In India, the line between the sacred and the secular is a thin and wavering one. Together, they weave a web, and the web is spun by its people who are also its captives. The gods do not reside in some towering cathedral or remote shrine; they establish themselves in kitchens, storerooms, offices, even vehicles. In a land where a bus or taxi driver hangs an oleograph of a deity on the dashboard and decorates it with garlands of fresh flowers, where merchants set an idol upon their cashboxes and shopkeepers do not begin their trade before lighting incense and intoning prayers to their chosen god, the presence of the divine is so pervasive as to become intimate and familiar, woven into the texture of everyday.
In the present time, in which the laws and whims of politicians and bureaucrats are as pervasive and powerful as those of the gods, not only must a minister be propitiated before he will issue a license, allot a house, or award a pension, but so must every clerk through whose hand the relevant file passes. A railway booking clerk alone can decide whether to allow you to travel or not, and even a postman is capable of holding back your mail or a plumber of keeping a drain blocked until he receives a favor. Such men become the earthly variants of the gods, as demanding of devotion and appeasement. Like the divine ones, who are subject to passions, whims, and caprices, they too are unpredictable, impetuous, and fickle, and must be courted and placated if one is to make one’s passage through life: register a birth, admit a child to school or college, obtain a job, receive medical aid, a house, a pension. Each gathers about him his courtiers, and requires a bodyguard, to bolster and protect his power. Power is not possible without money, and money must be obtained by every means at hand. When every petty clerk and district official wields such authority over the lives caught in his little local web, imagine the might that resides at the center, on the throne of Delhi!
Democracy has not altered that system to any great degree. It calls for periodic elections, true, and asks each man and woman to make a decision and voice an opinion—but how is this put into practice? The strongman of the village, or locality, will choose his candidate for parliament—one who will naturally return the favor later—and announce his decision, threaten anyone who shows an inclination to go against it, and—to make certain he does not get away with it under cover of secret balloting—sends his henchmen to fire some shots over the heads of the queue waiting at the polling booth, scatter the people, and go in to stamp all the ballot papers themselves. Or sends them in the night before to wrest the ballot box from the election officers and stuff it with suitably stamped papers before anyone else has…
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