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January 28, 1998


Ashwin Mahesh

Naanum manishan thane?

Am I not human too? Translation removes much of the power of expression, and this is one such instance. For a few minutes, the man had gone up and down the narrow deserted platform muttering repeatedly 'Aiya, pasikudhu aiya,' his constant wailing of hunger both monotonous and incessant. Bent from age, and unable to traverse the entire length of the train, he was forced to target the few compartments that were within walking distance. The stony faces on the other side of the windows spoke in familiar tones -- why can't he go someplace else?

A few minutes passed, and he stopped walking, stooping over a long branch he used as a prop. A little girl watched from behind the bars, staring with the unintentional cruelty that only a child can muster. Her mother tugged at her sleeve, beckoning her away, even as she pointed to him and said something he couldn't hear. Seeing the woman, he switched gender: "Amma, pasikudhu amma." The woman turned her face away for a few seconds, then quickly glanced over her shoulder to see if the intruder was still there. Seeing him, she frowned.

In the distance, he heard the whistle blow, and a few feet further up the platform, a man with a flag stepped out and waved it lazily. In a minute, the train would be off, his hunger unassuaged. Bleakly, he looked at the woman, despairing beyond description. And then, clearly and quite audibly to the woman, his monotone gave way to a different plea. As the first puffs of smoke rose from the engine, he stopped appealing to a compassion that no one had, and sought refuge in a humanity that is infinitely more troubling -- naanum manishan thane?

Struck by the enormity of the appeal, the woman reached around her daughter, muttering under her breath 'just my luck'. As she fumbled in her bag for money, the train started to pull away slowly. Seeing the woman moved to act, the man hobbled along, hoping to stay within reach and praying the train would not pick up speed so fast. The little child was pestering her mother, obstructing her belated charity. As the puffs of smoke gained in strength, the woman leaned back in her seat and shrugged her shoulders to herself, as if to say 'I tried'. In the distance, the figure became less visible, as if the man had physically shrunk.

We all have a list of things that we'd like the government to do. Fight corruption, improve education, better military planning, whatever. And an election is always a good time to let the political parties know what we want. For myself, I seek but three things. I do not ask for an information superhighway, although that would be nice. I do not ask for widespread and affordable health care, although I fervently wish it were real. I do not ask for universal education, although that has been promised.

Five years is a long time, one can accomplish a lot as it goes by. And yet, I have only these three things that I really want from the next government. Just three simple requests that any of you can recognise as reasonable, humane and absolutely necessary in a civil society. Ordinary wishes that, if we truly wanted to, we could easily achieve. Simple, yet eloquent. Basic and magnificent at once. Fifty years from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, this is not too much to ask. Just three things.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner -- for everyone.

Abolish the NRI

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