I’ve finally done it; I am now officially part of the mammoth national undertaking that is the Indian Census of 2010. I’ve been counted. And all it took was a month of missed visits and phone calls to and from my friendly neighbourhood census officer, frayed nerves and mounting stress on both sides and a grand finale worthy of a Hollywood summer blockbuster to get it done by deadline (July 15).
Here’s the thing. Everyone from our Prime Minister down has been sitting around debating what should be covered as part of the census — let’s call it the Caste Counting conundrum — and the deep philosophical implications thereof (“If caste is not covered in the census, does it mean it will no longer exist?”). But no one is talking about how ridiculous the task is logistically; I mean, how the heck does one go about counting one billion plus people?
Well, I got a bit of a glimpse into the process and let me tell you, it ain’t pretty. This is an undertaking of the Indian government, so naturally there is absolutely no system of any sort in place. The grand plan? Get together a bunch of hapless men and women, give them each a big, black carrybag with the big, broad census sheets attached to big, broad boards and then send them forth on foot on our crazy streets… at the same time everyday. (Just to make things more fun, they decide to get started at the height of our hideously hot and humid Chennai summer. )
Now what this means is that Mrs. A, my census lady, came to my apartment at the same time every afternoon for nearly a week and I was blissfully unaware of it. A parcel delivery guy comes once and if you’re not home, he leaves you a note, a number and an address you can contact him at. But I only come to know that my country’s trying to take my attendance when the sweet 70-something year old mami next door finally catches hold of me as I come home late one evening and anxiously passes on the message that Mrs. A’s been to my flat four times and wants me to call her on her cell. She gives me the number written in her neat, slightly shaky handwriting on a torn-off piece of paper, which, of course, I promptly lose.
About a week later, I meet Census Lady in person when she rings the doorbell just as I’m dashing out in the afternoon for a work assignment (I’d just happened to stop by to pick something up on the way). I am, as always, cutting it perilously fine. As in, I literally have every second of the next thirty minutes accounted for, and there’s no leeway for census officers who pop up out of nowhere. Unsurprisingly, our first meeting is not a success. She blocks my path and threatens to null and void my existence on the national census if I don’t give her the info she needs; I lose my cool and tell her I’ll lose my job if she doesn’t move out of my way right now. She points out she has a job to do too, and I calm down a bit and promise I will give her the details, will come to her office if need be, and give her my cell number as a peace offering. She drops the attitude and apologises for getting snippy; it’s just that she’d already come by five or six times on foot, and not found us there: “Please don’t take it the wrong way, meddam.” I tell her it’s just me and the husband here and we both work, so there’ll never be anyone home at this time, can’t she come in the morning? (This breathlessly as I run down the stairs – no electricity). She just looks at me stoically as we pause near my car, and says what is to become a familiar litany in the weeks that follow: “I am in office till 2 p.m., after that I’m coming for taking census.” I give up and jump into the vehicle; if I don’t hurry, I won’t have a job to be at the following afternoon.
That heralds the beginning of a strange new phone friendship between me and Mrs. A. She calls every now and again in the afternoon to say she’s at my door. Her faith is touching, really; clearly she believes if she rings a bell often enough, the door will magically open one of these afternoons. Either that or she’s not particularly impressed with my professionalism and doeesn’t think I’ll be holding on to this job for long. Each time I re-iterate with growing desperation and guilt that no, no, I’m not home, I’ll come to your office one of these days, I promise. But that day never seems to come; something seems to crop up every morning and I can’t make it. It reaches a point when I’m haunted by Mrs. A’s sad face in my dreams at night. “I’m coming to your house on foot, meddam… 10 times I’ve come.”
I do manage to make the time to go in search of her office one morning, only to end up getting lost. Forget finding Venkataratnam Nagar Ext, Ist street; no one seems to have even heard of the darn place. After driving around in circles for half an hour, I call her, only to hear her sniffly voice on the other end tell me that she’s sick and on leave that day. Sometimes you just have to admit defeat; I turn around meekly and head to work.
As per government regulation, she normally doesn’t work Saturdays, but that weekend, presumably because she’s now feeling a similar sense of desperation, she turns up at my flat. Needless to say, both the husband and I are working that particular Saturday and no one’s home. By now, I’m starting to feel quite miserable every time ‘Census Lady’ flashes on my cellphone.
Determined to put an end to this continuing torture, I finally track down the phantom government office on the phantom street (turns out it’s nestled somewhere in the heart of Kasturba Nagar… who knew?) on the morning of July 14 (one day to deadline. It’s now or never.) In a quiet, shady cul-de-sac in the middle of the residential neighbourhood stands the nondescript building with an Ambassador out front bearing a ‘Govt of India’ license plate (some things never change, I think fondly). I’m feeling rather cheerful as I bound up the stairs; it’s almost over now. I enter expecting a scene of utter chaos… they are, after all, counting a million or so households, but all I find are four elderly men and women silently sitting behind their computer screens, and nothing much else. One of them, Kindly Old Man No. 1, tells me, to my disbelief, that Mrs. A is ‘on leave’ and my bubbly mood fizzles out completely. A sense of being in some sort of neverending nightmare comes over me; was I not meant to be part of the 2010 census? Was it all some sort of elaborate joke? Kindly Old Man No. 2 seems to sense my desperation and asks me which street I live on, clearly wanting to help. But he sadly shakes his head when I tell him. “I’m doing only fusst main road, ma.” A couple of calls later, and we uncover the final cruel twist to the story; today was the one day Mrs. A decided to break the rules and go to take census before coming to office.
Close to tears now, I call Mrs. A, and tell her in a wavering voice that I’m in her office while she, apparently, is one street away from my home. Desparate times call for desparate measures, and Mrs. A takes the situation firmly in hand. “Come to the corner of the main road by the hospital. I will wait there… maroon sari,” she tells me somewhat cryptically. Grasping at straws now, I follow the instructions obediently and make my way there in record time. I park and look around furtively, feeling for all the world like I’m trapped in some B-grade Tamil spy movie… but no maroon sari. And then, suddenly, the trees across the street seem to part and the sari appears in my field of vision, as autos and cyclists whiz by. I feel like dramatic music ought to be swelling in the background. I lean forward to open the car door and signal to her, but Mrs. A seems to recall my car and comes straight towards me with a smile. I’ve never been this happy to see a maroon nylon sari, sensibly oiled plait and big, black census bag before in my life; we’re virtually like long-lost friends being reunited after decades apart. “Sorry meddam, I’ve really taken up your time and troubled you,” she says as she gets into the car. “No, no, I’m sorry,” I say, beaming like an idiot.
The actual census-taking process is over ridiculously fast — we cover the number of rooms in my house, whether we have a radio or internet connection, our birthdays etc. at record speed. She apologises again, saying she’d have just gotten the details over the phone except that I have to sign the form. You don’t have to apologise, I tell her.
She says with a sigh as she puts the forms away, “If everyone who missed the census visit took the trouble to come and give me the information like you, my job would be a lot easier.”
And just like that it’s all worth it. As I watch, she hefts the bag on her shoulder and walks over to some hawkers nearby, obviously asking for directions, the noon-day sun beating down on her maroon sari and her sensible plait. The sheer enormity of the task she and all those men and women in the office I’d visited had dawns on me. It’s a thankless job, and I’m just glad that I did my bit to help out.