Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Magician


"Dhyaan dibin dada, mayjik dakhabo!" - shouts the boy in an attempt to attract attention.

The second class air conditioned chair car feels a bit too cold in these winter temperatures. The train had left Calcutta a little over 30 minutes ago, and is chugging westwards into the mainland. The people - mostly sleepy, induced by a post lunch departure time and the last 30 minutes of train's sweet lullaby - are well sprawled into their seats with backs pushed as far back as possible. For most of them, this is meant to be a 4 hours of journey to meet their loved ones during the upcoming festivities.

Some of them look up with a faint, vague sort of interest at this teenage boy who has just announced his arrival. Old tattered shirt with faded broad check prints, a pair of grey jeans rugged through years of constant use, old but prominent sneakers which might have been discarded by someone after they had lost their prime, and a tattered black bag made of cheap rexine and cotton - the boy's appearance, in both form and expression, bears no resemblance to a magician. The only extra item he has added to his decor is a silk handkerchief tied near his jeans pockets - an odd piece of cloth hung there probably to provide a semblance of oddity, if nothing more; so that he doesn't pass off as just another kid selling magazines or tea or spiced puffed-rice popular in these areas.

He must have taken a calculated risk in entering this reserved coach - the ticket checker, after doing his job within the first 30 minutes of train departure shouldn't be returning anytime soon, and the next station is at least another 60 minutes away - he shouldn't be thrown out prematurely, before he has demonstrated his magic, and collected some coins from those who shall spare any change.

He starts with simple tricks which are sold to curious kids in numerous fun-fairs organized in various parts of the country during celebratory days of the Goddess Durga or the Lord Ganesha - the ones where yellow feathers turn red and blue after being wrapped up in a newspaper, or a rope keeps taut even when held up, or things disappear in small velvet bags with round openings. His incessant narration of what's next up his sleeves is so well rehearsed with overuse, and hence so monotonous, that it has lost the sense of surprise normally associated with this art. The newspaper he uses seems shredded with excessively repeated demonstrations across different trains, the rope has smudge marks all over due to persistent rubbing of his rough, dirty hands, and the velvet has almost lost its sheen and furs, displaying marks of age and tolerance. His small bag is the repository of all this material useful for the performances - bloated with the numerous objects and torn at corners, the bag looks too old to bear this weight beyond a few more months. 

He moves on to probably his harder tricks. A bottle of coke comes out of the bag and is placed in a hollow wooden tube. A few 'leaves' made of the glossy, confetti material paper cut into flowery shapes have been woven into rings, and many such rings are combined into sort of a shining, almost gaudy bouquet of red, blue and green coloured paper; but with too many folds and crumples marked across it. This bouquet is used to cover the tube, and after a flipping into the air, the beverage bottle disappears from inside the tube.

As the boy places his bouquet back into the bag, he is stopped by a man who holds his hand and says - "show that to me!" The boy seems a little petrified at first - the expressions on the man's face are serious, sort of petulant, and his voice has both a commanding, as well as a winning tone. The boy hurries, and his hands seem shaky now - with trembling fingers he pushes the bouquet and other stuff into the non-accepting bag faster, and responds timidly - "after a while, when I'm done I will." The man doesn't seem discouraged and persists - "no, I want to see that now," and the boy repeats his line. The air around the boy seems uncomfortable now, probably he has already self-accused, and self-sentenced himself for this 'cheating' which was almost caught. The man's face is grim, mixed with a slight hint of arrogant satisfaction.

The boy has either ended his performance, or has decided to end it prematurely - one can't be too sure - and walks down the aisle asking for "dada, puroskaar kichhu". He tries to be fast, unsure of himself. After a few coins and currency notes have been spared in the next few seconds, he quickly takes his bag and moves to the next compartment, without looking back.

He had dropped one of his shiny paper rings on the floor, red in colour - probably in the haste of shoving them in his bag.

When the train stops at the next station, activity resumes in the so far lull train compartment. Sleepy people are awake - some of them get down to buy their evening snacks and get bottles of water, or just to stretch themselves. There is a fresh breath of air inside the cold compartment with the opening and closing of doors. People walk in the aisles, and the boy's paper ring slowly gets pushed to a corner near the door, after being tromped by many shoes.


Sunday, November 04, 2012

Dance of Democracy


The entire stretch of Asaf Ali Road between Kamla Market and Daryaganj is dotted with people in pink turbans. Clad mostly in kurtas and dhotis, this mass of humanity is almost continuous – it's difficult to discern individual pieces in that seemingly aimless flow. For a change, vehicles are lined on both sides of the road; pompously displaying their red beacons, VVIP signages, and occasional sirens and pressure horns helping them crawl; and the teeming populace occupies the center stage – rustling and bustling against each other, most of them also have their packed bags with them. Toting a camera, and donning a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt, I might easily be overlooked as a journalist hungry for a bite in the evening editions.

Amidst the jostling crowd, occasionally I pass through groups of men of probably higher importance than others – the ones who are also carrying placards about the maha-rally today – a show of strength by the nation's ruling party. That's when I also notice that all the walls around, the ones still visible through the sea of people, have posters asking people to gather in large numbers at the Ramlila Grounds for the vishal jan-sabha.

This crowd is largely composed of farmers sourced from nearby states, as is apparent from their accent and travel bags. Smoking beedis, and occasionally marijuana, every individual seems engrossed with his own little world composed of friends from the same village, but still very much a part of the troupe. Most of them would've come here because they would have had nothing better to do in their villages anyway, or would have been promised an afternoon meal. They probably wouldn't know why they are here either, except for the fact that they would get to watch and listen to the powerful people who appear on TV channels regularly – they would also run a stampede to touch these 'celebrities' by hand, or just get a view up close, without knowing the reason why they are doing so.

There are two Indias. This is the India which breathes. And that's the only resource which it consumes more than the first India (one could argue about land, but without data to substantiate, it can still be safely presumed that in terms of real value, it does not). This is the India which comes only in statistics, the one which is classified and reclassified with different measures of dispersions, which is calculated by econometrics and humanities, but is somehow hidden out of view despite its size. This India is incomprehensible by the first India – the one which shines; whose claim to fame, the IT industry, consists of about 30-90 lakh people, depending on who is counting. Agriculture employs 25 crore people – that's about 25-80 times of everyone in IT – a magnitude which simply can't be comprehended in terms of real people.

Eight months ago, the Planning Commission lowered India's poverty line, in an attempt to better identify the poorest of the poor. That number stands at about 35 crore people – on an average, half of them are sleeping tonight without any food during the day. That number is incomprehensible in magnitude too – in our India, we don't 'see' it. It oozes out inconveniently, like purulence from festered wounds, at traffic signals and railway stations and sometimes, most inconveniently, in temples and mosques and churches. There are numerous more stats – on hunger, on poverty, on unemployment, on malnutrition, on quality of life, on urabanization, on slums, on diseases, on drinking water, even on manual scavenging (2 crore people live solely by cleaning excreta). That India is a huge swarm – the one which cannot think about Solon, Draco or Plato's works on democracy, the one which does not have time for education, and for which 'demanding rights' is an alien concept. It bothers about survival.

The first India, on the other hand, attends offices, reads papers, has an online presence, uses resources, and frets about city traffic. This is the India which might know the GDP stats, cry foul about Rs. 32 poverty line, but would largely be unaware of which five-year plan the country is running in. This is the India which feels disgusted at the classes in power, which hates bureaucracy, which even discusses the national issues in forums and conferences and blogs, occasionally rises up behind people like Kejriwal to do its bit for the country, and forms a sympathetic opinion of the second India through the lenses of camera channels or bollywood movies – as far as they realistically go.

The second India votes – for money, or food, or alcohol, or caste, or just because it wants to be alive. The first India votes too, without reading party manifestos, maybe in much lower percentages, which becomes further insignificant because of its size. Amidst this classic divide, the dance of democracy comes alive in full view – obscenely flashing itself from altars in Ramlila Grounds – persisting through decades by keeping the second India just the way it is, denying it with everything, and balancing off its destitution with belied human hopes in smooth murderous perfection.

I wriggle myself out of this sea, walk past the Delite Cinema towards my destination, the Daryaganj Sunday book market, and find the footpaths empty. "Aaj baazaar nahi laga hai sir, rally hai na," a paanwala informs me. Realizing the relative importance of the two things, I get back home.