“America has started deploying troops. Saddam says that we are capable of defending Iraq and America will regret this” – radio blurted.
“America will regret this truly”, Surinder announced this to the assembly gathered around his cot, gleefully.
“But America is baap of everyone, most powerful, I don’t think Saddam stands a chance, he should surrender and save his life”, someone commented.
“No. Saddam has hidden great weapons, he will defend himself, just wait for few days. America is doing wrong by unnecessarily attacking it, it will be good if it is taught a lesson”, Surinder spoke passionately.
Others joined the discussion, few from either side, using their limited knowledge about the war. Surinder was the most knowledgeable there, but others were completely ignorant about their own ignorance. So, discussions were always passionate.
Surinder ran a small petty shop, just enough to provide stuff to the village, or more specifically, to a few houses around his own house. It was a small room. A cot was set up just outside the shop, there were few chairs also. There were always few people sitting there, talking about this and that, occasionally buying things from the shop, mostly gutkha or cigarette.
Surinder had studied till 12th class in the 1970s, a big achievement at that time. He worked in a factory in the city and earned sufficient money for years, but during the liberalization of the 1990s, his factory closed, like a large number of factories in India, unable to compete with big businesses and cheap imports. He had to come back to his village. After trying his hands on multiple things, which didn’t work out, he opened this shop. Along with his tiny agricultural holdings, this shop managed to provide just enough to survive for his family.
Surinder had an old Murphy radio which he listened to the radio the entire day, sitting outside the shop. He was a jovial and easy-going person. There was always a crowd, sitting with him, chatting about all kind of things. Since 2003 USA-Iraq war started, crowd got bigger and chatter more passionate. Surinder acted as a news anchor and commentator and also a panel moderator, all-in-one, for the people sitting around.
It was like taking an interest in a high stake cricket match in which India was not playing. So, few rooted for America, few others for Iraq. But mostly, people vacillated between these two, except Surinder, who always maintained that it was wrong of America to bully a small country. And he maintained hope that the small guy will teach a lesson to the big bully of the world.
The same discussion was repeated daily. With the number of days passing and Iraq unable to do anything, Surinder displayed some dismay but kept announcing that soon Iraq will bring out the big guns and will surprise everyone.
Many people had running tabs at the shops, most paid after a few days. Jogesh was not one of those people. He was in his 50s and had sons and daughters who were married. But, if he felt that someone was trying to slight him, it always led to verbal abuse or scuffle, depending on the person’s caste and class. The milkman from neighboring village, when asked for his dues which was pending for 5 months, first Jogesh abused him, when he asked again the next day, he beat him up. It was just a few hundred rupees, which he could have easily afforded, being a big landowner and also a salaried person. But it was never about affordability, but about dominance, a sense of entitlement over others, and opportunity to show others his might and instill his fear. It was more fear of extended family, as, even if he was wrong, his entire clan will stand with him with lathis and break anyone’s heads and limbs.
This is the real definition of bravery, it doesn’t come from being brave oneself, but from knowing that a mob will always stand by you even if you are wrong. Entire communities consider themselves to be brave using this standard. There were many people in the village like this, who were passed down this attitude for generations by their families and surroundings.
One day, while the America-Iraq war discussion was in full swing, Jogesh came to Surinder’s shop for supplies. He already had few hundred rupees pending, which Surinder again smilingly reminded him about and politely asked to give so that he can get more supplies for the shop. Jogesh would not have gotten angry if there was no intense fighting with his son and daughter-in-law earlier in the day. Surinder was his neighbor and also from the same caste, so Jogesh tolerated him. But, to Surinder’s misfortune, it was not that time, anger at his family that was brewing within him, came out at Surinder. He started abusing him and started breaking the jars in the shop when Surinder tried to stop him, Jogesh’s son came running and started beating him. Other members of his clan, who got wind of it, joined in destroying the shop or beating him. What was the matter, it was immaterial to them, it was a question of clan pride.
A large group was gathered there, people of his caste will not do anything so that not to make Jogesh’s clan angry, people of other castes, will not do anything, as they knew that they will get a very harsh response if they tried to intervene. But, for most, it was entertainment.
It went on for a few minutes and stopped only when Surinder’s wife and kids reached the spot, running. By then, Surinder was beaten up badly and most of the shop was destroyed, items were scattered all around. Jogesh and his clan left the spot, hurling abuses in the wake, proud of their valiance and the sense that respect of the clan has increased further.
Once they left, people now started helping, someone brought water, someone started collecting items and putting in the shop. People offered condolences in hushed voices. Everyone knew they cannot do anything about it.
Surinder contemplated about going to the police station but knew that even if he managed to get FIR registered somehow, which itself was very difficult, there will be a long process, the end result of which will be nothing. Also, he will open himself and his family to further violence from Jogesh and his clan, who were his neighbors.
He stayed within the house for a few days, waited to recuperate and to get over his humiliation. He started setting up his shop again from whatever he was able to salvage, and planned to get new supplies using his savings. He struck off the entries against Jogesh from his accounting register, fully aware that he is never going to get his money back.
Gradually, things became as they used to be. Gatherings started happening again, so did the discussions.
The radio announced that Saddam had been captured and he would be tried by America and punished. Someone jokingly asked Surinder, “where are Saddam’s hidden weapons.”
“Saddam never had any chance against America, America always had the power to do whatever it wanted and never be held accountable,” Surinder replied with a sad smile after thinking for some time. “The world is for the powerful, survival of powerless is just a matter of luck, mostly avoiding the powerful” he added philosophically.
Loudspeaker voice started to fill the air. It was the lines from the popular religious epic Ramacharit Manas which celebrates the victory of good over evil by Lord Ram. There was pooja at Jogesh’s house. There was also a feast after that, in which most of the village was invited, but not Surinder.