Chotu, the Homeless

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PROF SHAH ALAM KHAN | Caravan Daily

THEY all called him Chotu. How and why the name came to stick, even he didn’t know. He wasn’t short. As an Indian, he was average in height. But he wasn’t an Indian, or was he? Well, even that wasn’t clear to him. The other day, the fat clerk at the aadhar office had refused to give a form because he couldn’t prove his ‘Indianess’ to him. He hadn’t been able to prove his ‘Indianess’ in all these years whenever he had tried to be an Indian.

Work was coming quick as more and more Delhiites got married. In November last year, there was an auspicious day when thirteen thousand weddings took place in the city. Nek Chand Ghorhiwala lost his Ghori Dhanno, that day. The poor creature had to carry twenty-seven grooms in a span of ten hours. She died of fatigue. In fact, she died while carrying the twenty-eight groom whose parents then cancelled the marriage considering the death of Dhanno as an ominous sign from the heavens. Chotu was there in the band, lip syncing when Dhanno collapsed like a wooden push puppet right in front of the wedding hall, decorated with the bright star-shaped flashing lights. Chotu didn’t get his fifty rupees for that performance.

Chotu lived underneath the big flyover which brought happy families back home from the airport after their wonderful vacations in happy la-la lands. There were three of them who lived under that flyover. In summers they slept closer to the road as the exhaust from passing vehicles kept the otherwise voracious army of mosquitoes away. Delhi never slept and so the vehicles plied through the night and Chotu could thus sleep.

Strange that the sleepless city was the reason why he could sleep in peace. Winters were trickier. They shifted their tarpaulin sheet underneath the street lamp on the other side of the road. The yellow light of the lamp was their source of warmth as all three slept cuddled together, their blue tarpaulin converted into a sleeping bag. Survival instincts were essential, private space had no meaning in matters of life and death. They sniffed more petrol on foggy nights. It made them dreamy. Delhi’s rising poisonous pollution meant more foggy nights and thus more petrol to sniff.

Being homeless was not an identity, it was a process. Homeless didn’t mean without a home, it was far more than that. It was without love, without care, without complaints, without being angry, without wishing for hot rotis, without anything. It was an existence in a vacuum of nothingness. Chotu had been homeless ever since he could remember. His vacuum of nothingness was actually his being.

He had grown up in this unfriendly city. He worked as a waiter at wedding parties. Many homeless in Delhi did that. Homeless waiters at a wedding was the best irony that Delhi could offer to its citizens, but no one cared. He occasionally lip-synced in the wedding bands like he was doing when Dhanno died. Being a waiter meant slightly more money, but he had to work harder. There were no fixed hours of work. Some weddings lasted through the night without any extra payment.

That day the bandwala told him about the big wedding at the bungalow in civil lines. The one where every known politician of the city would be coming. The wedding, where the Prime Minister was also coming. Chotu loved the Prime Minister, like many others. He earnestly wanted to go and be a waiter there. The recruiting bandwala acted pricey and wrote his name in the list of waiters for a meagre recompense. Chotu knew that he was getting a raw deal but didn’t care. It was once in a lifetime chance to see the Prime Minister in flesh and blood and nothing mattered more. 

The day of the wedding arrived. He had a haircut from the barber who sat under the street light next to where he slept. He took a bath at the municipality tap which gave out muddy water. The bandwala gave him a maroon red suit with a stiff Chinese collar and golden epaulets. The band party and the waiters reached the venue a couple of hours in advance.

At the entrance of the magnificently decorated bungalow was a small wooden gate which Chotu had never seen before. It made a gentle dong every time a person crossed underneath. He was suddenly stopped by a muscular man in a black safari.

“Show me your identity card,” He said in a rough voice.

Chotu had no identity. Even his name was not his own. He was baffled. The muscular man in safari pulled him out. Other (homeless) waiters were also not allowed to enter. Those who had an identity card, were let in. The bandwala promised more money to the ones allowed inside. He was suddenly short of helping hands.

Before letting Chotu and others go, the bandwala made sure that they all returned their stiff collar maroon red suits. Chotu suddenly felt naked in his grey t-shirt and cargo pants. Both had large salty patches of sweat. He walked back to the flyover, the setting sun in his teary eyes. The city was waking up for the evening. A large hoarding at one end of the road had a picture of the Prime Minister, his thick lips separated in what looked like a smile.

It read: “Sab ka sapna, ghar ho apna

(Thanks to Harsh Mandar and his team at Aman Biradri for the inspiration)

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(Shah Alam Khan is a professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at AIIMS, New Delhi. Views are personal.)

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