‘Climb Every Crane’
by Dilip D'Souza
(Rediff.com | January 20, 2002)
'He hasn't seen the bees!' someone near me said. Within seconds
the whole gathered lot of us were shouting and waving, doing our
best to attract his attention. It was difficult. The young man
was most of the way up an enormous crane that towered above us,
probably couldn't hear us that high, and wasn't looking down at
us anyway. So he couldn't see us waving. Trouble was, he wasn't
looking up either. If he didn't do so quickly, the way he was going
he would very soon climb straight into that hive. We didn't want
to think about what the consequences of a run-in with thousands of
angry bees would be, that high and that precarious.
Luckily, the young man saw either us or the hive or both in time.
Manoeuvring gingerly past it, he kept going steadily higher.
When he was satisfied that he was high enough, he carefully
unfurled a large blue flag, tied its pole to one of the struts of
the crane, finally held up a fist to us all. All while clinging
tightly to the struts himself. Wild cheers broke out among the rest
of us. Not for the first time, I asked myself: What makes a young
man climb up a crane like this one had just done?
We were on the Man Dam in Madhya Pradesh, under construction on
the Man river, tributary to the Narmada. This was the March 2001
'capture' of this dam that I wrote about in my column 'Up On The Dam'.
A few hundred men, women and children from nearby villages,
most of whom faced the prospect of losing their homes to this dam,
had swarmed onto the dam just after daybreak. They were determined
not to allow any construction to happen that day. They sat on top
all day, shouting defiant slogans at the gawkers and police who
gathered on the heights above the dam.
The protest ended that evening, when the police moved in and arrested
over two hundred people, including 52 children. They spent several
days in jail in Dhar. But they had made their point: the way this dam
is being built, the way it plays with their lives, disgraces India.
I was there that day, and one of my abiding memories remains the
young man scrambling up the crane. I still ask myself: what drives
someone like him to attempt something so clearly dangerous, to risk
his life even had there been no bees?
And last week, nearly the same question popped up again. Right here
in Bombay. No protest on a faraway dam, no villagers, nothing that
might seem so remote as to be happening on another planet. This
time, it was all over all our papers. This time, another young man
climbed the scaffolding on the Oberoi hotel in Nariman Point, made
his way right up to the 14th floor, unfurled a banner and a flag.
I know this young man slightly. His name is Tenzin Tsundue, and he
is Tibetan. A thoughtful, articulate and passionate Tibetan. The
banner he unfolded up on the hotel read, in letters large enough
to be seen on a thousand front pages, 'Free Tibet'. And why did
he choose the Oberoi, on this particular day? Because the Chinese
premier, Zhu Rongji, was in town. He and his entourage were guests
at the hotel. 'In no time,' Tenzin told Mid-Day, 'every window on
the entire floor had a Chinese face looking at me. I was proud to
show them the Tibetan flag. That one moment was worth it all.'
Some of Bombay's finest eventually dragged Tenzin off the scaffolding
and kept him in custody for part of the evening. But like the young
man who climbed the crane in Madhya Pradesh, Tenzin had made his
point. He had reminded the Chinese premier, his entourage, and
those Indians who cared to notice, that Tibet will not be swept
under some bland Chinese carpet, forgotten forever. And yes, I was
left wondering: what drives a man to take a risk like that to make
a point like this?
The simple thing to do is to write these two off as stunt artists
after some publicity for themselves, kooks who have nothing
better to do. I know plenty of people who would say just that,
some of whom will probably read this and dispatch cogent letters
to tell me so. That the name of the man who climbed that crane is
unknown beyond a small circle of his friends — I have deliberately
not mentioned it here — and that Tenzin is already back in the
obscurity that enveloped him before his climb, why, these little
details matter not in the least to confident writer-offers. Far
easier to disparage a certain commitment than try to come to grips
with the cause, the injustice, it represents.
Still, that's just one more risk to be taken. When you're trying
to awaken consciences, you have to know that many prefer sleep
instead. Tenzin writes in Mid-Day: 'We know we are fighting a losing
battle, with the world having given up on us.'
But really, why should the world have given up on people like
Tenzin? Why should India?
One reason: we have been persuaded of the futility of their efforts
by our self-appointed hawks. You know, those fellows who will,
at the drop of a hat, spout such profundities as 'jis ki lathi,
us ki bhains' ('he who has the stick owns the buffalo'; or, as MS
Golwalkar once wrote, 'a not-so-graphic translation into English
would be, 'might is right'). These fellows think we should nod our
heads at such ditties, recognizing the way they capture the essence
of that thing called 'realpolitik', their spot-on description of the
way the world works. China has taken over Tibet, it is a powerful
country, so why waste time considering the plight of a few hundred
And yet, for all their claims about the way the world works,
these same fellows forget the innumerable lessons of history, of
a thousand struggles for freedom and justice. Of our own Indian
struggle for freedom, the battle that defined us as a nation. After
all, the British certainly had the might, definitely owned all the
'lathis'. Where would we be today if the hawks had surveyed the
scene, announced that might was right, and convinced such Indian
heroes as Maulana Azad, Lala Lajpatrai, Shahid Bhagat Singh and
Lokmanya Tilak — not forgetting Patel, Gandhi and Nehru — to give
up the fight? Because what they were doing was, given the ownership
of the lathis, futile?
My history is too feeble to know if there were hawks doing just this
while the British ruled us. But if they were, we are fortunate that
their efforts failed. Despite the lathis, India won freedom.
And that's why I admire people who climb cranes and scaffolding.
These days, it seems it's convenient for us in India to deal with China, to welcome its assorted leaders when they visit, to admire its progress and development. It's that realpolitik all over again, you see. We think we can emulate China's progress by doing the things China has done. So just as China is anxious to sweep under bland Chinese carpets the shame of what happened in Tibet and move on to a shining superpowerdom, we think we can ignore our own catalogue of injustices and also find our way to superpowerdom.
Only, the world really doesn't work that way. And yes, and again, that really is why I admire these guys who climb cranes and scaffolding.