When the gangsters moved in some months ago, I had no idea what to expect. They slept through daylight, and, after dark, mined sand illegally from the beach and transported it out in dump trucks. After a few weeks, I noticed changes in the little township where I live. Within days of their arrival, the gangsters made their living standards clear: instead of bagging their garbage for it to be collected by the corporation, they dumped it into the vacant lot next door, where it festered until it dried out, leaving piles of discoloured plastic bags. They spent nights drinking on the beach, leaving behind broken bottles and empty packets of junk food.
Someone complained about it to the corporation. Word must have got back to the gangsters, because instead of simply tossing their garbage over the wall into the vacant lot, they organised it into little heaps, where it festered for weeks before they collected it all and set fire to it, leaving the neighbourhood choking in acrid smoke.
The day after the garbage fire, one of them went around to a few of the neighbours, apologising for the trouble, and explaining why they couldn’t get the garbage collected by the corporation. I gathered that they weren’t officially living where they were, so the corporation couldn’t collect their garbage. Since the smoke went on, a group of residents complained again to the corporation.
Nothing happened for a few days. And then, one morning, we saw changes. The roads in the township have never been relaid since they were first laid out decades ago, so they’ve degenerated into large, shallow potholes connected by strips of tar lined with sharp-edged stones. Some anonymous benefactor had arranged for a layer of earth and small stones to be laid at the bottom of the deeper potholes, making our three-hundred-metre trip to the main road just a little less of an adventure. The filling didn’t last, and the regular passage of trucks laden with illegal sand deepened the potholes, but still there was a feeling among residents that someone was doing their bit.
We kept quiet until we saw that the dump trucks were doing a lot of damage. The corporation commissioner, meanwhile, barricaded himself behind excuses of meetings and field visits. He doesn’t like to talk to people who complain, regardless of whether the complaints have substance. When we got through his defences and told him that the roads hadn’t been relaid for decades, he shrugged: “No budget,” he said.
But word of the meeting with the commissioner filtered back to the gangsters. One of the residents, a stalwart of the group that complains regularly to the commissioner, owns a couple of small trucks, which he hires out for people to transport small cargoes. He’s had difficulties time lately because business has dropped after the coronavirus hit. One of the gangsters offered him a regular long-term contract to transport timber from a timber shop to a nearby group of furniture factories.
The loss of one of the pillars of our little group left us numb for a while, but we do have a leader, let’s call him Krishna, who persuaded everyone else to do their best. “It’s not that we’re busy,” he said, “pandemic and all, so let’s make the best of our idle time.” The group became active again, but smaller, slower, and creakier. Back we all went to the commissioner, with a list of complaints, the fires and the roads and the nightly noise and drunkenness.
The commissioner looked at his watch when we go to his office after waiting outside for two hours. We trotted out our list of complaints. He rose. “Field visit,” he said, and bolted. He must have bolted straight back to the gangsters, because next morning Krishna had a visitation from some 20 of them. Only the leader, an ex-convict, looked like a hoodlum: the rest were all ordinary youths, red-eyed from drinking too much the night before, but otherwise unremarkable. “I’ve come about your complaint to the commissioner,” the leader told Krishna. “You see all these people…” He waved a hand at the group behind him. “They and their families depend on me for their livelihood. Without it, they’ll go hungry. And you can never tell what hungry people will do.”
“Is that a threat?” asked Krishna.
The gangster bowed and touched Krishna’s feet and then his own forehead in the traditional sign of great respect. “Please,” he said, “how can I threaten you?”
That was the end of the matter. Later that week, when my friend the professor dropped in, I told him the story. “But that’s perfectly Indian!” he said.
“How so?” I asked.
“It’s straight out of the Arthashastra,” he said. “The bible of the Indian way of managing the country, the economy, and relationships. There are four steps with which you deal with opposition: saama, daana, bheda, and danda. Conciliation, gifts, sowing dissent, and force… That’s what these people have done!
“It’s not just the goons,” he continued, “but also the man behind them. Must be someone with influence, maybe an MLA... There’s money in it, and it’s widespread, and involves keeping many government departments at bay.” His eyes lit up with a Eureka-style insight. “Maybe you learn the same things in the Assembly that you learn in prison. Or the same kind of person who goes to prison also gets elected…” The Eureka-look was replaced by one of horror when he realised what he’d said. “No,” he said, “Cancel that. I never said it.”
But try as I might, I can’t. Every time I hear a truck going by, all I can think is that maybe I should have picked a gangster for a guru!...