Mitron

A poem about demonetization.
With apologies to Poe.

Once upon a lazy Tuesday, as I tried to make some headway
On some work I could not delay, my eyelids began to droop.
While I swayed, almost sleeping, suddenly there came a beeping
As of some old lady weeping, weeping in a Whatsapp group
“’Tis some forward,” I muttered, “creeping in some Whatsapp group—
Only this, no need to swoop.”

Ah, vividly I remember, it was in early November;
And each Opposition party member sought to protest upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished to get, some sort of connection to the net
On my old and battered handset, so I could see the damn message
So I could see and read and then delete the damn Whatsapp message
And live in peace for evermore.

Presently my connection grew stronger, hesitating then no longer,
“Modi,” said I, “or madman, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was sleeping, and so silently you came sneaking,
And so seriously you came speaking, speaking in a Whatsapp video,
That I scarce was sure it was you”—here I opened full screen the video;
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that video peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing,
Muttering, counting notes I never cared to count before;
But the silence was unbroken, and Doordarshan gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Mitron?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Mitron!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

And into the city turning, all my soul within me burning,
I rushed forth with a single yearning: some cash to scavenge for.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is a hawker selling ragda pattice
And an ATM next to him that is attracting an uproar,
Let me go and check out what’s attracting this uproar –
‘Tis a queue! And nothing more!”

As I joined the queue rejoicing, it bowed its head as one, sighing,
As if in that one recoiling, its whole soul did it outpour.
Nothing further then it uttered – not a bag nor cellphone fluttered –
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other tellers have shut before –
In a minute this one will too, as machines have done before.”
But then I walked through the door.

Open here it flung its shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
Out there dropped a malnourished two thousand rupee note;
No great texture or design had it, I noticed as I quickly read it,
But, at least, to its great credit, it was a valid banknote—
It was a valid, legal, “tender”, and life-saving banknote—
For now, I could float.

Outside, the note lay unfolded, as I observed and closely read
The rectangular piece of pinkish red paper that I there bore.
“Though you might fulfill your duty, you,” I said, “are sure no beauty,
Nor would many call you a cutie; in fact you’re an eyesore;
You’re a cheap and gaudy, third-rate, showy, substandard eyesore.”
Quoth the note “Mitron”.

Much I marveled this ungainly note to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning–little relevancy bore;
For you must accept the truth, that no healthy and sober youth
Had ever held such a smooth-talking currency note,
Such a smooth-talking, pink, badly-printed two thousand rupee note
That addressed him as “Mitron”.

Then, methought, the air grew denser, just outside the cash dispenser,
So I started moving, tenser, to the adjacent grocery store.
Here a grizzled, old, undaunted man, with eyes dark and haunted,
Looked at me as if he wanted to ask me something more
As if he wanted nothing but to ask me something more.
I stared at this eyesore.

“Prophet!” said he, “note-bearer, may none be wiser or fairer,
By that man that looks out for us – that Modi we both adore –
Tell this soul cloven by mayhem, if within that ATM,
It shall clasp a sainted gem which it has come here for –
Clasp the rare and radiant pink gem which it has come here for.”
I said, “Patience, mitron.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, anti-national!” he shrieked upstarting –
“Get thee gone to Pakistan or the next-door grocery store!
Leave no paper slip as token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my patriotism unbroken! – go to Balaji general store!
Go and buy your treasonous goods from Balaji general store!”
So I gladly went next door.

And the queue, never dwindling, still is waiting, still is waiting,
Outside the SBI ATM, beside the grocery store;
And their eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the burly ATM guard throws his weight around the door;
But have patience, wait for fifty, hundred, two hundred days more,
A few more months, mitron!

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That gasoline smell

Long summer drives in hot Ambassadors,
Pressing noses to burning windows
For afternoon views of cotton plants
That gradually turned golden-brown;
Waiting for the Frooti halt at sundown,
Asleep in the backseat by the time night fell.
Those green indicator lights. That sweet gasoline smell.

The drowsy, nondescript village whose only claim to fame
Was a decrepit railway crossing.
On the left, a fledgling paddy crop,
On the right, “Caution: 22,000 volts”.
Waiting for the distant brown spot
To grow bigger: maybe some “Belgaum-Gorakhpur Superfast”
Which at that moment seemed undeserving of that last
Appellation.
Watching the wheels of the carriages endlessly roll.
The honking vehicles, the smell of petrol.

The dilapidated, “ceased to operate” toll booth,
With its defunct list of “Hon’bles”.
The cars whizzing past with unrestrained glee,
Each now an exempt dignitary.
The racing trucks, every overtaking a cliffhanger
For the smaller fry in mortal danger.
The dead dog, the overturned state transport bus,
The calf that never returned to its mother,
The fleeting glimpse of another’s trauma.
The bloody entrails, the diesel aroma.

The eerie silence of the starry night,
Faint glows in the east and fading moonlight,
The pit stops and pee stops at the crack of dawn.
The icy dew condensed on the windshield,
The morning tea at the edge of a wheat field,
The groggy truck driver with papers in order
Pleading with grumpy policemen at the state border.
The much-dreaded, much-awaited return
Home, back to the daily grind-and-churn.
The all-important quarrels to ring the doorbell.
Those childhood sounds. That gasoline smell.

A picture that speaks a thousand words

I moved to Bangalore (temporarily) a couple of weeks ago. Struggling to gel in with the new surroundings, my sandal strap broke. So, sandal in hand, I set off on the road, looking for a cobbler.

I had barely walked five minutes when I reached a cobbler. It was an emaciated old man seated on the pavement, in front of a makeshift shed. He took my sandals and started working on the broken strap.

I looked at the contents of his shed: some pairs of shoes and sandals (probably awaiting their owners or the cobbler’s attention); some tools, shoe polish and clothes; and the most conspicuous: a large photo of B R Ambedkar.

Ambedkar

While I cannot claim to have visited many parts of India, or to have seen properly the places I have visited, I have never, ever seen someone voluntarily put up a photo or portrait of a minister or political leader, whether it be their homes, shops, autorickshaws or offices. Government offices, public buildings, yes. Gods, religious leaders, film actors and even cricketers, yes, but no political leaders. Some would argue that labeling Ambedkar as just a political leader or minister would be a great injustice, that he could also equally be called a lawyer, social reformer, economist, philosopher and spiritual leader, but that just serves to show more strongly how far he is from the political leaders of today, who struggle to do even one of these things properly.

In any case, poor people don’t put up framed photos: they’re supposed to have more basic things to worry about.

So, wondering whether this was a one-off occurrence, I took to looking for more Ambedkars in the city. In the one week that has passed since that incident, I’ve discovered that most cobblers in Bangalore (and there’s one on almost every other street) have a photo of Ambedkar in their shops (this painting gives a good idea about what most cobbler shops in Bangalore look like).

A man who barely earns enough to feed himself and his family, a man who is forced to mend others’ footwear in the afternoon heat on a pavement at the age of seventy, how much money must he have saved and how strong must be his desire to put up that photo? To be fair, it is possible he was provided that photo for free, but what made him put it up? If it were a living political leader, one might wish away the question with “paid to put it up, in money, or favours, or maybe just a meal”. But that man has been dead fifty years, which is when I realized the irony in my train of thought: no one does cobblers favours. No perks. No sops. No petrol subsidy. If it were not for that dead man, I might not even have thought of this whole matter at all, let alone write this post.

Most of us, at some time or the other, wonder about “what could have been”. How, if I had done this, I might have been somewhere else today; if I had got some more marks, I might have been doing some more lucrative job; if I had exercised a bit more, I might have made it to the army. What must it feel to look back at your life, at the age of seventy, and realize that no matter what choices you had taken, no matter where you had been or what you had done, you would be sitting at that same pavement (or another like it) doing the same job: a fate decided the moment you were born? What do you dream about? What do you hope for?

A hoarse voice speaking in Telugu derailed my train of thought: the cobbler was done. As he insisted on putting the sandal in my bag and not in my outstretched hand, I could not help feel a little jealous of that man: he could easily find one person who had stood up for him, who had fought for him at the highest level, and still fights for him. Can I?

Senior undergrad? Seriously?!

Lately I’ve seen a lot of “About Me” sections on websites of Indian college students with lines like “I’m a senior undergrad at so-and-so college”. I never remember people calling themselves senior or junior undergrads; but then again, I’ve just recently chanced upon the college scene, and maybe this is a common trend. At least one thing I’m sure of: this is something prevalent amongst students of comparatively bigger institutes: some of my friends from other colleges still call themselves “second-year students”.

THIS is a really senior undergrad

So why are people switching to this new nomenclature? It’s simple: That’s how the Amreekan college students refer to themselves, and similar lingo on an Indian student’s website or profile more often than not indicates a desire to be recruited or at least understood by some Amreekan “grad school” or company. Maybe the admissions committee at Texas A&M does not know what “fourth-year college student” means.

I’m not some khadi-wearing politician who exhorts people to not “ape the West”, but these terms are alien to us. Indians might probably understand fresh fruit or fresh fish, but calling a person (even women, for that matter)  freshman is certainly odd; sophomore is totally Greek, whereas sow for more might be more intelligible. In most Indian colleges, a so-called “junior undergrad” is actually senior to half the college, and a “senior” is not a senior to almost one-fourth of the population.

I’m not saying “first-year student” is a Sanskrit phrase, but maybe here (as in other and more important matters) we are getting rid of language we traditionally use, in order to be better “understood” by the West. But then, (sounds very clichéd, this) change is the only permanent thing in life. If only our college experience was as Western as our names for it.