The machine that used to be

A diverse crowd, with people ranging from the most powerful people to the least powerful people, squatted and stood around the pan stall that marked the entrance to the small village. Standing amidst the dust and the sounds that emanated from a constant flow of trucks and buses that passed through the tiny village, the stall had been iconic in shaping the recent history of the village.

Ram bhaiyya, as the owner was known fondly, had established himself as one of the most knowledgeable persons in the village when it came to village politics and the ‘what’s happening with’ questions that were asked around. The reason for his knowledge wasn’t the popularity of the pans he used to sell, but the daily discussions that cultivated at his pan stall. Everyone, from the Sarpanch of the village to the farmers and the passers-by, had time to visit his stall once a day. Of course, who wouldn’t like the free news service that Ram bhaiyya offered?

It was a tradition that had lived along through the generations, as people usually made a point to visit his stall at least once a day. Everyone from the Sarpanch in the village to the only sweeper in the village managed to wait at his stall to find someone to get to discussions which lasted hours. Ram Bhaiyya always tried to add fuel to the fire of the discussions and debates, making sure they continued on and on, thus trying to sell an additional cold drink bottle or a paan or a cigarette.

The time people spent at his stall was directly proportional to the quality of food at his home. If his earnings were poor, it was the trite dal chawal and if they were good, he used to buy fruits for his family which included his wife and two kids.

But his desperation for earnings had grown in the past one year or so, ever since people started buying mobile phones and landline connections became legacy devices. When the landline devices had arrived, he was the first person to sign up for one of the coin-operated machines provided by the telecom company, deciding to invest in the box as he could easily see the demand.

The village had a very small population, just above two hundred people so it made sense to have only one phone in the village which could be used by everyone. Also, since the cost of installation of such devices was high, no one actually wanted to invest high amounts in getting landline connections. Thus, Ram Bhaiyya had chosen to be the one who would earn using the device.

But with the rapid decline in prices of mobile phones, people were more than willing to buy a phone which they could carry wherever they went.

When he had bought the device, Ram Bhaiyya was proud of his investment sense, realizing he had invested in an asset whose value would only grow as people started getting accustomed to it. And it did. People valued the ‘Bijli’ device, as he fondly called it, more than the paans that he sold at the paan stall. While paans were a luxury, Bijli was soon a necessity.

On busy times, Ram Bhaiyya had to open his stall at 6.30 am in the morning and he would usually stay up until late night, sometimes even midnight. But the business was good, and he was able to sustain his family of 4.

Since Bijli became an integral part of the lives of almost everyone in the village, people had gotten into the habit of gathering around the phone to wait for their turns. As a result, this modest pan stall thus became one of the most common rendezvous for discussions and complaints about one person or the other. As the village adapted to mobile phones, thus abandoning Bijli, they didn’t want to change their venue for discussions. Ram Bhaiyya’s shop was still the go-to place for anything related to the village.

But today, the crowd didn’t seem in a mood to discuss the usual affairs. They stood silently looking at Ram Bhaiyya who constantly stared at the bright-red colored Bijli. It was only this morning that he had announced in the village that he would no longer provide the services of the landline device since no one was using it. The burden of maintaining the device was too much for him. He had to pay the phone company a fixed monthly device rental cost. The amount he paid was not recovered in the past three months, thus he could foresee the phone being a burden to his business.

The villagers were happy to use their phones, but they didn’t want to see the device go away. This machine was like a guardian of the village, readily available with its services anytime day or night.

Ram Bhaiyya was going to the nearby city today in the afternoon, where he would surrender the rented device and take his cash deposit back. He was in need of money, so he was trying to collect as much as he could. The initial investment in the device had paid off in the last three years, no doubt, but it was becoming a burden now.

“Bhaiyon aur behenon,” he announced, unable to look in the eyes of the villagers. He explained why he had decided to take such a radical step and why it was unavoidable for him to go through the tough decision. The company had demanded an increase in the monthly rental rate to Rs 200 for the device and was also increasing its calling rates. These two were the thresholds that pivoted Ram Bhaiyya to pull the plug. Of course, business and money was to be kept above the petty emotions, right? Ram Bhaiyya had arrived at the decision only after due deliberation, and there was no going back now.

To make sure that he gave a good farewell to his most successful business investment, he had already asked his friend who owned a jeep for a ride to the city later in the afternoon. The plan was to take the device to the city in a jubilant atmosphere, just like a bride. He had also arranged for laddoos for all the people who came to his shop today. The three big tin boxes of laddoos lay right in front of him, while the people watched. But no one cared about the laddoos, all they wanted was to keep the machine.

But Ram decided it was time to announce that there were laddoos for all of them so that it would be a happy farewell for Bijli. But as soon as he said this, one of the ladies in the crowd had tears drip down her cheeks. Within a minute, Ram’s eyes turned red and soon there were more people who started shedding tears with him. It didn’t take much long for the farewell to turn emotional, as stories about how the device had helped people during their times of need diffused into the air.

“You know, I had to admit my son to the hospital, and Bijli…” a woman started the discussions, which led to more cases and more grief for the owner of the stall and the villagers alike.

It was almost thirty minutes until the people turned back to Ram Bhaiyya, who by now had gone back to his home and brought back his small bag in which the device would be carried to the city. As he passed through the crowd towards the phone, everyone looked at him silently unplugging the device from the landline connection wires. Under the hood of the silence that was visible to the passers-by, everyone was anxious to see their Bijli go away.

“Thehro!” the new politician in the village finally uttered, noticing Ramu clean the dust one last time before taking the device back to the company. Everyone turned around to the politician, knowing he would try and politicize the issue by gaining the sympathy of the people around. People were certain he would make a speech about how the device had helped the village, thus making everyone emotional. But eventually, he would ask people to elect him as sarpanch in the coming election season, maybe promising them that he would get a device back from the company as soon as he was elected. But the villagers knew this would be a fake promise.

As people looked towards him placidly, Ram Bhaiyya continued with cleaning the phone one final time. He used his fingers to go through the gaps between the numeric keypad where dust had managed to stick in ever since he had bought the device. As the politician patted on his shoulder to gain his attention, Ram Bhaiyya turned towards him happily.

“What if…” the politician stopped as he was about to talk. His puzzled look was now confusing to the villagers, who were otherwise certain this was another one of his political gimmicks. It took the politician a few moments before he spoke again to Ram Bhaiyya.

“What are the expenses of keeping the device?” the politician asked, facing Ram Bhaiyya in his eyes.

“The charges are not affordable to me, bhai sahab. I cannot afford to spend money which doesn’t return me anything. Last month, there was not a single call made using the phone. Everyone uses their mobile phones nowadays…” Ram Bhaiyya explained his story.

“Tell me the amount it takes to keep the device here,” the politician cut him short.

“It takes Rs 200 every month to maintain it. But that is only a part of the expense. I had to deposit Rs 2000 initially when I had assured the company a deposit for maintaining the connection. It was expensive, but the investment paid off back then. Now, I am in dire need of money. I have been earning at the most Rs 2000 every month these days because of the paltry sales of other items from my stall. Survival is a big challenge, and I don’t want to keep my money hanging for an idle phone.”

“Hmm. But the other items at your stall… your shop seems to be busy all the time!”

“Yes, but people rarely buy stuff these days. My daily sales range anywhere between Rs 300 to 400. Imagine…” Ram Bhaiyya couldn’t speak as his throat ached.

The politician turned away from Ram Bhaiyya, and stared directly into the eyes of each villager standing there. He was aware that this was the perfect opportunity to win the coming panchayat election. Thus, with bright eyes and a loud voice, he announced.

The politician would pay Ram Bhaiyya the Rs 2000 for maintaining the landline device. Added to that, he agreed to pay Ram Bhaiyya an additional Rs 1000 as a token of appreciation for the services he provided to the village for the past 3 years. He also mentioned that Ram Bhaiyya would no longer have to pay the Rs 200 as rent, as the village didn’t need the telephonic service. They would just disconnect the telephone connection.

The phone was a symbol that needed to be protected. The village didn’t have a sophisticated museum, but the villagers knew very well that it was essential for the coming generations to know the importance of this phone. The phone had saved several lives, apart from providing happiness to several people who otherwise would have chosen to live in sorrow.

Elated with the announcement, Ram Bhaiyya promptly picked up the sweets that were still lying idle on the counter and distributed them among the villagers. Everyone was happy to pick one and pass along with a wide smile. After exchanging pleasantries and profusely thanking the politician for acting and not merely promising, the crowd soon started clearing up.

As the clock turned to 11.30 am, Bijli was still proudly squatting in its place. Ram Bhaiyya was sitting on his counter, humming a melody merrily.

Of course, he was happy. His plan to somehow get money for sustaining his business had succeeded. The politician had fallen into the trap just perfectly. He didn’t have to make any additional efforts to entice him, just ensure that the timing of the whole drama was perfect. And today proved to be the best day for the politician, just one week from the voting day for the coming elections.

The money was not too big, but he had plans to use this money to expand his business by providing mobile recharging services at his stall, thus making sure that the business stayed afloat. But right now, he was happy to sit behind the counter and celebrate his ingenuity.

A businessman had used his non-performing asset to extract capital for his next investment. A common man had learned how to leverage a politician’s weakness perfectly. At the same time, a politician had perfected how to win the hearts of his voters.

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