He served me tea every day for months, barely saying a word, arranging the papers on my untidy desk, doing everything with a smile, and sitting in some faraway corner of the office when staying back late.
Doing what? I often wondered.
What on earth could Satish Kumar, the cheerful, 25-year-old peon in the light blue shirt, be doing at 8 p.m.? Secret girlfriend on the phone? Office gossip factory?
“I am trying to learn web designing, sir,” he said one day, sheepishly. “Will you let me make your website?”There he was, standing before me with a plastic cup of hot coffee in his hand, ready to throw this version of his life away, hold himself by the scruff of his neck and yank himself out of his beverage-delivering drudgery and seek a gentle foothold in white-collardom.
He is still officially a peon, but a year on, Satish uses a computer, handles complex Right to Information petitions, fights in towering red sandstone government offices with clerks who refuse to accept the applications, and recently stunned me by popping up on Google chat, where he now routinely asks me for work and is assigned tasks.
This is the face of the young Indian living out a new freedom — to dream, to aspire, armed with the reassurance that it is now OK to dream big in the new India — and those dreams could well come true.
With 40 per cent of Indians under the age of 35, I find these dreamers at every corner when I travel across the sidestreets and village squares of this country. They are the stories of the changing India. They are India.
And age is, it seems, only a number. She was 35 quite some time ago, but Rama Dey has, at 61, elbowed out a little island of existence of her own in the New Delhi suburb of Noida. Abandoned by her husband, she arrived in Delhi from Kolkata, looking for a job in 2001, with a bag that had a pair of cotton saris, a soiled bedsheet and a small pillow. And Rs 300. She worked hard as a nanny, piling up a bank balance of Rs 1.5 lakh, and has enrolled herself in a neighbourhood school to learn English and Hindi. She helps others now, buying a bicycle for her nephew in faraway Dibrugarh in Assam so that he can save time while travelling to work.
Now she wants to join the government’s old age pension scheme, and buy a mobile phone and a TV.
But the world of mobile phones and TV sets is what a 27-year-old man called Karan Dalal decided to give up for a different aspiration. He flew from Mumbai to the remote village of Kunaura in Uttar Pradesh, where he will now live and try to create computer engineers out of curious and stunned children who had never seen a computer until NIIT donated 15 of them to the village last month.
Not too far away, in the rural town of Babagunj, Dinesh Kumar, a 27-year-old Dalit, grew up subservient to a Brahmin priest, who was his only connection with God whenever someone died, gave birth or got married.
Then a sudden, silent coup took place. Armed with a small book of rules of everything from weddings to funerals, the Dalits fired the priest. “We don’t need him. We can do everything ourselves. If he can read the holy book, why can’t I?” Kumar asked me. That is India’s new mantra: Why can’t I?
Hundreds of kilometres southwest, in Gujarat’s Sikka village, 30-year-old Praful Gami shocked me as I walked out after a series of interviews. Gami, a member of the village panchayat decided to move up in life and set up a computer repair shop in Mumbai using the rising income from Gujarat’s agricultural boom.
“It’s called IT Akash (Hindi for sky), a software company,” Gami said optimistically as village grannies looked on, cool breeze blowing in from a small check dam. “My income was increasing, so I decided to go on a bigger scale.”
It’s raining aspirations in India. At the history-steeped campus of Allahabad University, Syed Mohammed Zeeshan stood near some fellow students, leaning against his motorcycle.
“Along with studies, I want to be associated with a political party,” Zeeshan told me as others looked on. “We, the youth, want our own identity.”’
In Loni, a cooperative hub in Maharashtra, I found young men and women from villages give up farm labour to learn to weld and make machines, study fashion designing, and other trades that will change their lives. On the highway from Ahmedabad to Baroda, young men from the smallest of towns are learning to be firemen at a private college, so that they can go and work at industrial hubs in India and the Gulf.
More than 1,500 km to the north in a small town I shall not name because he asked me not to, a former militant from Kashmir, Mohammed Zameer, 36, wants to dream to. He sits anonymously with me in a cyber café, part of the nuances of his low-profile existence, abandoned by both his militant group and the government.
“I do want independence, but I regret I lost at least 20 years of my life,” Zameer told me. “I was studying my BSc. My classmates are now superintendents of police, doctors, engineers.”
And far away from Zameer’s shadowy existence, back at the office in New Delhi, a message pops up on my computer screen. “Sir, can you please check the RTI applications?” shakti8040 @gmail.com — Satish Kumar’s virtual alias — asks me.
Look him up. Make him your friend. The bespectacled former peon, who now takes on wily government officials in red sandstone offices, can teach you a thing or two about dreaming.