‘Wake up, you bag of bones. Today we have a lot of work to do’ Hari’s shout woke up the whole family. As usual, he was in a bad mood immediately after getting up. Hari’s family sleeping on the pavement comprised, besides him, his wife Devaki and their three children. The children were young. The eldest, Devi was five; Ram was four and Choti was a few months old. As the children sat up on the pavement, they could see that it was still dark and the street lights were shining bright and hurting their eyes. They usually shut down the lights by six in the morning, the children, thought of going back to sleep. The thick jute bags which they used to cover themselves at night, looked warm and inviting, but Hari was expecting this.
‘There is a lot of work to do. We need to complete the flags. Soon people would be coming out, and we can make some money selling the flags,’ he snapped. His family members knew that, when he was in this mood, it was better to listen to him, rather than risk a painful thrashing. Sleeping on the pavement was not easy, one had to be careful not to run on to the street, and fall in front of the speeding cars. Not that the car drivers cared. No one cared if a beggar got hit; they were not supposed to be there in the first place. The cars would simply go around the body and disappear down the road.
‘Start working on the flags,’ Hari repeated. He had taken out the basket, which already had the flags they had completed the previous day, and had started his work. The flags, Hari was referring to were miniature copies of the national flags that the family had been making for the past two days. They were provided plastic sheets in three colors, white, saffron and green. While Hari had cut the sheets into strips, Devaki had chopped up thin bamboo sticks, on which these flags were to be made. The children helped stick them. The first few had been wrongly done, and both Devi and Ram had some fun with the glue on their hands, but a few abuses and some boxed ears later they had become serious and had quietly made helped with the flags as per Hari’s instructions.
‘The color on the top is Saffron, next comes the white and then green. First, stick the three colors, then roll them on the bamboo stick. Then put them out to dry. Finally, you stick this little circle in the center of the white band.’ There was one sheet, which only had small circles that Hari had carefully cut out and put into a plastic box. The previous day the family made more than a hundred flags. The neatly made flags were arranged in a basket. There were still two sheets of plastic left. That meant about fifty more flags to be made, and Hari wanted the work to start immediately.
The Seth or vendor, who had given Hari the sheets of color plastic had been very specific with his requirement. In exchange for the plastic sheets and the bamboo sticks he expected at least a hundred flags. Hari and his family could sell them once they were complete and whatever the price; he sold them for the vendor got a commission of one rupee per flag. It was good business for the family, as the flags sold at five rupees each. Even after paying of the vendor his commission of one rupee on each flag, there would still be four rupees to be made. If all the flags were sold that would mean an earning of four hundred rupees.
Hari couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a hundred rupee note. It may have been the time he had worked as a laborer, lifting sacks of rice at the railway station. That was five years back, but then he had met with an accident. He has slipped one day, and the heavy sack had landed on his leg and fractured it in two places. The leg had healed, but he still limped around and was not able to lift heavy weights. It was while he was recovering in the government hospital that he had met Devaki, who was a sweeper there. He saved her from the advances of one of the security guards. The guard, who got a punch on his nose, for his behavior, though had good connections in the hospital management. Using his clout, he got Devaki sacked. Hari, was also asked to leave, he was told that his leg had healed and that if he wanted any extra treatment, he would have to pay a lot more. Hari, who had already exhausted the little money he had saved from lifting sacks, had no option but to leave the hospital. On the way out he met Devaki. She was an orphan just like Hari and with nowhere else to go to the two took up residence in a corner of the pavement. They had never married formally, not that anyone cared. The children had come over the years, while the couple worked in the bungalows and hotels, they somehow managed to survive.
‘Get up before people start coming. Don’t think we would be the only one’s selling flags today,’ Hari told his kids as they rubbed the sleep from their eyes. Sleep came easily when you lived on the streets. After a day of begging on the street under the sweltering sun, listening to abuses thrown by the passing drivers and the occasional thrashing at the hands of the policemen, sleep came without any extra effort.
‘Why are we making these flags?’ Devi asked.
‘15 August, is our Independence day,’ Hari explained. Years ago in his village, he went to a school, for a few years, carrying a bag and trying to learn the alphabets. A cholera epidemic wiped of half the village, including his parents. He was one of the few who had survived. The village school was closed as the only teacher, was also one of the victims to the epidemic. Hari, escaped the village by jumping on to one of the first trains that passed by and had landed in Mumbai. He had promised himself never to return.
‘What is an independence day?’ both the children asked.
‘That was the day our country became free,’ Hari replied. The children thought about this for a moment.
‘Free from whom?’ Devi asked.
‘I don’t know. There was someone who was the ruling us. He left, then we became independent and free,’Hari had reached the limits to his knowledge.
‘Were we tied up before that? How did we become free’ Ram asked?
Hari, realized that this way they would never finish the work, and he would keep getting more questions for which he did have the answers.
‘Both of you shut up and start working on completing the flags. If we get enough money, I will buy some sweets,’Hari knew that the promise of sweets was always effective. The children immediately ran off to wash their face. There was a hole in one of the water pipes that crisscrossed the city. The pavement dwellers had conveniently placed a stone on the hole, which when removed would release a water fountain that serviced all their water needs.
The water was cold, and the children shivered as it hit them. Quickly replacing the stone, they wiped their face with the clothes they wore. It was difficult to make out what color their clothes were; it was black, brown and grey in different places, depending on the amount of dirt and mud stuck to it. The children went back to their parents and started work on the rest of the flags. Since they had done the work the previous day as well, quickly they settled down into their roles. Devaki, stuck the pieces together, while Devi and Hari, pasted them around the bamboo sticks. Ram, who was too young was given the job of arranging them into neat piles. Devaki, would stop in between to nurse the baby and then get back to the work. The family worked quietly while in the east, the sun appeared over the horizon.
Aug 15th was always a holiday. It had to be for it was the Independence Day, and people were expected to celebrate the nation’s freedom. Government as well as private offices would remain closed. Schools and colleges held special functions to mark the occasion. In these functions, the national flag was hoisted, and the national anthem was sung. Some people bought the replicas of the national flag and stuck it to their desks, inside cars or on their motorcycles, a show of patriotism at the individual level. Unlike normal days when the roads would be packed with vehicles, on such days the traffic would be sparse.
Hari, divided the flags into bunches and handed them out. While Devi and Ram got a smaller bundle, he and Devaki kept the bigger bundles.
‘Each one sells for five rupees, remember that,’ he instructed as the family members went off in different directions.
Near the pavement where they slept, there was a traffic island, a junction where four main roads met. On one, corner was a huge mall, with massive glass walls and multiple floors. From movie theaters to luxury car showrooms, the malls were the place for the rich and upwardly mobile to be seen. It, being a holiday, new movies were being released. On the opposite side of the street, there was a temple. Today being a holiday, the crowds were expected to pour in from all directions. It was a perfect day to make some money and Hari was not going to miss out on the opportunity.
‘I need some more flags,’ it was Ram who came back first.
‘Where do you throw the twenty that I gave you?’ Hari went mad. The boy was irresponsible. ‘Must have thrown it in some gutter and was asking for some more,’ he thought. He was about to hit Ram, when the boy extended his fist, it was clenched and full of five rupee coins.
‘All the flags that I had have been sold,’ Ram replied with a smile. He pointed at his pockets, which was also bulging with more coins inside.
‘My flags have also been sold Devi shouted as she came running. Hari, looked at his bunch, he had not been able to sell a single flag, while the children had sold out all of theirs. He looked at Devaki, running behind cars stopping at the signal, with the baby in one hand. She also seemed to have sold some. It seemed sympathy was an important factor, thought Hari.
‘Here take some of mine.’ Hari handed more flags to both the children, taking the coins from them. Carefully, he placed the coin, below the jute sack. Slowly, he started counting. By the time he completed he realized they had already made a hundred rupees. Then he heard some sirens. It was a police van clearing the road.
‘This was bad new, why were they clearing the road?’ wondered Hari. Clear roads meant, no traffic, which meant that there would be no one to buy the flags. He cursed softly, then as he looked closely they were only blocking one side of the road. He went over and asked well-dressed man standing there watching, ‘Bhaia, brother, what is happening?’
‘Children from a school are going to walk down so, the traffic is being regulated,’ the man replied, then as he turned and saw Hari, he grimaced in disgust and walked away. No one liked to be seen talking to a beggar. Hari did not care, what people felt about him; his mind was racing trying to figure out how to make the most of these new developments
On the road where the traffic was still running, Ram and Devi were running around chasing the cars as they pulled up at the signal. Ram hardly reached up to the windows of the cars as he would try to see what was happening behind those tinted glasses. Waving the bunch of flags in his hand and with a big smile upon his face, he looked through the windows of the cars. Then slowly one of the windows would roll down, and a blast of cool air would hit him.
‘How much for one?’ a voice from within would ask Ram.
‘Five rupees is too costly,’ they would say.
‘Don’t buy if you don’t have the money!’ Ram would answer and walk towards the next car.
As the windows rolled down, sometimes they could see children sitting in the back seats, licking colorful ice-creams. Devi had once had a part of an ice-cream. It was a cone thrown out by one of the children sitting in such a car. The taste was heavenly, except for the part where there was some mud, where it had fallen upon the ground. Hari, had told her that each cone cost fifty rupees, neither of them could imagine how the children could throw a cone that cost so much money.
‘How many flags do you have?’ a man had come over and asked looking at Hari’s basket.
‘About fifty Saheb, Sir,’ Hari answered.
‘Is that all, I need about hundred,’ the man said.
‘I have more,’ Hari called all the members of his family over. They counted about sixty flags.
‘What is the price of a flag?’ the man asked.
‘Five rupees,’ Hari replied.
‘I need all of them. The children will march down this street, waving flags. I can buy all of them, but five rupees is too costly the man said.
‘Sir, I have to feed my wife and children besides; I also have to pay the vendor,’ Hari replied.
‘Five rupees is too much. I will buy the whole lot for three rupees each,’ He said.
Hari, did some quick thinking. This man could help clear out his entire stock. The price was low, but what was the guarantee that he could sell off the rest of the flags at five rupees.
‘Please give us four rupees at least,’ Hari pleaded. The man did not budge.
‘My final offer is three fifty, take it or leave it. There are other people who will gladly sell at that price,’ he said.
Hari, accepted his offer, gave the entire bundle of flags to him and walked away with the money, to his corner of the pavement. There surrounded by his family members. he counted his bounty. He made about four hundred rupees. After paying of the vendor, he would still have about three hundred rupees. He hid two hundred and fifty in a hole in the wall. This was his safe deposit locker, this hole which he covered with a loose brick. Fifty rupees in hand, he bought some food from the road side stall. Ravi and Devi, had done a lot of work, so there were some sweets for them as well. They had a full meal after a long time and felt happy and satisfied. The family settled down in their corner of the pavement to watch the show about to begin on the street.
The road had been closed at one side, and there were police jeeps standing by. School children dressed in neat, crisp uniforms, were being lined up. There was a band, and its members were busy polishing their trumpets and wiping the sides of the drum. Teachers and officials were running all around making arrangements and ensuring all was in order. A make-shift dais had been formed where a flag was to be hoisted. The plan was for a minister to come and hoist the flag. The children would march to the tune of the band and salute the flag. Then everyone would sing the national anthem. With a distribution of sweets, the program would end.
As the program started, Hari and his family members had vantage spots to the show. They cheered for the school children, dressed in their neat uniforms as they marched by. They laughed as Ram tried to imitate their marching action and ended up slipping on the pavement. The minister could not come, so a local leader, out for his morning walk, was quickly brought in to unfurl the national flag. Seeing the flag both Ram and Devi, shouted.
‘Baba, father, it is the same flag that we made,’ both shouted as Hari nodded his head and smiled back.
As the flag fluttered through the air, the children marching through waved their flags. Ram and Devi, felt very proud, all the rich children were waving the flags they had made. Then the national anthem was played, and everyone stood up.
‘Why do we have to stand?’ Ram asked. Before Hari could reply, a policeman standing nearby hushed them into silence.
Then, there was an announcement of sweets being distributed. All the children gathered there rushed forward including Ram and Devi. There was a mad rush at the stall where the sweets were being distributed, not only the children even elders were pushing and shoving to get to the sweets. Neither Ram nor Devi could come anywhere close to the stall and had to return empty-handed.
‘Why do they have to push,’ remarked Ram to Devi. Slowly, they made their way back across the street to where Hari and Devaki were sitting.
‘They are worse than us; they did not let us come anywhere near the sweets. There were some who had grabbed more than one packet and were laughing at those who did not get any,’ complained Devi.