The other day there was a message on WhatsApp that our MLA would be visiting the nearby Primary Health Centre, or PHC, the next day, and would be available to the public from 9:30 am to 9:45 am. His practice is to announce a time for the meeting to start, and turn up three hours late. In all fairness, he never specifies when he’ll leave, and is usually available until most of the people who’ve come to meet him have had their say, to one of his assistants if not to himself, so this was unusual.
Right, I thought hopefully, maybe we can get some of our problems solved. They made a formidable list: bad roads, a defunct sewage treatment plant, blocked gutters, missing street lamps, an unauthorised temple that plays painfully loud bhajans, and hillocks of garbage left by people who party on the beach nearby.
I arrived at the PHC a few minutes early to find some hopeful neighbours waiting. We were wondering when the MLA would arrive, given his habit of unpunctuality, when a police jeep with flashing lights turned into the PHC’s gate. It was his escort, closely followed by a large white SUV. The doors of the vehicles opened, and, to our immense surprise, there he was, our MLA in person, only a couple of minutes behind time!
Within moments the compound was swarming with his henchmen, and visitors waiting to see him. The henchmen were swaggering young men with strange haircuts, shiny shirts, and flashy cellphones, all clouded in attar. The visitors came in all shapes and sizes and ages, all clearly supplicants. As we watched, the MLA and his retinue, instead of heading for the entrance and the staircase to the first floor, where the meeting was supposed to be held, started walking towards the PHC’s backyard, to the accompaniment of clicking cameras.
When we followed, we saw a little hole dug in the ground near a tree, a few large stones laid out by it, and, beside them, the ingredients of a puja: flowers and such. My friend spoke to one of the henchmen, it emerged that the MLA had come to inaugurate an extension of the PHC. By now it was clear that we had been suckered into supporting a photo-op for the MLA, so that anyone who reported the event could claim with some truth that several hundred people attended it.
By dint of some vigorous pushing, my friend managed to get within earshot of the MLA, with me following closely. “Good morning,” he said. “The last time we met you promised to visit my neighbourhood after three days, and that was more than two years ago.”
The MLA smiled. “But I never asked you for votes, did I?” he asked. I could sense that my friend was close to an explosion, and so did some of the henchmen, who moved smoothly into position between their master and my friend, averting what might have been an unseemly shouting match. As we walked away, my friend said in disgust, “I wanted to ask him whether he’s MLA only for people who voted for him!”
Another neighbour joined us as we stood wondering what to do next. “Good you didn’t,” he said. “I’ve just spoken to his PA. He’ll make sure I get a couple of minutes to speak to the boss.” Very sensible, no doubt, but it left a bad taste in the mouth, and I was about to say so when he continued, “Thanks for being here. I’ll take this onward. You don’t have to wait.”
My angry friend and I went home to stew, and, as the hours passed, I moved on to some of the other trivialities that fill in my hours. And then, towards half-past four in the afternoon, there was another message on WhatsApp: The MLA will be in your area at 4:45 pm.
A few minutes short of 4:45, I was on the road to the beach, as were the neighbours who turned up for the morning’s meeting. “He’s already here,” one of them said. “He’s at the beach, inspecting the garbage recycling plant.”
A good beach seems a strange spot in which to build a garbage recycling plant but then the ways of government are mysterious. I used to get worked up about it until I saw that the beach is in danger of disappearing thanks to erosion but no one else seems to bother about it and there are always more pressing issues to deal with so it had slipped to the back of my mind. I decided now to bring it up if I got the chance.
At ten to five, he turned up with his retinue of youngsters with strange haircuts, and some new men, older and rougher and far more obsequious. One of them I recognised: a contractor who built a kilometre of road nearby last year that disappeared with the first spell of heavy rain.
To my surprise, the MLA approached our group. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
I poured out my litany of problems, starting with the beach. He heard me out, then said, “The garbage plant is already there. We can do nothing about it. About your other problems, we will deal with them one by one, starting with roads.” He turned to the contractor I’d recognised, saying, “How much?” So now it was clear we’d been suckered again. As I prepared to leave, one of the henchmen, misreading my mood, said, “See? He does what he can. He’s everyone’s friend.”
As I trudged home, I couldn’t but think of the old cliche: With friends like this, who needs enemies?...