I used to love Ramlila as a kid. Most kids do and I was no exception. But I had a misconception about the characters of Ramlila.
I believed that the characters in Ramlila were the real Gods. Let me explain.
I believed that, every year, during Ramlila season, the organizers just erected the stage and announced the program. Then the real Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Dasharatha etc. would come and play their part. They did not need any script, story or dialogues as it was their own life they were enacting. It may not sound rational or logical but then I was a kid, probably aged around 8 or 10. Anyway, I believed in this concept from the core of my heart.
But one fine day, or rather afternoon, this deep rooted belief was shattered.
I and a friend of mine, were loitering around (kids of age between 8 to 10 used to do that, before satellite TV, video games and PCs took over) and went to the Ramlila ground. A couple of electricians were working on a display board having a dozen incandescent lamps and a couple of fluorescent ones. My friend, who was better well versed with the ways of the world than I was, pointed to the directions of electricians and said, “This is Sita.”
I looked around in astonishment, bit confused at the thought of Sita appearing before time (it was afternoon and Ramlila started around 9 PM) and could not find her there. “Where?” I asked.
“The one repairing the display board.” He said.
I had one look at the thin, loutish, beedi smoking urchin who was adorning the mother and sister of his assistant with choicest of cuss words while repairing the board, then a second look at my friend as if he had gone completely insane and expressed my feelings about him in as many words. My friend, got angry at not being believed, then dragged me to the green room where the actors were going through the paces for the evening.
This was the first time I had seen a green room. Some people were applying the make-up, some were trying dresses while others were toying with the arms they were supposed to wield that day.
For next four hours I saw the ordinary men (No women actors in small town Ramlilas) turning themselves into God like characters. I saw the same bidi smoker turning into a Sita, a shoe salesman turning into Rama, a sweetshop owner turning into a Hanuman, a quack turning into a Vibhishana and a property dealer turning into a Ravana. That was the day, probably, I got the first impression that it was the Man who created god and not vice versa; my perception about Gods was shattered that day, but that is another story, for another day.
I learnt that day that the characters who came to the Ramlila stage were just humans whose Godly qualities depended more on the colour & texture of the make-up, fall of the dress, twirl of the fake moustache, shine of the plastic crown or the novelty of the arms they carried than what we normally associate with God i.e. omnipresence, omnipotence or omniscience.
A similar experience happened decades later but bit of a background before that.
As a kid, my dream career was of a journalist. The thrill of discovery, of chasing a story, of travelling the world in search of stories, the utopian idea of taking on the world with a pen, a notebook and a tape recorder appealed to me. But the parental control marked ‘Engineer’ somewhere on my application form and I became one.
As time passed, the TV camera replaced the tape recorder, later the laptop replaced the notebook and the iconic pen but my unrequited love for the career of my choice stayed as intense as ever. And so did my faith in the responsible power of the journalist, to be the harbinger of change, to be the influencer of opinions, whether of the common man or of policy makers.
Though over last decade or so, events like Radia tapes, cash for votes story and many other such blemishes did cast aspersions on some of the renowned figures in this profession but I still believed that there are some good men & women in this profession who have the interest of the society and the country at heart and they have the wisdom, the foresight, a much larger world view to justify my love and adoration for this profession.
And then, I joined twitter. This social media platform brought me face to face with many of the personalities I respected, partially fulfilling the dream of interacting with them, if not being one of them.
This coincided with the change in government at centre.
And in the next few months, it was the Ramlila green room in reverse. Each one of the personalities I adored and respected, began a maddening race to prove themselves as petty, greedy, egoistic, scheming humans. As event after event unfolded, the race to the bottom started becoming more intense.
They tried to protect a rapist who had confessed to his crime, they provoked ordinary people to a fight to cast aspersions on Prime Minister by association, they abused the government when it stopped free travel (& drinks) on foreign tours, they cried freedom of press when denied entry to sensitive government installations, they abused the government even more when they realized that government was not in their pocket any more, some funnily realized that they needed their moral compass now, despite not using it for decades, many abandoned their declared principles and crawled to continue with their boot licking (though different boots, this time) hoping for some sinecures and awards, others who could not do so, became more shriller doing away with sanity completely, many couched their personal hatred by hiding behind their sectarian, bigoted version of secularism, they spun fiction when they turned clueless as their contacts in the government vanished, they played with national interests including matters of national security to suit the agenda of their unknown paymasters.
And of course, they abused and labelled anyone who disagreed with them.
In hindsight, I think that they had become comfortable in their own, controlled scenarios where the pen never pushed back, the mike never talked back and suddenly, out of the blue, they heard a voice, an unknown voice, the voice that read their spins and called out their lies, berated them for their hit-jobs, rebuked them about their biases and importantly, asked questions; uncomfortable questions.
Yes. I think the operative word here is that they were asked questions. And they were not accustomed to facing them. When the questions became too difficult, lies became too big to cover, their rotting biases began emanating a foul smell, they kicked, abused, cried and then played victim.
They just proved to be men and women of straw.
And then I realized that even in the past, they had been parading their personal agendas as wisdom, innuendo as foresight and their coffee shop gossip as world view just as the actors behind the characters at Ramlila were hiding behind their make-up, dress, jewellery and arms..
I realized that they were just mannequins masquerading as Gods.