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Democracy — a ghost story

by Jawed Naqvi, 11 November 2013

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dawn.com, 7 November 2013

I HAVE always seen a similarity in their modus operandi, the wily deception with which Narendra Modi sends his secular detractors on desperate leather hunts and the confident ease with which the gang of bicycle thieves of ‘Bailey Gaarad’ indulged their bizarre vocation in the 1960s.

Bailey Gaarad is of course how the city’s horse-carriage drivers, the tangewallahs, nicknamed what was left of the Lucknow Residency, the British commissioner’s sprawling home presented to him by the friendlier nawabs of Awadh.

Now in ruins, pockmarked with cannon shots that almost blasted the rebels of 1857 to a history-changing win, Bailey’s Guard was the original name of the main gate to the sprawling complex. And it doubled as a successful fortress during the ferocious assault by the Indians.

The poorly lit and desolate stretch from the ruins of the Residency to the Kutchehry Road traffic roundabout gave rise to legends of headless ghosts of British soldiers walking the deserted streets.

People had heard the bloodcurdling wails of the ladies who perished inside the compound during its long and bloody siege. Few would dare to venture on the road after dusk. For in between the make-believe stories about ghosts and evil spirits, there was lurking the real danger of being assaulted by a gang of robbers, including bicycle thieves, of whom two were apprehended by the police.

What the arrested men revealed about their vocation reads like a draft strategy for India’s main opposition party and its mascot Narendra Modi. Fickle as the Shakespearean crowd that swayed from Brutus to Antony in their search for the truth, the Indian crowds are often gullible and vulnerable to political charade and falsehoods distributed with insidious purpose.

Going by a report in the National Herald, now defunct, one of the two men picked up from the Bailey Gaarad had confessed how he would crouch with a stick laced at one end with common filth, in wait for an ill-fated cyclist to come his way.

Like Modi’s fabled lies, he was the decoy and his role was to plaster the cyclist with the stinky goo. The offended man would have to abandon his vehicle to chase his tormentor on a tortuous path through prickly shrubs and tangled trees. His partner would then run away with the abandoned bicycle.

The stinky stick is revived in my mind as the perpetual untruths that Modi mouths ignorantly or deliberately in his rallies, which then become the subject of intellectualised scrunity in the media, a political red herring planted with strategic intent.

A garrison of Biharis on the banks of the Ganges defeated Alexander of Macedonia who, in fact, never went beyond the River Indus. This distortion was flung in Patna at the befuddled electorate. Chandragupta Maurya belonged to the Gupta Dynasty, not the Mauryas. These claims would make a professional historian cringe.

Counterfactual history is thrown as another distraction to shift the focus from Modi’s corporate-communal reality. Had Sardar Patel been the first prime minister instead of Jawaharlal Nehru India would be truly prosperous and strong.

Then another lie: Nehru didn’t attend Patel’s funeral. All this was enough to send mortally worried secular activists digging up the archives to shine the facts to the public. Liar, they would shout, Nehru did attend Patel’s funeral. And they were right. They had visual proof. By then Modi had moved on to his next mythmaking, at another rally.

I’ve written earlier about another ghost story from Lucknow, which to my mind similarly mirrored contemporary political reality.

The Old Monkey Bridge connected the city to the Lucknow University, just past the students’ union office. It was another ill-lit and eerie stretch, particularly during the misty winters.

I had heard this story from several tangewallahs though I took it mostly with a pinch of salt. The tangewallahs of Lucknow who have all but passed into history had an amazing gift of the gab.

Rarely would you come across a carriage driver who had not been the one to ride his vehicle in a long shot in the movie Chaudhuvin ka Chaand, a popular romantic tragedy set in the Lucknow of fellowships and loyalties.

Everybody claimed it was their horse-carriage in the frame. The story of the mist-laden Monkey Bridge involved an evil tangewallah, which is not an easy idea to accept. Tangewallahs are mostly trustworthy.

There was this solitary passenger who got off from a night train at the Charbagh railway station. He hired a horse carriage to take him across the Gomti river to the Bishop Rockey Street, behind the city’s landmark Isabella Thoburn College for women.

As they approached the Monkey Bridge the passenger noted that the tangewallah had strange hands. On closer scrutiny he found that they were not human hands at all, but horse’s hooves.

The man nearly fainted. With his heart pounding with fright he saw a flicker of hope at the far end of the bridge. It was a small mustard oil lamp, lit on a small heap of roasted peanuts. The vendor could be scarcely seen as he was wrapped inside a thick but worn-out blanket.

The frightened man ran to him for help and cried out to the peanut-vendor. He actually found a sympathetic listener. The passenger had left all his belongings on the carriage, the man in the blanket was told. The tangewallah had hooves instead of hands, the frightened passenger was white as a sheet.

The peanut man shook himself out of the blanket. Did the hooves look like these, he asked poker faced, proffering another pair of beastly hands.

I have never been able to ascertain whether there was in fact such an incident involving the two men with hooves. There could of course be no human with hooves and who would drive a tanga or sell peanuts. These were confidence tricksters, not unlike the politicians we rush to for help.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi at gmail.com