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Introduction to The Waste Sad Time

The Waste Sad Time

Badges of Honour

Posted on 1-March-2006

About forty years ago, in the place I was living in, I had a neighbour, one of whose frequent visitors came in a car bearing the red plaque of a princely state in Punjab or Himachal Pradesh. That was before Government of India, in a renewed zeal for republicanism, abolished the privy purses and all the residual immunities and privileges of erstwhile ruling princes of India. I do not recall seeing any motor car with the plaque of a princely state after the late 1960’s. As recently as two or three years ago, though, I have seen letters written by the Private Secretary to one former ruling prince written to ordinary members of the populace on paper bearing the coat of arms of the state. The ruling prince in these letters was referred to as H.H. About fifteen years ago I had a brief, two-day long, but reasonably close interaction with one who would have been Maharaja of a major state. I got to know more or less well another who would have been the ruler of another major state. They and their spouses were always referred to as Maharaja or Maharani or His or Her Highness by members of their entourage, but they did not wince when others addressed them simply as Sir or Madam, nor did all this offend my usually strong republican sentiments. These mannerisms looked to me no more than quaint leftovers of a vanished order from another age, among individuals whom history, and good deeds of their own or their ancestors’ past births had given them reasons for feeling superior to the plebs inhabiting ‘real India’.

Real India, it is said, has always lived outside the gilded cages of princely palaces or the metropolitan habitats of India’s haute bourgeoisie; in the villages of India, as Mahatma Gandhi said. The sweaty, dusty, rough, uncouth humanity of rural and provincial India has slowly become the principal recruiting ground for the foot soldiers, the corporals, the sergeants and the lieutenants of India’s institutions, political or bureaucratic, and of business and industry. On one occasion, thirty or so years ago, I was driving by car through one stretch of land in this real India, in North Bihar. For me the journey is memorable mainly because it took us to the ruins of the stupa and monastery of Nandangarh and the nearby Ashokan Pillar of Lauriya, both close to Vaishali, the locale of one the most important Councils of the Buddhist Sangha ever.But it is not of Buddhism that I speak here, nor of Indian peasantry in a backward part of a backward Indian state, not very far removed from the indigo plantations of yore of Champaran, the locale of Mahatma Gandhi’s first venture into mass politics in India.

As I drove, the red plate on the front fender of a motor vehicle coming from the opposite direction caught my eye. The legend in large bold letters on that plate read B.D.O. or Block Development Officer. Soon I started noticing other vehicles presumably carrying other assorted dignitaries with designations such as Magistrate, Circle Officer, S.D.O. (Sub-Divisional Officer) and so forth. And the best of all were a reasonably large number of more or less overloaded and erratically driven vehicles with equally large red plates on which was written in extra large letters, the word ‘JEEP’. The owners of the jeeps might have been mocking at the magistrates, the SDO’s and the BDO’s, but I remember thinking at that time that the JEEPS were trying as much to create an impression as the numerous government functionaries in other vehicles. In benighted Bihar, this should not have been surprising. For me none of it was surprising for a different reason. Earlier during the same decade as that of my journey to this country of the Buddha and Gandhi, I had known of someone in the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi who had for four years driven his imported Fiat car in India with Parisian Diplomatic Number plates.

I now live in a part of the National Capital Region of India, not far removed from real India. For some inexplicable reason, but probably because there had been an outcry in Delhi about the very large number of people who were driven around in the city in cars with red stroboscopic lights, I started noticing special plaques on some motor cars. When one day I saw a car coming from the opposite direction announcing on a large red plaque that the occupant of the vehicle was a district judge, I was tempted to stop that car and ask the gentleman if that plaque was permitted by law. I desisted, imagining all kinds of unpleasant consequences for me of such audacity. District Magistrates, Superintendents of Police and all manner of other functionaries routinely announce their offices on their vehicles—this was unknown when I spent six months in 1966 at a district headquarters in Bihar. I have learnt to treat with the highest respect a whole class of vehicles with the legend ‘Government of India’ or ‘Government of—‘ on their bodies or number plates when I am driving or walking in Delhi. But government officials are not the only ones thus proclaiming themselves. A rather battered down Maruti, stopped in a shopping area had a plaque saying it belonged to the president of the district association of chemists and pharmacists, while another driving around menacingly announced its appurtenance to the President Ghaziabad District ****Party Committee. Another car had the name SANAWAR—I presumed it referred to the school—painted in bold letters on its rear glass. Still other cars have the last digit of their registration numbers—any number from 1 to 9—painted extra large on the their number plates, with all the other letters and numbers painted so small that they could not be seen at a distance longer than two metres. You would be expected to offer the deference due to the distinctive status of the owner of that car with a registration number such as simply 5 or 3.

I had been used to seeing vehicles with the word ‘press’ or a small red cross painted discreetly on the windscreens of cars and assumed that was the normal order of things. But seeing one day the word ARMY painted in large red letters on the rear glass of a small Maruti—obviously a personal car—caused me great anguish. I thought I should have some symbol of my own status painted on my car. It is only my indecision about the word or words I should get painted that stopped me. My pain increased when I received a notice from the police one day saying that I had driven through the red light at a certain crossing on some day six months ago and that I ought to pay a fine. I cursed the police and the gods for their unfairness, for every day I see people drive with impunity through red lights under the noses of traffic constables. But I cursed Fate even more for not bestowing upon me any special status to claim. I meekly went to pay my fine.

In a grubby room full of smelly, rough looking people there sat two constables behind two desks. As I handed in my copy of the notice, one of them asked me very politely if I would mind waiting while they dealt with another, evidently very angry man. That man who had been booked for jumping a traffic light and not wearing a crash helmet while riding his motorcycle said he had not jumped the light. The constable said he had no powers to decide the truth of his claim. His job was only to collect fines. The man, getting angrier and angrier said then to the constable: ‘You do not know who I am. I am an advocate at Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court of India.’ I thought to myself that he could not be a very important lawyer at the Supreme Court, for no lawyer of consequence there would be riding a motorcycle and more importantly, no lawyer of consequence there would easily be hauled up by a traffic constable. Probably the constable also had the same thought. He stayed firm, but the argument went on. After an already longish wait, I, unusually for me, intervened saying to the lawyer that at least he should understand that the constable was right. When the lawyer had left, paying his fine, the constable said to me:’Uncleji you heard the argument. I was polite with the man throughout. If he creates trouble for me, can I cite you as a witness?’ I told him he could. From my car papers he knew where I lived. He did not ask me who I was and collected the fine. Since he had uncled me, I thought he had decided that he should be politer with me than with the others slouching around in that room.

But streets and highways are not the only places where to announce a special status. One day a man came to meet me. He gave me a visiting card which said after his name that he was a member of the executive committee of the Residents’ Welfare Association of ****--in many localities in Delhi and its environs, people have formed these voluntary, non-statutory associations with the purpose of mediating the problems of their members with local authorities. I am not at all surprised to see visiting cards of people like the President of the Indian Foundation for the Elimination of the Blind, The Secretary General of the Association for Greater India or the Executive Director of the Society for the Promotion of Hinduism in Islamic States. I caused great offence once by being very frivolous about the accoutrements of office of someone. At a wedding in the family a cousin had turned up in his official government car, complete with red stroboscopic lights and a siren. He strutted about proudly. We were meeting after a very long time. He said he was very happy to see me and I said I would have been happier to meet him as a more private person. I cannot remember what he said to provoke even greater frivolity in me. When I asked him if he took that stroboscopic light with him when he went to bed, he could have killed me.

My rant on such matters at a private gathering was interrupted by someone who said I was saying what I was saying because I had no badge to display. He also said that if I had one I would show it off as blatantly as anyone else. I told him I did not care to, as I thought it vulgar. I was not being entirely truthful. I used to have a New York City tie given to me by a Mayor of New York which I put on almost daily during my entire stay in the City, till it started fraying at the edges and I put it aside to be taken out when I would not be able to afford new ties. I have ties from the Indian Navy, the Asian Games and the Asian Institute of Technology each of which I might have worn not more than once. Another piece of apparel that I have as a badge is a college scarf which I bought because it was long and warm and looked attractive because of its coloured stripes, distinctively arranged. I wear it on some cold days every year in places where the chances of anyone finding out from the colours which college the scarf belongs are non-existent. The greater fool I not to exhibit more openly my membership of different fraternities.


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