Being part of the national census is a humbling experience. It strips you of your individuality and reduces you to a handful of loose descriptions. You may think you're the cat's whiskers — CEO or Director of this, that or the other. You may fancy yourself to be a champion baker, or a superb bathroom singer, or the proud owner of a mobile with a ring-tone like a bleating goat (this last gave me a mild shock one evening, in a lift). But you're not unique at all, just one in a billion, one barely discernible face in an ocean of a billion and counting.
Now I'm talking of the census and not the UID of which I am thoroughly suspicious (as loyal readers would remember me saying a year and a half ago) and which, through biometric tagging, would swallow my eyeballs and fingerprints. Ooh, gives me the creeps, it does. Maybe I've been seeing too many sci-fi flicks but it reminds me of those electronic spiders in “The Minority Report”. The national census, on the other hand, is disarmingly human, and for this very reason, prone to flaws and prejudices. When the census-taker (in my case a schoolteacher accompanied by a pint-sized assistant) comes knocking at your door, you welcome her into your house and patiently answer her questions because you can see that she is bumbling along as best she can. When she hits upon suitable categories into which she can slot you, you share her relief.
This was the same woman who had visited me last year and left me a piece of paper with her name at the bottom, misspelled in English, while Pint Size had fixed a round, blue-and-white sticker on our front door. She had assured me that the piece of paper would entitle me to a card, but what kind of card she was rather vague about. I did not remind her of this promise when I met her this time. She was double-checking some of the data she had collected, she said. Pint Size sat next to her as a sort of mechanic's assistant, his duty apparently being to hand her the requisite tools.
My name? I gave it to her. She searched and failed to spot it. I spelt it out for her. Then it dawned on her that there was a husband in the picture. Why didn't I give her his name in the first place? “Head of the family, head of the family,” she cried reproachfully. Her prejudice and that of the Government of India was a perfect match. I did not exist as an individual. All information about me was stored in the ‘husband' docket. Should I have delivered a lecture on feminism at this point? It would have been a total waste of breath. Besides, combining two in one saves paper and duplication. I wonder, though, what she would do in a house where the husband was unemployed and the wife the breadwinner. A government that has been stunningly open-minded by including a new category this time, of Third Gender, can surely create another, of househusband. And then again, what if the couple weren't legally married? Would they still be counted as one unit? Same sex couples would probably have to wait till the next census for their existence to be recognised.
I guess the national census is no occasion for one to make ideological statements. One should simply choose the line of least resistance. For instance, our census-taker wanted to know our religions. Instead of finding out whether there was a No Religion category, I reasoned that religion being an important index for the GOI to gauge the status of groups, particularly minorities, I could as well state the obvious without making a fuss. The same logic should apply when they come around for the caste census.
Place of Birth was easy but the related question caused unease. Everything in me rebelled against being labelled a migrant (wasn't 33 years of living in this city enough to consider it my home?) but I meekly replied to her question about Purpose of Migration and whether (and here she sounded rather like an astrologer's board) it was Job, Education or Marriage.
If I were a boy who had run away from home because my father beat me, what reason would I give for having migrated to this city? Unhappiness, sadly, is not a category.
Neither, surprisingly, is Media. Under our job descriptions, we had to suffer the ignominy of being lumped under “Other”. Naturally, there was no such category as Freelance, either. I described what I did and she frowned. Entrepreneur? No, that didn't sound right. After much scrutiny of the paper in front of her, her brow cleared and she said triumphantly, “Single Worker”.
Single as in independent, I suppose, and not a reference to marital status. And worker — a touch of the blue collar there. I was no different from a street vendor or a sex worker without a pimp. I liked that.
After she had completed her task and we had said our goodbyes, Pint Size stuck a round, red-and-white sticker on my door to keep the blue-and-white one company. Now you know who I am. Migrant single worker wife.
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Keywords: census 2011