In the 1960s, there was a sagging wooden shack beside the gate to the Hindi Park in Daryaganj. It sold lemon drops, bread, eggs and there were dusty jars of crumbly naankhatai biscuits. If you went past the shack at the crack of dawn you would see a unique queue of customers — a disciplined row of empty glass milk bottles standing patiently on the ground before the window.
Then people would come and claim their spot to collect the clinking bottles of watery Delhi Milk Supply offering that never had any cream and at times smelled funny. Later in the day, you could have more fun at the ration shop, praying for a brown paper bag of weird yellow sugar and grainy brown mustard oil.
The good old days are back again as we wait in line at banks begging for our own money. In those days, the nation was poor and so we understood that we have to suffer but today we have money but we are still poor. As our functioning economy grinds to a halt and once again the poor are going to bed hungry, listen… the world is laughing at us.
As a veteran of waiting in line, I get ready like I am going to battle. My most comfortable shoes, check. The handbag that I can tuck under my armpit to defy pickpockets, check. Cheque book, pass book, pen, small bottle of water, yup! I am ready to go. Then I take a deep breath, calm my nerves and join the queue and to stay sane, I talk and listen to people. A queue is one place where I am grateful that we are such a talkative nation. It also helps if you have a goofy, perpetually puzzled face like mine because then people become surprisingly kind.
My companions were people who are the forgotten Indians facing a national crisis with surprising patience and kindness. There was humour and camaraderie and they were slow to anger. And every time a pot-bellied idiot tried to creep to the front there was a joint holler of “Oye!” that made even the macho north Indian male give a weak apologetic grin and get back in line.
I was in queue the day after our beloved leader declared that the rich and powerful of the land were all standing in line. My queue friends found the comment hilarious as we all waited for someone in a Jaguar or even an Innova to drive up and join us. Then one bald gent with a cough muttered, “Sab nautanki hai.”
Two hours together and I knew a lot about my dosts. The man in the Sarojini Nagar pavement-style jacket was a salesman from Dehradun who had no cash for the journey to go home. The spectacled guy behind me ran a chemist shop and said that people who owed him money were suddenly offering to pay; in old notes, of course. Then a man came from way back in the line and began to chat animatedly with the woman standing at the head of the queue, clearly planning to wander in with her. He didn’t know us. A joint yell of “Oye!” and he had crept back into his old slot.
In all the lines, there was lamentation at the extraordinary stupidity of the government. The general opinion was, okay, you want to demonetise, go ahead, but shouldn’t you have first printed the new notes to replace the old ones? Also, why did you print the ugly and impossible-to-use Rs 2,000-notes first? As one woman said grimly, “Kisi ko kuchh nahin pata kya kar rahen hain.” It sounded like a line from a comedy show, but sadly the joke was on us.
As people fell tiredly silent, I began to think about queues in that deeply philosophical vein that mind-numbing boredom inspires. Which was my happiest and favourite queue? That was easy. It was the line at the first Nirula fast food counter in Connaught Place, where I stood blissfully thinking, “Big Boy Burger… Chili Con Carne… double scoop of Mango Magic…”
What would be the weirdest line? That took a while, but then the image flashed across my eyes. All of us loyal bhakts, trooping up the steps of the Reserve Bank of India to queue up and shake Urjit Patel’s hand saying, “Great job, Urjit bhai! You will now get the Nobel Prize for Economics!”
Usually queues attract peanut vendors and men selling bananas, but they were missing as we have no money for such extravagant luxuries. So I chewed gum instead. Then I finally discovered one advantage in my situation. You can ignore unwanted calls from impatient clients by muttering, “Sorry… can’t talk… I am in a queue.” From then, I have continued using that excuse, often from my sofa at home.
At my second stint, the bank had a separate counter for senior citizens and women, and I felt I had won a medal for being female and having a head of grey hair. A dozen of us delighted females and oldies were in line when this smarmy young man sidled up to the old Sardarji standing behind me and whispered, “Sirji, will you please take my cheque too? I’ll be standing here with you.”
You should have seen the reaction; a bunch of mild-mannered pensioners was transformed into tigers as we all whipped around and glared fiercely at him. The Sardarji looked ready to pull out his kirpan in fury. The man looked nervous and backed off mumbling, “This is a ladies’ queue and this cheque is from my wife’s account, so I thought…” You have to agree it was a pretty creative excuse.
Listening to my companions, I realised how little we expect from our leaders. How nothing they do surprises us anymore. No one thought the political parties care for them. The general opinion was that all the drama in Parliament was for television cameras as if the louder you shout the more it becomes true. None of our brave and loud leaders have stood in a queue in their lives and they are all so cocooned in their privileged world they have no idea how ordinary people lived.
So a whole country stands in line as our brave leaders go where no economist has ever gone before. We had become a bunch of hardened cynics facing a giant bureaucratic muddle with a sad shake of our heads saying, “So, what’s new? What made you think the people in power ever know what they are doing?” It was so tragic that we choose to laugh.
In a total of four-plus hours standing in line, there was one remarkable discovery. I did not find a single bhakt springing up to defend his beloved leader. Where did all the loyal, national anthem singing, patriotic bhakts all go?
Subhadra Sen Gupta writes on Indian history and culture. Her latest books are A Children’s History of India and the new series Exploring India.