'And finally, Ladies and Gentlemennnn-ah…' the film-actress addressed the jam-packed crowd in the stadium as Neha watched the proceedings from the wings.
'The moment is upon us!' the actress screamed, and then let the moment fall silent, allowing it to soar and stretch across the bowl of the stadium, giving the crowd room, and encouraging it, almost willing it to enter into the instant's momentousness. The crowd did not fail her. It cheered in anticipation, sending a roar up into the dark skies. It was clear to Neha that they loved the actress, but what amazed her was how genuinely she loved them back. She might remember not a single soul from the crowd tomorrow, but right now, they were the only reason she existed. Neha marvelled at how the actress drew her sustenance from the arc lights, almost a form of photosynthesis, and then channelized that energy right into the crowd.
'The moment is upon us. But first-uh, we'd like you to see this special presentationnn-uh. I don't need to remind you that the show has created television history, becoming the most-watched show in the country evah!'
The crowd shrieked its approval.
'It's true, some people have criticised it, calling it exploitative-uh, but we live in a democracy and you are the final judges-ah. The record number of congratulatory messages that have poured in from every corner of the country is ample evidence-uh that you have all loved the show. Enjoy these glimpses…'
Bal, who was standing on the stage with the other two finalists, looked up open-mouthed at the massive screen, which was now showing clips of him singing. Hundreds of voices in the stadium sang along, bringing a smile to Bal's face.
Till only a few weeks ago no one had heard of him, not even people from villages close to his. But now, it would be difficult to find someone who wasn't familiar with his crinkled, weather-worn face, smiling that gummy smile that had graced the covers of magazines and billboards across the country. A high-pitched singing voice and a seemingly endless repertoire of folk songs and bhajans, though unrelated to the award, had pushed his popularity to stratospheric levels. In boardrooms and bedrooms, dance bars and discotheques (which played remixed versions of his songs), things were not complete if Bal was not mentioned, his current ratings discussed, debated or commented upon.
Neha caught Bal's eye and raised her eyebrows, acknowledging his nervousness and her own. They were, after all, partners in crime.
After the short presentation, the Bollywood actress explained the criterion for selecting the candidates for the award. People knew the process well but she built up the suspense: 'And now, ladies and gentlemenn-uh…on the auspicious night of Diwali – the 'Festival of Lights-uh' – when Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, transforms lives with her blessings, we will transform a life, too!'
A bright white light crisscrossed the stadium, evoking a loud cheer from the crowd.
'I present to you the winner of the award! But first-uh … to remind you what the winner gets-ah!'
The mammoth video screens displayed the prizes as she announced them. 'A luxury car, presented by Mr Khan himself; a cheque for rupees fifty lakhs, presented by the head of the Mahtani group of industries; free air tickets to anywhere in India for three years presented by Pelican Airlines-uh; a digital gift hamper by India's leading IT company; and finally, a four-bedroom house, complete with a swimming pool, presented by Mr Thambani, the richest Indian in the world! And now, the moment that you have all been eagerly awaiting for the past three months-uh…'
Really? Three months? It seemed like just three days ago when she had been travelling to the Khajuraho temples with her boyfriend on a motorbike. She could still taste the 'espesul' tea of the dhaba they had pulled over at; still feel the ah-so-soft give of the charpoy as she sat on it, sipping the tea from a glass tumbler held in both hands. She had keenly watched the evening breeze frolic with the mustard crop. The wind tickled the ribs of the yellow-capped plants, which seemed to be bending over with laughter. It was then that Bal had floated into her life, his high-register voice skimming the dancing yellow-green of the mustard fields. Since then, Neha had always imagined Bal's voice as having a bright yellow tone, tinged with a mustard flavour – earthy, pungent and overwhelming.
Mesmerised by the singing, Neha and her boyfriend had weaved their way through the fields to the nearby village. They had found Bal sitting outside a temple gate, singing a soulful bhajan. Neha had dropped a five-rupee coin on the mat.
'He won't touch it,' a small boy standing near the temple gate said. 'Only once in his life has he touched money, and he hasn't forgotten the thrashing he got for it!' The boy continued: 'Didi, please…' pointing to Neha's camera.
Neha was stupefied. Touched money just once in his life! Why, he was perfect for the reality show. She immediately e-mailed Bal's photograph, along with a video shot on the phone to the senior producer of the show, recommending Bal's name as an award probable. 'Go ahd,' came the text reply. After that, she stayed in the village for two days, piecing together Bal's story from conversations with the temple priest.
'There's nothing special about him,' the priest said, recounting Bal's tale. 'He's just a Dalit.' Without a family, nor even a recollection of ever having had one, orphaned at the age of three, six decades ago, adopted by the head priest and treated more like temple property than a person, Bal had only his smile to show for what he thought of life. He slept on the stairs that led up to the temple and when it was cold he slept in the cowshed. Being a Dalit boy, he was not allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. In return for two meals a day, he swept the temple premises, fed the cows, cut wood, watered the plants, plastered the floor outside the temple with cow dung and guarded the slippers that the devotees left outside the temple. Any lapse on his part meant either a sound thrashing or a missed meal, depending on the mood of the head priest. Bal didn't mind it too much. He was happy as long as he could listen to the bhajans at the temple, the tunes of which he stored in his untutored head.
And then, a Brahmin girl had changed his destiny with a one-rupee coin. A rupee given in appreciation for services rendered to feed the cows, a rupee accepted with enthusiasm, a rupee dropped in excitement, a rupee that rolled away in haste and had two bodies chasing after it, a rupee that brought the bodies colliding and crashing to the ground – Bal surprised to find himself on top of the girl.
Bal was thrashed within inches of death. His legs had never really healed, and he had walked with the help of a stick ever since. He was disowned by the temple, but having nowhere else to go he had become a fixture at the temple gate, where he sang his bhajans.
'Ladies and gentlemen-uh, before we present the award, please put your hands together for our expert jury members – Mr Misra, CEO of the Indya Bank; Mr Awasthi, CEO of OM Advertising Agency; and Mr Motilal, CEO of Micro Software Solutions…'
The crowd whooped as each name was called out.
Bal didn't understand what this was all about. He was under the impression that he was to sing bhajans to entertain people. One of the first questions that Bal had asked Neha was 'Are you a Brahmin, bitiya?' Neha had tried to explain to him that she was of no caste, that she was an atheist and didn't believe in the caste system, or god, for that matter.
'Not even Bhagwan Ram?' an incredulous Bal had asked. 'Ram lives in every heart, even of those who don't believe in him,' he had said, as if it was an immutable law. 'He is the one who digests your food, makes the blood flow in your veins, draws air into your lungs … He is the shadow of the tree when you are burning in the sun.'
'…As you all know, studies have shown, time and again, that Indians are amongst the happiest persons in the world-uh!' the film-actress was reaching the climactic moment of the evening. 'This, despite India being one of the poorest nations-uh. But that's not surprising at all. No, I don't find it surprising. Do you?'
The crowd, surprised at being addressed so suddenly, faltered.
'Do you?' she asked again.
'No!' the crowd roared back.
'That's right! Our culture reveres poverty, not material wealth-uh. And through this award-uh, we salute people who have been able to transcend their poverty. In fact-ah, that has been the main criterion for deciding the winner – someone who can be a role model for poor people around the nation. Someone who can show that there is great satisfaction in poverty. This year's award-uh goes to someone who has only once felt a one-rupee coin in his entire lifetime!'
The crowd went wild. Neha started jumping in the wings.
'And now-uh…' the film actress said, raising her voice to be heard over the din. 'I present to you … The Poorest-uh Person in the Countreeeeeee – Mr Bal!'
The announcement was in English and all Bal could understand was his name. He turned towards Neha who was already halfway across the stage towards him. She gathered him in her arms.
'Arre! What are you doing? You're a Brahmin girl!' Bal exclaimed.
Neha shook his frail shoulders and laughed. 'My caste doesn't matter anymore, Balji' she shrieked in his ears, over the noise of the crowd. 'And neither does yours!'
'Why? Why doesn't it matter?'
'Because now you're a rich man!' Neha shouted, 'You have more money than I do … than anyone here!'
'Money?' A nonplussed Bal asked, the fear peeping through the incomprehension in his eyes.
Neha explained the situation to him, speaking rapidly, holding on to the old man's frail shoulders to contain her excitement. When she finished, Bal staggered back, as if hit by a bullet, his eyes wide with terror.
'Hey Ram…' he whispered, and collapsed on the stage.
~ Salil Chaturvedi is a Delhi-based writer.