The public spirited individual is one of the comforting features of our city. In a moderately distressing situation he is eager to lend a hand and expects no reward. In fact, he goes a step further by trying to prevent you from landing in a sticky situation
The party is over. The parties have packed up their circus tents and left the city. Only their promises remain, like litter, glop on disposable plates, hard to swallow.
On Page One, a promise of ‘world-class infrastructure’ for our city. On Page Three, a woman suffers compound fractures after her scooter falls into a ditch on a poorly-lit street. Mark my words: we will continue to see versions of this Page Three report till the end of time, because the promise on Page One will remain forever unfulfilled. I don’t mean to be a wet blanket (although that doesn’t sound half bad in this heat!) but I’m sure you must be as tired as I am of hearing our rulers tag on ‘world-class’ every time they mention ‘facilities’ for the urban middle class. They never speak of world-class public toilets or world-class low-cost housing. ‘Model’ is their term for promises made to the masses — model railway station, model government school — whereas ‘world-class’ is luxury, it’s jam for those who can afford the butter.
But you know there’s going to be no jam, for their promises are sham. No city can be world-class until the basics are met, and this won’t happen so long as contracts and kickbacks exist. Years from now, the old familiar sights will still sadden your eye: the street tarred yesterday, dug up today and filled in tomorrow — filled in sloppily, leaving a cavity or a mound; the road that springs a periodic leak; the wobbly or missing pavement slab; the gutter dug from two ends that never meet. You will forever hear of walls collapsing, kids washed away in open drains, and deathly live wires brushing the terraces of houses — houses built higgledy-piggledy in defiance of bylaws, gleefully encouraged because they become bribe-magnets, as do ‘converted’ basements, commercial buildings in residential areas, and encroachments of every kind.
Sometimes I wish we could sue the pants off the authorities for turning our public spaces into death traps. Not that I believe we should imitate a litigation-crazy society like the US, where frivolous suits abound — chair too small for fat man and so he sues restaurant for causing mental trauma, that sort of thing. But getting back to the Page Three victim, shouldn’t the negligent BBMP pay her medical bills? She was apparently taken to hospital by an unlikely duo: a cook and a taxi-driver. Here’s where I cease being a wet blanket and come to a reassuring feature of life in our city. Should a mishap occur, you are likely to find some PSI — not a police sub-inspector but a public-spirited individual — hovering around.
The PSI is a working class man, not the nine-to-five type, possibly self-employed, and apt to hang out in open spaces. He is a timid chap. If you’re fatally wounded in a traffic accident he may not approach you for fear of the police and the courts. If someone thrashes you, don’t expect him to get involved. But in a moderately distressing situation he is eager to lend a hand and expects no reward. In fact, he goes a step further by trying to prevent you from landing in a sticky situation. Allow me to illustrate.
The fruit-seller carefully places a large stone next to an open manhole. His portly friend lifts up another, larger cement block and arranges it diametrically opposite it. He moves some distance away, cocks his head, walks back and rearranges the block. Now, it cannot fail to catch the eye of any driver or pedestrian. No one’s going to fall into this manhole tonight.
You decide to eat out one afternoon and drive to the restaurant of your choice. Predictably, it has no parking, and you find no vacant slots nearby. You finally park beside a park, next to traces of recently cleared garbage. You’ve barely finished locking the doors when a PSI approaches you. Lorries dump garbage here, he says. You can never tell when. It could be any time of day or night. Then someone lights a match and the garbage catches fire and boom, your car goes up in flames. Two cars caught fire at this very spot. His words of caution have their effect. He saunters away, searching for a slot on your behalf because he feels responsible for having evicted you.
No luck. You approach the restaurant. There are cars parked on the broad pavement at the risk of being towed away, and you are loath to take chances. You slow down, considering a spot outside a shop. Suddenly, your car descends with a bump. You haven’t noticed a caved-in slab, and your front left wheel is neatly wedged in a hole. In a flash a PSI materialises. Drive forward, he says, placing a casual hand on the rear windshield while you race the engine. Once the wheel has cleared the gap he directs you to reverse. “Cut maadi, cut maadi,” he cries, and you turn sharply so that the wheel rolls safely over an inclined section of the slab. You smile at him and he smiles back as you drive away.
Classy guys, these PSIs. Ours may never be a world-class city but I hope there will always be PSIs who make ours a city in a class of its own.