I used to sit on the 21st floor. Now I am retired

Tuesday, November 08, 2016


I think I was in middle school then though it is possible it was slightly later. My father and I had gone to buy some stuff from Noida. The markets close to our house did not have enough variety of sweets for Diwali. And given it was a holiday, we also threw in some grocery shopping.

I remember it was getting to evening and we had to rush back. Diwali was next day but that day was Kali Puja. For Bengalis, Kali Puja is as important if not more than Diwali. It was also the day we light diyas in a ritual called "choddo prodeep", which literally means fourteen diyas. We used to spread these fourteen across our flat to make sure Lakshmi's way would be illuminated when she walks in.

We wanted to do this before nightfall, and hence were hurrying home, but still we had one final thing to buy. I forgot whether it was fish or mutton or whether it was some services at the carpenter or the hardware store, but we stopped in the sector 5 market in Noida. This was not a big market, and probably still isn't. A lot of carpenters, hardware stores, welders making or repairing almirahs, metalworkers, lumber stores. In addition, there were a small set of shops selling chicken, mutton and pork. There may also have been a couple of small fish-sellers.

On my way to school from 1990 to 1998, we would pass this market almost every day. We had moved to Vasundhara Enclave in 1990 and our school was four kilometers away - across the industrial sectors of Noida. In the early days before our school decided to schedule a bus route from Vasundhara Enclave, and before our parents could figure out a Matador to take the kids there, we would take a rickshaw to school. My dominant memory of sector 5 was of the pigs, relaxing amongst the craziness of the Noida streets. They were big, fat, mud-caked and smiling. They had litters which were huge. They also looked like they had no care in the world. I also remember the general poverty of that area.

From a very small age, I was immune to this poverty. I knew that one should not give any alms to beggars as that 'encourages' them. I knew that one should not give them a second look, or slow down, if someone looks at you. I had heard that most of the beggars made more than the real poor and hence, one should be wary. There was a news report about a beggar who paid income tax that I remembered. On the other hand, I also did know that India was an unequal country and generations of ill luck was one of the causes of poverty. We did our share to help - sharing old clothes, visiting orphanages and old age homes from school and volunteering yearly. But, on a daily basis, we also learnt how to look the other way. This was part of the training in school, in Civics classes, and at home, with my parents. Now, the folks I encountered in sector 5 and 4 and 6 and others were not beggars. In fact, they were industrious and entrepreneurial. They didn't have much but they were working with what they had.

Yet, they were poor and the training one gets in civics classes cuts across the poverty line. The steeling of one's heart and the fixing of one's gaze is not restricted to just beggars and in a country like ours, can not be. It starts applying to the children who are luxuriating in the same mud with the pigs. It starts applying to the ten year olds who work instead of going to school. It starts applying to the families who one sees in the multistory huts in the slums. It starts applying to maps which we segregate as commercial areas, residential areas, industrial areas and slums. Areas like sector 5.

So here I was in sector 5. My father asked me whether I want to come with him to the shop but I declined. I was not much into shopping those days. Also, I liked staying within the car and watch the world go by rather than pick my way gingerly through the muck and the waste and then have to find myself within a shop with some sense of responsibility (maybe I will have to carry the bags). So I decided to stay in the car.

Dusk was settling in and the night sky through the haze and dust was turning a darker blue. Because it was Diwali the next day, the shops were not as busy as they usually are. Also, by the time the evening came in, the welders and carpenters and others used to shut shop. Even the pigs had either found a place to sleep or had retired to their sty. Hence I could look at the houses. The houses were located right next to to the shops or right on top of them. They were made from the same flimsy bricks or pieces of wood that the shops and workshops were made from. They had the same faded blue tarpaulin to mark off doors, walls or at times even the roofs of their houses. They had lumber stacked against them or strewn in front of them.

This was probably the first time my attention went to the houses. The sector was not an alien area for me but I had lost the sense of intimacy which the rickshaw ride used to bring. The school buses had started by then. Plus, I had never been to this area around dusk earlier. We would generally buy our fish in another market in Noida.

So here I was, in sector 5 market/ slum, at dusk on Kali puja day, looking at tarpaulin, lumber and brick houses, waiting for my father to come back.

It's then I saw her who came out of her house. She was a shadow at first. When she stepped out of the gloom into the dusk, I saw it was a woman carrying a baby. The baby was around three or four years old.

She stepped out of her house and went to a stack of lumber in front of her house. She kept the baby down and then adjusted the pieces of wood and plywood. From what I could see, she was trying to stabilise them so that they don't fall.

Once she was satisfied, she brought out the candle and kept it on top of the wood base. She then found a match and lit the candle and then fixed the candle to the platform that she had created. The first time, a bit of wind or probably her baby blew out the candle. Then she did it again and the second time, she had a candle standing in front of her house.

For a minute or two, she and her baby stood in front of the house, looking at the candle. Then she looked around and getting a bit conscious perhaps, went in.

I have had many different kinds of Diwalis in my thirty five years. But the memory which comes up when someone wishes me happy Diwali or when someone bursts crackers or someone lights candles or diyas, is this.


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