Debating India

Political cash-ualties

Saturday 31 December 2005, by SINGH*Khushwant

After the Mitrokhin and Volcker disclosures and clips of MPs accepting bribes to ask questions in Parliament, what comes uppermost in our minds is how these blighters face their family and friends? The Commie comrades named by Mitrokhin will dismiss it as a capitalist conspiracy. They are past masters at appearing holier-than-thou champions of the downtrodden, however much they may themselves live in style and blow up lakhs in vulgar display of opulence - remember the lavish wedding of Harkishen Singh Surjeet’s grandson a couple of months ago.

Then there are brazen ones like Natwar Singh. He continues to denounce the Volcker disclosures as the doings of evil-minded men. As also does his son, Jagat Singh, and his friend, Andaleeb Sehgal. What they’ll cough up during interrogation will be different from what they tell their buddies in the Gymkhana Club, provided they’ve recovered the nerve to face them. Their best hope is a bigger scam to take people’s attention away from them.

Still, for the rest of their lives, they’ll be gossiped about by their so-called friends. “Where do you think he stacks away his ill-earned wealth?” one will ask. And the other will reply: “I have no idea but last month his wife went on a shopping spree to Dubai, Paris and London. God alone knows how much money they blew up.

Worse fate awaits our corrupt law-makers. Being a shameless lot, they will deny any wrong-doing. No one will believe them. But then, there are undoubtedly many more MPs and MLAs who took money for putting questions in legislatures and speaking for or against issues, as dictated by their pay-masters.

The cancer of corruption has spread to all sections of our society. It is not enough to say that all politicians are thieves. It would be nearer the truth if we admitted we are all thieves. We are among the ten most corrupt nations of the world.

I like the Hindi word ?ghoos’ for sleaze money. Ghoos is a bandicoot, a little rodent which can wriggle its way through tiny apertures. It can slither through bookshelves, over beds, search every nook and corner for anything it can eat. You drive it away, and it leaves a nasty stink behind.

Paved with riches

In all the cities of the world where I have lived, the one thing I looked forward to was browsing at open-air pavement bookstalls. London has quite a few, including in streets around Cambridge Circus; Paris has them along the Seine river; we have quite a few in Kolkata’s College Street, Chennai’s Moore Market, around Mumbai’s Flora Fountain on Sundays; and Delhi’s Daryaganj. The best thing about these alfresco bookstores is that you can pick up rare books, which you won’t find at bookshops, at throwaway prices. In Montreal, I bought four volumes of The Encyclopedia of India for less than what it cost me to post them home. On Charing Cross Road, I bought a book on Kulu for six pence - it bore the signatures of Allan Octavian Hume, founder of the Indian National Congress.

Daryaganj has had bookstalls on its pavements for over 40 years, with an average of 25,000 people visiting them every Sunday. When the main shops are closed, there is little motor traffic on the main road. It is a boon for book lovers who come with their families for an outing and to pick up old books at a bargain. I bought quite a few ancient Urdu books that I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

The Daryaganj bookstalls have two enemies: the police and minions of the municipality. They have been extorting money from booksellers and illegally ?selling’ spaces to new entrants in the business. These booksellers formed a union named Sunday Book Bazaar Patri Welfare Association. They turned to Ela Bhatt’s Sewa (Self-employed Women’s Association) for guidance. The advice given is simple and practical: let the municipality allot space to the book vendors at reasonable rates and collect rent from them every Sunday; assure them that no policeman nor its own employees would harass them to fill their own pockets. Let book loving citizens indulge in their favourite Sunday past-time.

See online : The Hindustan Times

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