This article was first published in the Daily News on June 2, 2011 under the title 'An incredible short-story about a tear-gassed demonstration'.
Men in full suit and some with ties loosened and top button off. All in shoes, wearing expensive shirts. Air-conditioned faces reluctantly yielding perspiration. Yes, perspiration, for some don’t sweat. Hair only slightly disheveled, for ungrooming, even in humid conditions and heat of the moment takes time. Women too.In office attire. Apart from a slight smudging of makeup, still very chic. They weren’t screaming, for raised-volume in public space takes learning, practice and sometimes the fuel of humiliation-filled decades to emerge from throat.
The slogans were borrowed, as is often the case in first-time agitators. With time and the employment of ad agency they would have novelty and punch, but right now it was plain and simple and, frankly, ‘tired’.
Diyau diyau apata diyau…ape laaba apata diyau!’ they screamed. It was almost like a take from the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Give us this day our daily profits’. No ‘forgive our sins’, naturally, for that would have compromised the pithiness requirement of decent sloganeering. Perhaps.
It was a historic moment. The Corporate World was finally exercising the val booru nidahasa (Freedom of the Wild Ass) in the streets, amid dust, noise and smoke. Until this point the wild-ass freedom had been exercised in cushioned comfort, while sipping pick-me-up coffee or pick-each-other-up cocktails. It had provided the ‘daily bread’ without any sweat-dripping to write home about. That was what others did. They perspired on account of other things, for example investor-confidence, political instability, global recession, declining profit margins, market unpredictability, miscalculated risks and on the rare occasion, labour unrest or worse, labour-friendly regimes that sought to corral the wild ass in them or environment-friendly ones that imposed strict rules and regulations on corporate polluters.
Something had snapped. No, it was not that restrictions had been imposed on the right to profiteer, it was, plain and simple, an unexpected and unacceptable drop in profit margins. Those who made 10 million a day were now making only 9. Something like that. Agitation was the word in corporate circles. Agitation was called for. Agitate they did.
Out there in the world of dust, noise, irritating pedestrians going about eking out a living, smoke and squalor, wearing discipline’s unmistakable uniform was a special mob-control regiment called Reality and armed with special teargas canisters called ‘Get Real’. There were batons too, all marked ‘Taste of real life’. There were water cannons, carrying the bold legend, ‘Do you know how profit is made?’ A booming voice blared out from a megaphone.
‘When the rupee depreciated, did you raise the wages of your employees? What part of the concessions given by way of tax holidays, relaxed labour laws and subsidies were channeled toward the welfare of the work force? When profit margins were maintained by trimming benefits and blocking income-enhancing avenues of your employee, did you realize you were maintaining lifestyle at the cost of further limiting their life chances? When you filled your CSR Portfolio, was it to alleviate guilt of annual corporate irresponsibility?
Did they balance off one another? Did you grease a few official palms so you can continue to toss effluents into the nearby waterway with impunity? Were politicians richly rewarded for showing preferential treatment in awarding contracts and tenders?’
They were not stunned to silence. Each passing minute was made of practice-moments. The slogans were screamed with greater conviction and confidence. DIYAU DIYAU APATA DIYAU…APE LAABHA APATA DIYAU. The irrationality of demand was naturally lost on them, as is the case when slogans are pinched. They continued to scream. They vented their anger on anything and anyone within reach. A truckload of bricks had been brought along. Bricks were hurled randomly. Some were seen grabbing random pedestriansand demanding answers to questions they, the pedestrians, did not understand and in a language and accent that was foreign to them.
It was inevitable.
Not one tear fell, though. Let me repeat. Not a single tear fell on that historic day. ‘Reality’ was trumped. Fiction won the day. The old order was reinstated. Profit margins were guaranteed and delivered. By and by.
Long before these ladies and gentlemen took to the streets, a confused scribe had put a question to his friends: ‘If those at the helm of the corporate sector took to the streets agitating against falling profits and were met with teargas would they have tears to shed?’
A perceptive friend had responded: ‘Do they have eyes?’
It is not only teargas that provokes the element water to move from heart to eye and down cheek. There is a necessary precondition: eyes. Some are born blind. Some get blinded along the way. Some choose to be blind. Some can and will cry. Some cannot and perforce will not.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column to the Daily Mirror titled 'Subterranean Transcripts'. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: malindasene.