Last week, Bangalore was called upon to celebrate — willy nilly — two birthdays: that of Mr. Suresh, who is a member of the legislative council; and Mr. Kharge, recently a minister in the union cabinet, now the leader of our modest opposition in parliament.
Posters and big and small and colossal billboards appeared up at the start of the week in all public spaces. I'm not sure all the spaces were paid for. The posters were designed after the fashion that has evolved these recent years. The birthday boys (Suresh is about 35, it seems; Kharge turned 75) are featured in the middle. Round their picture is a garland of heads of their party bosses, the big boss's head is bigger than the smaller boss's head and so on, and through tracing the size and location of the heads you gain a complete understanding the party hierarchy. Reading between the heads, you can tell who's in favor and who's not. There are other heads on the posters, of sidekicks, and again the biggest head belongs to the closest sidekick, the right-hand man, and the next in size to the … you get the picture.
Happy birthday, anna! The posters gush in garish color. Anna means elder brother, but you could also think of him as Big Brother.
I pass Kharge’s house often. It is on the way to my coffee. He lives in Delhi, being a national leader, but his home is here in Bangalore. Last week, the billboards and posters were prolific in his neighborhood. They had blinded other houses in the area, and since the ceremonies were held on the street, for a time traffic was closed off as well. You should be rich to live in Kharge-anna’s neighborhood. Being rich, and needing to hold on to your wealth, you will allow with good grace the erection of the hideous, humongous, loud and colorful affairs before your house. You may say no, of course, but that will hurt anna, who will wonder why you won’t consider him your buddy. If the wound is deep, his devotees might call on you and offer the hand of friendship.
We are not invited to the party. The posters are for our kind information only, to note, by the number of them, how powerful one anna is over another at the moment. For instance, Mr. Parameswar is the boss of the Karnataka State Congress Party. His birthday posters ornamented the streets a few days before Kharge-anna’s. But Parameswar-anna's posters were fewer.
This celebration of birthdays in this fashion is a recent phenomenon, it is something that started a few years ago. It is taking interesting turns. For example: If you are politically inclined, and if you have access to some money, you embed yourself in the public psyche by printing your own posters, adding the faces of a few of your friends for form, add images of the biggies in the party you choose to chase and pay someone to paste the posters across town. That's it. Do it!
It also helps the politician assert himself, and grow his head, and dislodge other heads on party posters when they appear next. As in the case of Suresh-anna, whose grandmother, uncle and other relatives were all legislators, and Suresh-anna was miffed last time when he was put in a contest for his party's nomination in the assembly by-elections. His posters were so numerous and so widely deployed last week, his party better take him seriously — especially when the next assembly elections come upon them.
And so, we the commoners endure the visual feast that our leaders treat us to in this honest and very public display of their rat race. You turn your face from one poster, another smiles at you, or frowns; you turn again, and a face that could well cause trauma in a child bores into you. In this city in which you could see an explosion of flowers on treetops in any season, this instead is what greets you these days.
The biggest presence in my psyche these days is my two-year-old grandson. I can't tell his inclination for politics yet — but he loves birthdays. Last month, when my own birthday happened, he came visiting with his parents. “We brought a cake for you,” he said. “I’ll cut it."
Soon my grandson will ask me who these people are, whose faces always adorn our streets and walls and buildings and lamp posts and traffic islands and pedestrian bridges. I must tell him, and I must also inform him their great deeds that allow them to usurp space that belongs to all. You mustn’t lie to children, of course, so I’m doing mental workouts to build the most pleasing narrative I can.
This post won't make the cut, I know.