What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows….
One hundred and five years after William Henry Davies published this lovely poem, a country of 1.3 billion people seemed to take it seriously. From the vast open fields of the Sunderbans to the Rann of Kutch, from the chilly upper reaches of the Himalayas to the dunes of Rajasthan, from the ultra-busy executive in Nariman Point to the wheeler dealer in Lutyen’s Delhi, the common man turned into a picture of patience and forbearance.
Life came to a standstill and people on the move turned into a frozen silhouette against a tall steel-and-glass building, or dirty bylanes of a metropolitan city, near a crowded market in the suburbs or under the boughs in idyllic surroundings described by Davies.
The Welsh poet was familiar with cows and sheep of the highlands, but was not fortunate enough to witness the common Indian at the end of 2016, who stood patiently in a queue ignoring responsibilities at home and office. Doctors left their patients behind, housewives their kitchens, teachers his students, pensioners their favourite television serials, actors his greenroom and sportsmen his games – all to queue up in front of banks and ATMs. Farmers cared little for his fields, workers left his tools in the factory sheds, fishermen abandoned his net and the butcher dropped his knife to queue up. Mothers left newborns at home and fathers their occupation.
Pharmacists reported increased sales of balms for sore feet, stiff legs and low back pain. But the patience never wore thin.
Many scurried out of their homes even before the first rooster woke up and stood in queues that seldom melted away before midnight. Pensioners doubled up in pain, chirpy college goers constantly glanced at their watches but they didn’t walk out of the queue.
More than 100 men and women departed for their heavenly abode while waiting in these queues, countless fell ill. In a queue in Hooghly district of Bengal a fifty something man, suffered a cardiac arrest and slumped to the ground. But none from the dozens waiting with him abandoned his position in the queue to assist him. He died, his death scripting an immortal ode to a nation with infinite patience.
Life blossomed too. In Kanpur, a woman delivered a baby while waiting in a queue.
At a few places like UP’s Fatehpur, police wielded lathis on those standing. But the lines didn’t vanish.
It was more special because a large part of the nation, particularly the younger citizens, was a stranger to long queues. They only heard of people eager to buy food and kerosene stood standing in serpentine lines in the fifties, sixties and seventies. They also read about unending queues in the Eastern bloc (for almost everything from potato to clothes) in books and newspapers.
From the pages of history, queues rushed back to emerge as a national vocation in every corner of this land spread over 3.287 million sq kms.
Queues, or lines, have a variety of meanings. In geometry lines are defined by its length compared to a negligible breath. Right from the morning of November 9, real life began to approximate what we learnt in mathematics classes – with the queues continuously adding feet, their breath quickly became negligible compared to the length.
Standing, or locus standi in Latin, has a wide meaning in law too. It defines a person’s role or justification in any incident. Every one standing was given a locus standi – he/she was helping in cleansing the economy. The queue became the weapon of mass cleansing – another version of Swachh Bharat.
As 2016 drew to a close, the common man of India stood the test of time and of patience, and as the ruling party would like us to believe, of patriotism.
Irrespective of the driving motive, in 2016 the common man began to appreciate the appeal to stand and stare. Rarely does such a big and busy nation stand up in unison to respond to a poetic call.