As I was leaving, a man came out of Eureka Academy and we started talking. He said, "The academy is new and we don’t have any students as yet. Most of the coaching institutes, and Allahabad has far too many, are run by people who’ve failed the competitive exams. I had qualified in the written test but couldn’t make it through the interview." He said this with some pride, not seeing the irony. His short spiky beard was intensely black, with just a hint of grey. He looked like someone who had always been jobless and was likely to remain so.
There were no jobless people outside Joshi’s house when I went there the following day. There were a couple of young lawyers in black coats; there were men in white khadi kurta-pyjamas with gamchas on their shoulders, one of them also carrying a khadi sling-bag; there were a few young-to-middle-aged women, in starched saris. We sat in a semi-circle, in moulded plastic chairs. It was hot under the asbestos cement roof and the fan was not working. Then someone picked up a chair and gave it a nudge. Two elderly men walked in. They were wearing dhotis and their kurtas were of silk. They looked different from the others and their arrival caused a bit of excitement. Everyone greeted them, but there was little conversation. The man with the sling-bag opened an exercise copy and after slowly turning its pages returned it to his bag. The pages had nothing written in them. Most of the men, including the three cops, were busy reading. This is what elections are about, I said to myself: sitting in plastic chairs, reading language newspapers, waiting for someone to arrive. It was Joshi we were waiting for. He was on his way from the airport and had been delayed. A pocket diary was passed round, with Joshi on the cover, and then returned to its owner. I went back to staring at the two wooden storks decorating a wall when suddenly the place came to life and everyone stood up. Like a dog that senses its master’s arrival before the master himself arrives, the crowd had sensed Joshi’s. Seconds later, the gate swung open and Joshi alighted from his car.
Joshi sat down in one of the chairs and people came and touched his feet one by one. The security men in camouflage took up positions behind him. The crowd of about 15 people had doubled by now. Two young boys materialised from nowhere and were introduced to Joshi. One of them said he played badminton. "And what do you play?" Joshi asked the other. More introductions were made and from time to time petitions given to him, with folded hands. One of the petitions was from the man with the sling-bag. I wondered what it was about. Joshi read all the petitions, sometimes asking an aide to make a note or a telephone call, sometimes explaining to the petitioner how the Election Commission’s code of conduct had to be followed and he was helpless, at least for now. "You should have given this last month." Pressed by a petitioner, Joshi explained everything all over again. The atmosphere was that of a medieval durbar. The subjects standing in front of him, with bowed heads, and the king dispensing favours. That is why when Joshi invoked the Election Commission, a petitioner had looked at him disbelievingly. Men came and touched Joshi’s feet, even when he was preoccupied with something else and not looking at them. They touched his feet and moved away, standing deferentially to one side. The crowd grew all the time.
Joshi got up and went inside the house, followed by the better dressed among the crowd, the women in starched saris and the men in silk kurtas. The man with the sling-bag didn’t make the grade, neither did most of the others, and they quickly melted away. Finding myself alone with the men in camouflage, I too went inside.
I was in a smallish room which led to other rooms through a narrow passage. The decor was what you might find in the waiting room of a successful orthodontist’s clinic. A modern Indian painting, two elongated eyes against a bright yellow background, hung on one wall; on another were framed copies of Kangra miniatures, depicting the Krishna legend. The chairs were plusher. Plastic had given way to Assam cane and the seats were cushioned. Joshi was in one of the inner rooms, meeting people in small groups or individually. Maybe he was having breakfast. A plate of petha was shown round and I helped myself to one. The place was getting crowded and I decided to leave. Behind me I heard a man say to someone, "Achha bhaiya, pheel good." "Pheel good," replied the other.
By the third day I was recognised as one of the regulars and even the security men searched me less thoroughly. 10 o’clock was the time given in the local papers when Joshi would flag off the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha’s rath yatra from his house and there was still an hour to go. The purpose of the yatra was to acquaint voters with Joshi’s contribution to the development of Allahabad. The petitioners, the audience-seekers, had begun to arrive. A group of about 10 village women sat huddled in one corner. They were sitting on the floor, their heads covered, and looked as though in mourning. A man pulled up a plastic chair and sat down next to me. It was the man with the sling-bag.
He asked, "Has he come out yet?"
The village women, when I spoke to them, were at first hesitant.
"Why do you want to know?"
Then two of them started talking together. They were from a community of flower-sellers and had their own basti, adjacent to Naini jail. They had lived there for the past five generations and had their burial ground there. They had ration cards, but no other papers.
The papers had been lost in a fire, many decades ago, in which they also lost some pigs, but they never considered getting them made a second time. The lapse had proved to be costly. They were now being evicted from their land, by the jail doctor. He said he had bought the land, and regularly sent his goons, or the cops, to threaten them. They wanted Joshi to help.
I asked them their names.
"You are not from the other side, are you?" one of the women said, with suspicion in her voice. But then she gave me the names, making sure I was jotting each one down.
"Kaluiya Devi, Anarkali, Rukmini, Subi, Anju...."
The man with the sling-bag, who had seen me talking to the women, wanted to know if I was a journalist, his face brightening when I nodded. He said he was a retired employee of the UP State Electricity Board and belonged to a village in Karchana. Some months ago, when he was rebuilding his family house, the labourers digging the floor had come across a bag of old coins and walked off with them.
"Today, the coins would be worth lakhs. Some must have been of gold."
I said, "How old were they?"
"They belonged to the 17th-18th century. The inscriptions were in Urdu," he answered in a dismal tone.
"How do you know?"
"I’ve seen them. A few were disposed of in the village itself, for a hundred rupees each. The people who bought them showed them to me. The labourers are from my area and I have made a report to the police, but unless Joshi puts in a word nothing will happen."
Joshi came out of the house and was surrounded by people. No one was jostling, but it would have come to that had Joshi, after glancing through one or two petitions, not quickly got into his car and driven off, commandos on either side of him. He had an important meeting with his close advisors scheduled for 10.30. I asked someone about the rath yatra and was told the rath was caught in a traffic jam on Naini bridge and would not be arriving for another couple of hours. I looked around for the man with the sling-bag, but he was nowhere to be seen.
(Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is a poet based in Allahabad.)