Avik Chattopadhyay on ‘The Expendables’

04 Jun,2020

By Avik Chattopadhyay


February 2033 has been particularly cold in north India. Delegates coming in for a global conference on blockchains and bitcoins never expected hailstorms and biting cold to greet them. The heavy fog has messed up all flight schedules. And I had been waiting for five-and-a-half hours now to take my guest to the hotel. Some Mr Sorensen from Denmark. This was my third trip for the day and was yet to have one proper meal. Anyway, kept holding the placard at Gate 3, hoping to catch his attention. Ah, there he was. He waved back at me seeing his name.


“Hello sir, welcome to Delhi.” “Thank you very much! How far is the car?” “You wait at Pillar No 21 and I shall bring it there sir. Let me take your luggage.” “No, let the luggage be with me. You bring the car. I shall be at pillar 21.” “Okay sir, will be back soon.”


In some time, we were off towards the hotel. The fog was making matters a bit tough as visibility was down to near zero and the cluster of flights landing almost together meant too many cars on the national highway even at quarter to midnight. Switching on the hazard lights and the fog lamps, we crawled along.


“First time to Delhi, sir?” “Yes. Have been to Chennai before, almost 10 years back. Is it always so cold in Delhi?” “No Sir, this year has been particularly bad. The rain, hailstorms and fog add to the bother.” “You speak very good English. What is your name?” “Thank you, sir. My name is Rajeshwar. You may call me just Rajesh.” “Okay Rajesh, how is your English so good? Does the hotel train all its drivers so well?” “The hotel does give us training, but I am actually a graduate in English language. First division from Ranchi University. Jharkhand state sir, in eastern part of India.” “Wow! You are a graduate and drive a hotel car!? Is this common in India?” “Many graduates drive hotel cars, taxis and buses in India. Being just a graduate does not ensure a better job. But this is still respectable and pays well, so many of us don’t mind driving hotel cars.”


We were going via Moti Bagh and I decided to go via Africa Avenue as the traffic would be lighter. A bit further down was a police checkpoint. Traffic had slowed down. “Where to? Show licence. Name of passenger?” “Shangri-La. Mr. Sorensen. For conference.” Returning my licence the constable looked at the guest. “Hi, Barry Sorensen. You want to see my passport?” “No need. Please go. Go slow till the ‘Expend Statue’ as there has been an accident. After that the road is clear.” “Okay, thank you.”


“What is this ‘Expend Statue’?” “Not Expend sir, it is a statue called The Expendables. These guys do not even know the name properly. Many call it the ‘Bachcha Statue’ or ‘Kid Statue’.” “The Expendables! What a name! What is it all about?” “You will see sir…just ahead…” We slowly approached the traffic circle where this statue was. In the fog what looked like a little mound slowly emerged as the form of a child held up by many hands. “This looks interesting. What is this statue all about? What does this mean?” “You want to see it from close sir? Then I need to park the car on the side and you can then walk down and see it.” “Sounds like a plan. Let’s do it Rajesh.”


We walked up to The Expendables. Barry stood transfixed before it. The lights were tearing through the dense fog creating strange patterns of forms and shadows. I stood next to Barry. The noises from the altercations from the accident seemed far far away. “Do you know about this Rajesh?” “I do sir.” “I see some metal plates with a lot of written matter but can’t make anything out. Tell me please…” “Yes sir. This statue is called The Expendables. Made by a sculptor called Maheshwar Oraon, from my state of Jharkhand. The child is his little daughter Nimmi who died of starvation in her village during the Coronavirus attack. Remember that?” “Of course, I do. Oh man, that was quite a year. Turned the world upside down. We lost many lives in Denmark too, my country. So, why did she die of starvation? And what are these hands holding her up?”


“Maheshwar was a migrant worker. You know migrant worker? People who leave their homes and travel thousands of miles for jobs. Maheshwar was one, away from his village, in Mumbai. During the virus attack, he lost his job and was stuck in Mumbai. No work and so no salary. And the fear of getting the virus. For five weeks they were under lockdown in Mumbai. What could they do? it was better to return home than live in fear and without any money. Many started walking to their homes, wherever they were. It was terrible sir. Almost 50 million migrant workers started their journeys back home, with basic belongings, without food, water and transport.” “50 million! Incredible! Never read about the scale of this exodus. This must be the biggest ever in human history, no?”


“It was, sir. You know, a Belgian professor called Jean Dreze used to teach in Ranchi University that time. He had said in a television programme that it was the biggest reverse migration in human history. Anyway, Maheshwar too had started his journey back. Nimmi was his sixth and youngest child. Just 6 years old. His wife had no money or food for almost two weeks. Everybody in the village was surviving on roots and leaves. The little girl finally gave up sir. Just the day before her father reached home. In time to light her pyre.”


“This is shocking! Did the government not do anything? You have social security here? Food rations?” “No social security for most marginal tribes and people sir. And many of us do not have ration cards. Maheshwar too did not have one. After that virus attack many of us have now been given ration cards. The state government had actually asked the Centre for ration supplies for people without cards but no help came. Then we read on social media that in just three months during the virus attack, our country allowed 65 lakh tonnes of food grains to rot away but none of it was distributed amongst the poor! Can you imagine sir, your own government that you have voted to look after your needs does not give you food when you are starving?”


“Unbelievable! This is just so sad. What are the hands symbolising?” “There are five hands sir, each hand for a section of society that allowed Nimmi to die. One hand is for the government. Second hand is for the judiciary, for they were mute spectators when this national calamity happened. You know sir, close to 3,500 migrant workers and their family members died in this time period due to lack of food and water. Third hand is for the media for only talking of cities, urban people and rich industrialists without highlighting our plight. Fourth is for the social scientists and trade unions who kept quiet and did not take to the streets to force the government into some action. Remember sir how entire US was protesting against the killing of a black man at the same time?” “Yes, I do. George Floyd. They finally had to pass those bills and make that amendment to the constitution. Yes, I do.”


“Here nothing of that sort sir.” “And the fifth hand?” “That is us sir. The migrant workers and marginal sections of our society who kept quiet and went through all the torture without raising one banner or placard. We too let Nimmi down.”


We had gotten back into the car and started off for the hotel after all the accident mess had been cleared up. “So when did this statue come up? Just after the Coronavirus pandemic?” “No sir, this came up recently…in 2031. After the new government came into power. The previous one lasted for 10 more years before we finally uprooted them. This new party of Liberal Socialists have enforced certain labour laws that were created but never implemented. They connected with Maheshwar Oraon and requested him to build this in memory of Nimmi and all the downtrodden.” “So, finally some form of justice Rajesh?” “Just a reminder sir, to each one of us that never again shall we allow this.”


As I drew the car into the porch and came to a halt Barry shook my hand and said, “Thank you so very much, Rajesh. I shall never forget this. Have taken some photos. Shall go back and tell my family about Nimmi. You seem to know so much…” “I should sir, after all she was my little sister!”


Avik Chattopadhyay is a senior brand strategist and consultant. He writes for MxMIndia mostly every other Thursday. His views here are personal

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