Those were the good old days...

Those were the good old days...

We are not a kind society. The next time you drive on the roads, or are a pedestrian trying to walk on the non-existent footpaths (a fact that is best highlighted on the streets of the apology that passes for a capital city, Bangalore), take a moment and look around. Nobody gives an inch. Whether you are in a vehicle that is desperately trying to make a turn into traffic, or are a pedestrian trying to cross the road, nobody gives a damn or a few seconds that would allow you to make that turn or cross the road. In fact, the other drivers seem even more fiercely determined to make sure that you dare not.

When someone occasionally pauses to allow you that few seconds to cross, you are stunned.

I don't think it was like this many years ago. For one thing, there wasn't that much traffic. And what little traffic there was definitely allowed you to cross the road or make that turn.

When my father and people of his generation talked about the ‘good old days,’ I didn’t even think for a moment that I would be doing the same thing many years later. The only difference is that while they spoke of those days with fondness, I find myself speaking of the present with a tinge of bitterness. And cynicism. Everybody seems to be in a hurry to get to god knows where. The dramatic surge in the numbers of largely bad private taxi drivers swerving in and out of traffic seem to have had a universal effect of telling other road-users that it is okay to be rude, honk persistently, swear at others, and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

Of kindness, there is no sign. Witness the old lady nervously dart across the road.

Observe the bewildered dog that has been ‘taught a lesson’ while trying to get to the other side. Watch that auto rickshaw almost mow down a bunch of children carrying their satchels trying to get to the bus stop on the opposite side. And if you can detect any signs of kindness anywhere here, do let me know. And that ambulance trying to reach a hospital, with sirens screaming? Nobody gives a damn. I have been in such ambulances on two separate occasions with my sick father — and I would have gladly machine-gunned a path through the uncaring drivers of the other vehicles. They were just frozen in their tracks. They didn’t even try to move. Kindness?

My 80-year-old aunt living in Mysore told us how she waited for over three hours in order to pay her property tax. Just as she got her turn to pay, the young man at the counter brusquely told her to come after two hours as it was lunch time. Being a lady of old-world traditions, she went all the way home and came back again in the hot afternoon sun. And the young man told her, when the counter re-opened in a leisurely fashion two-and-a-half hours later, that her file showed no payments for ten years, and that she would have to return with her papers. No attempt was made to help her, and she had to leave, a full day wasted. (Of course, their records were wrong, she had paid every year on time, and she did return after three days to re-join another queue and pay, but that was not the point I was making.) Could the rude young man have spent an extra five minutes to look through her papers before closing for lunch? But, as I told you in the beginning, we are not a kind society...

The mobile phone, the internet and the television has put paid to those other qualities missing in today's life — togetherness and love. Bland, badly spelt messages and quick calls have replaced personal visits. Cold words on the computer screen have replaced lovingly written letters on paper. Remember waiting for the postman to call? And tearing open that long-awaited blue inland letter?

And if you do make that effort to go across this terrible-to-live-in city to visit somebody, chances are that you would spend your time watching television with them — they are in the midst of their favourite TV show or serial. The most they would do is to probably mute the show and dart worried glances at the screen while nodding foolishly to something you were saying. Gone are the days when your arrival was greeted with loud “banni, banni”. The whole family would be alerted to your visit. They would quickly gather in the living room, and exclamations made to ‘how tall you have grown, you know I used to carry you around and show you...etc.’ Laughter would rebound off the walls, as smells of freshly brewed filter coffee and a quickly whipped up uppittu wafted around in friendly fashion. The evening would be spent in friends or family vying with each other to get a word in edgewise. Photographs shown, stories told, letters shown. Many times, the uppittu session fondly merged into a dinner, and everybody would come out to see you off as you left, smiles and laughter reflecting an evening well spent.

Has overcrowding and overpopulation played their parts in the changing of values?
Twenty-five years ago, when I used to catch a bus — the same bus, from the same bus stop, at exactly 1.10 pm for my 2 pm shift at the newspaper office I worked in — I did not realise that the driver and the conductor had become good friends. We used to chat to each other during our commute, nothing very deep or serious. Once, during an unscheduled day off, I happened to be walking along the same road at around 1.20 pm. I saw the driver and conductor waiting anxiously on the footpath next to the bus, gazing down the road I usually walked up from. The moment they saw me, they waved and quickly got into the bus, and started the engine. I had to run and inform them, with some chagrin, that I had taken the day off that day. They both looked at each other, and then at me. “Shouldn’t you inform us,” the driver asked me in Kannada. I apologised profusely. After that, I kept my driver and conductor friends closely informed about my leave and my days off! I dare say this kind of human contact is impossible today.

Many years ago, when I told my wife I was going to the bank, she would be prepared for a two-hour absence. While my work at the bank actually took only a few minutes, there would be catching up with the many familiar friends, even as they attended to other customers. The teller would not just count out my money; he would smile, exchange pleasantries, and if there was no rush, even ask me to please wait for a few minutes so that we could have coffee with the other bank employees. Political situations would be discussed, marriages of children announced, plans of building a new house proclaimed proudly. Other old customers would join in the banter, until finally we had to break up reluctantly. Going to the bank was an event.

Today, sadly, my visit to the bank lasts only a few minutes. The old familiar faces are gone, replaced by young, efficient employees to whom you are just a number on their computer screens. No enquiries about one’s parents or family — they barely know you, leave alone the family — there is something terribly dissatisfying about visiting the bank these days. It takes just a few minutes of efficient, cold service. The  human angle? It took a toss out of the window a long time ago...

As for festivals, that is another story altogether. Everything is available readymade in the market, from the kaaiee obbattu to the sandigey. People even wish each other ‘Happy Mahashivarathri’ or ‘Happy Ganesha Chathurthi’ on their mobile phones! It cannot get worse than that. Of family members getting together and having a feast, fighting good-naturedly over the last few ambodeys and Mysore paak there is no sign. Only memories.

Or perhaps, you can catch such a scene on a family festival on the latest TV serial? I believe it has been captured well. And while you watch, remember to have your mobile on silent. You might get disturbed by somebody trying to call...