaluate something or someone only through one’s own (coloured) lenses. Juror 10 is unrelenting: the boy is guilty and needs to hang simply because he’s from the slums and “those people” are always like that. Prejudices, it is clear, run deep. And it appears, so do bad experiences, especially if they are close to home. Juror 3 wages the toughest, and roughest, battle against Juror 8. The reason? Juror 3 has had a strained relationship with his son, and having failed to resolve matters with his own kid, wants the accused kid to suffer in a vicious, vicarious form of retribution. And one juror, No. 7, has the flimsiest, whimsiest reason for sticking to his stance: he has tickets for a game and so wants the discussion to wind up asap, especially as all but one of them hold the boy guilty.
Bias, negativity, slapdash judgment… All themes as relevant in today’s social media-fuelled times, when people are quick to ascribe fault and guilt to a situation or a person without bothering to get to the truth. Because that takes time, effort and intellect. All of which seem to be in short supply these days.
It’s not all despairing though. The play urges you to stand up for what you believe is right, even when the world stands against you. Juror 8 fights alone for the longest time. When asked if the boy could really be innocent when the evidence, witness statements, and presently, most jurors are disfavoured to him, his constant response is a simple “It’s possible.” He merely wants to explore the possibility that the boy is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Surely, that’s not too much to ask for, given that his life is at stake? The play also holds that it’s alright to waver, to not be sure. Juror 12 does what looks like a flip-flop in the eyes of the others: now she believes he’s guilty, now she believes he’s not. It’s ok, the play seems to say, to change your viewpoint as you receive more information. After all, it shows you are willing to be flexible, and more importantly, to think.
Not surprisingly, six decades on, 12 Angry Men (Jurors) remains a telling commentary on the way most people think and believe when it comes to others. And the way they truly ought to.
In the recent sleeper hit, Hindi Medium, Irrfan Khan and his family (that is, their characters), who live in Delhi’s swish Vasant Vihar, find themselves having to move to the other end of the residential spectrum – to a slum. It’s like this. Irrfan and his wife, more his social-climbing wife, wish to have their young daughter admitted into an English medium school, but come up against a wall, a caveat. There is a seat (or two) available in one school, but it’s from the Right to Education (RTE) quota meant for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). And so the desirous parents, again more the dogged mom, needing to prove they are EWS, shift base to slummy dwellings, and subsequently endure all the woes people here face on a daily basis: squalid conditions, dengue mosquitoes and less or no water.
During the time that Hindi Medium had its hit run, this Irfan and his family (that is, my parents and I) underwent a similar ordeal. No, we didn’t move from the relatively upscale locality and building we stay in, but the slums, or rather, slum-like situations came home.
Twice in the past couple of months, and each time for at least three-four days, our building, along with other buildings in the neighbourhood, received sewage-infused water. It was black and stinky, and with each passing day, became blacker and stinkier. The first day and instance, I wasn’t able to figure what the odour was – I thought it was a new, strong variety of cleaning liquid my mom had decided to try – and merrily showered and went to work. I know: ew. The next day, to my sheer disgust and horror, when the smell had turned to stink, I realised what it was. For a day, I had not just let that water run all over my body, but also partly ingested it during my brushing routine. I know: ew, ew. By the end of the third day, unsurprisingly, I fell sick. I was down with the runs, thanks to the contaminated water entering my system and causing dirtier effects within. A day later, my mom went the same way, and the day after that, my dad. Similar scenes unfolded in the other apartments in the building.
As we recuperated, we wondered how it had happened. There had been some repair work that had happened nearby some days ago. We speculated if both the water and sewage pipes had got damaged as a result and the one water mixed with the other. While we waited for the Metro Water officials to examine and get back, we began imagining other scenarios. We went from ‘Was this the EWS folk, the have-nots, envying us haves and infesting the water to give us a taste of what they go through on a regular basis’, to ‘Was this our nation’s neighbours engaging in bio warfare’.
Turns out, it wasn’t so vile or evil. It was worse. Due to the water shortage that the city / state is presently (perennially?) in the throes of, the Metro Water folk had no option but to supply the fetid water. After we complained and… raised a stink, the scene got better: they started sending muddied water. And this happened, as I already mentioned, twice over.
Learning our lessons from the first time, we didn’t use the sewage-water the second time around. We employed deos and perfumes to keep ourselves from smelling and air-fresheners to keep our environs from smelling, and called for tanker water to keep our health from flailing. As we needed to ration that water, we couldn’t really venture out, at least not too far from home, and because we had used the spurious water the first day, we promptly fell sick again.
Without making light of slum-dwellers and other less-fortunate folk’s lives, those two times, we felt we were living their lives, or something close to it. It felt like residing next to a gutter, going without bathing or being clean for days, having only a can of good water to survive the whole day… I shivered at these thoughts as much as I had when using that foul water.
We have presently solved the problem, like most others in the vicinity, by digging a second borewell. Why a second? Oh, the first went dry due to both non-usage and unavailability of ground water. They had to dig deeper for the second well. Which had my mom thinking equally deep: ‘With so many of us digging second borewells, could it affect the foundations of the buildings? Could it also have geological ramifications, such as earthquakes?’ I told my mom to stop her extreme line of worrying, because the last thing this city needs is Flood of 2015, Cyclone of 2016 and Quake of 2017.
Plus, I had broodings of my own. When the water supply turned from black to brown, I went: ‘So, it’s going to be either tatti or mitti now on…’ (Going forward, it’s going to be either turdy or muddy water…)
The water may not have been clear, but the reasons are. The usual suspects of furious, inconsiderate development, unceasing population growth and increasing urbanization. The area where I stay has over the past decade gone from being peacefully residential to painfully commercial, with the two-storey independent houses regularly giving way to multi-storey stores and eateries. With more people now living and working in the same square kilometres, there’s bound to be further strain on the already-stretched resources.
Sure, we need development, and I don’t want to sound despairingly exasperated like The Hindu’s own J Mathrubootham (who blames everyone from Trump to his work-from-home son for the woeful state of all things), but if you raze trees to construct buildings, how about planting some trees again in the open areas once those buildings have come up? A stretch of the Metro Rail runs, not far from where I stay, through a two-kilometre long road that has ‘avenue’ in its name, but are there any trees on this road to make up this avenue? Go ahead and cut the trees for your digging and tunnelling and constructing, but once the work is done, how about lining up that avenue with some green – instead of spiffy signboards, spanking-new bus-stops and squeaky-clean pavements?
In my morning walks and jogs through the extended area where I live, I see more boards on building gates with the message ‘Adopt Rain-water Harvesting’ than the declaration ‘This building implements rain-water harvesting’. Any surprise the city lost a year’s supply of rainwater during the 2015 flood?
Data is the new oil, information-age gurus enthusiastically proclaim. The way things are going, water will be the next ‘It’ commodity, and the disturbing future portended by movies like Mad Max: Fury Road will not be dystopia but at our doorstep. Why, a future redux of The Hunger Games could well be The Thirsty Games or, as I have witnessed, The Dirty Games. In more ways than one.
So, here’s a thought. Given how huge a hit Bigg Boss Tamil has proved to be, the next season should be held in an apartment complex. (Because resorts anyway have become the mainstay of escaping and escapist politicians.) Give the contestants all the same things they get on the current sets. Only, provide them little, no or foul water. The dynamics and dramatics that ensue will be dirtier and stinkier than that water. In no time, most will happily nominate themselves for elimination. The resolute few will quench their thirst with their apparently ever-ready… tears. Oh, savage.
I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD
By the second date,
You usually know
The new relationship’s fate.
Better and better.
Bigger and bigger.
Guys lose their best friends
This is my entry for the Crossword – The Write Place contest on the topic, ‘If Mahatma Gandhi was alive today’. You can find the details in the pic alongside. The contest ended yesterday. The Write Place is Crossword’s initiative to promote new writing talent.
I find myself raising my voice against a number of oppressions (animal cruelty, environmental destruction, human rights violations), and when sharing thoughts on my approach, find myself saying, “There are two ways of fighting for (or against) anything. There’s the Gandhiji way, and there’s the Netaji way.” By that, I mean that one way of fighting against any wrong is a peaceful, non-violent, dialogue-based way, and the other is an aggressive, militant, arms-based way.
Don’t get me wrong; no way is the only way. Based on the circumstance and the demeanour of the opposition, we may need both. We certainly wouldn’t have attained independence without both leaders’ styles, or their efforts. And I’m not saying this to pacify followers of the two men and their approaches.
In my case, when it comes to campaigning for animal welfare, for instance, I believe more in talking to and influencing people (whether through my actions or communications). At the other pole are those who believe in using force to get the other party to subscribe to their point of view, be they the gau-rakshaks or militant vegans.
Unfortunately, nowadays, the aggressive way of protesting against something seems to be the most chosen way, if not the only way. An actor-turned-politician says that a neighbouring country is not hell? Chuck eggs at her. A scholar organizes the launch of a book by an ex-foreign minister of the same country? Throw ink on him. A writer talks about a long-believed sexual practice? Threaten him till he’s forced to commit “literary suicide”. And on a more frequent basis, the object of your affection rejects your proposal? Hurl acid on her, or even hack her to death.
In the online world too, things are no better. With the internet giving them the cloak of anonymity and social media giving voice to their opinion, everyone is now a social commentator and a virtual vigilante. At the first post that goes against their world view (though neighbourhood view is more like it), or a casual tweet made in humour, or even one to make a point, the various social media gangs (groups of like-minded people; pun intended, as they live mainly for likes) gang up to virtually beat up that person (rather than that person’s opinion) and often force them to retract their statement, or even retreat from the social space.
Why is this happening? As senior journalist, Shekhar Gupta, said when offering his viewpoint on one of those opinion hour shows, “People today don’t have patience.” (And so, he felt the need to articulate his views very, very slowly.) People indeed don’t. Movies today have to be hits within three days, and people want to have made it yesterday. In the mad rush to get “there” (wherever “there” is for you: gizmos, cars, apartments, international holidays, the corner office, your own office), people don’t have the time for others, much less listen to others. So, when they are forced to do so (like when blitzingly scrolling through their social media feed to be “updated”), they scan through a statement, don’t bother about its import, jump to conclusions, and begin firing up a tweet-storm, or in the real world, hurling abuses, chappals or worse at the person. And so statements like “Pakistan is not hell” get termed “pro-Pak” (even by the rules of English, I’m still failing to understand how) and heart-felt shares like wondering if the country is getting unsafe and therefore having you consider leaving make you lose face, not to forget various brand ambassadorships.
The truth is that change – true change – requires time and patience. The person with the other point of view needs time to understand that they are doing wrong, what they are doing wrong, think about what they can do to make it better, and then begin making the change. This may even take years, if at all. (Gandhiji first put forth the philosophy of non-violence in 1922, and we got our freedom a good quarter-century later.) But if you force the other person, they’ll go the opposite way, perhaps not to come back. If they do submit, it may not be from the heart, and may in their hearts continue believing one thing, but outwardly behaving in quite another way. In either case, the aggressor doesn’t win.
To give a self-example again, I urge people to be nice to street dogs, not by shouting at those who pelt them or demand their culling, but by petting and playing with the doggies in front of them. When they see me being loving to those furry four-legged creatures and those furries being equally gregarious in return (tail wags, paw touches, face licks), something begins changing. I see them looking in wonder, then breaking into a smile (from their feeling of fear and disgust of a moment ago), and I’m guessing going in their mind, ‘Hey, these street dogs aren’t so bad after all.’ It’s happened with quite a few friends and neighbours; that’s why I know this works.
However, time and patience are both commodities that seem in short supply these days. People are refusing to take that first amiable step (perhaps for fear of being seen as weak). And if the other does so, then they are seen as wusses and mocked. And so, things remain stuck.
Which is why I think that if Mahatma Gandhi were around today, he may not have been able to make a difference, the way he did back then. Given the current climate of intolerance, people would abuse him, mock him, troll him, call him pro-Pak or anti-national. Some could get real aggressive, tie him up and lash him. And why, just like they did back then, even shoot him dead. Or seeing the way things have turned out, maybe Gandhiji would just shoot himself. Or starve himself to death, given his preference for the non-violent path. Either way, if Mahatma Gandhi was alive today, he… wouldn’t.