In the week before I moved to San Francisco, a government doctor asked for a bribe to issue an export certificate for my dog, Zoey. The certificate should have been issued free; my paperwork was legal and complete. Ironically, in all my years in Bombay, five of them spent in dance bars, in brothels, among the sex workers, gangsters and pimps I had trailed while researching my new book, I had never, despite the clear poverty and marginalisation of many of these people, been asked for money.
Once I left the doctor behind, I regretted my response; even felt some self-loathing for what I viewed as complicity, in paying him five hundred rupees. At the same time, I argued with myself that by acting at such a late hour, I could have jeopardised Zoey’s departure; that I would get little, perhaps mere platitudes, for exposing the man’s corruption.
To comfort myself, I recalled the police inspector who had commended me for filing a complaint against a cheating vendor, promised to inform me of his court date so I could testify—and from whom I never heard again. I recalled the Right to Information requests filed which had gone unanswered. I recalled the young constable who told me the only way he could meet his seniors’ demand for ‘hafta wasooli’ was by extorting hafta off people on the street. I complained to myself that I was tired of being expected to take responsibility not just for my integrity, but for the integrity of others.
Similar thoughts were, no doubt, at that very moment, running through the minds of countless Indians, each attempting to justify his or her actions in related situations.
Indians see the asking and receiving of bribes as standard operating procedure. As a result, except for multi-crore transactions between politicians and business interests, which are conducted with some subtlety, demands for handouts are open, even breezy.
Although conversations around corruption no longer happen—its sheer predictability having inured us to it—26/11 promised to change that. When a mere 10 men captured Bombay’s most beloved landmarks, ultimately killing 173 people, even those of us who view terrorism as an inevitable byproduct of an avaricious and violent 21st century had to wonder at the frightening ease of it all.
That evening, I was trapped with friends at a hotel down the street from the Taj, a centre of the attack and its perpetrators’ resistance. The gunfire, the screams, continued through dawn. The day after, I was taken aback to realise that so close to Ground Zero, it wasn’t fear I had primarily felt, but the fulfilment of inevitability. To live in Bombay was to spend the night at an airport during the flood of 2005, to have stepped off a station bombed a few hours later in 2006, to be minutes away from terrorists in 2008.
Inevitably, the connection between a lack of preparedness and corruption revealed itself. If the terrorists had greater and better firepower than the police, forcing the local police to initially run from the terrorists; if the only person I saw wearing a bullet-proof vest for the first few hours of the attack was a CNN reporter, then even I, a lay person, could smell the rot mingling with the clouds of smoke. As the siege continued, more secrets tumbled out: no weapons, no guns, no boats; no communication, no accountability, inadequate intelligence. Similar stories were told in 2006, and 2005.
Individual corruption or inaction may not have killed 173 people. But the collective inaction and corruption of multiple people did. We are as responsible for that outcome just as we’re responsible for sponging off the taxes of others by not paying our own.
So this Independence Day, instead of celebrating the patriotism of others, let us consider the strength of our own patriotism, weigh it by the righteousness of our actions rather than by our speech, and ask whether it is worth celebrating.
After this last incident in Bombay, I’m afraid I’ve come up short.
(The author has written a novel, The Girl, and is working on a book on bar dancers)