At 12 midnight we touch down smoothly but for the screech of tyres scraping the asphalt. Taxying takes long, but once we stop, the wait is short enough. We walk down the carpeted aero bridge. I wonder how much the colourful silky carpet would have cost DIAL –Delhi International Airport Limited – now probably extinct since you only notice the name of GMR, the private partner in building the airport.
There are so many moving walkways to trudge – another sign of expansion. A display board proclaims that Delhi airport has been awarded the honour of the Best International Airport in 2015. That’s an exaggeration. It has been acclaimed the best international airport in the 25-40 million passenger-handling category. Changi in Singapore handled more than 53 million last year; Hong Kong over 60 million, and Dubai, on its way to be the busiest airport in the world, just over 70 million. Delhi handled under 37 million. We won by not competing with the giants. That’s not to belittle the achievement. This airport has also been awarded the most improved airport (or something to that effect) prize a year ago.
I collect my suitcase and look for a car rental service and find one. He bills me Rs. 1,950 for a ride to Noida some forty kilometres away. Last year, I had paid half that price. The driver tells me that the bill does not include a toll tax of Rs. 350 he would need to pay for crossing to the State of UP. He is trying to con me, I know.
On our way, he tells me that he gets 7,500 rupees a month for working 24 hours a day for fifteen days and resting for the next fifteen.
“How can you live with five children and a pregnant wife on 7,500 rupees a month?,” he asks me. I refrain from telling him that I would not be able to manage with ten times that much if I kept impregnating my wife the way he does.
In India, Muslims produce to keep up with the larger number of Hindus. Hindus are coaxed and prodded by supposedly abstinent Sadhvis and Sadhus – Hindu spiritual gurus – to produce ten children each so Muslims do not keep up. Forty years ago, a young scoundrel named Sanjay Gandhi made sure that ‘Family Planning’ meaning birth control will never be spoken of aloud in the Country. Bus-loads of men and women, young and old, married and unmarried, were driven to make-shift hospitals and compulsorily sterilized under his orders. Since then population control is a dirty word.
“But everything has become cheaper, so the government says,” I tell the driver.
“Government? Sub chor hain, behin chod hain” he retors. They are all thieves and sister-rapists. I make a note in my mind that Delhi still balances its sentences and expresses anger with phrases that mean incest. Just as Mulk Raj Anand had described in his novels nearly a century ago.
A few months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told Canadian diaspora that now they would not find Delhi dirty when they got down from the airport as they used to find it in their previous visits. You were ashamed to call yourself Indian, he told Indians in Shanghai, now you can be proud. It is now clean, he said and won much applause.
Of course, he was lying. Roads immediately outside the airport are passably clean though nothing to match those in Dubai, Singapore or Hong Kong. They were passably clean even when Modi was only the Chief Minister of a small State called Gujarat. As we move farther, I notice mounts of plastic bags, rags and pieces of paper soaking with other rubbish on both sides of the road. Evidently, VIPs and celebrities have given up cleaning the streets after the first show-case event.
Corporation’s sweepers were not paid for two months at a stretch because the Central government wouldn’t release funds, so the rival State Government couldn’t release anything to the Corporation and Corporation couldn’t pay the hungry workers – it is a case of vicious revenge between governments at the cost of the helpless public and starving scavengers.
The driver tells me that I had brought a very welcome rain to Delhi’s scorching heat. For that empty compliment I decide to pay him those three hundred-fifty rupees he asks for, never mind he was conning me about a road tax he would not pay.
As we proceed further, I find more mountains of garbage on both sides of the road, some trying to hide in the corners where the road meets the unpaved sides. It has just rained for possibly the first time this season, but the pavement is already cracking. I found a metre-wide pit at one turn where the bitumen had caved in to form a shallow metre-wide well. The driver deftly avoids it while speaking into his mobile phone, assuring his employer that he would be back in half an hour. He is lying. It will be more than half hour before he deposits me in the hotel.
Delhi roads have no footpaths. Wherever there was one, a row of ramshackle kiosks and food carts came up. Chola-bature-walas – those who sell a North Indian delicacy with thickened black gram curry and refined flour bread fried in deep oil – chose their spots over stinking drains in front of dirty toilets. Where there were no vegetable carts and food kiosks, richer people parked their cars and motorcycles. There is nothing to fear since Kiren Bedi is no longer a police officer. Strict yet popular with the public, famous in the world, but a thorn on the side of the authority, she retired quite a few years ago.
Before the Delhi elections Bedi joined the Hindu fundamentalist party in the hope of becoming a minister and doing something good for Delhi, She tweeted what she would do when she’s the minister in a series of 140-character tweets.. Her courage and legendary determination as a police officer, she believed , would carry her to victory like a breeze. She was wrong. In a wave of anti-corruption sentiments that elected a collection of an ideologist leader and a few well-meaning professionals as well as useless simpletons, Bedi got swept away. I muse that politics is not her cup of coffee, she should go back to the good work she had been doing for battered women and helpless widows of dead and living prisoners.
As we move ahead, the unsightly carts and kiosks have been removed from roadsides by government’s iron hands and bulldozers. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to have made any difference. Broken bricks and cement blocks are scattered around at random to endanger vehicles as well as pedestrians. Cleaning up after work has never been in the rule books of India’s public works department or its contractors.
Where there are walls or tin-sheet fences, men have piddled and a pattern of dried and drying urine marks its presence everywhere. You also notice an occasional turd or sleeping dogs. The stink permeates through the closed windows of the cab. A cow lies in the middle of the road, chewing cud.
When the traffic is chock-a-block after daybreak, auto-rickshaws and motorcycles would jerk and tumble over the bricks and pits to wend their way through the congestion. Men would nonchalantly face the fences and walls and add to the stinking flood. Pedestrians, accusing everyone else of incest with sister and mother, would meander their way covering their noses, and trying to avoid the fresh streams of urine and the occasional turd. Pedestrians in Delhi, as any other city in the Country, are like soldiers in a deadly battle – unmindful of injury, insult, illness or death.
You cannot find a driver more deft than his Indian edition. You would think that an oncoming car is going to hit you the way it sine-waves hurriedly through the congestion, but would scarce touch you; you only feel the rushing wind. If you are unfortunate to get struck, you would fall, the car driver would more likely rush away as if he were a fire engine in a hurry. You would lie there, bleeding and dying, until a poor by-stander or two (never a rich one in a limousine) would call a cursing policeman to do something about it. Celebrities love to whizz through traffic while their paid drivers sit behind them. The role of the driver is to take blame if a pedestrian gets killed by the drunk and reckless celebrity.
It is only 1.30 am yet, and the traffic is sparse. We are already on the Expressway after circumventing the toll gate to escape the alleged U.P. toll of Rupees 65, which the driver lied was 350. He assures me that he will have to pay the money while he returns after dropping me in my hotel. I pray that he would have the good sense to buy some extra nourishment for his sixth-time pregnant wife with the money swindled from me.
The desk clerk, a young man who looks older than his age because of his balding pate is expecting me. His baldness is a tell-tale for the acrid water- a concoction of industrial wastes in ground water – one gets to wash oneself in hereabouts. He tells me that I am booked from 12 noon, it is only 1.50 in the morning. He would have to charge me an extra full tariff.
“Even in Radisson they would only charge half a day’s tariff, if they charge me at all” I tell him.
He doesn’t ask if I can pay 18,000 for a night in Radisson, why the hell I am in his much humbler hotel. Instead, he says: “You want to pay only half fare? I will help you out. You go to your room. I will come there and settle things for you”. He insists on speaking a cocktail of Eastern UP Hindi and Indian English while I try out my rusty Hindi.
He cannot wait. The moment I am in the room and the guy who brought my luggage in has been tipped and sent out, the balding young man appears.
“You want to pay only half the tariff, sir, but that is against the rules. So I will do something that solves your problem. Give me the money, in cash. There will be no bill for this. You can also have the complimentary breakfast. Everything will look fine, nobody will ask you anything.”
I am tired and troubled, but willing. Is bribing a hotel employee against the interest of a private hotel owner a corrupt practice? Of course it is. But I pay him anyways. I am sleepy. I do not wish to shell out a day’s tariff for four hours of sleep. I am not keen to lose that complimentary breakfast either. If somebody asks me, I could say that I paid my bill in cash. How the hell am I to know whether he credited it to the hotel’s account?. Seems good logic.
I wake up in the morning and find the newspaper under the door. Many headlines on the front page refer to a corruption scandal named Vyapam. The Sanskrit word means sprawling or spread-out. It is an unwittingly, but accurately named story of corruption in high places involving the ruling and opposition parties through many years and through several changes in government . It is a case of those in power appointing ineligible men and women to government jobs and admitting unqualified youngsters to higher institutions of learning in return for hefty sums of money. Nobody ranging from the state Governor to a lower division clerk had failed to lick his fingers after dipping them in the honey jar. The higher-ups gobbled up entire jars.
Governor is a privileged post, so he cannot be arrested. Though he was originally from the opposition, now the central government under Mr. Modi is not keen to remove him – his presence in the high office shields the chief minister of Modi’s party. If the Governor is arrested, arrest of the CM is imminent. In the meanwhile, dozens of whistle-blowers and small culprits who could spill the beans in trial courts are killed in convenient road accidents and alleged suicides. Nothing new, of course, and it is all happening in distant Madhya Pradesh State, but I fling the paper away. I feign disgust at the wanton corruption, forgetting that I bribed the hotel clerk a first thing in the morning.
The children and the wife had warned me that I shouldn’t scrounge on the use of a car. “Take a full-day car – a good one like Innova,” my daughter had pleaded. “With your sciatica and slipped disc, you cannot use any other vehicle. Please, please, hire a car everyday you’re in Delhi.”
“Don’t forget you’re not twenty-five,” was my daughter’s parting shot. She had to rub that in.
I hate full-day-cabs. Eight hours and eighty kilometres is the limit at 2,500 rupees. Last year I had paid 1,500. Half of that mileage goes for his coming from his parking place to pick me up and the other half for going back after dropping me. So I end up paying for all my rides, which adds up to more than two day’s fare in one day. Luckily, the cab company says they have no spare car at the moment. I escape having to lie to my doting daughter and worrying wife.
The watchman at the gate tells me to take an auto-rickshaw to the Metro station only three kilometres away. I tell him it’s a good idea. I had heard so much about Delhi Metro. Built by an ageing Malyalee Menon like myself – Elattuvalappil Sreedharan – well past his retirement but still in demand to build Metro rails in most states in the Country. Job accomplished before time, no scandals, only a couple of mishaps in the construction stage due to careless contractors, Sreedharan is not Modi. The former gets things done, the latter does it all by himself under the glare of television cameras – cleaning the Ganges, sweeping the streets, travelling to distant countries to win praises from diaspora. The drivers, clerks and officers laugh in your face when you suggest to them that good days (Achhe Din) are here.
Indians abroad, foreign media and even the IMF lap up Modi’s claim of economic boom and contained inflation. When they read about the falling production data and drowning export figures and choking value of the Rupee they scratch their heads. That oil – India’s largest import in value has become cheaper by half has not done any good to prices of every day things. Food in restaurants cost double or more because of higher cost of meat and vegetables and raised service tax. Yet inflation figures published by the Government mark a record low. I suppose hyperbole can carry a government through quite some time – but whether that would work with a population of a billion and a quarter for five years is yet to be seen. Hungry stomach easily detects lies.
Sreedharan must have been one of the few engineer- bureaucrats who lived on his salary. I once met an Assistant commissioner of Customs in Kochi who stubbornly lived on his salary. For ordinary men and women, a job in the Customs is like striking pay dirt. The machinery of government is oiled to run on corruption. This maverick commissioner’s anti-corruption principle did him no good. It only made him unpopular among peers and subordinates. He was transferred from place to place by disgruntled superiors. Unable to face the taunts of other wives of Customs officers about her cotton clothes and absence of jewellery, his wife left him. Now, after retirement, he lives and drowns his sorrows in alcohol bought on money borrowed from his erstwhile subordinates who are not restrained by his compunctions.
No wonder Metro Sreedharan, who has many more achievements than building Delhi Metro to his credit, and more honours and awards than I can count, is still working hard in his mid-eighties to earn his keeps.
The watchman hails an auto-rickshaw for me. When told of the destination, the driver shakes his head. “Can’t you see, it’s raining” he says and scoots away in the rain. Then another, and another. In Delhi, no auto-rickshaw would be ready to take you where you want to go. It’s always the same with his brothers anywhere in India. The driver would not go where you want to go, period. He decides the destination, not you. If you insist or threaten to call the police, he would say that there is another fare waiting at the corner and would scoot away. It’s a drivers’ market, not passengers’.
“Can I call a cycle-rickshaw?”, asks the watchman, in a tone filled with feigned embarrassment. Bourgeois Sahibs, even retired ones, do not ride cycle-rickshaws. Why not, I ask him. In fact, I prefer to ride a cycle rickshaw unless it has to haul me up a slope. In the ultra-modern digitized and metro-networked National Capital, primitive cycle rickshaws are still a common sight. They have no pretensions. You feel bad that a man struggles with his feeble legs and sweating stiff back for pedaling you along. But he and his family would starve if he can’t find someone who would be willing to ride his rickety contraption. Fat old ladies love to ride cycle rickshaws and haggle like hell at the end of the journey. Yet, I suppose, he manages to earn daily food for his wife and several children and a quart of cheap rum for himself
I struggle up the contraption put together with iron rods and canvas atop a tricycle. After half hour of straining, huffing and puffing on his part, he stops at the Metro station. I hand him four ten-rupee notes. He pauses incredulously with the money in his hand. He must have been thinking all along if he would need to haggle for twenty. He hasn’t learnt to say thanks, so he pedals away, still shaking his head in disbelief. My chest swells a wee-bit at the satisfaction of giving him that extra twenty, with which I could not even buy a cup of tea in the bourgeois planet where I subsist. For him, in his half-inhuman planet, it could mean an extra meal or a recharge for his proud possession – an old Nokia phone.
The hugely scandalised Second Generation (2 G) mobile phone policy has brought one benefit to the poor : a mobile phone for everyone, even one with empty stomach. There is no domestic servant, vegetable hawker, driver, washer-man or street scavenger who does not have a mobile phone
No, sir, Mr. Modi did not bring the mobile revolution, He has only accused and ridiculed the Prime Minister and his extra-constitutional Italy-born party boss for facilitating that paradigm shift in poor man’s life. Corruption by way of illegal allotment of licenses by the communication minister of the time landed him in jail, but brought about a semblance of modernity to the lives of those who live in the peripheral poor man’s planet.
The platform, less than a decade old, has lost its sheen due to massive human traffic, but is surprisingly functional. Escalators to go up, steep and rather aged-unfriendly stairs to come down. There are long queues at the ticketing counter. When I reach him after a half-hour shuffle, the counter-clerk tells me that I could save time by buying a hundred-rupee smart card for the whole day any time, anywhere. Go to that counter, he says pointing in the opposite direction.
I find the magic counter that sells hundred-rupee cards and join the much shorter queue. It’s not hundred rupees any more, it’s hundred-fifty, says the clerk. And I had believed that Mr. Modi and his finance minister had contained inflation. I shell out the extra fifty. The blue smart card he gives me looks truly smart and elegant.
There are no seats vacant, very little standing place in the train that came in a minute after the last one sped away. On the left of the automatic door, there are two seats reserved for senior citizens. A young man in jeans and a serious-looking man in his thirties in crisply ironed clothes occupy those seats. On the opposite side, there are a couple of ladies’ seats, presently occupied by two like men. At 75, I am still too proud to ask for a seat, so I do not tell the young men to vacate one for me.
At the next stop, a fat woman who looks like a moving bundle in salwar-kameez squeezes in through the gate. She stares at the men who are seated in her rightful place, but meekly reaches out to the overhead strap to keep balance. This time I tap the younger man and point at the neat “Ladies” graffiti above him. He gets up, visibly embarrassed, and the woman takes the seat. The other man sits, nonchalant, looking straight ahead. The young man in jeans on my side of reserved seats for senior citizens takes the cue and gets up to offer me his seat. The other man in crispier clothes continues to sit, staring at infinity. At the next stop, a stocky old man with snowy hair gets in. I nudge the brooding man by my side now pretending to work on his mobile phone. On a second nudge, he gets up and gives place to the old man. Old man says thank you to me; the young man goaded out of his seat is too busy with his mobile to call me a sister-fucker for spoiling his comfort. I sigh, Normally, Delhi air is more polluted by curses and incestuous profanities than diesel fume. May be there’s some change.
Pretty young girls in jeans and T-shirt tops – a few in kameez slit from the waist and tight salwars – flit in and flit out, all of them talking excitedly and laughing. A sense of freedom rings in those laughs No girl wears the short, short knickers that you see in Singapore or China, yet this is some progress. The train is reasonably crowded, and many men – young and lecherously middle aged – stand, hanging on to straps. Yet there is no attempt at breast-grazing, bottom -pinching, hard-staring or suggestive comments. I have never read about a rape in Metro. Yes, Sir, this is a sea change if you ask me. I feel convinced that in cleaner and better surroundings, such as in this neat Metro train, human nature tends to get civilized.
Once not long ago, Indians liked to imagine that South-East Asians are smaller-built than themselves. Now average Koreans stand at six feet, Chinese and Japanese may be an inch less. Coming from visits to those countries, I find the young men and women here short and thin.Except the obese teenagers you see in malls and expensive restaurants. You can easily tell an Indian brought up in better-off circumstances. He is taller, somewhat lighter-skinned and paunchy. I also notice a couple of young men with bulging muscles and flattened bellies. ‘Gymming’ – exercising in gymnasiums that have sprouted in city streets and by-lanes – has become a culture among better-off youth.
While most girls in their teens and early teens look trim and pretty, women past their thirties are invariably fat and shapeless with too much carb inside them. Most Chinese stay slim and shapely through their old age and easily sport tight pants while the younger ones wear hot pants whose hem end at the curve of their buttocks. How a staple diet of pork and beef is non-fattening than rice and wheat roti, I cannot fathom.
Groups of Chinese women and men , mostly old, exercise in public – in parks, on open space outside malls and public squares. Some do yoga, some aerobic dancing, yet others move their limbs in circles while keeping a tennis ball on the strings of a bat. They raise their bats and bring them down, but the ball seldom falls. Probably the ball is there to urge concentration. Chinese are a proud people, but I never heard a politician say that the exercises are built into their culture, that those who don’t do it should go to Taiwan or Korea. Luckily there are no spiritual experts in China except in the distant province of Xinjiang. Riots and arson are confined to that one province, which sometimes spill into Beijing for better publicity. Rioters and arsonists are summarily shot after a short and speedy trial, thereby showing spirituality its right place.
I get up when the electronic hailer in human voice announces Chandni Chowk. Upstairs I pan my smart card on a picture of the same card on a hip-high pillar to open an automatic gate. I head towards the Exit hoping to breathe fresh air. ‘
Town Hall’, says a board over one of the passages. I expect to see the Old Delhi Town Hall I once knew with its wide gates and round columns.
It’s raining outside, streaks of falling water is thick and almost static like strings of a hand loom. You notice movement in the rain when it forms bubbles as it hits the puddles below. Men and women wade through heel-deep water, some holding their slippers in hand while others soak their shoes regardless.
What must have been a road before is now a jam-packed filthy trail. Men and women, cheek by jowl, more like a school of sardines, rush in opposite directions. Very few have umbrellas. The rains had come unexpectedly after the prediction of drought by the Met office. The ubiquitous plastic bags and mineral-water bottles float around merrily. A man, his clothes wet, but obvious that he started out in crisp clothes, stands against the thigh-high apology for a road-divider and piddles away. A woman on the other side looks surprised – can’t say whether at the enormity of his equipment or its level of miniaturisation. Amused, but not embarrassed at an all-too-common sight, she walks her way.
I reach the main street, but do not get to see the Town Hall with its wide gates and elegant columns in the melee. Neither cars nor auto-rickshaws ply on Chandni chowk. Its ancient name from the Mughal era means Moonlight Square; now the square is drowned in the bustle.
I get a willing cycle rickshaw. It’s difficult negotiating the traffic which is thick as a secret meeting of gays and lesbians in an inconspicuous basement. After a short but difficult run, the rickshaw drops me in the square facing the Red Fort. When I give him forty rupees, he pauses for a moment, probably wondering whether to squeeze more out of the alien idiot. He decides against the idea and rides away.
When my work is done, the rain-streaks are denser. I try to stop an auto which as usual wouldn’t go where I wish to go – the Metro station – and goes his way. A car with private number stops and offers me illegal lift for an unnamed price. When I am seated, the driver cautions me that if the police were to stop us, I should say that the car is mine. Only taxis can take passengers for a price. This guy is moonlighting with someone else’s private car.
When I click on the seat belt, the driver looks at me sideways and grins. As we approach a crossing where a policeman stands, he quickly pulls out the seat belt and dons it himself. I notice other drivers doing the same. A motorcyclist snaking through the gaps on what should be the footpath hurriedly picks up a helmet from a side-hook and puts it on. Seat belts and bike helmets are for the amusement of traffic police. If not thus amused, he would demand two hundred rupees and accept a hundred. When the police is out of sight, one frees oneself of the impediments. That’s the custom.
At the red light, our car and those abreast of us stop atop the Zebra stripes designed for pedestrian crossing. There are at least five cars standing on the white stripes, barely a few inches between each of them. A taxi stops a couple of feet ahead of the zebra stripes into the square . Pedestrians cross the road by swerving around the car inside the square, risking lives against speeding cross traffic. A policeman in white rainproof jacket with yellow stripes– yellow for better visibility – ignores the cars standing over the pedestrian crossing. Perhaps he has not been taught it’s illegal. Perhaps even the drivers, who get their licenses without a driving test by paying speed money do not know either.
A few kilometres ahead, at Pragati Maidan – meaning Progress Park, a cluster of exhibition pavilions of States and foreign countries that stand as a legacy of an international fair of half a century ago – the driver stops.
“Aage nahin jayega,” he says. Will not go further. He lies that the fuel tank is empty. He didn’t have to. He had not asked me where I wanted to go, nor had I told him. He surreptitiously stretches his hand towards me, and I put a twenty-rupee note in it. Half of what I would pay a cycle rickshaw for quarter of the distance. He looks at the money, glowers hard at me, but pockets it any way. He cannot afford to stand and argue; somebody from his employer’s office could notice that he had picked up an unauthorised fare. When I get down, he drives away on his supposedly empty fuel tank.
I dash in the rain to the nearby bus stand, my T-shirt sticking to my body, my heavy jeans heavier by a ton, my laptop bag on strollers reluctant to budge. There are others under the narrow roof, also soaking in the wind that angles needles of rain towards them.
Ah, there is a bus that’s going to Mayur Vihar – Peacock Resort in English. The place is not far away from Noida, which is where I need to go. I squeeze in from the exit door. Old men with grey hair are allowed through that door, but a few young men and women follow me into the packed bus. At the Entry door, there is a scuffle between those who are trying to get out and others wanting to get in. The conductor, whom I cannot see, is evident by his non-committal silence.
As the bus lurches forward, scores and scores of male heads wobble in the steamy air inside. You guess there must exist female heads in the gaps. We are a stunted people; the females are even more stunted than men due to feeding on lesser nutrition when young and some due to early pregnancy at adolescence. In most parts of Delhi, poor urban folk are actually peasants who have come from distant villages in the poorer states like Eastern UP, Uttarakhand and Bihar. They live their bewildered miserable lives under tall buildings insides of which they only get to see if they land a job of a clerk, peon, plumber or sweeper.
India had elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi who offered to bring Gujarat Model of development to the whole Country. Until a year ago, he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Statistics show that Gujarat, one of the affluent states in India, had only progressed backward under his reign. Who has time for statistics? A joint survey by UNICEF and the Government of India reported last year that 47.4% of children in Gujarat are stunted due to malnutrition. 47.4% malnourished children must be a world record. This is one world record that the Modi’s government hides from the public. One of these days a Hindu-extremist Sadhvi (the name means female saint) might scream that all those who do not like to be stunted can go to Pakistan.
Go to Pakistan is a new expression invented by Mr. Modi’s ardent supporters. It means get lost, we cannot tolerate you. Thus those who do not want Gita to be taught in school, have not voted for Modi, do not like to do the morning Sun-worship, or like to eat beef have all been asked to go to Pakistan. 69% Indians -about 600 million – had not voted for Mr.Modi, So, hypothetically, Pakistan could soon become the most populous country in the world with a Hindu-majority.
In Delhi, as elsewhere in South Asia, humans live in several different coaxial planets insulated from each other. In the innermost planet live VVIPs and VIPs reside. their movements stop road traffic and delay flight take-offs, Just outside it are slightly denser planet of richer celebrities, of godmen in saffron clothes with a devoted entourage accompanying them singing their praises. Then there is the outer planet of the bourgeois caste and its several sub-castes, On the outermost planet live the lowest castes, summarily known as common man or Aam Admi – insignificant rural beings who do not matter except when their votes can be bought or wangled on false promises.
VVIPs and VIPs travel by India-made modernized antique Ambassador cars or something just as official in look and bulky in size, except when they ride helicopters for campaigning in elections or going on a jolly flight for an aerial view of peasants howling from their thatched roof tops in ravage brought about by flood on the countryside. Celebrities travel by Mercedes Benz or BMW if they are on the higher end, Audis or SUVs if they fall short of full achievement yet. The most famous retired cricket player owns a gifted Ferrari after avoiding import tax, but pretends in advertisements that he loves a Fiat hatch-back. The ‘King’ of Bollywood films drives Rolls Royce, high-end BMWs and Mercedes Benz,but tells the public he’s excited flitting around in small Hyundai hatch-backs and attracting pretty girls. The Bourgeois class travel by smaller cars, scooters, Metro rail and auto-riskshaws in that order of caste seniority and urgency. Others on the peripheral planet walk bravely and carelessly in the dangerous roads that is claimed by those from the inner planets.
None of the VIP castes nor their accompanying low-caste minions pay for tickets for Republic Day Parades, film premiers and such grand shows, for their stay in five and seven star hotels, or for their travel in India or abroad. Members of Parliament, like village school teachers, get paid for marking their attendance and not the work they don’t do except when herded in by the party whip. Even if they are thrown out after a day’s attendance in the Parliament, a life-long pension is assured. A soldier who fought for the Country will not get a pension unless he served for fifteen years.
The lesser beings who have seen the inside of a tall building have bicycles if they are lucky; otherwise they join the others who travel by bus. They get low pay for hard work. Harder the work, lower the wage. The very least of the lot, who might not be allowed in a bus or near a walled restaurant, walk the talk, as they say. It is the lesser beings with low wages that end up paying the bills for all free-loading VIPs and celebrities. Film actors get fantastic amounts for doing robotic dances and playing thief-police routines on silver screens. Rickshaw-pullers, way-side cooks and dirty urchins pay those vulgar amounts through ticket prices they can scarce afford for the pleasure of watching the ageing hero and teen-aged heroine smooching while singing and dancing in exotic places in Europe, and beating up dozens of muscled whities who somersault and land upon oil barrels and tomato carts when the hero’s hand passes beside them in feigned punches. Those with intellectual pretensions watch Hollywood films and laugh at jokes taking a cue from others when to laugh.
The common man on foot or bicycle or sleeping on the roadsides for want of a home not too infrequently ends up dead on the road, knocked down by a vehicle that speeds away before anyone had the time to note the registration number. The Delhi government now is supposed to be ruled by the Common-Man Party, which has nothing common with the pedestrian or even among themselves. Chief Minister is an impulsive ex-bureaucrat brimming with ideology but little clue as to how to manage his brood of ministers and legislators who often get into trouble with the police, molest women, and claim fake academic degree. Even if they were all straight, neither the Governor nor the Central Government would allow the CM to rule. Delhi is not a real State while the police functions under the Central government, but the Governor is a Governor with more powers than other Governors of the other 29 states. You can get bogged down in the tricky politics of Delhi-Centre relationship and my day’s diary would never end.
After forty or so stops and argumentative shuffle among those who needed space to get down and those who needed to get in, my bus comes to a stop in a crowded village road lined with food, fruit and vegetable carts doing business under ageing camp umbrellas. The bus disgorges its human load into dirty puddles that were dirty roads a day before. I sit tight.
“Uncle, this is the last stop, Get down,” calls out the conductor from behind. The most polite way of addressing another man- old or young, but not too young – is to call him Uncle. Women of similar ages are called Aunty. In the South, they are called Anty or Onty.
“But I want to go to Mayur Vihar,” I protest.
“This is Mayur Vihar,” he says, giggling at my stupidity. “Phase three.”
Oh-oh. I had always thought that Mayur Vihar is the prominent and elegantly designed Phase I and next to it, Phase II colonies of higher-end bourgeois. A kindly young man tells me that that Mayur Vihar is quite some distance away. No bus will go from here to there; the nearest Metro station is in that Mayur Vihar, not this..
I get down, dragging my brief case, into the smelly rain. The sky is flushing down muddy water with a vengeance. There is no bus -stand with a roof, no tall buildings that the Mayur Vihar I know boasts of where I could take shelter. I run towards a camp-sized umbrella under which an unshaven young man in dirty clothes fries tikkis – potato doughnuts without hole – in a wide black pan on gas stove.
“Tikki khaoge?” asks a young boy my side whom I had not noticed. Would I like to eat tikkis? I guess he must be twelve, if not eleven.
It’s not polite to take shelter under the tikki-man’s umbrella and then say no. So I say yes. One plate, please. I wonder if I could get sick if I ate the delicious stuff under the current environment. I decide to take the chance.
The boy picks up two hole-less half-fried doughnuts and presses them between his palms before putting them into the shallow oil in the pan. The man turns up the gas stove and the oil begins to hiss and bubble.
“Did you wash your hands?” I ask the boy in the arrogant fashion of an old woman from the lower middle class asking of the common man. The upper middle class, of course, wouldn’t dream of eating here.
“Aur kya,” retorts the boy. “What else” is the literal meaning, but he means “What do you think?”
“Do you work here?” I ask him. My trimmed white beard, I hope, gives me a semblance of authority.
“No,” says the boy seriously. “I am here for masti.” He is putting up his guard. Masti means fun, frolic, which is legal for a boy of his age. Work is not. I notice that the man’s eye brows knit together in a sign of caution.
“No harm if you work with your parents after school. That’s the new law,” I assure them.
The boy and the man, who is evidently his father, relax.
“I go to school,” volunteers the boy. “Sixth class. English medium” He mentions a school named after a Christian saint.
“Do you really send him to school?” I ask the man. A bourgeois, even retired, does not shed arrogance when he imagines he is talking to a lesser man.
“:If not to send my children to school, why would I work so hard like this, rain or sunshine? It is hard. But I put him to school from class I, English medium. How can he get a job if he studies in government school?”
The impression among the poorer folk is that the people who flit around in cars or on scooters and motor cycles in good clothes got their jobs because they studied in English-medium schools. Not true, but the impression has stuck. .
Yet, sadly or otherwise, there is much truth in the belief that English can land you a better job in India..
“Hum Hindi bhi nahin padha-likha hoom,” volunteers the man in his rustic Lalu-Prasad-Yadav accent and Bihari grammar. We – he probably means he and his wife – cannot read or write in Hindi even.
I ask him if he sends his daughter too to school. No daughter, he says. Only two boys. The other one is too young to go to school. The boys will study in English-medium schools, get good jobs, and look after him and his wife in their old age, he explains. Man lives by his dreams.
I imagine that there is a tone of guilt in his voice when he says he has no daughters. I dare not ask if they killed the girl as soon as she was born. Quite a possibility, although he is from Bihar, not Haryana or Punjab. What difference would my asking make?
I put a hundred-rupee note in the boy’s shirt pocket. The colour of the shirt is blue, most probably part of his school uniform
“This for going to school,” I say with mock seriousness. “Tomorrow morning if I find you here, that would mean you don’t go to school. I will call the police.”
The boy is defiant. I don’t need your money, but I go to school, he says. He doesn’t take out the money from his pocket, though.
I take a strangely obliging auto to the hotel which is quite some distance away, beyond the Mayur Vihar where I expected to land up and couldn’t. He charges me hundred and twenty rupees. Less than two dollars – a pittance in the West, not worth two cups of Coffee in the self-styled three-star hotel where I have hired a room.
I get in the hotel lobby, still dripping wet. When I pick up a weekly tabloid gingerly with my wet fingers and begin to read the clerk stares, but says nothing.
- Policeman raped a girl.
- The police used a teen-aged victim to trap a rapist; The rapist raped her again and got away.
- A woman burnt to death for dowry.
- Pizza delivery boy raped a five-year-old girl in apartment staircase.
- In Afghanistan, US drones killed a terrorist leader.
- In Nigeria, Boko Haram murdered 150 civilians for no reason.
- In Malaysia, Mullahs ruled that the girl who won two gold medals in gymnastics for the Country in the South East Asian games is to be ostracized. She showed her Aurat, they say. In India, Aurat is a respectable word for woman. In Malay it means female genitals. I carefully scan the picture of the girl in the tabloid. She has a decent one-piece swim suit on while hopping over a vaulting horse. Seeing the Malaysian aurat or genitals in it would need a bigot’s vulgar imagination.
I must warn my family not to speak Hindi while in Malaysia, and never mention the Hindi word for women if ever they think of going again to that once beautiful country now made ugly through religious bigotry. My own Country is inching closer to the same level of fanaticism without supporting arguments in the religious texts they misquote. Valmiki Ramayana says that Ravan complimented Sita on the beauty of her breasts and nipples, her triangular fat thighs and voluptuous lips, Sita accepted the compliments with grace till she realized that the sage who paid the compliments was fake. There is no Lakshman-Rekha in Valmiki Ramayana. That restriction for women was invented after Muslim invasion. But the false story of a restrictive line supposedly drawn by Lakshman is what has stuck.
- Sania, the Indian Muslim girl who married a Pakistani cricketer but keeps her Indian citizenship, wins the Women’s doubles title in Wimbledon. Good. Strangely, there is no call for her to go to Pakistan. I wonder if she practises yoga, the cure-all for spiritual and material problems. I wonder why with all the yoga we are supposed to be doing for physical and spiritual upliftment, we cannot win a medal in athletics, gymnastics or swimming on the world podium.
- India struggles but beats underdog Zimbabwe. Is that good or bad? A few years ago, beating Zimbabwe national team would have been a cakewalk for an Indian school team.
You must write and talk positive, the Prime Minister had enjoined Indians – particularly his supporters – in his recent speeches. Don’t abuse, he had said. So I close the diary with
Achhe Din Aaye hain. Good days are here
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