The time is defined by fear, by different connected fears constantly fizzing and exploding like a series of electrical short-circuits. The main Engineer of Fear is the Supreme Leader from whom everything emanates, to whom everything must return and report. The main executor, the one who relays and distributes the fear is the Number 2, who is closer to the Supreme Leader than anyone else can or will ever be. The reality is one of uncertainty, anxiety and criss-crossing suspicions, the entire massive country living under the toxic pall of fear, but the messages from above are exhortations, simultaneously optimistic and threatening: The Country is Moving Forward! The Leader is Leading us Forward! Be Patriotic and Follow the Leader’s Programme! Only Traitors and Anti-Socials Question the Government, Good Citizens know They Must Obey!
Everywhere, photos of The Supreme Leader. On billboards, in newspaper advertisements, on cinema and TV screens, the usually stern but sometimes smiling visage of Our Leader! On the city walls, paintings of the Leader, on paper thhongas, the face of Our Leader, on TV, endless footage of Our Leader, inaugurating something, speaking with precisely modulated voice and gestures, overseeing some great project, getting into an airliner, meeting other world leaders, drawing the admiration of those leaders, alighting from the airliner to be greeted by the Loyal Cabinet, the Leader with eagle-sharp eyes, the Leader wearing the most fashionable dark glasses, the Leader humbly bowing to portraits of the Nation’s Founders, the Nation’s Founders bowing back, equally humbled (or so it seems!).
Within a few months of it starting, this Time of Fear feels as if it has always been there, the most natural and inevitable thing. After you’ve become used to it, it feels like this time of the Great Days will always be there, like the Supreme Leader will always be there, for eternity, with no possibility of anything changing. And, after eternity will come the time of the Number 2, for another eternity, by which time the nation and, more importantly, all of the people will have progressed, catapulted Forward into Glorious Smithereens.
Around the Leader, concentric circles. The glistening ministers, frying in the roiling oil of the Leader’s Charisma, becoming crisper and crisper, more and more loyal as the days pass. The plasticine bureaucracy, bending and twisting and mulching all law and principle in order to do the Leader’s bidding, nay, not sleeping or troubling their bathrooms till they have anticipated what the Leader might want. The brutal police forces, cracking down or alertly standing by while unofficial others loyal to the Leader do the cracking down, the bone-breaking, the skull fracturing, the killing. The Judiciary, the upstanding judges sidelined, superseded by bent mediocrities selected by the Leader, handing down judgments to move the country Further Forward towards disaster. And then the Press, oh yes, the Press, the smarmy, smug, self-satisfied, hyper-inflated balloons pronouncing daily about what a great Leader we have, manoeuvring like fattened sharks to swim closer and closer to the Big Shark and the Number 2 shark.
To be fair, no, not all of the bureaucracy, not all of the police or judges, and certainly not all of the Press, but a large number of them, crawling when asked to bend and then oozing on the floor like slime when asked to crawl.
Then, after the Supreme Leader, just under and just behind, the Number 2 with his own concentric circles of power and control – the killer thugs, the favoured industrialists with their snouts salivating into their overflowing troughs, the simpering Society Ladies and the limp-wristed apologist men. The Number Two can order murders and, when in a kindly mood, just get people beaten up. Even as Number 2 plants trees, he uproots whole neighbourhoods. As he puts seeds into the ground, he de-seeds millions, rounds them up and sterilizes them – these poor are the Other and they reproduce too much and they must be stopped by any means necessary.
In all this let’s not forget to laud the Supreme Leader and Number 2’s Horse Guard of English Speakers, the ones with degrees from the foreign universities, the unctuous ones who can use long words and make complicated sentence constructions, the ones who’ve never spent even a night in a basti or a village but who, nevertheless, can interpret the country and translate it into the Supreme Leader’s language of unending Great Days and constant Forward Leapery, the chamcha-spoons in suits and ties and designer sarees and khadi kurtas, the sonorous slimeballs selling the country down the river in the most impeccable English cadences.
Then of course, there is the elite, the ‘upper-middle’ class, or many of them. The conservatives in Bombay, the Babus in Delhi, the academics in Calcutta, the privileged all over the country who all Love the Leader. Across this Fear Time, in these people’s houses and parties, there is a traffic jam of malodorous clichés – A firm hand! No nonsense! Works harder than anyone else! Doesn’t sleep! Isn’t corrupt! The Number Two might be a bit corrupt but he’s not the Leader – who is Incorruptible! Good for business! We need a bigger flag! Salute our brave soldiers! We are the Mainstream, so to hell with the minority opinions! Trains are running on time! Tax collection has gone up! Everyone’s straightened up under the rod of the Leader! We have no use for foreign notions of democracy!
Then, as the Fear Time of Great Days continues, the wheels of the new car start to come off. As the disastrous mistakes start to topple on to each other, as people’s outrage coalesces to a nuclear point, the passing of blame begins, intricate as the playing of some great football team except there is no goal save survival. So the mistakes are all someone else’s fault; after all how much can one person or two people handle, so how can you link the Supreme Leader or Number 2 to any of this? At the same time, any small success of the government is amplified and the credit given to the Leader and Number 2.
But hubris has a way of getting to you. The Supreme Leader answers to no one while everyone answers to the Leader. The arrogance of the Leader and of Number 2 has cut them off from reality and their advisers have increased their political myopia. And so the Supreme Leader and Number 2 are ambushed by the widespread deprivation, by the cruelty they have visited upon the people, by the now exposed lies they have rained upon a seemingly abject nation. The wheels come off, the wings come off, and the whole contraption of Great Days comes crashing down. When the Supreme Leader and Number 2 slink off at the end of Fear Time, we all promise each other ‘never again!’ We look at the date it ends, March 21, and the date on which it begins a year and a half earlier, June 26, and we all promise to remember this time and to not let it happen again. Except, of course, history has no interest in helping us keep our promises so here we are, forty-one years later, dealing with another Fear Time, another fraudulent promise of Great Days, and wondering how we can bring this to an end.