The Old Man and the Queue

Look at the image carefully. The face of the man tells us countless stories of hardships suffered and misfortunes borne because of demonetisation. It is another matter that those who can and should ease his pain never even registered the photo in the first place.

This article was first published on December 17, 2016 and is being republished on November 8, 2018 to mark two years since demonetisation.

Major historic events, after a while, are represented only by their photographic representations. The details are forgotten, it is the images, and often just one image, that encapsulates the entire story and human drama that may have played out over months and years.

Thus, while we may not recall what exactly happened on the night of December 2, 1984, when lethal gas leaked out of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, we instantly recognise the photo of a father’s hands around his dead child’s face. Similarly, the running girl, naked because the napalm US planes had dropped had burned off her clothes, triggers off the memory of bombing in Vietnam. Other iconic images include the sailor kissing the nurse in New York – representing th symbolic end of the Second World War, and two memorable photographs – one of a sword-wielding man, out to taste blood, and the other showing a teary man with folded hands, begging for his life – tell the complete story of the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat.

Many such images are powerful in themselves; the story behind them enhances their power. By itself, the Hindustan Times photo of an old man crying, apparently because he lost his place in a queue to withdraw his pension, is the kind experienced photographers looking for human interest stories bring back fairly routinely. It is one of the many pictures that have appeared in the media in the past month or so, telling tales of the frustration and helplessness of ordinary Indians, of people shouting, crying and even dying as they try and access their own money. Yet, this one went viral on the social media, and has become symbolic of a decision gone horribly wrong.

It has become clear that the praja is suffering real pain, even as it is being told that all this suffering is for its own good and a way to serve the nation. Think of it as labour pains, our suave law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has said – the end result is pure joy.

To an extent, we have probably even got inured to the daily tribulations of those for whom small amounts of cash are the difference between eating and going to bed hungry at night. Stories about hardship are now fodder for the inside pages and will soon disappear from the media – you can’t keep doing the same stuff, can you? Besides, hasn’t the government and many more people, including film stars, said that it is actually a good thing? Time to move on to new stories.

Ironically, the photo, taken by Praveen Kumar, did not make it to the front page of his newspaper on the day it was published. But it became a hit on social media, where the human tragedy of Nand Lal, an old, former army man weeping struck a chord. It has become, six weeks after the brutal strike that has knocked out the livelihoods and dignity of millions of ordinary Indians, the iconic image that will for long come to represent demonetisation and its depredations.

Look at the photo carefully. The face of the man tells us countless stories of hardships suffered and misfortunes borne with fortitude. We now know that he lives alone in a small room and that he was a soldier; he would have faced enemy bullets and much else, but the failure to withdraw a few hundred rupees even after queueing up for three days proved just too much for him. Knowing that he would have to start all over again, and fully aware that at the end of it he may still come back empty handed, his dam just burst.

It is the others around him that give the photo its real meaning. The women may or may not be sympathising with him, but they don’t want to step out to console him because they could lose their place in the line too. Sympathy and solidarity must take second place to survival. The women’s faces are full of quiet desperation too, because they must get money, however little it may be, and go home, otherwise their families could suffer. The country is united in its suffering, but given that there is so little cash to go around and that even that is so difficult to get, it is each man or woman for themselves. Others’ sadness must wait.

We now know the old man was finally allowed to jump the queue and withdraw Rs 1000. Another photo shows him happy and grateful. The whole cycle could start once again when that money runs out, but for the moment he is happy with this small bit of good luck.

The pain of demonetisation is not going to disappear any time soon. And even when it does, the lives of the poor are not going to improve. The lines may disappear, but they will have to cope with a regime hellbent on imposing technology on to them; what if a limit of cash withdrawal is set as a permanent feature? We would be foolish to think of this radical step being a whimsical, one-off move; this is part of a larger plan to redraw the way not just the country is administered but also how citizens themselves run their lives. In the meantime, the lines show no signs of getting shorter and people no closer to getting hold of cash.

More stories and more images of hardship will emerge. It is possible that the world will forget Nand Lal and move on. But his image will remain seared in our collective memory, if not our conscience. It is another matter that those who can and should ease his pain will not face that dilemma because they never even registered the photo in the first place.