Crowds are not mysterious even if crowds do not have any face. If crowds carry flags or weapons we identify them as the part of some groups about to create social unrest or lynch someone. Crowds going towards a common cause to build or rebuild a society is a thing of past now. They do not even deconstruct a society or nation, they simply destroy it. That’s why I say that crowds do not have any mystery. But lonely things are mysterious. Imagine a lonely tree in the middle of a vast stretch of barren land. Look at a lonely kingfisher waiting broodingly on an electric line. Follow the flow of a lonely bird up there in the sky. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahans got his first shock of enlightenment when he saw a flock of birds darting across a sky laden with rain clouds. But for him neither the clouds nor the birds were a crowd. The first wave of enlightenment was triggered in him because he saw the whole vision as singular unity; a lonely thing. Imagine such a scenario; alone in the vastness you stand confronting the immensity of nature. Yes, it was felt by Galileo, Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, Chaplin, Gandhiji, Tagore and all those creative people. As you know the lonely figures are the most mysterious visions in the world.
While walking back to home at night I see this ‘Machine ka Danda Pani’ (Cold Water Machine) cart locked up to nothing and standing alone on the way side. Nobody is around and nobody is there to give or take water from it. The aluminium surface of the box fitted with wheels reflects the innumerable headlights of the vehicles that rush back to the welcoming hearths and homes. I stand there for some time and take a photograph and wonder whether it could be lifted off by the municipality vehicle and would be lost forever to the person who owns it or ekes out a living from it. But the relationships of the people who run wayside business are very intricate; they are more complex than the veins in the living body. The florist under metro bridge perhaps must be the caretaker of this ‘Machine’ for the night. He must be paying to the police a handsome bribe to continue his semi-permanent business there under the bridge. And he in turn must be taking an amount from the Machine Water owner and keeping a portion of it in his pocket and giving the rest to the police or the local goons who own the footpaths in the cities.
Recently in Kolkata I saw a provision store in a busy market near Belur where a roaring business was underway. Right outside the store, on the floor on either side of the store, I saw two people selling the same provisions (rice, sugar, jiggery, condiments and spices) from small jars and containers. There too people were thronging to buy things. I found the arrangement intriguing but to my analytical mind it became quite clear in a moment. I noticed the clothes that the people wearing up there at the store front and the one who stand at the wayside provision dispensing. Obviously the people at the shop front were decently dressed and were able to pay for the ‘shop price’ and those who stand down there cannot pay that so they get lesser quality stuff from the wayside but sold by the same shop owner through two of his subordinates. That means the shop owner was not losing any business to anyone else. He was in a way monopolizing the provision market through interesting decentralisation of sales. Cities are like that with its own ways of networking for survival.
I have seen the ‘Machine Ka Danda Pani’ people coming from the fringes, the slums from where the so called middle class would never drink water or eat food not because they maintain some sort of caste system but because of the lack of hygiene. Look at any cities and its merry places. Machine ka Danda Pani and ice cream carts come from these places. They store their ice creams in the refrigerators fitted into custom made mopeds. Nobody knows from where the water in the Machine Ka Danda Pani comes. They claim that it is clean water. They use ice blocks to cool it and nobody knows how reliable these ice chunks are. But in the scorching summer people drink it. People relish ice creams from these ice cream vendors. Does anybody remember the faces of these ice cream vendors and water dispensers? Behind these wheeled machines they sit hidden like birds behind the foliages. The neon lights that lit up these machines and the charts of different varieties of ice creams, which the children of these vendors would never able to taste regularly, hide these vendors face. We are not living in the days of Kabuli Walas who have been immortalized by Rabindranath Tagore in his famous story. But these vendors are without faces.
However, I am interested in the lonely vehicles that they push back to their homes. They are mysterious. The lonely lights that move towards the fringes of the cities, to the slums and to the one room holes where they hide rather than live throughout the night and once again come back to light at the day break, are mysterious. I have seen lonely horse carriages, all decorated but with no procession to follow it, with no bride or king on it, but going back from a marriage ceremony or from a seashore to the fringe localities where they live. It is too much an overwhelming scene to see a lit of horse carriage going through the corridor of darkness. I have seen it in art; Salvador Dali has done a painting titled ‘The Phantom Cart’. Similarly you see the lonely shadows and lonely girl running in the works of Chirico. Look at the painting of a bar girl in Renoir. She is in a crowded bar tending the needs of the thirsty ones. But in a moment she is alone and too absorbed. Any portrait is a lonely portrait, when the artist is able to catch the loneliness of the sitter in the likeness.
I do not know what would happen to that Machine Ka Danda Pani cart. They disappear from the city roads when summer recedes. They would be stacked up somewhere in the chawls; like their owners they would be chained to the other carts. The owners too are chained to their friends and the situations in which they live. The chains are so strong to break therefore they are not stolen. For almost six months they sit idle. Then they come back to the street. Nobody knows the water people drink for two rupees per glass is coming from an unclean and invisible tank which has been untouched for six months. Still people drink this water. One night as I was walking back to home from a Metro station, a lonely boy called me out from behind this machine; “Uncle, have a glass of water, just two rupees.” He was making a last minute sales pitch. I smiled at him and walked off. I never had water from these machines because...I still do not know is it a sense of hygiene or lack of faith in poor people.