I crossed the dusty road to buy a newspaper. Mayhem makers in Meeran to be fined, Govt. announces names, the front-page headline read. Meeran, maybe this city can help me with my job before the year ends and things slip off my hand.
I took the local to Meeran. The cool evening air calmed me a bit. The dusk began to settle, and so did my thoughts. Last few days were a bit rough. In the western sky, the evening sun was just above the horizon, going down slowly. The steel blue bending with the orange of the sky, as the sun went down. No hide and seek with the clouds, just going down, embracing the horizon, like a tired man returning home after toiling through the day. It seemed to cast the last ray of the day over the men and women in the slums, before plunging into sleep. A sense of fatigue came over me, but unlike sun I could not rest. I had to find some story, no, not some story, in fact, a good story. My job was at risk. “Find some story, fabricate it, bend it, do whatever you want to but bring a good one, and if you don’t, do not come here again.” The editor’s words echoed in my mind. I took a deep breath. If I could find a good story for the magazine, it will be a great start to the year, else a deadly end to the decade. The mere thought of the later consequence shook me from inside. It is somewhat painful to realise how one moment is so different from another, inseparable but different like it has always been on its own, it’s as if…
Someone pushed me to a side and pulled me out of the reveries. The train had come to a halt at the Meeran station. Not many people stepped out, and I had to struggle myself out on the platform. The station was never so vacant. I walked out of the platform.
I had read a part of the city was put in curfew. Certainly, this part wasn’t. I walked to a nearby bazaar. I used to come here every day, with my father. There was a kebab store round a corner. He used to pack the kebab for us on his way back home until my mother’s accident took us away from this city. We were fortunate, I guess. Not many are.
I stepped into the bazaar. Only a few shops were open. The effect of riots was clearly visible. The familiar odour of tea in kulhad was still alive in the air. If I had had enough coins with me, I certainly would have taken a sip before moving on. I strolled around for some time. Around the corner, where there was the kebab store, sat a man. In his tottered attire, he spread out his hands, looking at me. My throat tightened, but I evaded those eyes and walked on.
A few steps further I bumped into a man. He was wearing a dirty grey kurta and had a lampshade moustache on.
“Oh babuji, want some clothes?”
“Na, bhaiya,” I replied.
“Buy some babuji, I’ll rate them at half their prices.”
“Half their prices?”
“Yeah, Half, their prices. I have got to take something home, to feed my family. My buffaloes won’t suffice the needs of everyone.”
“Oh, these are hard times, bhaiya, I understand but these are equally the same for me.”
“Haha, babuji, I hope this all ends soon.”
“Great objectives require greater sacrifices, bhaiya.”
“What objectives do poor people like us have, babuji.”
“Freedom. Isn’t that what the fight is about?”
“Freedom? Haha, babuji, these are all your terms. What does this all mean to a poor man like me? Will I get any more buffaloes? Will my children get their bellies filled every night they went to sleep? To people, like me, we just want to carry out our works. We’ve got enough on our plates to worry for. People in your positions might get some jobs, but these are all inspired by bourgeois objectives. We all live the same, no matter which government rules us. If things get favourable, we get a chapatti more, if it gets against us, a chapatti less, rest all is same.”
“So, if you are not concerned with the freedom, if you are not concerned with who rules you, then what are you people protesting against?”
“Babuji, we are poor people, we do not protest against policies. We do not protest against anyone.”
“Then these riots, what are these all about?”
He smiled a little.
“What do you think, babuji, the illiterates and uneducated fight for the policies? For the jobs in cabinet offices? We are small people, babuji. Some 10 or so days ago, another babu had come, searching for labours, many of them. We were told that the work we had to do was not much, some shouting, and he would pay us 500 for a day. Now only a fool would deny such an offer. We went with him. On our way, someone taught us some slogans, an energetic man he was. He told us how this government was responsible for the state we were in, and that policies have to be changed,” he paused, while I just stared at him, dumbstruck, “day after day, we were called in the procession, we used to shout slogans, sometimes, pelt stones for our own security, that’s all. We got our stomachs filled, you got your policies made, how better can any government serve us?”
I just stared at him, agape.
“You don’t belong here, babuji, do you? You are one of those freaks who gave our names out to your government.”
I felt a sense of guilt come over me.
“You know, since the names are announced, we haven’t got any more processions for us, that person who was a regular visitor, just vanished,” he looked at me, straight into my eyes, “if only I could smash the heads of people like you.”
The last words sent a chill down my spine. The air around me grew so dense I felt I was breathing bricks. I let out a sigh, “but you won’t, would you?”
“We might be uneducated, babuji, but we are not idiots, we can identify among the people. You are probably new to this place. And you won’t give me out, babuji, would you?” I saw him smirk a little.
“I guess you are right. Umm, can I see that shirt?” I said pointing to a shirt hung at the corner.
“Ahh, sure.” He shouted for one of his helpers. A young boy brought me the orange shirt, it was actually saffron.
“How much for this?”
“Just 50, babuji.”
“Good, I’ll take that. Here, take this,” I handed him out a 100 rupees note.
He returned back a 50 rupees note. I refused, “Help your family, with this.”
“If I were to take money like that, would not have I started begging myself? Moreover, these 50 bucks would not help me much. I got a lot more on my name. Thank you for your help, though. I hope you won’t get angry at me.”
“No problem, bhaiyaji, but if any wise man or I were at your place, I would have taken the money.”
“If you were at my place, babuji, you would know that if a fine of 50,000 were imposed on you, and that too because you wanted 500 bucks, you knew it’s all over. Why do you think, I am here. All the shops are closed, why would any ‘wise’ man come here and risk his life?”
No words came out of my mouth; I just stood there, my body felt too heavy for my legs to carry it away.
“Don’t worry, babuji, my fate is all written.”
A silence fell over the place. The stars were looking down on us, not for the first time I had felt so powerless in my life, but this was not something I would face on any day.
“Can I do anything for you?” I had shown myself weak.
“Haha, babuji. My family is starving. Children are crying for food. My wife has not eaten anything in the past two days. I do not want to go home and see them in such a state, and not be able to do anything. There is nothing I can do, there is nothing you can. Take care of yours while you still can,” he said, joining his hands.
I took it as a sign to leave. I joined my hands, “Namastey, bhaiyaji,” and left.
One thing I knew for sure, my year would not end badly.