Days in Delhi often start feeling too real, but end up in the surreal. For one, the heat paints everything into itself, it becomes like a shouting offstage character, an unspoken actor in every drama, adding a layer of consideration to the already fragile structure. Second, it is the nature of big cities, and our work in them, to throw up surprises, add additional stresses, or create havoc with the best laid plans.
One morning started as real as the rest – Assam tea, bananas and sugary peanut butter in our peaceful flat. Then Loritta and I packed off the to the offices of the Commission for the Protection of Child Rights to interview a functionary with whom we had made contact. The offices were on Janpath, a somewhat storied street, permanently in the shadow of Connaught Place to the north and Rajpath, with its huge government edifices and Lutyen’s designed imperiousness, to the south. Janpath provides the liminal space between them, with huge, and variously designed, office blocks sprouting on either side of it, stuffed full of the minor offices of a government gallantly attempting to serve a billion people, commercial enterprises large and small, and the chai-wallahs who serve them all.
The building we were heading for was Chander Lok (literally ‘people of the moon’… no me neither) a strangely bulbous affair of stacked blocks. Inside it was dingy, a welcome respite from the sun, but apparently constantly being cleaned by an army of peons. We had the interesting experience of waiting for the lift up amongst a group of functionaries, who treated the opening of the lift door like the opening of metro carriages – everyone barrels toward it, with little regard for the poor souls trying to exit. However, on reaching our destination it turned out I had misread the signage, and we were directed to another floor.
On meeting our contact, and inevitably signing in the visitors book, we were immediately conveyed to the Joint Secretaries office to talk with ‘sir’. This was an expected privilege, but also added to the surreality of an already weird venture. I imagine that he had caught wind of foreigners coming to his fief, and wanted to judge us for himself. And to be clear, he couldn’t have been more helpful, but this was his domain: he had attained the kind of “bureaucrat” (self-ascribed, and a mark of true distinction in India) status akin to minor godhood – people came into the office during our time, received a nod and a word, and went off to complete whatever opaque task. Our contact would agree with his every statement, and repeat his own words back to him. This is not to cast aspersions, as his words were fascinating and, eventually, relevant, but this was not a man to be challenged.
Steering the conversation was like course correcting a super-tanker, and over the course of around an hour, we talked of his travels, received a crash-course on “Indian philosophy”, particularly Vedanta and the Upanishads, before finally weaving that into a discussion of the Juvenile Justice Act, our focus, and the general socio-economic situation of India, about which he was very gloomy. After initial probing, he was thrilled to have some foreigners in front of him who understood the concerns of both modern India and ancient thought. Talking the nature of self with a government bureaucrat in a stuffy Janpath office was weird enough; to have him appreciate our (short) answers, even more so.
We did, however, find our useful information. The Commission sees the Act as very well drafted, but very poorly implemented, which could be the commonest refrain in Indian law. Enforcement is difficult, as it requires the sensitisation of police and government social workers to the problems, concerns and voices of children, not their usual dismissal as either unimportant, or negligible. Changing that means changing an entire government culture. Likewise, on the issue of justice he offered two startling insights. First, the clause in the law which caused the greatest ruckus was the ability for Indian courts to try 16-18 year olds as adults for “heinous crimes” in contravention of established international norms. This provision was widely seen as a knee-jerk reaction to the presence of a juvenile among the gang-rapers in Delhi’s infamous 2011 Nirbhaya case, however, ‘sir’ offered the perspective that this provision was due to demographic shifts in India: with an increasingly younger population committing more and more sexual crimes, rehabilitating them through counselling, short incarceration, and other juvenile measures, would not cut it, as, even if they remained unrepentant, they would have to be released on their 18th birthdays.
The second insight was that ‘sir’ believed the socio-economic transformation of India was responsible for a fundamental shift in the character of youth, which was leading to an uptick in crime. While a bit too conservative for my taste, this observation does seem to ring consonant to similar observations from sources as dispersed as Weber, to a recent Guardian op-ed by Rana Dasgupta; the retrenchment of moralities promulgated by nations, religions, charismatic political leaders, is a result of the dissolution of morality by the atomisation of market forces, individualisation and homo economicus consumerism. That so many of these young men who commit offences remain unrepentant is a curious function of the warping of established moralities, where self-justification can come from many sources. An excellent fictional account in an Indian setting is Aravind Adiga’s somewhat depressing and well written The White Tiger (2008, London: Atlantic Books). ‘Sir’ lamented the loss of “moral and social leaders” who could steer youth toward understanding and away from crime.
‘Sir’ promised to continue our moral education, at least, by providing copies of his own travel essays and translations of the Upanishads at our convenience.
After taking in some tea and ice cream to escape the midday sun, we took the blissfully air-conditioned metro back to head office, and were, instead of writing up our interviews, roped into helping conduct a sexual health workshop for shanty-dwellers in central Delhi. The dovetailing of this with our morning interview was an irony not unnoticed, but no less surreal for it. My work will be with boys particularly, an area that, of course, bears particular relevance to the above mentioned moral-warping. SBT’s graduates are well adjusted young people, despite some of the stories from their pasts. Working with them makes me feel that these individuals are perhaps the “moral leadership” that India, apparently, so severely needs. Their backgrounds give them a cachet of experience that allows them to speak to others in similar situations, were the pronouncements of governments and foreigners would be ignored; their education and communication skills allow them to speak back to those governments and foreigners about the experiences of the poor and destitute that otherwise just cannot be comprehended. And I, for one, when I hear them speak, in stronger and stronger voices, cannot help but be moved. Their voices fill this foreigner’s heart with hope.
Words by Chris