It was 8 am and, mercury was at its peak, Delhi summer. I had last night’s hangover. I had met Matt during my Portland visit a couple of years back. Infrequently we were exchanging notes over email. He was in India for his Ph.D. thesis and wanted to meet me today.
In 2008-2009, Gurgaon was a work in progress, one side of concrete and another a cattle grazing fields. It was my first job. My salary was a little over 10000 rupees; I have had no option but to live in the little outskirts of the city. Matt took all the pain to come to see me from Cannaught Place, where he was staying.
Gurgaon had more laborers, migrant workers than the natives: Gujjars, farmers, and cattle herders. They were the backbone of the new modern Gurgaon with skyscrapers and gated communities.
We ended up walking to the nearby Taffri(cigarette, chai shop). I took my chai and bidi and, Matt reluctantly tried to sip his chai. He mentioned his purpose of the visit to India was to see how much it has economically progressed. How much of the caste system still prevails in the mainstream.
Udher Duur se bol kya chahiya (stay away, let me know what you want), shouted the shopkeeper.
The thick voice of the shopkeeper woke me up more than the chai-bidi I was sipping. The guy he was shouting at looked like one of the laborers, with his clothes torn and colored in white cement. His eyes were thick and, his beard reminded me of Bollywood’s dacoit. He must have been in his early 20’s. I liked his earring and, black Tabiz was out in public.
The next thing I was was Matt walking to the guy and making a conversation in broken Hindi. To my surprise, the guy replied, he can speak English and introduced himself as Mohan.
Matt: What is your caste? Are they you paid to do your work?
Mohan: What has caste to do with my work? I am working to pay my bills.
Matt: You seem educated. You could have done another job.
Mohan: There are no jobs. I have studied masters in arts. After months of the door to door job hunting, I made peace with this job.
Matt: Is it because you from a lower caste? Hence no one giving you a respectable job?
I thought Mohan had enough and, he might punch Matt. But after few minutes of silence, I saw tears flowing through his eyes. His reply stays with me and reminds me of him now and then.
Mohan: I belong to the majority caste of this country; we call it Poverty. I belong to it. I am working hard and someday will unshackle myself from it.
In the next moment, Matt hugged him and requested to pay for his Chai and Cigarette. Mohan politely declined and made payment. He disappeared in the crowd of millions of others in making their dream and aspiration of a better life.