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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The breaking of an invisible bond

Everyone has to go first. For many in Calcutta, this is the single, overpowering sense of the city streets, seeming more intense now than it has ever been. Buses and mini-buses were always seen as reckless and unpredictable bullies, but that contagion seems to have touched everybody. Taxis and autos barge and swerve, braking hard where the space that opened a moment ago is closed with equal speed by gleaming cars like drifting ships that appear not to notice the scramble around them, two-wheelers carrying three to four young people without helmets zigzag through the gaps of impatiently moving four-wheelers at terrifying speed to show the world how to play tag with death, even three-wheelers rattle determinedly on in the middle of the road, occasionally bucking a little, to the right or left, just to stop others from passing them. No one will be second.

Bursts of rough speed punctuated by hard brakes, an addictive love of the horn, headlong thrusts into the left of mid-street buses disgorging mothers with babies or unsteady old men could have been enough, but the aggression is not confined to these. There is a stream of verbal violence, directed at everybody and everything else — other drivers, potholes, workmen making roads and flyovers, policemen, city planners, heat, cold, rain, the lack of rain, and more such. The message is twofold: one, everything is everyone else’s fault — and see how smart I am, and two, everyone else is an ignorant fool — and see how smart I am.

All this is expressed in a stream of rage composed purely of abuse, with words alluding to various female relatives with whom the target is supposed to have performed coitus, to beasts reputedly brainless, and to the male sex organ. This air thick with abuse is a noticeable change for anyone of my generation. But the change is broader; the abuse is not just an expression of ceaseless rage, it is cosily woven into the expression of all moods and intentions, even politeness. A cab driver turning patronizingly towards me after a satisfying bout of verbal violence with, say, a motorbike driver, will comment on his own heroism, with frequent pronouncements of the brother-in-law word. All conversations appear to be peppered with brothers-in-law and penises. It is as if some invisible fences within our sensibility have been torn down. So violence is now mundane, part of the warp and weft of all-the-time.

It is a puzzle. Is the desire to be first breeding the aggression on the road or is the behaviour on the road, including the blind thrust to be first, the manifestation of something deeper, less definable, that is affecting the whole of our civic life? The violence of language and posture, for example, is not confined to the road, and in that I include the insides of buses and trams and underground trains. It seems poised to break out anywhere, at any moment. Recently, for example, the residents of a house discovered that their neighbours, living in a multi-storeyed apartment house, were quietly making illicit use of one of their essential facilities. When the owner of the first house and one of its oldest residents tried to speak to the representatives of the neighbouring building, the elderly lady and gentleman were told in no uncertain terms what would be done to them since one of the flat-owners was particularly powerful. The invasive neighbours would do whatever suited them — was the message from their representative, a young woman whose rude speech was matched by her lifted, jabbing forefinger which she pointed at the senior man. When the landlady said that she should be ashamed of her behaviour, the younger woman retorted unhesitatingly, “I am shameless.” She was educated, I was told, impeccably, at one of the city’s leading English-medium institutions.

One example is not enough to convey the sizzling air of violence that seems to encompass us. It is difficult to delineate an atmosphere, to pinpoint the salient features of something that informs everyday dealings, or to date the beginning of the awareness. It is as if some invisible bond has been broken. Yet the ready rage, resentment and bullying, the simmering contempt for everyone else, the gleeful triumph in fooling, cornering or defeating others are not always obvious. They are as often well disguised. Over the last few months I have noticed the almost ubiquitous presence of a breed of young men who were not so visible before. They are not uneducated, they have certain skills or are in particular jobs ranging from driving and carpentry, for example, to running photocopying and computer centres. These young men, who work on their own or whose bosses or teams are not visible, have direct contact with the people who employ them, unlike another segment of young people who serve in shops and restaurants, in call centres or security agencies. That they are young is important, for that is evidence of the time from which widening education policies have begun to take effect. On the one hand, these young people represent something positive — the expansion of education and employment. It is the other hand that intrigues me.

I speak here of my experience of the young men with whom I have direct dealings in matters of everyday life. For one, they must all go first. It is not just that they know better than all of their kind, they also know better than you. This is fascinating, for it suggests a number of things. They are obviously better educated and earning more than other members of their family, and they carry the pride of their greater exposure on their sleeves. Straddling two kinds of life, they are convinced they have seen it all because they do not yet know how much there is to see. Self-taught in their dealings with clients, no one has told them of the dictum that the customer is always right. Instead, they are always right, and they will tell the client so. When proved wrong, their hostility is edged with suppressed violence that may manifest itself in sarcasm or direct bullying.

As in the case of the young woman who took pride in being without shame, here, too, we are probably looking at the formation of a new kind of ego, its brittleness made up, paradoxically, of achievement and backwardness, new knowledge and old credulousness, a sense of unquestioning entitlement and a harsh denial of humility. They are like egos caught, as it were, midstride as they transcend one economic class to arrive at another. There is an undoubted class angle to this; there may be a gender angle and an age angle as well. It is possible that contempt, resentment and indefinable anger are directed more towards women or the elderly, although I cannot be sure of that.

An analysis of the victims of crime may bring us closer to an answer regarding the last point, but the subject of my discussion here is the quality of everyday life within which the crimes take place. And not everything is a crime either. The strange accident in which an arm of a ride in Nicco Park broke off because people piled on to it with no regard for rules or good sense — whether the keeper in question allowed it to happen or was bullied into it — demonstrates another facet of the roughness I am trying to define. Fun is equated with breaking rules — these were not little children — and, by extension, perhaps, the law, just as it is with the speeding bike riders we meet everyday on the roads. More young people have smart two-wheelers too.

It is a society in change, aspiring and mobile. The way cannot be smooth, but there is surely something more than just dynamism that makes the dominant culture so aggressive and so addicted to ugly behaviour and speech. Part of it may be the legacy of decades of a political rule that made bullying, abuse, opportunism, lying, coercion, ignoring the law and strategies to get rich quick with party patronage the primrose way to survival.

But that cannot be the whole reason. Symptoms of a malaise merely hint at its multiple causes, and I have managed to mention only a few of the symptoms. There is, though, the overwhelming feeling of the disintegration of a bond, something that can perhaps be described as the bond of social community, that invisible determinant of civic life and civil behaviour. Without it, anything goes.