Delhiwale: The flag wearer

He is sitting on his rickshaw saddle, by the arcades of a central Delhi avenue. It is late in the evening, and Pankaj Kumar is waiting for customers. He is in a very distinctive T-shirt—it is painted in stripes of saffron, white and green.

“It is our tiranga,” he says, confirming that the shirt is modeled after the national flag. “The jhanda (flag) is a symbol of our country, it is our pehchan (identity), whether we are rich or poor, Bihari or Bengali.”

Mr Kumar bought the shirt from a stall near the Red Fort. “It was expensive,” he notes, saying he had to shell out 250 rupees. This is almost as much as his daily income. He makes about 300 rupees everyday. “I know it is very low,” he says somberly, explaining that this drop in earnings took place following the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. “Earlier I would earn one hundred rupees a hour, and if I was pedaling for 12 hours straight I would make 1,200 rupees daily.”

In his late 20s, Mr Kumar, a native of Begusarai in Bihar, has been in the city since childhood, and has been a rickshaw puller for more than a decade.

Looking down at his shirt, he says that he takes very good care for it. “It represents our country’s flag. I cannot disrespect it,” he murmurs, his tone solemn and grave. Usually, he would wear the same shirt continuously during his working hours, day after day until it wears off, “but this one is so nice, I want to last it longer… I wear it every other day, and give it a wash when I’m not wearing it.”

Mr Kumar uses a public tap for washing and bathing. His house in Delhi is his rickshaw, he says, “where I sleep, eat and work.” Every night he returns to a patri (pavement) near the New Delhi railway station where he parks his rickshaw for the night. “That’s a night thikana (destination) for many rickshaw-wallas like me…. we all sleep on our respective rickshaws.“

What will happen when the T-shirt gets too frayed for daily wear? “Usually I throw away my clothes, but this one… “ — here he pauses, probably considering the disposal of the wear in question for the first time. “I will fold it carefully and keep it in the baksa (box) under my rickshaw’s seat…. it’s a nishani (mark) of our desh (country).”

Meanwhile, another rickshaw puller arrives, eavesdrops on the conversation and consequently gazes upon Mr Kumar’s shirt to see what the fuss is all about.

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