3 October 2010
Flash lights, cameras, a carnival atmosphere and claps greeted everyone.
Mr.Pannalal Mukherjee walked with Nandarani Devi into the arena. He had managed to get corporate passes. He got the VIP box seats, with a magnificent bird’s eye view from the 5th floor of the structure. Behind him, was the lounge cafeteria, the smell of coffee and snacks blended perfectly with the mood of the moment.
‘hain go, it must have been very difficult to get VIP boxes, tai na?’ inquired an excited Mrs.Mukherjee. Clearly impressed by her husband’s staggering achievement. Being a government servant for 20 long years, this was one of the rare occasions he had managed to procure VIP passes for such a spectacular show.
‘Oh yes, it was such a big struggle. I had to talk to so many people to get this done…and not just talk, pay some of them as well’
‘You mean you paid a bribe?’
‘Aha – not a bribe, fees, it is fees. The chief secretary of manpower resources is a good friend of my colleague Narottam Babu.’
Before Nandarani Devi could ask a follow up question, Pannalal Babu interrupted -
‘Beara – get me two soft drinks’ he gestured, raising his fingers and partially turning his head searching for an attendant.
Dev Singh stood at a corner and looked at him with a blank expression.Perplexed, Pannalal Babu repeated himself. There was still no response. Nandarani Devi raised her eyebrows and said ‘well you are not the director yet, just deputy director – so you have to go get your coffee.’
Pannalal Babu wanted to let ignorance address that remark, but attention was like a scraping hook.
‘Hey you ignorant fool, look here – what are you thinking?’
‘These young chokras are absolutely useless – daft animals’ yelled a visibly agitated Pannalal Babu.
‘Uff be calm now, it is ok – after all this is the VIP box, don’t scream at the poor boy like that’ Nandarani Devi intervened.
‘Yes sir, how can I help you sir, sorry sir, please tell me sir’ - Dev stammered back to reality.
‘Are you deaf or what – go get me two cups of coffee and some snacks.’
‘Yes sir’ Dev Singh replied barely parting his lips.
The dark circles under his eyes spoke of extreme fatigue; he had been on the job for the last 3 days.
He had arranged for his replacement to not report for duty. Each additional job paid him Rs.50 – moping, cleaning, loading, unloading heavy equipment, and carrying them 5 floors up to the VIP enclosure.
He needed money, desperately.
A few years earlier…
Dev Singh was a quiet guy, didn't speak much and as a result nobody knew his real age, real name or where he came from. The afternoon train from Dharmshala brought Dev Singh to New Delhi Railway station – almost dead. He was dehydrated.
Anna sprinkled some water on his face.
‘Get up – this is not your father’s property... yet – other people need to sit on the bench.’
Dev could barely open his eyes, he was starving, he was thirsty and he had no money. All he had was a crumpled newspaper and some hope hidden deep inside. Dev didn't realize that getting a job in the largest construction site of the decade would be so easy.
‘Here, have some water’. ‘Now tell me who are you, where are you from and what brings you here or are you lost?’Anna inquired.
Dev kept quiet – partly because he was unsure himself and partly because severe dehydration had cause blisters in his mouth. Silence followed Anna’s query.
‘Do you have a place to stay or eat? Listen chokrey speak up fast or else I am going away and you are going to lie here rotting in the station. The cops here are particularly not gentle to strangers you know’
Dev quietly nodded.
‘So come with me.’ Anna took him in his shelter like he had done for 285 other boys.
At the top of the chain, the chief secretary of manpower resources had a special knack of unearthing talent. He had a whole network of people around the city at various strategic points to attract workers. Railway stations, bus terminals, restaurants and other such popular joints for the migrant worker.
The hierarchy was well defined and the process well oiled.It worked with clockwork precision.
Entry level leaders like the tea stall owner Anna or Salim Bhai, the betel shop owner, would keep an eye on their designated areas for new faces. Selection was a tough job. They had to make sure the man was physically fit, could endure stress and not revolt and preferably be illiterate.There was an even division of labor even within themselves. Young boys were under the tutelage of Anna and young girls would go to Salim Bhai.
Sodomized and raped respectively. It was to be their first training.
Some illegal construction sites were the chief trainers,poverty kept their weight in check, daily wages meant he would never overeat,some garbage cans outside a 5 star hotel, made sure they could carry some home, to save for the rainy day and as a bonus he could buy another day to live.
At the next level of training they would be sent for mental conditioning and identity management.
‘Your name will be Dev Singh, son of Baldev Singh and Urmila Devi from Almora, Uttarakhand.
Your date of birth is October 3,1980 – remember if anyone asks you about your age tell them you are 20 years old.
Don’t get fooled by these NGO workers or anybody.’
‘Here keep this identity card- it is now sealed and registered by the government – it is your new birth, new life.’
Every day you will get paid Rs.150 and you will deposit Rs.50 everyday without fail into this welfare account.’ Ok ?’
‘Remember to be there for the construction selection tomorrow and wait near Dilshaad tea stall.’
‘You can go now Anna has paid your tax’
The joint secretary of labor had created a new file and earned his salary for the day.
The loud thud of the wooden stamp on the card startled him.
‘Ji Sirji’ was all he said.
The selection happened exactly as they had briefed and Dev was selected for the prestigious construction project of the decade.
The CommonHealth Games, held every four years, typically brought together 5,000 athletes from the 54 member countries of the CommonHealth, a vestige of the former British Empire. In 2006 the games were held in Melbourne, Australia & in 2014 Glasgow, Scotland, would be the venue.
The massive stadium was being given a face lift with a new roof,improved seating and other facilities to meet international standards. It covered an area of 100 acres. Two new venues were being constructed next to the stadium for the games and a 150m long tunnel was being constructed for the opening and closing ceremonies.
The workers had built shanties around the area. Soon it started to resemble closely to Dharavi.
Dev Singh had a small hut to himself and his little sister Lakshmi. They had managed to get some tires to cover the roof from being blown away and some old tarpaulin sheets to prevent the rain. They even made some good friends amid concrete mixers, compressors and cranes, though pebbles and bricks were their best friends.
Slowly Lakshmi had started to contribute to the brick laying process and was earning as well. She got paid about half the promised amount of Rs.200 per day promised by the contractor’s agent. Dev was paid slightly more, but they dare not protest because alternatives were probably worse.
Beggars are not choosers – was probably defined and left for people like Dev Singh and Lakshmi to deal with.
As the D-day approached – there was a cleanliness drive. The same workers who help build the stadia were now being evicted from their humble abodes.
All it took was a gear shift and the large iron clamps of the bulldozer did the rest. One hand to mow the hopes of a thousand.
Whatever life Dev and Lakshmi hoped to spawn, was blended with earth. Even their true friends had betrayed them.They stood there helplessly, knowing exactly what to expect the next few days.A rare instance of man knowing his future.Dev went back to Anna’s shelter and Lakshmi to Salim Bhai’s dormitory.
‘Help me Anna – help me get inside the VIP box area – and I will repay whatever you want.- I need to buy a new tin roof for me and Lakshmi to live, and it will cost no less than Rs.1000,after I pay the contractors and police – please help me.’
A silent tear escaped Dev’s eyes.
‘Ah – I knew you could talk’ Anna said rubbing his hands together.
Getting into the VIP enclosure was Dev’s only shot at survival. If he could get into that VIP box – he would make a lot more money inside rather than working on the campus, outside.
Besides it meant opportunities for both the parties – both would earn money. Only Anna would get the extra pleasure. For Dev Singh the only extra he could get was to ensure survival till the closing ceremony.
Dev’s desperation was begging to be exploited.It was.
Anna looked up his contact list and within a few days and a few phone calls, he arranged a meeting with a peon at the office of the VIP administration manager – Narottam Gill.
Four days earlier.
Dev paid the peon and his case file was pushed up the lot for selection.
‘Wait here, I will give this file to Gill sahib’
Narottam Gill adjusted the white towel on the back of his chair. Dressed in a grey safari suit and a pair of rimless bifocals.
He flipped through the mountain of files beside his desk .
A photograph of the Golden temple with a message inscribed – “God is within us” served as a reminder to him, his position, his authority.
As he leisurely sipped his tea the peon knocked the door.
‘Sirji – we have a special case from Pramod Reddy , the site engineer - he sends you best regards inside the file.'
'Should I send him in?’
No further words were spoken – their eyes did rest of the talking. The peon went back and opened the door gesturing Dev to come in.
Dev walked into Narottam gills office.Narottam Gill just finished lighting the incense stick.God specially liked sandalwood.
‘How old are you?’
‘And you want to work in the VIP enclosure?’
Narottam allowed a brief pause readjusting his bifocals.
‘But I don’t have any vacancy’ said Gill playing God.
A few moments of quietness were akin to 100 years of silence. The table fan whirred rhythmically.The few pages on Dev’s file were flipping to the end of the file just like his destiny.
But Sirji Anna Swami said he spoke to engineer Reddy...’
‘So – what about it?' God manifests in many ways.
‘Sirji I’ll do anything – increase my taxes if need be’
‘aha – now you speak the language I understand – you see the public telephone only works if you put a coin into it’
‘I will take Rs.25 off every task you get. Ok ? God is just - He gives and takes.
‘Sirji how will I survive – I will have nothing left after paying everybody’
‘Well don’t worry about that - I can give you more work – cleaning, mopping, loading ,unloading etc. besides there are plenty of tips to be earned – and I am not going to charge you on that’
God was merciful.
Sensing an opportunity to earn more money Dev blurted ‘yes Sirji – I will do it.
‘Well that’s it then’
‘err sorry to interrupt – but Ram Mohan is already doing the loading and unloading work’ the peon interrupted.
God sees truth – but waits.
‘Yes I know Damle, but he won't now.
He's not been paying taxes for a week - looks like he will fall sick for a few days’
Just then his mobile rang –
God looked into Dev’s eyes indicating he should get going – the job was his.God had spoken.
‘Hello babumoshai' so long since you called. How are you?’
‘Narottam Babu - surviving in your kingdom sir, happily and peacefully ‘ Pannalal Mukherjee chuckled.
After exchanging pleasantries, Pannalal Babu waited for the right cue to chip in his request.
‘So are you going to the opening ceremony?’ Narottam asked.
‘Ah thought about it but – decided against it.’
‘Really ? Are you serious ? Anything wrong?’ asked a concerned Gill.
‘Actually Nandarani wanted to see how it looks from the VIP box – but I don’t have any passes'.
'But something can surely be done' Gill said involuntarily,least expecting the following retort.
'Yes you are right, something can be done -since you work with them directly, thought you could give me a couple pass’
‘But Pannalal Babu those passes are already over, I don’t have any remaining’. God realized He was not alone.
‘Hmm, I thought so too. No problem it’s ok – I guess I will have to tell Nandarani to get back to her NGO movement on child labor- after all she has to be engaged in something rather than sitting at home.’
God works in mysterious ways.
Later that day two VIP passes reached Pannalal Babu’s desk.
This was the third straight day on a 15 hour shift. It was also his birthday.
Dev needed about Rs.1000 - some would go towards buying medicines and some the cure – a tin roof hut for Lakshmi.
She’d been suffering from high fever last 4 days now, probably caused by sleeping in the large pipes where cold water seeped in every time it rained. The October nip was a little too harsh on the pale skin and torn clothes she covered herself with.
‘A few more hours of this and I should be done’ he thought to himself. He reached for the crumpled notes he’d collected as tips over the past 3 days. Dev made a quick mental calculation of the ‘taxes’ he would have to pay before he could actually walk out of that venue with some money in hand.
He was still short of Rs.200. Something had to be done - but something else awaited him.
You know that boy looked quite young isn’t it’ ? Nandarani asked a little concerned.
‘yea so what? What is it to you?’ And please don’t start your NGO movement here.’ Pannalal Babu snapped.
‘They just look young Nando, they are not young – filthy pathetic bastards.’ he muttered under his breath.
‘ok ,ok now don’t spoil your mood - we have come here to enjoy the evening, forget about it.’ She said calming Pannalal Babu.
Attack had always been the best defense for Pannalal. That strategy had made his marriage successful.
Dev came back with soft drinks. He stood there again looking at Pannalal Babu.Something was not right.
‘Just give him some tips Panna – he will go’ Nandarani whispered into her husband’s ears.
Before Pannalal Babu could reach his pocket Dev Singh collapsed on the floor in front of him. Fatigue had taken the better of him. The VIP enclosure bore an embarrassed look. Nandarani Devi and Pannalal Babu got up from their seats, and chaos ensued in the enclosure.The who's who took notice and had their own reactions.
Sheeba De,the writer and icon for women's liberation, was the first to step out of the box and proceeded to change her dress, some cola had sprinkled on her pashmina shawl .Popular social commentator -His Mental Voice - Tanvir Seth produced an instant rant on social menace.The self styled, self acknowledged keeper and voice of the common man,waxed eloquently on how he could change the world. The popular news channel anchor Barnali Datta quietly called her editor for some breaking news. Taking cue from her competitor Arindam Goswami vowed to launch a sting operation to get to the bottom of it all. Besides that,life was usual at the VIP enclosure.
‘Remove him from here’ someone shouted as the opening ceremony was underway.
The show had all the trappings of a world class event. A US 2 Billion extravaganza unfolded in front of millions of viewers and hundreds of cameras. The Queen of England had just arrived.
Everybody was paying attention - only a certain Dev Singh lay unattended in the rear pantry.
‘How can you confirm a party at home just like that? You know that maid Lakshmi hasn’t turned up for the last 3 days now – I am going to throw her out on the road when she shows up next’ ranted Nandarani Devi to her husband.
‘Ah Nando,don’t worry – there is no dearth of needy people in Delhi.’ Pannalal Babu trailed off…
Lakshmi died of pneumonia a few days later.
On every milestone and every bend,
Every road becomes my friend,
On every street light and every bin,
Every bit of hope soothes my din,
On every bench and every path,
Every thought fights every wrath,
On every morsel and every leftover,
Every moment buys another…
Image courtesy : Getty images/Daniel Berehulak/Foreignpolicy.com