Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Please meet... 1

As soon as we reach Jaipur, we immediately join a public meeting in a garden. There, I am accosted by PhoolChand, a greying man on crutches, carrying a massuer's kit, and peppering every fifth sentence with the chant of 'Jai mata di'.
He catches hold of my sleeve and draws me aside. He points to a badge worn by the activists - it says 'har haath ko kaam do...' (Work for every hand...) - and asks, "This billa (badge)... if I wear this billa, what will it do for me?"

Stupidly, I stare at him. "Excuse me?"

He repeats, "Jai mata di, but what will your billa bring me?"

I try to explain, "By itself, nothing. But it's a symbol. There's a campaign on for introducing an employment guarantee law..."
I try explaining the provisions of the draft bill to him, but he is convinced that the group gathered here is a political party, asking for votes, albeit out-of-season, instead of activists and journalists.

He interrupts impatiently, "This shouting-vouting won't get anything done, Jai Mata Di... Come, sit with me. Do some timepass with an old cripple. Come, sit here on the grass."

As we sit there, on the lawns, he opens his bag and begisn showing me some old, laminated documents. They are official papers - Phoolchand, son of Danku, from UP, lives in Company Bagh in Delhi, age 60 in 2001...

He tells me, "I have a railway permit. See? This one was given to me. But the railways authorities refuse to let me travel. They throw me out of train compartments."

The document says that Phoolchand, being handicapped, is allowed to travel with one companion. However, it says nothing about a travel permit.

So, I tell him, "Baba, this is not like a rail pass. It says you can travel with a companion. That's all."

He 'pshaww!'s and says, "If they don't let me travel, why and how will they let my companion travel? I tell you, the police will not let me sit in trains. And I am a travelling massuer, Jai mata di... I have been all over the country, crutches and all. Delhi, Kashmir, Jaipur; Surat is my next stop... but the police will harass me, I know."

"But, baba, you need a ticket, first."

He snorts. "Look at this paper. It says, my address is: Company Bagh, New Delhi. Do you know what that means? It means I am homeless. I live in a garden... how can they throw a homeless man out of the train? If I don't have a home, I WILL travel, don't they know?"

Convinced that the virtue of buying railway tickets is quite lost on Phoolchand, I change the subject and ask him if he supports the 'Right to Work' cause.

He isn't happy with the question. "I don't beg. I work my own way through life, Jai mata di. If you like, I can give you a rupee. I can give you ten rupees too."

"That is alright, Baba. Money is not the issue; won't you lend your voice to the cause?"

He grins slyly. "Ah, but what's in it for me, Jai mata di?"

"Nothing; nothing for you, Baba... Jai Mata di!" I say, and watch him pick up his crutches and leave.

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