The situation was getting from bad to worse. Quite like the colossal traffic jams at the Delhi-Gurgaon toll plaza, the Pearly Gates were clogged with huge masses of the Formerly-Living (a.k.a Newly-Dead) waiting in line to gain entry to the domicile of their After-Life. The common wisdom is – if you lived how God intended you to during your living years, you got a free passage to Heaven. If not, then off you went to Hell, shunted to that nasty town where the air was smoggy, people were petty, crimes were common, women were unsafe, prices were high, garbage stacked up in piles, roads were broken, and power went off frequently (Kindly refrain from making mental comparisons with places you may already know on earth)
The entry protocol for the Twin Cities was quite simple – When earthlings conked off and went ‘upstairs’, they were cheerfully greeted at the Reception counter at the Pearly Gates, welcomed to the After-World, and made to fill out the paper work. Quite like Immigration and Customs at an airport, only infinitesimally kinder. Lately, however, an IT systems upgrade at Pearly Gates Immigration had resulted in snags in processing paperwork, leading to long lines and delayed sorting of people between Heaven and Hell.
Plenty of folks were left waiting outside the Gates, many for months now, wondering when their case was going to get sorted. Here is a scene observed a couple of days ago as people waited in line.
Pandit Ravi Shankar, world renowned sitarist : (mumbling to himself) Must they make us wait outside for so long? I haven’t seen this kind of chaos since I left India for the US in the 60s. Totally unacceptable. How many more days will this take? Perhaps I should walk up ahead and see what the hold up is.
Starts walking slowly, dragging his 40 kilo sitar in tow.
Yash Chopra, famous film director : (spotting Panditji, as he himself waits in line) Oh, hello, hello! Panditji, HELLO! (Nudges his friend in saffron robes and dark sunglasses) Look, it’s Pandit Ravi Shankarji! They must all be falling like ninepins down there!
Bal Thackaray, politician (peering in the direction Yash Chopra is pointing) : Arrey, what a surprise! It’s Pandit Ravi Shankar!
Panditji notices two excited octogenarian slowly flailing their tired arms. He smiles in recognition and stumbles towards them with his 40 kilo sitar.
Panditji : Hello, Gentlemen!
Bala Saheb : Jai Maharashtra, Panditji! How are you here?
Panditji : Heart.
Bala Saheb : Me, too!
Yashji : (sheepishly) Dengue. Anyway, delighted to see you here, Panditji! In fact, seeing you here, I got reminded of a poem from my new film. Arz hai – Teri aankhon ki namkeen…
Panditji : (coughing loudly) Yes, very nice, I am sure. Can you hold this sitar please?
Yashji : (disappointed at having to stop) Err…yes, yes, of course.
Panditji : Thank God for your colourful robe and sunglasses, Bala Saheb. I wouldn’t have recognized you otherwise! You remind me so much of George Harrison sometimes, you know, during his hippie phase. But how come you both are still stranded here? Have they not taken you in yet?
Bala Saheb : Dekh lo! This line seems to move slower than the Harbour Line in Mumbai under Congress rule. Height of inefficiency!
Yashji : They tell us it’s some computers issue. It has been a few months for me already! Like the lines from my movie song – Yeh kahan aa gaye hum, yun hi…
Bala Saheb : (clearing his throat loudly) Yes, yes, let’s give Panditji a place to sit first.
Yash Chopra stops his recital dejectedly and readies a folding chair for Ravi Shankar.
Bala Saheb : So, Panditji, what news from Down Under?
Panditji : Hein? Oh, I believe Ricky Ponting retired.
Yashji : Hein?
Panditji : I am sorry, that is the only news I know from Australia.
Bala Saheb : Australia? Who wants to know about Australia?
Panditji : But you were the one who asked me about Down Under!
Bala Saheb : (laughing) Oh, I meant Down Under…on Earth!
All three men laugh and immediately break into coughing spams just like old people do.
Panditji : (recovering) That was funny, Bala Saheb! Anyway, in terms of news, well, Obama won. Rest, I am not aware of what has been happening in India. As you know, I never followed Indian politics or Hindi films.
Yashji : (looking disappointed) I hope my last film did well. You would have liked it. I filmed it in London, keeping people like you in mind. You know, the NRI-type.
Bala Saheb : I wonder what Raj and Uddhav are up to. Did you get coverage on them in your California newspapers?
Panditji : (almost about to roll his eyes) No, sadly, no.
The three are soon disturbed by loud ma-behen gaalis sounds coming from near. They turn to look at the commotion.
Panditji : (wincing at the foul language) Holy Raag Maalkaus! Who is that nasty man?
Yashji : (shaking his head) He has been busy fighting with everyone since he got here. He even got into fisticuffs with his brother as soon as he arrived! Ever since, he hasn’t stopped throwing his weight around.
Panditji : Why must Indians behave like this when they are outside their country? All these foreigners waiting patiently in line must think we are uncivilized fools! Do you know him?
Yashji : (sheepishly) Unfortunately, yes. That’s Ponty Chadha. Billionaire businessman, political player and film financier. We tried to explain to him that we are not in India any more, and that he needs to be respectful of his surroundings, but no, he just wouldn’t listen! He even said – ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ – to Bala Saheb and me! Can you believe it?
Bala Saheb : Bloody North Indian crook! If this were Mumbai or if I had my Sena up here, I would have knocked some sense of civility into that fool!
Panditji : Looks like he is headed our way.
The bearded man strides towards the three old men.
Ponty Chadha, businessman : Myself Ponty. (looks questioningly at Ravi Shankar as he extends his hand for a hand shake)
Panditji : (folding hands politely) I am Ravi Shankar, a musician. (Adding) Heart.
Ponty : Gunshot hole in my heart. By my own brother. (Spits angrily)
The two octogenarians and the single nonagenarian cringe outwardly.
Bala Saheb : (wistfully) I miss my Mumbai…
Yashji : (dolefully) And I miss my Switzerland…
Ponty : (crudely) Oye, I miss my Butter Chicken-shiken.
Panditji : (thinking in his mind) I should have just stayed away from these philistines.
A young girl in her early 20s gently shakes the foursome out of their reverie.
Young Girl with no identify : (excitedly) Hello, Sirs! How lucky of me to have found such famous people here!
Yashji : Hello. Who are you? And aren’t you too young to be here?
Young Girl : (Sighs) Yeah, I thought so too, but, what to do. You know, I am not even sure what my name is any more! People have given me strange names recently. They have been calling me Nirbhaya, Or Damini. Some named me Amaanat. I think my real name is Darpana, you know, like ‘mirror’?
Bala Saheb : You sound important. Someone like us.
Young Girl : (strongly shakes her head) Quite the contrary, Sir! Until just a few days ago, I was a nobody, living a life of no consequence like a billion other Indians. On no one’s radar or agenda. I didn’t matter.
Panditji : What happened then?
Young Girl : Then I got raped, beaten, left to die on the side of the road. I fought hard to stay alive for weeks in hospitals. But sometimes your will can wage only a losing battle against fate…I just got here this morning.
Ponty : You got raped and killed? By how many? What did they do to you? (Points at her flimsy hospital gown) Is that what you were wearing when it happened? Tell us everything!
The two octogenarians and the single nonagenarian stare hard at Ponty.
Yashji : (shaking his head in agony) What has our country come to? This is heartbreaking! Not sure how things got so bad and people so evil. In all my films, I have never even shown people slapping each other!
Young Girl : I know, Yashji! After all, you have only ever talked about the purity and beauty of women. Women whose greatness is directly proportional to the sacrifices they make. Whose identities are inherently intertwined with their men. There is no ugliness in a woman’s world in your films. Everything is peaches and cream. If there are tears, they are usually happy ones because the woman gave up something to make her man happy. And that ‘something’ is usually something extremely important to her, like her identity, or her life. After all, that is what makes her a woman! That is the reality you have served to the nation. It is not your fault if your nation’s reality didn’t quite turn out that way, is it?
Bala Saheb : (agreeing vociferously) And that is why he was always called the greatest film maker in India! And I have always been such a proud supporter of his work.
Young Girl : Just like I have been of yours, Bala Saheb! You have never pulled back from fighting for what you felt was right. If someone didn’t do the right thing, you have thrashed him – you know, to teach the person a lesson for his own good! If someone took something from you, you snatched it back and kicked that person’s teeth in. You are the real hero – the rule-maker, the judge, the jury and the punisher all rolled in one! You make it look cool when the fist does all the talking. Men idolize you. From you they learn that violence is ok if you want to take back what you feel is your God given right. Machismo rules, and everyone else must quiver in its presence!
Panditji : (shaking his head in abhorrence) But how can the fist be the right answer to anything in a democracy? Really, you people just don’t know how to run your country! You never have, and you never will! Uncivilized barbarians! Why else do you think I stayed away from your messed up country?
Young Girl : Exactly the right description, Panditji! Messed up! People like you and me wonder why ‘they’ have messed things up so bad. We keep complaining that ‘they’ don’t know how to run the country. Or that ‘they’ break laws with impunity. ‘They’ are corrupt. ‘They’ are morally bankrupt. ‘They’ rape. ‘They’ can’t control crime. ‘We’, on the other hand, are so much better than ‘them’. But, what can ‘we’ do? Even if ‘we’ were to try to bring about change, ‘they’ have made things so filthy that there is no possible way ‘we’ can make any difference! And so, ‘we’ sit at home helplessly and watch angrily. From a safe distance. ‘We’ sit and watch ‘them’ destroy what is ‘ours’. In fact, watch ‘them’ destroy ‘us’.
The old men stare at the young girl. All but Ponty Chadha, who is not to be browbeaten.
Ponty : (points his finger at the girl and laughs) Waah…what great sermonizing! My dear, money and power are the name of the game in India! You are as good as shit if you have neither. The rich rule the poor. The men rule the women. The powerful rule the weak. That’s the way even God intended it to be, dearie. ‘You’ can complain about ‘them’ as much as you wish, but if given an opportunity, ‘you’ would want to be ‘them’! In fact, ‘you’ become ‘them’ when you have to. Like, when you set up a business. Or buy property. Heck, try getting a passport without being like ‘them’! Or a driver’s license. You become ‘them’ when you jump a red light. Or get caught by a cop while doing so!
Young Girl : That is not true. That can’t be true! ‘We’ don’t want to be like ‘them’. All ‘we’ want is for ‘them’ to be like ‘us’! Isn’t that fair? Isn’t that what is taught to us by our parents? By our society? By all religions? That Good wins over Evil? Right over Wrong? Truth over Injustice?
Bala Saheb : (wonders aloud, nonplussed) And yet…
Yashji : (talks slowly) …and yet, it only happens in films…
Panditji : (despondently) …not in real life.
Young Girl : (sighs loudly) Well, we are all going to meet the Maker soon. Let’s ask Him what the deal is.
Ponty : Yes, ask Him why the four of us are all here after living a full life – rich, successful, powerful. And you are here at 23. I think He has some answering to do.