Please queue-up – Aapki ankhon ki photo leni hai

My chauffeur, Surinder, is not too familiar with the ways of the modern world.

Early one morning he came to my house and excitedly told my better half:

सरकार नया राशन कार्ड बना रही है। साहब को लेकर चलिये  (The government is making new ration cards, wake-up sahib, let’s go).

My wife shrugged him off – partially because of sleep and partially because we don’t need a ration card.

A ration card was perhaps one of the most important documents in any Indian household a couple of decades ago. It was a one-stop solution for identification, address proof and a guarantee to subsidized food grains from the government public distribution systems.

Those were the days of Nehru’s soon-to-die socialism. Punjab was burning. West Bengal had stopped thinking. Uttar Pradesh had Congress (not that it was any good but in hindsight looks so).  And, Tamil Nadu was still clamoring about Tamil.

These are days of capitalism and high living. People of Punjab are buying personal choppers and growing potatoes in Canada, New Zealand. Bengal has finally stopped smoking-up on communism and attempting to think again. Tamil Nadu still loves Tamil but that’s no longer preventing it from grooving to SRK’s Chhammak Chhallo. However, UP is still as clueless as a swallow in Sahara about who is leading it and to where.


But I digress.


These days a ration card is not needed anymore.


Careful not to sound condescending, the spouse explains to him that we don’t need it. He insists. As I walk into the room. He side-steps her – much to her displeasure – and tells me the same thing. I respond on lines similar to my wife’s explanation. He still insists and says it’s a new thing

साहब इस बार सबको अलग नंबर मिल रहा है। सबको करवाना है।  (This time its a number and everyone has to get it)

बड़ा  वाला टेंट लगा है , मशीन लेके आये हैं . पढ़े -लिखे लोग भी  आ रहे हैं  (They have set up a big tent. And, they have machines with them. All educated people are also coming)

I wonder why “educated” is used to imply importance.

अफसर और सरपंच भी बैठें हुए हैं  (Officials and the village heads are also sitting there)

It gets me thinking. So much arrangement, for a ration card?

He continues:

मशीन से आँखों की फोटो ले रहे हैं। आप चलो।  (Using the machine they are taking pictures of the eyes. You must come.)

And then it dawned on me. I turned to my wife and said “Oh! So it’s the drive for UID enrollment. We should go too

UID is a 12-digit number which the Unique Identification Authority of India is issuing for all residents in India.

On reaching the place, the first thing I noticed was the sea of humanity. The second was the glaring differences.

On one hand, parked haphazardly were dozens of gleaming expensive SUVs, sedans not to mention their cheaper Indian and South Asian cousins. Affluent, “educated” people were getting down from them.

On the other hand, there were buffaloes and cows, motorcycles and bicycles, and villagers squatting in groups (perhaps discussing about the ration card) – ladies in one group with their heads covered and men in another with their white turbans and lathis.

As I watch, Surinder disrupts my thoughts:

साहब मेरा भी बनवा देना  (Please get mine made as well)

I tell him not to worry and ask him to get the application form. He jumps into the crowd, soon to emerge with a grin on his face and the forms held high in his hand as if they were a trophy.

Soon, we are in a long meandering line waiting for our turn. I grumble how the same process in other countries is more systematic and people-friendly manner.

That’s when the dignified old gentleman standing behind us says – “Remember beta (son), they are 200 years ahead of us, we are just trying our best to leap-frog to that stage. It’s not going to be easy”. He is a retired professor who is now into social service. “My kids have migrated to other countries. I am too old a tree to be transplanted into a new garden” he says with a smile hiding the sadness of man whose painstakingly built a  home which is empty now.

He continues “You know beta, this will be the single source of identity. Ideally it’ll facilitate entry for marginalized, underprivileged people into various development schemes the government runs that currently get derailed due to corruption and fraud. It is foundation for inclusive change

I just couldn’t help myself and protest.

Uncle, the key word here is ‘Ideally’…ideally तो  बहुत कुछ होना चाहिए , लेकिन होता है क्या? ” – (Ideally, a lot of things should happen. But do they?)

There are enough to show that this program is not working as it was intended to. There is already a turf-war between the home ministry and the UID authority”… “We come up with all these wonderful ideas but then nothing happens. And we all go back to our rut. I’m here because this could double-up as a good ID card. From the pictures I’ve seen in newspapers, it looks neat. But, will this help in any development? I seriously doubt it”.

The gentleman listens. He looks at me intently, but I see that he is not actually looking at me. He is probably lost in thoughts of past events or perhaps future outcomes. I’ll never know.

But, after a long pause, he says “My experience tells me that sometimes change is dependent on one or more generation of deaths. We must be patient, keep-up with today while pushing the boundary of tomorrow”

“…but, if what you said is what you believe in, it’s fine with me. I have made my peace. Everyone should.

The situation was uncomfortable, and to get out of it I moved away on the pretext of counting the number of people ahead of us.

Later as we stood there, I heard him humming softly. It was a familiar tune and I tried to remember where I had heard it before.

As I nodded to some something my wife said, I thought aloud: कहाँ सुना है ये गाना ? (Where have I heard this song?)

She said: क्या ! मैं  अपने मन से बात कर रही हूँ ?  (What? Am I talking to myself?)

And then it hit me. It was the title track of the movie Manthan (The Churning). I was a child when I watched it. But I remember the excellent performance of Girish Karnad, Amrish Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. Smita Patil’s mascaraed eyes and her smoldering gaze. The subtle yet powerful message and that haunting melody, “Maro gaam kantha…

It’s a movie that one doesn’t forget easily. Based on the AMUL movement it’s a story of grassroots social transformation documenting an economic revolution facilitated through a simple idea of setting up of milk co-operatives. The movie shows how the revolution transformed the people associated with it due to just their resolve to uplift their lot.

Later on, I hummed the song as we walked back to our car.

Surinder says:

इससे राशन भी आसानी से मिलेगा न? अभी तो जब जाओ लाला कहता है की ख़तम हो गया  (Will we also get ration easily with this card? Currently, whenever you go the ration shopkeeper says the stock is over)

As a reflex reaction, the cynicism swells. But then the song plays in my head and I reply

हाँ अब आसानी से मिलेगा पर उसके लिए अभी थोड़ा और इंतज़ार करना पड़ेगा  (Yes, we’ll get it easily but we’ll have to wait for a while for that to happen).

He opens the door:

ठीक है। जहाँ इतना इंतज़ार वहाँ थोड़ा और सही  (No problem, we’ve waited this long, a little more is fine)

As I got into the car I looked at the uneven, uncomfortable, and unlikely combination of people waiting their turn.

The made-up, accessorized, and pretentious rich women swatting imaginary flies away and (perhaps) discussing latest fashion trends. The beautiful shy working girl, her head covered in a duppatta, one end of which is tightly clenched in her teeth. The executive, who repeatedly looks at his expensive watch and shoots annoyed looks at the queue in front of him. The cowherd with the over-sized turban, lathi in one hand, and his documents tightly held in the other as if his life depended on it.

I looked at them and I realized.

Young and old, educated and the illiterate, chauffeur and directors, haves and have-nots, maybe that device wasn’t just taking retinal scans.

Maybe, “just maybe“,  it was also making an audacious attempt to capture the dreams of a billion people.

So ladies and gentlemen, if a strange looking tent is setup in your neighborhood, please do queue-up – Aapki ankhon ki photo leni hai

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