The Drifter

Jahangirpur, India

The drifter stares at the screen, not even one of the four bars can be seen on it. The desk of the food-keepers is empty – the shelves behind them full. Just like the three times he passed by the food distribution center since last weekNo usual long queues, no normal rations-day hustle around the desk. No one steps on his toes, nobody elbows him sideways while he tries to speak to the keepers through the rusty, iron-grilled window.

His eyes moisten as the drifter asks pointing at the screen, ‘What is the problem today, sir?’

One of the keepers, the buck-toothed didn’t even look up.

The other one, the paan-chewer snaps back at him, ‘No rations today, go away! No network – No rations. Don’t you see? No bars – No rations. Go away!’

The drifter takes a dejected look at the filled shelves behind the desk, sweeping them from the left end to all the way in the right.

~ ~ ~

Last December, he was perched on the pavement as usual surrounded by his only friends. The stray dogs in town. All together, as a team, they rummaged through the trash cans for food remains. Some lucky days he would find untouched, whole albeit very cold and damp samosas. Other days they had to make do with tiny scoops with morsels of rice and dal inside the tiny plastic bags – the remains of takeaway meals of the better-off people.

The other day, he heard people on loudspeakers protesting against plastic. Plastic bags are the worst enemies of our world, they chanted. He says, plastic bags bring life. To him at least. By keeping his nutrition safe from dust, water and wind.

That December morning, several men wearing neatly pressed white shirts stepped out of a van and walked up to him. Picked him up from the pavement and took him to get his fingers and eyes recorded. Asked him questions, took his photo. They said he wouldn’t have to scrape for food in trash anymore. ‘Wow, that’s amazing’, thought the drifter.

The white-shirted men explain further – he gets some sort of a card: a number- his number. His direct link with his sarkaar – his government.

To him, they said, his fingerprints will get him rice and dal. He can cook on the roadside and live happily, healthily. Only don’t forget to show up every Wednesday morning at the center.

And sure, things were good in the beginning. Each Wednesday morning, he would show up at the food center. The keepers would ask him to put his fingers on a gray plate, his eyes should point to a camera. And out would come from the stack on keeper’s desk – a packet of rice and dal – pre-measured, pre-mixed, ready-to-cook.

Man, those days were good days. Not having to worry about food, he could finally do what he always desired to do – Clear rubbish. He would go places – bus stations, train stations, parks, pavements, temples, mosques – and just clean. Pick up trash lying here and there, put them in his big bag and take them to the trash cans on the sides of roads.

One thing, the drifter can’t put his head around is why on earth would people, even the smartly dressed ones, throw rubbish out on the streets when you have these trash cans all around the place. That puzzled him so much, kept him awake at nights.

Occasionally, while he would be cleaning the parks, young kids would come close to him. Some would take photos with him and giggle. Some would ask, ‘Old man,  are you on the Clean India Mission?’ He nods, muses with a big smile- ‘Yes, sarkaar pays me rations to do this.’

Armed with his fingerprints and eyes, he started going further and farther. Any town he would go, the center and the iron-grilled window would be there. Clearing rubbish through out the way, clearing rubbish off towns and villages on the way. Staying at one place for days, weeks or months- as long as it takes. To clean up the place to his liking.

And then, he reached this place. It was a month ago, he guesses, that he set foot on this tiny town far away from every-place-else.

Yes of course, he has come to meet the paan-chewer and the buck-toothed three times now, so must have been a month.

~ ~ ~

‘Can’t you hear? Still no food for you, go away!’, snaps the paan-chewer again. 

The other keeper, the buck-toothed, giggles looking at his phone. He pats on the paan-chewer back and says, Look what I found last night in the net.

The paan-chewer is surprised. He spits into the already grossly-stained wall and mutters, ‘What? How on earth did you get net last night? The whole town has not had internet since last half a month. And- that’s why this scum is in my face for last hour!’

The buck-toothed grins, ‘Secret, brother, big secret.’ He bursts out laughing. ‘Naah, I’ll tell you. So there is this guy in town who has a dish pointed to the sky and at one point, at the correct angle, he can get internet to your phone. To your computer. It works like a charm! Not only this, look what else I downloaded.’

The paan-chewer peeks into the buck-toothed’s phone. They both start giggling. In seconds, giggles turn to loud bursts of laughter.

The drifter leans on to the window grill, pressing his face against it, maybe he could take a peek and see what’s so funny after all.

The buck-toothed gives out a vile shout, ‘Oyyeee! Go away, scum!’ 

~ ~ ~

Startled, the drifter steps back from the window grill. He didn’t mind the nasty tone. Not one bit.

Only thing the drifter can feel is his hunger. It’s inside and outside him, around and over him. Everything around him. Just hunger. He can’t think straight- can barely stand on his one leg.

To make things worse, just right then – the other, the no-longer existing leg sends another of those shooting pains. Right from his phantom toes through his stump, straight up his spine to turn into a blinding, all-encompassing headache. Unable to stand any longer, he slumps on to the ground and rests his back on the wall of the center, right under the iron-grill window.

Flashes from some strange old life race through his mind.

Marrying his woman of dreams. The newlyweds’ shyness. The stolen giggles and playful stares when around public. The palpable excitement of scores of people packed up in the train, all travelling to see the big carnival in the other village. Then, the crowd of passengers scurrying to get off the train, the less-than-a-minute stop of the train. The unfortunate misstep by the wife, his desperate but futile attempts to pull her out of danger as the train starts to move. And then, darkness fell all around him. The screams, the police, the ambulance – all just a blur. Days later, he wakes up in a hospital bed, after losing – his life and one leg.

~ ~ ~

He eyes a trash can on the other side of the road, surrounded by a pack of dogs.

He musters the lasts of the strength in his veins to stand up, starts limping across the road. To his companions of old days, the days without the card, without the number, without the center.

But today, the dogs start growling at him as he approaches the trash.

He could swear he saw red paan stains all over the teeth of one of the lead dogs. Snarling and barking out at him, as if furiously speaking out the words just like a ‘human’ being, ‘Go away, scum!

A work of pure fiction, inspired by true events.

Background: On 28 January 2009, India launched the world’s largest and perhaps the most ambitious national identification number project — Aadhaar. This enormous project of biometrically enrolling a billion and half people — undoubtedly futuristic and well-intended — has , however, been embroiled in controversies ever since. Data privacy concerns and project feasibility issues being primary.
These issues aside, I was disturbed to read a recent news article about families being denied subsidized rations because of faulty aadhar point-of-sale devices and poor internet connections. To make matters worse, the most vulnerable and needy beneficiaries are often the ones who live in the remotest of areas — more exposed to issues with a limited-redundancy, semi-baked technological innovation tied to a sketchy infrastructure.
Makes one wonder the point of innovation and of futuristic good intentions. This story is a result of inner struggle between a strong belief in ‘right technology can solve all problems’ and a compassion for the less-fortunate fellow countrymen.

2 thoughts on “The Drifter

  1. Excellent portray of the reality which we can see around. As always, your writing has the power of captivating the reader till the end of it. I could visualise the characters you have described here 🙂 Great work !!! Keep writing.

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