Tuesday 3 March 2015

Shades of corruption

A short story based on a real life conversation that I was privy to after an enjoyable run in the park.

The tea leaves floated amidst the boiling water, leaching their flavour into what was to be Kishen Lal's next customer's relief from the numbing cold. A well intentioned, yet miserly old man, the customer haggled over the increase in price of 1 Re for a cup of tea, arguing that a Rupee was all that he paid for an entire glass, with a few pakoras thrown in when he started working in 1966. After finishing the beverage, he asked Kishen how long a gas cylinder lasted. On finding out that it lasted only a week, he proceeded to offer Kishen advice on how he should exchange his gas burner for the stove his wife used at home because a gas cylinder lasted nearly two months that way. The old man further quipped that his consulting talents, from which the world of business could vastly benefit, were wasted on household chores handed down by the wife, whose tone had acquired a new-found sense of authority after his retirement. Kishen politely nodded and waited till the old man was out of earshot before he exchanged a knowing smile with Karim, a fruit seller with whom he shared his kiosk on the footpath.

The city of Delhi had provided Kishen a tough means for survival for over a decade now, since his luck had run out in his home town in Uttar Pradesh. The hope of a better life that had dragged Kishen to this city was exemplified in his various beliefs. He was the migrant, one who exchanges the familiarity and comfort of his village for the opportunity that presents itself in the milling crowds of the city. He picked up that day's newspaper and looked at the headlines. It reminded him that a party positioned as a champion against corruption had defied incredible odds and swept to power in the Delhi assembly. He lifted his eyes from the usually disappointing piece of paper and glanced at Karim with a glint in his eye.

Karim Khan was an old Delhi resident in every sense. His ancestors had inhabited the city for as long as anyone could remember. His family, a mirror of the turmoil and strife that had torn the glorious city apart in the last three centuries, had now befallen difficult times. As he eked out a survival on the footpath, Karim harboured the condescension and cynicism that the old Delhi wala had for the migrant. His sense of arrogance was rooted as much in the city's long standing heritage as it was in the smattering of Urdu poetry that he could dabble in. Karim then noticed Kishen smiling at him.

Kishen said, "Did I not tell you that they would come to power? It is always good to have a sense of optimism. After all, what are we without Hope, the unacknowledged goddess that sustains us all?"

Karim replied, "One government has replaced another. Our lives will continue to be the same. I don't understand what you are happy about."

"But don't you think the people have chosen a new voice? A fresh perspective? Don't you think this is a welcome change after being let down for 60 years?"

"My family has stayed here for the last 500 years. Pardon me, but I don't see anything significant happening in the next five years. Could you name one thing that could change for the better?"

This was easy for Kishen. The wave of public scams of proportions that would never make sense to tea sellers and fruit vendors had rocked the entire country. The new party had risen to prominence riding on the wave of outrage that these scams had sparked in the entire nation. The agenda in the campaign that the new party had most prominently highlighted was to eliminate corruption in the government. He reminded Karim of this promise that had been made.

"What?", Karim said. "Are you of the opinion that voting them in is going to remove corruption? My dear naive migrant, corruption is a die hard habit that is deeply rooted in our very selves. Choosing another name and symbol is not going to change that. The average Dilliwala is corrupt to the bone."

Karim continued, resorting to his artistic side for emphasis, "Corruption is the grease that oils the otherwise painfully slow mechanism that goes by the name of bureaucracy in India. It is this tangled web of corruption that holds this entire country's commercial fabric. Now the fabric and the web are interwoven and inseparable. How can one start a hotel or acquire rights to a plot of land in the absence of a bribe? In fact, is it not ironical that you and I, who are having this conversation on a public footpath after setting up shops on it are in blatant violation of the law of this land?"

Karim ended his sanctimonious tirade with a sardonic smile and looked at Kishen. Kishen bowed his head slightly as a bead of perspiration rolled down his forehead in spite of the wintry weather. What his cynical companion had expressed very bluntly seemed to be the harsh truth. He replied in his characteristically simple words, "I agree. We are all corrupt like the ministers and the industrialists that we read about. I also agree that in its absence, I might have as well perished without hope in a village in UP that nobody has heard of. That is right. I am corrupt. I am corrupt because it is essential for my survival and the one square meal that I eat everyday. However, is there not a distinction between greed and desperation? While arabs of rupees are being pilfered, can you not see that we are corrupt merely to feed our stomachs a couple of rotis after a hard day's toil?"

The heavy silence that ensued was punctuated by the arrival of a traffic constable at the scene.

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