This a talk Rohini Nilekani gave on the city’s role in her work as a philanthropist and social innovator. This was as part of a sponsored a bi-monthly curated talk series called “Speaking of the City” curated by Bangalore’s World-Famous Semi-Deluxe Writing Program at Shoonya. Writers, artists, journalists, scholars, architects, scientists, entrepreneurs, historians, geographers, activists or anyone who has worked on and for Bangalore is invited to speak of this city.
“Dhanyavadagalu,” first of all, for coming here. So, actually when Zac and Anjum told me to speak here, I must admit I got very nervous. And I’m still a bit nervous, not because I don’t speak in public, I probably speak in public far too often, but I didn’t quite know how to talk of myself and the city. But then I felt it was a great experience to put those two things together and see if it was more than the sum of its parts. So I do hope I won’t bore you all to death. I see many friends and familiar faces, so I’m very grateful.
So, I thought I’ll divide this into three or four parts. One is, of course, how I became an accidental Bangalorean, many people know about that, but still, I’ll just mention it again because I think it’s important. Then I’ll just talk about the decades we have spent here, raised a family, a few anecdotes from there. Then I’ll talk about a little bit of my writings, since this is all about writing, and whether it has anything to the city or not. And then I’ll talk a little bit about the work and all the amazing people I have had the real good fortune to meet and support.
And I’ll end with, I guess, something about the… No, I have to talk to you about the elections of 2014, and then I’ll just glimpse into the future. So that’s how I’ve structured it a bit. But I might go back and forth, otherwise it’d be too chronological. So it’s 35 years since we came to Bangalore, we first came here in 1984. That’s three and half decades, that’s most of my life, and certainly more than I spent in the town I was born and grew up in, which is Bombay, now Mumbai. So clearly, I am a Bangalorean now, there’s no two ways about it. Two things I miss about Mumbai still, every day: One is the panipuri, Bangalore simply has no chaat to speak of, and it should be ashamed of itself. And two, is the ocean, which is kind of hard to create. But otherwise, Bangalore is now my home, I’m a Bangalorean, and very proud of it and very happy so.
But we could easily have been in Chennai. Because at the time when Infosys got its first India client, it was a toss-up between Chennai and Bangalore. I’m telling you that was really lucky, ’cause the weather in Chennai and the weather in Bangalore simply don’t compare. So I’m very happy that it tipped towards our side in Bangalore. And we set up our little home first in 4th T Block, well that was because… Actually, Infosys and Wipro were the third wave, the public sector institutions that came in the ’50s and ’60s brought in new kinds of migrants. And then we know what happened in the early part of the century with IISC, etcetera, but I won’t go back that far.
So after the public institutions like BEL, HMT, ITI, etcetera, so it brought in a lot of new people and a new culture into Bangalore. After that, in the ’70s, there was a phase where, of course, were the government factories and stuff, but also the hardware industries, so they came in later. And it was only in the ’80s that, actually, the first satellite station was… Earth station was set up by Texas Instruments, created the first offshore software plant in India. And what they began to call as body shopping. But basically because of the satellite-linked earth station, they were able to allow programmers to code here and buzz up all the code up in… Through the satellites back home to America, and that started, really, the IT revolution. The government itself decided to set up Electronic City. And then it brought in a lot of these companies, Infosys, very clearly a major one among them.
And that’s what really began our journey to Bangalore, which was great for Nandan, because he was coming back home. He was born here and lived the first 12 years of his life in Bangalore. So, it was for him, a kind of homecoming, but it was new to us. And Infosys then… To just continue a bit on the IT side, they were… They, of course, became big quite soon, and the story of Infosys captured media attention quite early on. In ’92, the IPO happened, because Infosys had set up its first… India’s first software company to set up its own five-acre premises in Electronic City, and the next year, ’93, was their IPO. And after the IPO, honestly, our lives changed, because it was a public company, always facing the media, always telling a very new story of middle class professionals who wanted to beat the dynastic capitalists, I suppose, at their own game. And prove that, by remaining true to your values, you could still create… Ethically you could create real wealth and, really, an institution to be proud of for many, many people. A lot of people from the city as well. So that was the Infosys story. And our lives ran parallel… For all those three-and-a-half decades, I think our lives ran parallel till Nandan left Infosys to join the government. But then came right back two years ago. So we are back with that story of Infosys continuing like a thread through our lives in the city.
So, we were young, relatively, and I began with a little house in 4th T Block, Jayanagar, with a landlord called, as I remember now, D. Linge Gowda, who had just run a unsuccessful election campaign as a Congress candidate against, of all people, Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party in a Kanakapura by-election, and had lost. And now when I think of it, that pattern was to be repeated by his tenant 30 years later, in 2014, who also on a Congress ticket, lost against the future avatar of the Janata Party, which is the BJP, to Mr. Ananth Kumar. But that’s a story I’ll come back to later. So it was great to have been, to have that very nice family, the Gowdas and Aunty… The wife. I’d brought my first standard Kannada textbook. And every evening, for half an hour, she used to sit with me on the steps going up to our little flat and help me to learn Kannada in the way it should be taught. And the first words I had to learn was, of course, “Swalpa adjust maadi.” was one thing that she decided that I should know quite quickly. And its thanks to her that I was able to get a bit of a grounding in Kannada and also learn about local food, because she used to call me down to her kitchen to have “akki” roti and all sorts of stuff.
Nandan was, of course, always away. But with that firm foundation, I was actually able to be confident enough to make full public speeches in Kannada, and I always hoped that my extreme enthusiasm would make up for my extreme poor grammar. And made many, many mistakes along the way but I found the Kannada people, the Kannadigas, very, very supportive to somebody who was trying learn the language. And that love always overcame my shyness while speaking Kannada in public. So that was something to say.
We brought up our children here, in this beautiful city. And I tell you, it was a great place to bring up the kids. And I outsourced a lot of parenting to Valley School, thank God for Valley School, because with 100 acres for the children to play in and Krishnamurti’s philosophy of “no reward, no punishment,” the children were happy to go to school and as happy when they came back. Except for the ragi mudde, ragi porridge which they had to drink at 11:00 o’clock, I think they had a marvelous 10 or 12 years in that school, for which I am eternally grateful, for the educational institutions of the city, and so many great ones, as we all know. So its a great place to raise kids. Because in those days, of course, it was not this teenager-overrun-by-hormones kind of place that it has become. So it was a marvelous time to raise kids in this city.
I do remember those days when I used to take Bus Number 20 to go to work, or we took two, three buses, shifting from Majestic because we had to go to Malleshwaram, where all Nandan’s Chitrapur Saraswat relatives lived. And so we did lot of bussing. My father-in-law, particularly, was a great supporter of anything to do with the public sector. And if he saw an empty bus, we had to physically stop him from going there, ’cause it didn’t matter where it was going, he would say, “What a beautiful public transport, we should go in it!” and we said, “But we don’t want to go there.” So we had to physically stop him from going to empty, beautiful buses. But he taught me to go all around the city in several buses. And the roads were… It was a much better experience then than it is now. But I do feel that public transport used to be much better. I think as the city grows, we are going to have another five years of nightmare. But then we are going to have our metro, then we are gonna have all those zillions of flyovers which our politicians want to build, and we’re going to hopefully zip through the city again. But don’t try to walk.
I remember my first car was a Maruti Omni, and I could take it everywhere in the city. In those days it was not so bad to drive or to park. And I even took it to BVK Iyengar Road to buy some lights. And I remember parallel parking in a very narrow spot. And a policeman came up to me and said in Kannada… But he said, “Even though you are a woman, you’ve parallel parked quite nicely, madam.” I said, “Thank you, sir!” But that was something I didn’t forget. In a very friendly way he said it, without absolutely any self-consciousness at all. I do remember, as a journalist I used to write for local papers. One of the earliest things I remember doing was marching with an organisation called Vimochana, which worked with women’s rights. And we used to have placards outside people’s houses where there had been dowry deaths. I went there partly as a participant activist and partly as a reporter. I remember so many incidents where sometimes the police would come and crack down on all those things.
I remember having to go to report stuff at the BBMP office. And one of my priciest goof-ups was when the officer I had gone to meet was not in his seat. And very kindly I asked his colleagues, “Lanchake hogidaara?” So I learnt much later that that was not the smartest thing to say, but I was innocently asking whether he had gone out for his lunch. Then, of course, there was the same old haunts, everyone used to go to them, Koshy’s, Vidyarthi Bhavan, MTR, you name it, Lalbagh, Cubbon Park, we did all the things that most Bangloreans used to do then.
I even did a little adventure, I went through a crazy phase, some of the people here will remember it with extreme horror. I went through a phase of wanting to do Urdu shayari, and I went and actually took lessons from an amazing gentleman called Khalil Ur Rehman, who was DIG Intelligence… And said, “Why not! I’ll teach you Urdu.” And I used to go to the police headquarters and I used to wait quietly there till he had finished all his work, and he used to spend half an hour with Ghalib and me. And it was the most incredible experience. Then I realised I was completely wasting everybody’s time and gave up… Gave him back his evenings. But these are the kind of people you meet in this amazing city who give so much of themselves. So it’s been an amazing journey. It did… Since I came in ’84, I did try to write. Right from 1984, I used to write for several… India Today and other papers… Including the local papers whenever I got a chance. And then in 1987, I joined Sunday, it was a post-Akbar Sunday Magazine. And Vir Sanghvi had taken over as Editor, he’d been my editor in Bombay, so it was easy to agree to join.
In fact, my predecessors was Gauri Lankesh, and as I was leaving, Prakash Belawadi joined, ’cause I had to leave, because I had small babies, and we had to go to America. So my predecessor was Gauri Lankesh and after me was Prakash Belawadi. So I was in excellent company at Sunday, though I couldn’t stay there very long. And I continued writing, I did script writing for extremely boring documentaries because I had to keep myself busy. I did a lot of children’s writing. And then, of course, I did my first novel called Still Born, which was definitely inspired… The heroine was Poorva Pandit, who lived in Basavanagudi, and who wanted to… Who very much… The story of Poorva Pandit, the journalist in Bangalore, was about a Bangalore that was growing into new media, that was growing into buildings of glass and concrete, where Basavanagudi itself was changing.
And I’ve just recently learned that, in fact, Basavanagudi is one of the oldest settlements of this new city we call Bangalore, that it was set up in 1895 as a refuge for people who were escaping the plague. And later on, it became a fairly planned part of Bangalore. So Poorva Pandit in Bangalore was very much… So the city was very much at the background of my novel. And, in fact, she did use technology to solve her problems in that novel. And one of the inspirations for that was Atul Chitnis, who was really the pioneer of the open source movement in Bangalore. So I went and met him and made him tell me some ways where some ethical hacking could be done so that Poorva Pandit could find out who was doing what to whom. And so the characters of the city also found their way into the novel, including Dr. Sudarshan, who has been working for decades in the BR hills with the Soliga tribals there, and the story is partly based in that area as well. So I would say definitely, Bangalore and Still Born and… Jayapriya is here, without whom Still Born would not have happened. It was my first novel and her first….
Yeah, she set up a literary agency just then, so it’s special to both of us. And then I did go on to do more writing, lots of journalism, also another book called Uncommon Ground which came out, which was based on a television series I did when I interviewed corporate and social leaders together. So I got Anand Mahindra to speak to Medha Patkar. I got Aruna Roy to speak to Sunil Mittal and so on, as a series. And then I put that as a documentation ’cause I thought it needed to be documented into a book which was called by the same name, Uncommon Ground.
Now it’s high time I wrote my third book, as Usha would remind me. And I must say, the inspiration from so many city writers that I have been meeting over the last so many decades: There are, of course, Anjum and Jack and Spoorsha… Zack and Usha right here, there’s Raghavendra, there’s Prem, some of whose articles I simply cannot understand. And there’s Raghavendra, Usha’s husband, there is Shriram, there is Vivek Shanbagh, and Anita Nair. There’s Lavanya and so many others, Shashi, of course, Deshpande, with whom one has had the honor to interact and learn from, on how to have a deep commitment to writing. Even if there are breaks, Shashi always tells me, “Dont worry. Write, write and write.” So let’s see what happens. Next time I come, I hope there’ll be a book under my belt, another one. So writing… And, of course, Girish Karnad, just having had that extreme fortune to have familial relations to Nandan with their family, and to have occasionally been able to get his blessings on things like Ratam Books, etcetera. It’s a great time to remember, that even if Girish is no more, his work will always continue to live with us and be in our hearts.
Now let me talk of my philanthropic work. This definitely, I think, my philanthropy would have been very different if I had been in other places because this is a city of reformers. In fact, I keep joking, “There are more reformers per square inch in Bangalore than in any other place in the country.” So it’s like a landmine of reformers, you have to be very careful, you can trip over them anytime. And they have feisty arguments with each other, so it’s a very difficult space to navigate but also extremely intellectually exciting. The kind of passion and commitment one sees here, the kind of open… And there are many people here who belong to that… The kind of open-mindedness, the kind of broad-mindedness, right? That we see here, the openness to new ideas. I don’t think there is another city in India just quite like Bangalore.
And so it is a dream for someone who has suddenly accumulated far too much wealth and needs to give it away. Because it’s the people: You have to support people, you have to support individuals, you have to support ideas, you have to support institutions. And there is a cornucopia of choices for me and Nandan in Bangalore, so I’m very grateful for that. I don’t see how my philanthropy could have been like this if I had been in Bombay or Delhi or Chennai or anywhere else, for that matter. So I’m very grateful for that because I learnt a lot, there was a lot of time and space to experiment, and amazingly passionate and committed individuals who were all trying to create the better society. So I have been very lucky in that.
I’ll mention just a few things that one was able to support. As soon as the child… The little one, my son, was able to talk and tell me that he was safe or not on his own, I set up something called Nagrik, because one of my very dear friends had been killed in a horrible accident on his way… Of all things, he was rushing to Bangalore to get an interview to Bangalore Club. See, Bangalore Club is a very important institution in this city and people think it’s worth driving all night so that you can make it for the interview. But, unfortunately, an awful truck driver ran him down, and that was a real tragedy. So out of that we started something called Nagrik including Kiran Mazumdar, Jagdish Raja, all kinds of characters came together… Muralidhar Rao, the eternal activist, and we set up Nagrik for safer roads. It was a bit of a disaster, I might say, it was ahead of its time. We didn’t have any clue how to do proper institution-building. But we spent a lot of time at the city’s… Now it has 30… Then it had 32,000 junctions. But we spent a lot of time at these junctions trying to streamline at least the movement around that. And I learnt a lot in my first steps on how to actually engage in public life. So nothing lost, the city didn’t gain much but we’d learnt a little bit. And that helped, I think, in the later institutions that I supported or started.
So, in 1999, I was lucky enough to be invited to join Akshara Foundation. The goal of it was to get every single child in Bangalore in school and learning well by 2003.
Well, it’s 2019, I think just a few children are still left. But we did a pretty good job of mobilizing the mood of the government and the citizens to make sure that all the public schools were doing a bit better than they could have been and to set up more than 1,000 preschool centers that we call “Balwadis” as part of the Pratham network. And Akshara Foundation really taught me a lot about the city in ways I could not have, however many buses I went on and how many walks I took in Lalbagh. Because we were able to go into all the slums of the city, wherever there was acceptance for the idea of setting up a preschool center or where the government schools were willing to let us set up remedial education centers for the children, for all of which we needed citizen volunteers. We needed people who would believe in the idea and give off their time, because its not like they were going to earn a fortune by joining us. We used to give a very minimal stipend. In fact, MS Sathyu once fought with me on this saying, “How can you give only 500 rupees?” We said, “If you could find more money, we would give more.” But sorry for that aside. So for the princely sum of 500 rupees or 750 rupees, and we tried to…
Hundreds of people came forward to set up Balwadis in their own little homes, sized just about this much and bring in 20, 30 children from the neighborhood and spend three or four hours with them, trying to teach them and get them ready for school, it became a movement. And I am very proud to say that for several years, we were able to sustain that. And then, that’s when I got to see how the people at the margins of the city live, with how much courage, with how much risk-taking ability and with an absolute can-do attitude, especially when it comes to their children. That they would do anything for their children’s future and that education was going to be a very important part of it.
And the kind of support that we got from rickshaw-walahs and so many people. And especially I remember that young Muslim women came forward, in the hundreds, to become teachers, volunteers, to set-up things in their own home. Very often, they would not have had been allowed to go outside to work, many of them, not all of them, but this was seen as a safe space for them to go and engage in teaching young children. So it taught me a lot about this city. I’m still grateful Akshara Foundation still thrives, is now doing work in many states, its math program is doing marvellously well, fully funded by the government. And Ashok Kamath who just became the Namma Bangalore Achiever was the chairman and continues to do splendid work.
I got a great chance to set up Pratham Books as well because I was part of Pratham’s network all over India. We were creating many, many eager new learners. But they had nothing to read, except the beautiful textbook which was sent home to them from school. There are very… Its such a tragedy, there were very few children’s books that were attractive, engaging and in their own language for children to read. So we set up Pratham Books, I took on the responsibility to set it up in Bangalore, together with Ashok Kamath as well, who did most of the running of the institution. And the goal was a book in every child’s hand. And in its 15-year journey, I’m proud to say, I was there for 10 years, Suzanne Singh continues to take it to newer and newer heights. We have reached tens of millions of children. Not only in this city, where we could physically go to children with our books, but through the country and even throughout the world. So that was a really joyous experience that we were part of, and it continues too. I think a mark of a good institution is when the founder can move on and the institution can do better. And I must say, all the institutions I have left have done far better after my leaving them than when I was still there, so I must be a very good founder.
So Arghyam came up first as my idea of experimenting with philanthropy, because we came into money suddenly when we participated in the American Depositary motif that we did at Infosys. And I came into 100 crores. Now I didn’t need 100 crores for my own life, we were doing reasonably well. So I decided to put it all into the foundation. But I didn’t know what to do with it, it’s not so easy to do well with a lot of money. So I just first decided to learn some philanthropy heavy-lifting, and I did absolutely random things, like we saved… It’s not random, we saved many children’s lives by helping them get to a respirator on time, and we set up yoga centers, we did some air pollution monitoring, it was really, early now when I think of it, air pollution monitoring, my God! Now it’s become so fashionable. We did that in 2001. And all sorts of things till I realized one day in April 2005, that if one wants to be strategic and long term and solve a real problem of society, it would have to be water.
So April 2005, Arghyam focused fully water, for the last 14 years we are working all around the country with various organizations. And hopefully, I’ve made some impact in the water sector. I must admit we didn’t do too much work in Bangalore. I was a bit nervous of tripping over our reformers. So we decided… I thought that if I focused on Bangalore, I wont be able to do anything outside Bangalore. It would overwhelm and consume us. So most of Arghyam’s work is in fact outside this gorgeous city, except for some peripheral work I’ve been able to do with our marvelous lake-saving communities. And you know how well that has taken off.
And then last thing we had to set up ourselves was EkStep. Nandan and I began to work for the first time in 2014, and our marriage still continues, so we must have done something right. Because we had very different approaches and I didn’t know if this partnership outside the home will last for more than 10 days, but it’s been almost five years. And we have been able to bring a whole new lens to how do you bring learning opportunities to 200 million children, which we have promised ourselves we will achieve by the end of 2020. And we think we are on track to do that, but this is not the space to tell you how. Some other time. But apart from these institutions that we ourselves were able to found… And Nandan founded eGovernments Foundation, and he was heading BATF, the Bangalore Agenda Task Force which again, taught us a lot about the city and how its innards functions. How all our public sector agencies actually work against each other and how streamlining that is a really massive task, which till today is incomplete.
So were able to set up institutions but we were also able to support marvelous people setting up their own institutions. Whether it was BIC, whether it was ATREE, whether it was Takshashila, whether… New think tanks, new ideas, IIHS, which is the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, which is the first such institution which says, “As India urbanizes, we are going to need many more urban professionals.” And how do you build capacity at scale to manage urban settlements? So IIHS… Each one of these institutions was backed, was set up by fiery, committed, intelligent, passionate people who were able to build both teams and institutions, and Nandan and I have been really lucky to be able to support some of them.
Like you said, on the arts and culture side, it was also very exciting to find these entrepreneurs or whatever, whether it was… Obviously Arundhati at Ranga Shankara, she… You know how hard she worked to put up that theater in her husband’s name, and also because India… Bangalore needed to revive its cultural spaces. And she worked so hard at… And she had almost got there. And one day she felt that she just couldn’t go on. And she called us and the next day, I’m not bragging, but I think it’s an important step in Ranga Shankara, which she herself brings up. We realised she’s almost there and she needs this one infusion. And the next morning, I went with a check of 50 lakhs. And within a few weeks Ranga Shankara was up and running. Today she has much support, and they do 300 and more plays every year. They have completely revived the cultural space of the city. So I feel very, very proud to be a small part of that.
And similarly, many other things like that. The Devnandan Ubhayaker Yuva Sangeet Utsav is a small festival but it has given a big space for young Hindustani musical talent to showcase itself. Young ones, Rashid Khan… I mean, all the big names that you would learn in Hindustani music came… Once they were tiny and unknown, to the utsav because that was the platform that Lalita Ubhayaker and Tara Chandavarkar created for them, and I’ve been happy to support it for so many years now. So many opportunities like that, to support individuals, doing so much. Neerelu, Avantika, so many things right now… The festival is going on which Prakash Belawadi… Called Avani, which they are running in the city as we speak, all these things will need some philanthropic capital, and its good to see that Bangaloreans do come forward.
In fact, India is learning how to do crowdfunding, and Bangalore is a very huge part on this movement of people’s-based support. It’s not just the billionaires who can save this country, right? In fact, billionaire funding for social movement should be a very small part of anything that happens in the country, it should be a broad-based, diverse unique space. And I’m proud to say we just did a report on everyday giving. Bangalore’s people are a huge chunk of India’s growing small-giving. So they give diversely and they give to many many causes, and even if they give 100 rupees or 10 rupees or 2,000 rupees or one lakh rupees, or your Bangaloreans… That’s why I love the city, that’s why I love to be part of the city, they’re highly engaged as citizens.
And I think, when we moved to Koramangala, I got to be part of the RWA, the third block Koramangala RWA is something that most people are frightened of because they have strict laws… For rules. So if you park on the wrong side, woe befall you. Somebody will come and move your car. Or if you try to build one extra level on your house without a sanctioned plan, you’ll have to pull down your whole building, because we have people watching and monitoring. And sometimes it gets pretty… What shall I say, heated up in our RWA email and chat groups. But I’m very proud to see how democracy in the first base. We call civil society the third sector, I think that’s ludicrous, it is the first sector and it begins where we live, how we engage with public issues, where we live. So I’m very lucky to live in third block, Koramangala, with all its feisty civic activism.
And that’s also taught me a lot about, how do we protect our commons? How do we prioritize whose needs to be prioritized. I must say our road is called… I’m sorry to say, but it’s called “billionaires road” because Chris is on one side, Rajeev Chandrasekhar is on the other side, Pradeep Khar is on this side. And my friends complain, “And you people always get water and your roads get paved, and quite unnecessarily, even if they’ve been paved before.” I’m not sure that accusation is true, but what is true is that there’s tremendous equity of public services right in my block. Two lanes beyond me, there are people who don’t get as much water as we get on our road. Of course, our road is also at a slope, but even if it had not been, I know some places would’ve got less water than we do, for various reasons of the political economy, which leads me straight into 2014. How long have I already spoken?
Okay, so I’ll close very quickly with the election because that really has to be shared. It is the first time I’m on a public platform to share it, so please give me a few minutes. So the 2014 election is very sharp in my mind, though the 2019 one is already blurred away. In the heat of that awful April, March, we were all campaigning. Some ardent supporters are sitting here two months, I’m still really grateful. And there was Nandan on the Congress party ticket against the most invincible Ananth Kumar. It requires a great leap of optimism on Nandan’s part to think that he could defeat Ananth Kumar. But Nandan is nothing, if not optimistic. And we already know how that movie ended. But it was really the most gruelling time I’ve had in the city, but with a very rapid learning curve, because we learnt to very quickly that by far and above, politics is most difficult profession of them all. I don’t think any other profession in this world comes close. It is 24/7 and the kind of demands to come at you all the time are impossible to manage. So my respect for politicians went up by a 500% in those few months, even though I wouldn’t exactly want to emulate most of their practices. But walking through the slums, through the middle class neighbourhoods, climbing up and down stairwells of extremely fancy apartment buildings, which I didn’t even know existed till we had to trawl all of South Bangalore.
We listened to people all day long, what they hoped for, what they wanted, what they expected. And we learnt exactly what keeps this dysfunctional law, equilibrium politics exactly in place, because it is nothing but a system of patronage and brokerage, because nobody wants to solve it. It suits everybody at some level. And it has just been continuing like this for so long, which is partly why we have the city that we do, and which could be so much better. So, many interesting things happened there, of course, and I learnt a lot. And, really, people live in such difficult conditions: Water, drainage, sewerage, rent, you name it, it’s really a hard living every single… Mobility, where? Public transport, nothing, and they still manage two jobs, three jobs and just somehow manage.
But in some of the higher-end… Middle class, some of the upper middle class… Middle class, I would say, parks, places which have parks nearby bungalows. Once I went and gave my usual speech about how Nandan is great and he’s a strategic thinker and will do long-term reform. And one gentleman got up and said, “Long-term reform and strategy are very good, very good, but we have this man in our neighborhood… And one man, he comes and feeds the street dogs, we need to get him arrested, how do we do that?” So then I would mumble something and say, “you know… ” something, something I would say. Then they would say “The leaves in my park, nobody cleans.” Or they’ll say, “There are so many bumps on the road outside my fantastic apartment. What is the MP going to do about that?” Then I once met a group of, I won’t mention which community, women who were literally dripping in gold and silk, and they wanted the MP to build them a community hall. I think if two or three of their jewelry had been just auctioned or given away, they could have built the hall themselves.
But by contrast, in the slums, most of the time people used to say… When I went, they used to really come around, because most politicians didn’t turn up, and they vented all their five years of frustrations on me. So it was quite interesting. I was really taken back, I was like “We didn’t do all this to you.” But they said, “You’re from the same class, the political class, so who else are we supposed to yell at?” But I must say, they would mostly say:
“Just give use water. Just give us drains. That’s enough.”
They were not really asking for the moon. But of course, once in a while, people used to say”
“If I give you my vote what will I get in return?”
And I used to say, “No, it’s no use buying your vote, that’s not gonna help you, that’s gonna keep you where… They’ll say:
“That’s all correct and what they all say. But you have come to ask for my vote.”
So then I used to leave those people and assume that they will not be voting for Nandan. But there were a lot of people from the BJP also who used to say:
“You’re giving a really good fight! A really good fight!”
And once… And I’d broken my arm by then, so my team said, “Very good, 25,000 sympathy votes you’ll get.” I said “Did you ask me how I’m feeling?” But the others had told and said, “Nothing has happened to her, to get sympathy votes she’s wearing a plaster on her arm just to look good for getting sympathy.” So I got both sides of that. But one person told me… He used to see me in that area often. He said.
“But why are you trying so hard, madam! You will win anyway! Leave it be!”
But, of course, he turned out to be not so right. And a BJP worker definitely… One BJP voter told me:
“I have never given my vote to the Congress. But this time I will. Because he is the right man. But let me tell you, wrong party. Wrong party, wrong time. But the candidate is correct.” So I’m going to vote for Congress for the first time in my life.
But not many people followed that example because Nandan lost by more than two lakh votes. So he got, I must say, I thank everyone of those people, more than four lakh votes in a very one-sided election, where everyone was voting only for Narendra Modi. And they told us, “I’m very sorry, it has nothing to do with Nandan but we have to vote for Modi, you see?” So in such an election there were still more than four lakh people who put their “chapa” on Nandan, and therefore the Congress Party. One really interesting incident and I’ll really stop. We were in a slum and… Every time I went into some slum, some strongmen would come with me. And the modus operandi seems to be to go door to door and knock and say:
“Candidate’s wife. You have to give your vote to the Congress!”
And move to the next door. After some rounds of this, I said “Can we try and add please to this?” Because we upper class, so-called genteel, liberal types.”
So he said, “Okay. Because anyway, these people… Silly and feudal upper class person is telling us something, but no harm done.” So he goes to the next house and he said.
“Eh! Please! You have to give your vote to the Congress!”
So… And then he looked at me for approval and said “We did well?” I said “You did very well, indeed.” So one day at a time, one step at a time. But it was very important to see that the people had absolutely no choice, except… It is a kind of a Mafia but those people genuinely look after their constituencies. I would say much more than all their… They look after all of their needs: Whether it is a loan for a marriage, whether it is putting a child in school, whether it is fixing the water connection, whatever it may be, the politician has to be there. That’s why you have all these all strongmen around, the “baahubalis” or whatever they are called, so that they can serve the day-to-day needs of their constituents, who will always go at any time of the day to seek that help, fully expecting to get it. So those were some of the kinds of things I learnt.
And I must admit I was a bit relieved when Nandan did not win, because… People really get angry with me when I say that. But I think it would have been impossible for Nandan, who is not… Who doesn’t really quite work with the crowds as politicians need to. And Nandan’s time has been much better used in other kind of systemic reform, I believe. But, of course, the man who feeds the stray dogs at 1:00 AM remains un-arrested after five years. And so with that, I come to an end looking into the future.
Sometimes I feel that this city used to be one city, now it is many cities. In these 35 years, it has become many cities. From eight million people, it has become 13 million people, that time it was 6.5 million, now its 13.5 million people, it’s gone to 800 square kilometers. It’s a city I no longer know in many ways, because in some ways, our lives have also… Are restricted while they have expanded. And I feel that sometimes I don’t know the city. And though my political ideology was groomed in Mumbai but my political sensibilities were very much developed in this marvellous city: The city of ideas, the city of reformers, the city of curiosity, the diverse cosmopolitan city of many, many cultures.
But one thing I do know… I never expected, no matter how it grew and how dysfunctional it became, in terms of public infrastructure, that it would ever be a city where Gauri Lankesh could be shot outside her own home, and where some trolls could actually say good things about a man like Girish Karnad dying. So I feel that no matter how much the city becomes unfamiliar, all of us have a lot of work to do to keep that idea of the city alive, which has been there for centuries, this is one of the oldest settlements, human settlements in India: Of diversity, of mutual respect, of a cultural exploration, of looking forward, not back. And so there’s miles to do, lots of work to continue doing as citizens of this utterly marvelous city to which I now belong. Thank you very much. Dhanyavad.