Friday, June 29, 2012

Qissa Kursi Ka

I had just left the Airtel office at Nehru Place in South Delhi. It had been that (other) time of the month when my Internet bill had been due. I had been living as a paying guest at Hemkunt Colony across the street for over a year by then.

Have you ever been to Nehru Place? An old BBC story once described it as the world's largest market for pirated software. Nehru Place is a large square (but really a rectangle) surrounded by tall dirty stone buildings that were once possibly white. You go there for...everything, I guess. Quick tech fixes, cheap books, drippy snacks, or a visit to the grand Satyam movie theater across from the Metro station. If 'crammed' were the title of a picture, then that picture would be of Nehru Place. It is crammed with people, shops, and signboards. The people and shops that don't find any place in the buildings end up on the ground of the square. You can find people sitting in the shade of external staircases with makeshift tables offering laptop lamination services. I bet they don't pay rent.

I disliked my monthly trips to the Airtel office. It was always crammed (like Nehru Place), and I'd often have to stand in line in that office where everything was red-and-white and pass my time staring at the large poster of young fresh-looking white boys and girls with mouths full of big white teeth that were framed by dimples and who never looked like they had sweated in their lives (unlike the people at Nehru Place). The posters meant to say, "buy Airtel services and you too could be their friend!" The girls had long hair that never went greasy or grey, the boys' clothes never wrinkled. Forever young, forever happy. Forever Airtel.

I was happy to have paid my bill that day and left the office. Outside the glass door of the air-conditioned office sat two overweight Indian men on folding metal chairs. I remember one of the men solely because of his voice. It was loud, crude, and obnoxious. He was a babu. Dressed in varying shades of vomit-brown from head to toe, he probably had plaque-ridden brown gums and dark-brown stains on his mostly yellow teeth. Probably some bad breath too. His hair was black and greasy with the occassional silver strand, and his skin was dark and shiny. He was drawling on and on in a voice stretching with know-it-all-ness. You know the type.

A third chair near the two men was empty. A very thin young girl in shalwar qameez was standing nearby, and as I passed them and began to walk away, she moved to that empty chair and sat on it. The obnoxious man turned his attention to her and commanded her in a voice slathered in contempt that she was not allowed to sit on that chair. He gave her a contemptuous lookover, took a moment to establish the ridicule in case she had missed it, and turned back to his friend.

The girl started. She was about 25 years old, brown, with a long dark oily braid that snaked down her back. She looked like a peanut with a body. She was about to move away from the chair, but then her quick dark eyes flitted towards the obnoxious man and she said, "main is kursi pe kyun nahin baith sakti?" Why can't I sit on this chair?

The man slowly turned his dirty thick neck and looked at her again. Who was this little runt, this little woman, who had dared to question him? "Kya kaha?" he almost threatened, what did you say?

The girl stiffened. I think her Body Mass Index must've been the lowest in the world. A long thin head on a stick. She paused for a second, afraid of the sleepy hostility the ugly monster in front of her was directing at her. He was still looking at her.

She found her voice again. "Main jaanna chaah rahi main yahaan kyun nahin baith sakti?I wanted to know why I can't sit here. She looked alone and scared. The man kept glaring at her with his fat oily eyes. How dare she!

I had stopped walking and had been waiting to see if there would be an altercation or the usual Indian humiliation. What would the man say? Would he yell at her? And then he spoke.

"Dekho," he said slowly, "har sawaal ka jawaab nahin hota." Not every question has an answer. And he turned away, defeated, out-questioned. Girl 1, man 0. I smiled to myself and walked away. Yet another day, and somewhere again in the world someone had stuck it to the Man.

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