Published originally on Perambara.org.
Within minutes the crowd grows from a few random stragglers to a swelling, shouting throng. I stand there amongst the women, waiting to be body-searched by female security personnel and there are people actually shoving me, pushing to get to the front of the line – the quicker the search is done, the quicker they can rush to the other side and join their men in the fray. I feel conspicuous in my awkwardness, out of place wearing the embarrassment I always feel as invasive hands search my body for hidden weapons.
The search done, I attempt to cross over but security won’t let me pass. I wave my ministry media ID at them – it’s been a long day – but they look perplexed, as if they’ve never seen a woman media person before. Still, I am small fry and they are watchful of the crowd so they pass me on from one officer to the next. I don’t mind – media ID in one had and camera in the other, I utilize their confusion and start taking photographs of this dynamic, bursting crowd.
One side of the road is cordoned off to accommodate them: A barricade at the junction glints bright yellow in the afternoon sunlight and an unsteady wire fence runs along the middle of the road preventing the growing crowd from running into the other side, which is reserved for traffic. When I look too comfortable in one spot, the nearest security guy waves me off to the next guy until suddenly I find myself with police on the other side of the barricade. The crowd held inside lean heavily on the large yellow structures and start chanting aggresively, acting for the camera I am so obviously pointing towards them.
A security guy tells me to stop taking pictures and walk all the way back down to where the checks are so that I can cross the road from there and join both my team and the crowd. On my way I pause occasionally to take pictures of the men, women and children straining at the fences, their blue flags stretched out, trying to touch me. I feel oddly like I am in a zoo. Heightening the strange sensation a group of young men whistle to me saying “Apith ganna ko (Take a picture of us too!)” and break out into sounds of mock disappointment when I ignore them.
Thankfully my crew finds me as I approach the gaggle of humanity ahead of me. I am amazed at the energy of these people who have probably stayed up all night by their televisions or radios, ears straining to catch the trickling news of victory. On very little sleep myself, I envy their fervour, but am also frightened by it. Huge national flags swing with dangerous abandon around me, and with every minute the chanting seems to get louder, the gestures of joy more impassioned. Women we talk to have tears in their eyes. Men seem almost drunk as they parade banners and shout until they are hoarse. Children are content to play with their mini flags and smile because they’ve been told there is a reason to be happy and because they are allowed to play out on the street.
We talk to them for a while – my colleague asking questions, the crew shooting the interviews and I the rather bewildered sidekick with the camera. I watch the faces around me, taking in the emotion, watching the gesticulations, trying to make sense of shouted words which have by now been recorded in my brain: “Balavegaya” is one I hear over and over again. Great force or power, it means.
Writing this, I am trying to wade through my own feelings about the elections which are at best quite confused. I remember watching the Obama election on television and seeing the joy of the people who supported his campaign: it was a historic hurdle crossed, a terrible prejudice defeated, a new kind of hope delivered. The intensity of that joy made me – a non-American who’s never even been there on a visit – leave the room for a few minutes to blink the tears out of my eyes and shake the waver from my voice.
What was so different about the joy I witnessed in my own country following its elections? The people at the rally were telling my crew good things – similar to what was being said about Obama’s win – but the words rang with timbre that worried me. Hope for the future, they said. Historic election, they said. Wonderful things to come, they said. But they said other things too: They are ungrateful. We will stand by this president. He has promised us things and he has no reason to lie to us. Anyway, he has never abused his powers before.
I wondered at this odd mixture of naïveté and venom. The blind faith in the promises of politicians on the one hand, and on the other – the certainty that one, entire community had got it wrong. And the consequent, frightening deduction that their move was an expression, not of real and worrying dissatisfaction, but one of selfish ingratitude.
I don’t want to undermine the people I photographed at the rally that day. I believe that they were really happy. I believe that they believed they were right to feel so. I am not passing judgement on joy and what motivates such depth of emotion and conviction. I am only saying that it gave me insight into the deep but also very human flaws of the community I am very much a part of.
In the end, the only thing that made sense to me at that rally was this: a baby who, despite the chaos and noise around him, lay fast asleep on his mother’s shoulder. Oblivious to the madness and totally secure in the hands of his guardian.
And maybe that right there is the bigger picture. What we all have to aim for – whether we are civilians or heads of state. To keep him that way.