What was supposed to be a minute long, went on for half an hour because this perceptive, sensitive, kind hearted, young human being called Samira Makhmalbaf, who by then in 2010 had already made a name for herself with some sensitive films, had gone to Marine Drive the previous evening and was conflicted by what she saw.
Right next to the amazing beauty, opulence and grandeur of South Mumbai, she saw scores of homeless children, many of them begging.
In a reverse turn, the interviewee asked the interviewer a question: aren't all of you in Mumbai ashamed that while there is so much money all around, there are so many people who live homeless, who beg on the streets?
When one of these controversies about the national anthem, national flag on doormats or the recent photo of Gandhi on flip-flops raise their head, I find myself being embarrassed by Samira Makhmalbaf’s question all over again. It is as if she is stabbing me with a question from that sharp brain of hers all over again: aren’t you ashamed of giving so much importance to national symbols and national icons while neglecting everyday people who constitute your national identity?
There is a sudden upsurge of Patriotism in the country that sees us taking offence at the slightest transgressions. Vigilante patriots thrash even the disabled for not standing up for National Anthem in a cinema hall.
Twitterati is disturbed enough by the printing of a flag on a doormat to direct the attention of an extremely busy External Affairs Minister. And that minister has time and energy enough while she is recuperating from a life threatening medical situation to scare the company Amazon with threats fit only for goon on the street.
Like monkeys on a tree, these citizens on twitter howl and screech and beat their ‘56 inch’ chests and calls these victories and themselves true patriots. Swami Vivekananda had something to say to them.
"Feel… my would-be reformers, my would-be patriots! Do you feel? Do you feel that millions and millions of the descendants of gods and of sages have become next-door neighbours to brutes? Do you feel that millions are starving today, and millions have been starving for ages? Do you feel that ignorance has come over the land as a dark cloud? Does it make you restless? Does it make you sleepless? Has it gone into your blood, coursing through your veins, becoming consonant with your heartbeats? Has it made you almost mad? Are you seized with that one idea of the misery of ruin, and have you forgotten all about your name, your fame, your wives, your children, your property, even your own bodies? Have you done that? That is the first step to become a patriot, the very first step."
If there ever has been a patriot true to the spirit of what Vivekananda said, it was Mohandas K. Gandhi. One of the last things he wrote, just days before he was killed by ‘brutes’ who are now hailed as patriots, is: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away."
If either of these two men, or the thousands of others who fought to alleviate the misery of millions were alive today, they’d have asked questions like:
Where are we going wrong as a nation that we feel insulted when a national symbol or icon is insulted but feel nothing when its living breathing citizens go through or are subjected to worse?
Why is it that we are so quick to take offence but so slow to come to the defence of the defenceless, the ignorant, the hungry and the destitute?
Since when have we become so insecure that we have to attack others just to make us feel proud of our nationality?
Since when has the neglect of the suffering masses of humanity become a norm in this great, ancient civilization called Bharat, Hindustan, India?
What is an insult is not the Mahatmas face on slippers, or the national flag on the doormat but that even amidst so much wealth, progress and development, we have so many Indians dying in abject poverty. It is as if the poverty of food among the poor feeds on the poverty of conscience among the rich.
The day a foreign national like Samira Makhmalbaf walks on the streets of India without finding a single homeless, travels its villages and not find one case of malnutrition and hunger… that would be the day when we would have truly earned the right to spend our energy protesting our flag on a doormat, the Mahatma’s face on an inconsequential flip-flop.
The ‘interview’ with Samira Makhmalbaf went on for half an hour, much to the annoyance of the PR person. But after the initial embarrassment, I had time enough to tell her proudly of Indians waging millions of resistances everyday against oppression around them.
I told Samira of social workers, activists, NGOs and many concerned citizens working hard across the country against every form of tyranny and injustice inflicting the nation, heroes who instead of our collective gratitude often get nothing but abuse and slander. She, in turn, told me about heroes in Iran where she lived earlier and now in France who do the same.
I did not file a feature story from this interview, much to the anger of my editor (who wants a story about poverty) but I was glad for the common humanity I shared with a complete stranger from another part of the world. That is what keeps hope alive, doesn’t it?
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