gates of contention

I am livid. It all began with an seemingly innocuous visit to the house of the local RWA President to discuss a simple matter: the opening of a wicket gate. The colony has several gates which are closed to block traffic, but normally wicket gates are left open to facilitate pedestrian movement. The gate in question is the one normally used by Agastya my grandson to go to the park every evening. However for the past weeks it has been closed. The option is a detour and access through a main road with dense dangerous traffic. Needless to say this was unacceptable to dotty grandparents. When we enquired with the local guard we were told that the gate had been closed on express instructions of the President and there was no way he could open it unless instructed by the elusive President.

We were a little peeved as we have been living in this colony for the past 40 years and my father was a founder member but we decided we would go and meet the President and were confident that the matter would be solved amicably. It was only about opening a small wicket gate. We would soon discover how wrong we were.

We landed at the President's house and rung the bell. The door was opened by a servant who informed us that Sahib was home. We were taken to a swanky drawing room replete with opulent ware that reeked money. We sat at the edge of our chairs and waited for our host. He appeared a few minutes later, also larger than life. He was full of himself and took the offensive by asking us why we were not regulars at the society meetings. We parried the question and the husband went straight to the point: the opening of the gate as it was unsafe for Agastya to take the main road on his tricycle. A gentle banter ensued for some time. I do not know when the mood changed and things went out of hand. But what had begun as a small matter suddenly changed into yet another tale of two Indias.

The conversation that had begun over a gate being opened or closed and the safety of a little 2 year old on his tricycle on a busy road changed complexion. It transpired in the course of conversation that the said gate was now shut to keep the other India at bay. Allow me a small aside to explain the situation. The colony has three main gates. Two of them are located near two main roads and if opened would allow cross traffic. They both have wicket gates that allow pedestrians a short cut to the main road. These are now shut. Wonder why? Well because according to the likes of our President they would be used by simple (read poor) people and become a security risk as these people are potential thieves and kidnappers. The President who assumed a different persona suddenly became the defender of the rights of the rich. One heard inanities like: what if one of the rag pickers kidnapped a resident's grandson, or stole from a house. It all seemed very far fetched. The risk of a child being run over by a speeding car was real, the one of a child being kidnapped by a rag picker seemed a tad unrealistic.

I was taken a back but not surprised as I had been privy to such reactions for many years now. The mistrust the rich have for the poor can be surreptitious or blatant but it is always there and to me it is always galling. We are a fractured society in more ways than one. I remember how devastated I was when walls were being build around slums a couple of years ago. And the heated debate on the opening or closing of a wicket gate was just that: another wall! Walls always existed. They could be invisible but were always impregnable. I knew it was a lost battle. The husband though was unaware of this and carried on his spiel. I tried to get his attention to make him stop and finally had to intervene and put an end to what was becoming an ugly situation. The battle was uneven: one child against all the poor!

We walked home in uneasy silence. The husband was still fuming and fretting and I was lost in my thoughts. All the similar instances I had experienced over the years flashed in my mind: the irate women trying to tell me that boarding schools were not meant for poor children; the late night call by an inebriated person insisting that large sums of money should not be spent for operating a poor child; the upmarket ladies trying to convince me that broken toys were good enough for poor children; the absolute refusal of the idea of a common school as the thought of my child sitting next to my driver's kid was abhorring . The list is endless but the message one: the poor are not worthy and cannot be trusted. And as the rich get richer the mistrust gets deeper. There seems to be no end in view. How will the gates of contention ever be removed I wonder.

The next day quite by chance I met a friend who is also an old resident of our colony. Needless to say I was quick to share my story. She was not surprised at all. Apparently over the years the social profile of the colony residents had changed. What was once was a colony of retired civil servants had now become populated by a new breed: the new rich of our city! Old homes had been brought down and transformed into swanky flats and bought by people with newly acquired wealth. They also came with their own black and white view of the world where every poor was to be viewed with extreme suspicion and guarded against. Hence gates and security guards and gadgets and inane logic.

Who are the poor that are so mistrusted. Often people who are an intrinsic part of our lives even if they remain invisible to us. They each are part of the life of the city we live in. Just try and imagine the city without them and guess whose life gets affected? Not theirs but ours. I am referring to the cobbler, the rag picker, the construction worker, the plumber, the electrician and so on. It seems our new breed of rich seem to judge the book by its cover. What really irks me is the fact that we are willing to trust our lives in the hands of such people - our cook, our driver, our nanny, our maid - but they are also the first ones we accuse should a penny be misplaced in our homes. True that there are been some terrible instances of crime by those who work for us, but these are few compared to the many who work in our homes. And talking of crimes are the rich and famous blameless. Far from that if we are to go by the myriad of instances of corruption big and small. How do we protect ourselves from them? There are no gates to keep them at bay.

Maybe the rime has come to try and build bridges instead of gates. But who will be he first one to place the first stone. I wonder.