They are all straight out of the classics of Munshi Premchand and Phanishwar Nath Renu: the incredible characters of the eternal Hindi heartland, with their lilting, sweet, delicious, half-broken folk dialects, and their sturdy, stoic resilience, and happy go lucky daily lives, despite the back-breaking poverty and slow patience of hard work and half-empty stomachs, the infinite, relentless heat which moves like a snake inside their thin, wiry bodies, their day-to-day survival like a collective miracle in the big impersonal alienated city with such transparent class and lifestyle divides.
They smile easily, they remember you with a dedication astounding in cold blooded urban kaleidoscopes, they are not asking for anything but basic human conduct and respect, and they look at you with eyes stoned with epical narratives, hidden stories, forgotten memories.
They are the subalterns of the Indian social system. They are outside the Planning Comission’s dream sequence, almost exactly in the same framework of time and space as they were in the time of Premchand and Renu.
They are the products of an entrenched metaphysics of a goddamned caste society in the cow belt with the eternal injustices and inequalities of its undying feudal topography, outside the promises and goal posts of this fragmented and mythical nation-state’s fragmented and mythical democracy.
Metro subalterns of the cruellest summer with not a drop of rain in the horizon, out in the open like silent spectators of an invisible game in which the victory is never their destiny.
All they have is the scorching, white sunshine, the concrete and cement and tar which burns, the smoke and pollution of urbanity’s million vehicles, the metal and plastic ad heartlessness of a summer’s physical discontent. But they don’t seem to complain. They seem to have already reconciled. Have they reconciled? Really?
They stand in rows across the metro stations in East Delhi, trans Yamuna, across the darkish, stinking, dirty, toxic nullah of sewage and effluents and black waters which the State still calls a river, flowing through Delhi like a testimony of this great superpower’s great achievement.
Next to the opulent Commonwealth Games Village and the grandiose Akshardham Temple on the riverbed.
They stand in rows with their tinkling bells and rented rickshaws, red gamchas on their shoulders or wrapped around their heads, young strapping lads and old men with a white beard, all from various landscapes of eastern UP and Bihar, speaking languages and dialects so distinctly different from what the rich and middle class speak in Delhi, moving from one place to another under the yellow gems of the amaltas trees, resting quietly under the shadow of the tree, smoking a bidi, drinking a quite cup of sugary tea in the corner tea shop on the pavement in a kulhar reminding them of village bylanes and ancient friendships.
They have in their own ways escaped the stagnation and underdevelopment of their village landscape to choose a difficult and hard life. A better life, is it? At least, they are not treated with such humiliation and degradation as in a feudal society!
Urbanity has its invisibilities; they don’t even exist out here, despite the cops choosing to go berserk once in a while. They provide eco-friendly, safe and hassle-free services to thousands of people who are moving from one short destination to another via the metro. They are quiet and dignified; they don’t abuse or play smart.
Their rates are fixed for short distances, and they don’t haggle or refuse like the auto-rickshaw drivers, and they never do muscle-flexing, and they don’t operate as a mafia. They are almost often speechless, faceless, nameless; the landless peasantry, the subalterns, the poorest of the poor of the great Indian rural landscape. And they are out here, in the big metro, making a living on the street.
They often are homeless. They often live in dark, dingy rooms with no windows, not even a ceiling or table fan, often 10 in a room.
They cook their own frugal, daily meals after a hard day’s work; on festive days, when they remember their humble open-to-sky courtyards back home, perhaps, mutton or fish with a bottle of cheap liquor.
And they sing, with a collective lilt, songs of reverie, fertility, harvest, landlessness, poverty, migrations, coming and going, postcards which never reached, letters written inside their souls, love, the longing for love, the longing for the beloved who waits, the mother on the door, the money order which they could not send, the little objects of treasure in their little trunks, the potli with their clothes, their kids photos, and perhaps a photo identity card, the presence of gods and goddesses, the absence of gods and goddesses, the parched earth, the exploitations, the hunger, the lack of money, the daily scarcity and impoverishment, the margin of margins, the terror of poverty, the terrorism of poverty, the fear of the feudals, the resistance against the feudals, the protracted struggles against the landlords and their private armies backed by the State, the old memories of class and caste struggles, the red flag on captured land, the red flag inside their liberated minds, the red flag fluttering on their thatched roofs.
Their humility and humanity, their resistance and struggles, written on the wall, the graffiti of the margins.
Beyond the red flag, there are layers and layers of bitter realism and short stories. They will tell you, we die of longing for our homes, our women, our children. We have no land, they will tell you, but that is our own land, our imagined homeland, our line drawn with an invisible pencil on earth. We live on that borderline of desire, we sing about that borderline of desire!
Across Mayur Vihar Phase One, under the row of amaltas and gulmohar trees in that service lane, there are two temples: one as grotesque as most temples, exhibited with garish tiles, even the gods and goddesses are adorned with tiles. The temple has fat priests and rich patrons; marriage processions start from here.
Across the same lane, there is an old dilapidated, exiled temple, where a thin, old sadhu with a long flowing beard lives, with a little shelter for a poor mother and her two hardworking young daughters, where no one from the ‘housing societies’ ever have set foot. In this lonely, solitary, invisible temple, on full moon nights, or festive nights, a chorus of amazing sounds move in collective rhythm upstream and downstream, sounds of silence outside the silences of the urban neighbourhood, an orchestra of the subaltern, singing bhajans, folk songs, epic narratives, local tales.
This is the musical courtyard of the landless peasantry of the Hindi heartland, the only and original end and beginning of the nation-state. Like a song without an ending. Like imagination drawn with the colour of eyes. Like hands and fingers becoming a fist.
Like a novel by Renu. Like a short story by Premchand. Like a classic work of folk genius by Bhikari Thakur.
I cross the street. In the darkness a man sings, driving his last empty rickshaw of the night. “In Calcutta, it is raining darling. I have sent you a postcard. Don’t forget to read it aloud. In Calcutta, it is raining darling.”
So when will the rain arrive — here? I ask. “You call the rain,” he laughs. You call the rain. And it will come.”
(The article was first published in the Kindle)