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When a stranger has nothing to give but does not let you go empty-handed

Vivian Fernandes

Updated: August 22, 2014, 4:43 PM IST
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While waiting to pick my daughter from New Delhi railway station at daybreak I consider wormhole-like ways to glide through time. The satellite-enabled train locator on the phone indicates it is some distance away from destination, but my daughter, relaying information supplied by an onboard chaiwallah says I should make haste from home because she is less than an hour away from arrival. It is a two-and-a-half hour error. After pottering around in Connaught Place, I head for news agency, UNI's canteen near Parliament. The guard says it will open in an hour. I park my car outside and get into a conversation with him. I find him quite engaging. He invites me to his cabin and we spend the next hour talking.

Jayant Kumar Jain is from Kota in Rajasthan. His family is in Agra where he was last posted after a stint in the border district of Kathua (in Jammu and Kashmir). Jain is not a guard. He was recruited as a messenger to jot down news received over the phone when reporters were not at their desks. I did not know this post existed in news organisations. 'Agra mein hamara rutba hota tha,' he says meaning he counted for something in that city. Upward mobility meant climbing to the posts of havaldar and clerk.

UNI's situation is so dire that salaries are paid with a lag of one year. Cussed unions forced Zee TV's Subhash Chandra out of the organisation after he had acquired it, accusing him of wanting to strip its assets. Those who professed love for workers have bled it dry. At the UNI head office in Delhi, there is no general manager. There is desolation. (The canteen, however, is such a draw it counts among its (take-home) clients, according to Jain, the Congress President and the person who tops India's list of billionaires, while his brother visits personally).

Jain has two years to retire. It is good that he has clung on. His present salary, though late in arriving, is much more than that of private security guards (always the minimum wage). When the new wage board award is applied (in September), he will earn double the amount he gets. With his salary, Jain maintains two establishments. His owns needs are Spartan. His son is a medical rep. He is trying to fit another into a job. Would Jain's family have done better if a market economy had replaced India's inefficient socialism? I am not sure.

Unlike many security guards who draw a blank when asked about places and situations around them, I find Jain well-informed. He eagerly told me about the canteens around UNI. He has many stories. He sounds defeated but there is a sparkle in his eyes. He seemed to be haunted by unknown fears. He slept lightly at night, just a couple of hours, and that worried him. Even the slightest sound in a place that is now a shadow woke him. Jain was conscientious and he could not get over the habit.

When I was about to leave, Jain pressed a small roll of newsprint into my hands. This guy had nothing to give but he would not let me go empty-handed! Truly what matters is not what you have but how big a heart you have.
First Published: August 22, 2014, 4:43 PM IST

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