One day, just one day every few years, a cynic becomes a sentimentalist, admits Baradwaj Rangan
It's 8 a.m. and there's a hush over Besant Nagar — not a holiday hush, not the hush rising from the absence of traffic on roads as people go about the business of making a living and their uniformed children race to fill their heads with knowledge, but something more solemn, more portentous. Even the birds are silent. I've woken up to Sunday mornings with more noise. At least there are children out at play, sweaty couples striving to shed pounds by pounding the roads by the beach, vendors of jasmine setting up rickety stands at the intersections of roads. Today, the shops are closed and the streets are empty. The only business, apparently, is the business of voting.
Those who know me are amused that I set forth, every few years, to stain my finger with indelible ink and press a button on a machine and make my voice heard in the midst of millions. They are amused because I am not a political person. It's not that I dislike politics. It's just that I don't understand it. There's a storehouse in my brain that's piled, top to bottom, with nuggets about Alfred Hitchcock's films before he went to America and the phrases of ragas in the songs of C. Ramchandra. But talk to me about bilateral relations or seat sharing and a cloud descends over my comprehension, the same cloud from my mathematics classes, where everyone else looked at integration and differentiation while I just saw snakes and an overdependence on the last three letters of the alphabet.
And yet, every few years, I cast aside my indifference, my so-what's-going-to-change-anyway cynicism, and I land up at the voting booth, a school, where, today, a man in khaki points me to the line I am to stand in, near the Staff Room. I take my place at the tail of a longish row. There's a man in a parrot-green lungi, another with his shirt tucked neatly into his trousers, a third in the crumpled vest he's clearly slept in. Everyone looks at me and I look back. These are, after all, people from my neighbourhood, many of whom have been around as long as I have lived. They are the people whose stores I bought sweets and chart paper from on my way to school, whose children I played with, whose eyes I avoided with guilt when caught with a cigarette in my barely-moustached mouth. A few years later, these were the people who said they wouldn't rent their houses to me unless I produced a wife and three chubby children. They are all here.
I wonder, sometimes, if my going to vote is a political act at all, because the emotions I experience aren't those of patriotism and pride, but instead the feelings at family weddings where I run into long-lost second cousins I haven't seen in a decade and my face lights up and my heart fills with fondness, and a few seconds later, a few awkward greetings later, I forget why I experienced those emotions in the first place. “Hi. Hello. Yes, I'm fine, thank you very much. And you? Yes, I'm with The Hindu now.” — you say these things, as the line inches along, to people who've grown balder and thicker since you saw them last. The smile comes easily, even if the source of this affection is shrouded in mystery.
It's getting hot and I begin to feel like the boy in the Parle Milk Shakti banner in front (an advertisement inside a school?), a cartoon boy with a glass of milk in his hand and a bead of sweat on his brow from the giant sun behind him. The man ahead of me whips out a handkerchief and mops his head, which has a mole so livid, so vivid, it practically screams out for a vote of its own. I finally enter the classroom with the voting machine, which sits behind a roughly fashioned cardboard-box screen that looks like the backside of a clumsy child's diorama of Paleolithic earth. I cast my vote and step out, past the tiny temple of Sri Vidya Ganapathi. The small shrine is gated, as if this day, this one day, we will not look to the heavens for our future but instead fashion it with the extended index fingers of our own hands.