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Miscellanea/Manjula Padmanabhan

On a sunny day in winter, anything's possible. Even democracy.

"Photo Identity Card?" asked the Gurkha at the gate. I nodded. "Go to the rear," he said, "there is a queue."

But it was a swarm of people I found, buzzing at the entrance of what looked like a milk-booth. My heart sank. The line had curled in on itself like a snail-shell, so to get to the end of it, one went to the heart of the throng. How bruised and tender one feels at the end of a queue! How open to ridicule, the last one, the late one! But soon there were others between myself and the raw, growing tip. In the friendly sunlight of the morning, eager potential voters joined up, bright-faced. The ladies wore toxic-shock colours. The men looked as if they'd had their first shave in weeks.

Few, it seemed, had ever had their phootoo taken. Fewer still were degree-holders, desk-jockeys, pen-fencers. I belonged to a minority group so small that other tribe members gravitated towards me automatically. Their expressions changed like traffic lights as they understood the orgy of frustration that lay ahead.

Green for the first moments of innocence while they confirmed that this was the correct queue. Amber while they believed that social privilege would spare them having to wait alongside their less advantaged fellow-citizens. Red for defeat at discovering there was no other choice.

For the first hour there seemed to be no forward momentum. May be a hundred people stood in the queue, while an equal member sat on the lawns: Young mothers with babies, old people, sick people, anyone for whom the physical strain of standing was too much to bear. But what looked like a milk-booth was actually a concrete shunt angled downwards into the bowels of the building adjacent to the queue. Another fifty hopefuls were accommodated within it. And beyond the photo-chamber, there was another room in which sad-eyed functionaries fended off an army of people waving small chits at them.

Two young sisters asked me for directions, then fell into a smiling acquaintance across the span of the queue. The younger one, in a powder-blue salwar suit was concerned for their whitehaired mother, a heart patient who needed to take her pill. "Is it really necessary, this card?" she wanted to know.

I said I'd heard it was to be the ration card of the future. Meanwhile, another lady, returning from the interior, had news. "It's a madhouse in there!" she said. "People are fighting! No one's in control of the door!" She laughed at my dismay when she suggested muscling my way in. "My advice is swallow your principles, if you want your card!"

Blue Salwar asked me what I thought -- surely this kind of waiting was an outrage? I said I didn't mind it if wasn't in vain. Her smile was cynical. She said, "At times like this, people with a conscience suffer! My sister's also like you." She made it sound like a physical handicap.

In the third hour, I entered the concrete bunker. Meanwhile Blue Salwar came back looking grim. "They're just making us wait even more. Why must they insult us like this?" She was disillusioned with queues, with India, with life. "If not for you," she said, smiling a little angrily, "I'd never have stayed!" Just then, a staffer came up and ushered mother and daughter inside for the shot.

By the fourth hour, I was within sight of the door. Infiltrators were trying to squirm in. One youth claimed, "I've not eaten since morning!" The wiry young man behind me laughed pitilessly. "Some of us don't eat all day!" he said and tightened security against invasion.

In the final half hour, events moved fast. Within the room, two computer terminals processed four people at a time. Behind a barricade of steel cupboard was the camera. In the time that it took to sit down and slick back one's hair, it was done.

Going out was like being on a victory parade. People whose faces were now familiar, waved. I beamed back at them. "It's worth it!" I told them. "It's okay once you're inside!" I went home feeling enormously virtuous. In summer or monsoon, in fever or before a deadline, it would have been a nightmare. But on a sunny day in winter, anything's possible. Even democracy.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Manjula Padmanabhan

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