To the left of the street is a large, imposing gate, marking access to the plush South Delhi neighbourhood, New Friends Colony. A small, hand-painted sign declares the block number and a drowsy, gun-toting guard lazily asserts its exclusiveness.
To the right of the street, however, is the opening of a slim, dusty street that leads up to the banks of a wide, open sewer. The sewer itself is filled to the brim with garbage from the adjoining neighbourhoods that fill the surrounding air with a sharp, heavy stench. A wheezing mud bridge grants us access to the densely populated slum on the other side. Tiny lanes squeeze their way through a dense network of juggi jhopdis, allowing people and cows alike access to the slum’s inner secrets.
I cross the bridge, duck underneath a large sewage pipe and find myself in a relatively intimate portion of the slum, bordered by the open sewer on one side and a cowdung-laden mud wall on the other. In front of me is a small mound of garbage. On top of the mound, a ratty-looking man sits behind a large wooden desk, almost like a teller in a bank, holding a white plastic bag in one hand and a beedi in the other. He looks oddly clean today.
I had met the man on a few occasions before this and in every such occurrence; he would always greet me with a smile and offer up some far-fetched story from his colourful life. I usually received his stories in erratic, exaggerated bursts of Bihari Hindi. He had moved here, some ten-twelve years ago, from a small village in Bihar in search of work. His dream was to work as a clerk in a big city office but his illiteracy forced him to settle for driving a rickshaw instead. He claims he made a couple hundred bucks a day back then, most of which would go into food, rickshaw maintenance and the daily rent he paid to sleep in a room he shared with twelve other men. It was a tough life and it is probably the desperation for some kind of relief that pushed the man towards drug dealing. Nowadays, one could almost always find him sitting on the mound behind his trademark wooden table, with a white plastic bag full of small stapled packets of local marijuana.
I walk across towards the mound hoping to be greeted by his usual enthusiasm but am instead offered a blank stare. He mumbles something and quickly adds, “Kitne ka dun?” I tell him that I don’t want anything today and that I just want to talk. He looks at me quizzically, saying nothing, and I look back, equally intrigued. The man had almost always offered up conversation with no invitation but today, he seemed so reluctant. I look away and clumsily tell him I’m working on a project for college. He looks at me suspiciously and before I can say anything, vaguely responds that work of this nature always finds poor people like him. I could see now that the man was clearly afraid, not of me but of some unknown consequence. Nevertheless, I try again. I ask him how he got into the business of drug dealing, more confident now that my intentions were clear. He remains quiet initially, but after much prodding; stands up from behind his table, points towards a small hut in the distance and proudly announces that he lived in that hut all by himself. Isliye karte hain hum ye dhanda, he says. This is why we do this business. Giving me one final look, he sits down again, making it very clear that there would be no more questions.