"Drifters of the world, don't stop for too long at any place," I want to say to the man who has come too close to the pot of boiling chai. His emaciated face has long dribbles of glue stuck in the brown beard. The chaiwala tries to wave him off with disdain. He has seen too many addicts like him.
The glue-sniffer looks towards all the customers sitting on the benches, his eyes pleading for a cup of chai. It is raining. I can understand his need. He is an addict and has already spent his money to enjoy a chemical haze. But I can show no pity, empathy or sympathy or compassion. Because I am like him, another drifter. Like the glue addict, I have reduced all human bonds to the minimum possible and now am only committed to my own euphoria. The only difference is the choice of chemicals, perhaps.
Drifters are only committed to soothing their own nerve endings with a chemical of their own choice. Nothing else. Not even each other. Not even money. Money is a means to an end, one's own calm.
Begging, holding on to demeaning jobs, breathing traffic fumes on the roads or the mouldy air-conditioned air in a multi-storied office building are all the same after a while. A drifter attaches to people for as long as a certain need is satisfied.
The chaiwala shows no signs of relenting and the chemical ghost is begging for a cup of chai. They are both trying to assert their life-choices. The chaiwala is a sedentary being, fixed assets and fixed values and a fixed amount to deposit in his account for the education, future businesses, and marriage ceremonies of his children. The glue-sniffer has nothing fixed except the bony frame of his body. Even that frame is at risk at night when he sleeps on the footpath or under the steps of an electronic superstore, wrapped in a stolen woollen blanket.
And now they are both trying to assert their values. If the chaiwala relents and gives him a cup of chai, he has helped the habits of a drifter. If the addict gives up too early, he is at risk of starving himself to death. Begging, like tolerating the insults of a boss, is a game of patience and the drifters have mastered it, elevated it to an art form.
All the drifters know fighting over values and ideologies is meaningless. Survival, without attaching to any cause, any social narrative, any grand scheme of things, is the ultimate value for a drifter so that he or she can enjoy his own chemical haze for as long as possible.
The chaiwala has started serving other customers and brushed off the nuisance. The drifter has moved to the side of the stove and is now hovering around for the warmth wafting off from the boiling pot. To me, it feels like hanging on to a job even after all the promotions have been denied, the bonuses channelled to other divisions of the company, the coveted office cubicle given to someone less capable.
Drifters are shameless hangers-on because they know honour is not conducive to survival. And they also know, despite all the insults and abuses and exploitation hurled at them, they have managed to carve out a space within themselves where they are untouchable, out of reach for all humanity. That is where they retreat and become immune to everything around them. A shouting father, a screaming spouse, a wailing child, an insulting shopkeeper, a heartless employer are not allowed to enter the warm inner igloo, carved with utmost care, in the middle of a barren landscape, after turning the powdery snow of human emotions into a medium of construction.
The emaciated hawk comes to me. I feel the urge to offer him a full meal and show camaraderie but check myself. That is against the unwritten, but universally known, manifesto of drifters. If a drifter helps another of his ilk, he is very likely to be robbed. Show a drifter your soft side and you meet the harshest truth of the world: property and solidarity based on shared identity invite violence. And drifters are always ready to teach this essential lesson to each other.
Published in The News on Sunday
dated April 05, 2009