Did I ever mention my pursuit of the honourable Mr Rustom Singh, MLA, state minister for health, ex-cop and self-acknowledged polygot - or at least, bi-got (I really didn't intend the pun... no really, I swear), wearer of berets and moustaches?
So, there I was, at about 6 pm, in Morena, waiting for a chance to speak to the honourable state (cabinet) minister of public health, who happens to be in the town, which is also his constituency.
He is sitting in the front row of the pandal, waiting to ascend to the stage, along with some fifteen other gentlemen - local heavyweights all - at a function organised by the Nav Yug Manhar Gware Vaishya Maharaj Mahasen Samaj (okay, so I might have got the order of the words wrong, but I swear all these words stood, juxtaposed with themselves, up on the banner above Mr Rustam Singh's head).
And I am listening to the doyens of the Gware samaj buzz about business against a backdrop of hit-filmi sangeet, while watching the little cherubs of the Gware samaj dancing to win prizes in a freestyle, pop-sy dance competition, to an audience of semi-silk rustles of the semi-ghoonghat-bearing matrons of the Gware samaj, trying to ignore the persistently-consistently booming voice of the Gware Samaj emcee.
Just below the stage, four men stood with long wooden poles on their shoulders, strung with hundreds of marigold garlands.
The emcee invites, one by heavyweighted-named one representative of the Gware Samaj, up on the 'stayz' , to garland the honorable Rustom Singh-ji, MLA. (He broke the monotony by ordering some others to honour the slightly-less-honourable-but-equally-garland-worthy Gajaraj Singh Sikarwal-ji, rival politician from the same constituency).
First, Mr ABC-ji, local doctor, was invited, to marigold-garland Rustom Singh-ji. Then Mr BCD-ji, local marble-quarry owner, was invited, to marigold-garland Gajaraj Singh Sikarwal-ji. Then Mr CDE-ji, local independent-candidate-who-lost-the-election, was invited to garland both Rustom Singh-ji and Gajaraj singh Sikarwal-ji. Then Mr DEF-ji was invited.....
This went on. And on. And on.
The emcee enthusiastically goaded spectators - mostly restless children wearing lipstick and rustling mothers impatient to watch their children perform - to 'Hands Together!' for ABC or PQR personage, and "Swaagat kariye".
The emcee took a two-minute break from coordinating the 'swagat' brigade, to allow a lamp to be lit in front of the photograph of Maharaj Mahasen, who was also garlanded in marigold, incidentally. Then, everyone went back to their seats, and the marigolden-swaagat recommenced.
A sole note of confusion crept into the proceedings, when Mr GHI who was supposed to garland an old freedom fighter also sitting on the stage, ended up garlanding Rustam Singh-ji instead. Poor Mr emcee could only mutter, between the marathon garlanding: "Oh? Er... yes, yes. Aap bhi stayz pe aaiye. Swaagat! (you're also welcome.)"
With a morbid kind of fascination, I stayed tuned in.
I have never seen so much marigold, barring weddings. I never never seen 'swaagat' on this scale. Such endurance, such enthusiasm for garlanding political necks, such a lengthy list of 'community-leaders', I have never seen!
When the Mr A-Zs of the Gware samaj were run through, the emcee began inviting the Mrs ABCs of the community. However, there were much fewer women being invited up on the 'stayz'.
Then, it was the turn of the local boys - 'the youngster generation' - to take up the baton of this marigold marathon.
Finally, the emcee invited honorable mantri-ji to speak, thus: "Not a sound. I tell you, not a sound out of you all! The honourable mantri-ji will speak now."
The mantri-ji returned his compliments, by beginning his speech, thus:
"First of all, I want to admire the compere. He is truly, really, totally charming. His voice is so attractive. He is so natural. His English is wonderful... and I am impressed; you see, I speak both English and Hindi myself. I am impressed at his English. So wonderful. He is a truly attractive compere... what is your name, young man? Ah! I must congratulate the Gware community for having produced such wonderful younger generation...."
I was rather impressed myself, but I began to tune out.
Another, much more interesting conversation is happening at my shoulder. A young boy is shaking hands with my companion, a local activist working to counter female foeticide in the region.
He tells her, "Didi, you're doing good work. These people... they deserved it."
He is referring to the local campaign against doctors who perform sonography tests, without finishing the accompanying legalities. I discover that the boy is a cousin of a local radiologist, one whose clinic was on the blacklist, and whose license had been temporarily suspended, that is, until honourable Rustam Singh-ji took over the state public health portfolio. (My report, here and here).
The activist asks, "Is it true that the clinics had to pay up to get their licenses back?"
The boy shrugged, "6 lakhs. Pakki baat hai (it's a certainty)."
"All pooled in?"
"Hah! 6 lakhs each!"
"And it went to?"
The boy smiled a slow smile and nodded at the stage, where the honorable minister was poking public fun at his fellow-garlanded heavyweights, the ones who lost the last election, at any rate.
I wait to meet the honourable minister.
He has told me that he will speak to me after the Gware samaj function. After the function, he tells me he will speak to me after the dinner. After his dinner, he tells me he will speak to me after he has visited a colleague.
I wait for him at the circuit-house, hoping that he will eventually return here., before going back to Bhopal.
9 pm. I wait. 9.30 pm, I wait. 10 pm. I wait. 10.30 pm, I wait.
And then, a flash of whirring red-light topped ambassadors and the screech of tyres. Armed bodyguards and circuit-house karmchaaris rushing to put on their white caps, and bend their heads, by way of swaagat.
He doesn't arrive alone. There are at least 30-35 men with him. I sit my ground. I mean, a white-linen covered sofa. I'm not going away, I firmly decide.
After bantering with half the crowd, accepting compliments and flowers, turning down a marriage invitation and blessing those who touch his feet with a half-wave of the hand, he turns to me.
The honourable Ruston Singh speaks to me in English (sort of), throughout, despite my attempts at switching to Hindi, to spare both of us our individual linguistic pains.
When I ask a particularly uncomfortable question, he says, "I am only speaking to you in English because you're from Delhi. You Delhi people - you are all English. You see, I am equally comfortable in both languages. English and Hindi. I can even speak in our Morena-dialect. But you will not understand our moda-modi language."
I assure him, I will. Then, I add, "Actually, I'd prefer it if you speak in Hindi."
He leans back into the sofa, sighs with relief and promptly does so.
I promptly ask him more uncomfortable questions. Like how it was that the sonography-equipped clinics got back their licenses after he took over the public health portfolio in the state.
He denies it. "As a matter of fact, the licenses were suspended only when I took over. I master-minded the raids you see. You think the administration could do anything without my wanting it to?"
The activist accompanying me points out that the dates don't quite correspond - the raids happened, the licenses got cancelled, he took over as state health minister, pleas were filed, the directorate of health reinstated the licenses.... in that order.
At this point, the honourable Rustam Singh-ji lost his temper and raised his voice, all the while continuing to bless, with a half-wave, those who continued to touch his feet. "You know nothing! What do you know about Morena?....... But I have given you enough time. I have other things to do."
While another devotee dived towards his feet, the mantri-ji stood up, adjusted his beret, and stalked off into the cool recesses of the circuit-house.
I remain seated on the white-linen covered sofa, taking notes furiously. Taking down every single word.
[Cont, in the next post]