The Fixer - Granta Magazine

The Fixer

Snigdha Poonam

Small-town politics and power within an Indian bureaucracy.

On 3 June 2014, Pankaj Prasad happened to be on the state highway winding through Bharno when a group of angry villagers ambushed two young men speeding away on a motorbike, the one riding pillion pressing a fleshy goat under his right arm. The beating of the goat thieves started immediately. Some in the mob had lost prized pets in the recent past, and they were soon joined by dozens of other victims of what seemed to be a goat theft syndicate organized along neatly demarcated bits of turf. Prasad, a practiced rural stringer, reported that two hundred people had registered their goats as ‘missing’ over the past few months in his article on the incident for the local edition of a regional Hindi newspaper.

I’d found the piece on Facebook, where Prasad had shared a link. I had first met him when I came to Bharno two months earlier. That had been election campaign time, and Rahul Gandhi, the Nehru-Gandhi heir and the Congress party’s prime ministerial candidate, was on a tour of Bihar and one of India’s new states, Jharkhand. It was a potentially historic day: Gandhi was coming to address a rally at a fairground barely ten kilometres away. As we waited and waited along with thousands of others, looking to the sky for any sight of the haloed helicopter, Prasad told me Gandhi would be wasting his time. The region’s insurgent youth wanted opportunities, not the blessings of a charming dynast. They had made their choice. It was going to be Gandhi’s rival, Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi, a man who had promised them things that mattered: jobs, salary packages, a promising future. By 4 p.m., the local Congress volunteers, stalling, had exhausted their paeans to the Gandhi family and moved on to extemporizing poems about trees and flowers to the crowd. As another hour passed and restlessness turned to commotion, the volunteers announced what they had known for some time – Gandhi had changed his mind. I turned back to tell Prasad he was right but he had already left. Six weeks later, the BJP won twelve of the fourteen parliamentary seats in Jharkhand. Congress got none.

By mid-June, Modi was settled in Delhi and I was back in Bharno. I had come to ask Prasad all he knew about the goat thieves, twenty-one-year-old Ramzan Kotwar and eighteen-year-old Azmer Khan, now lodged in the district jail in Gumla for ‘theft of property’. That summer I had moved back home to Ranchi, the chaotic capital of Jharkhand and the urban centre closest to Bharno, to write about the ways in which young people in small towns negotiated the massive socio-economic changes sweeping through the country. No two lives went the same way, of course – for every daughter of a fruit seller making it to the Indian Institute of Management, there was an industrialist’s son who joined the Maoists. If the regional newspapers celebrated the new spending power of the twenty-somethings, they also noted the unglamorous things some of them were doing to get by. Stealing goats, for one. The inside pages were full of two-column reports from all over the state on what they declared was turning into an ‘epidemic’. Over the next month, Prasad and I made rounds of the district headquarters in Gumla, an imposing office complex where more people touted their direct line to officers than there were officers, to get the various permissions required to visit the young men in jail.

In Indian media and advertising, young people are mainly being projected as vessels of breathless aspiration. All over the country, it seems, armies of English-learning, brand-conscious young men and women want opportunity, and they want it now. The sweeping victory of Modi, the ‘youth icon’, in the latest Indian elections was attributed to the hunger of India’s young to be assimilated into a globalized world where how well you do depends on how badly you want to do well. For those in India’s small towns, the first step towards this dream is to get out. That’s what I did, as a twenty year old feeling entirely hopeless about her prospects in a town defined by the word ‘small’. It was only after meeting Prasad that I started to wonder obsessively about what the options were for a twenty-four year old who was as desperate to move up as any other young man in the country – but who had decided against taking the next train out to Delhi, or becoming someone he was not.

Prasad is a doer. He believes, vociferously, in performance, targets, in how much you make at the end of a day and how you use that to improve the quality of your life. It frustrates him to see young people resigned to their circumstances, be it the colleagues who will always remain stringers, or his brother, who is satisfied with whatever he makes driving an autorickshaw. Prasad believes it is through the sheer power of thinking big that he, the twenty-four year-old-son of a small-time construction supervisor, is a man of increasing importance in the block.

A block, not to be confused with a village or a town or a neighbourhood, is one of the last links in the long administrative chain of the Indian government. Physically, it’s a cluster of small villages arranged around a set of office buildings where important decisions concerning the residents of the villages are executed, tall boundary walls separating the rulers from the ruled. If that sounds like an insignificant entity in the grand set-up that is the Indian system, which governs over 1.25 billion people, then Bharno – with its sixty-nine villages and 70,000 people – is but a blip on the radar. It is a block in Jharkhand, a state known vaguely to the rest of the country as a tribal-dominated place that hasn’t been able to progress despite being stuffed with minerals. Jharkhand was carved out of its parent state of Bihar in 2000 to do right by its native tribal population, and is now dealing with a widespread Maoist insurgency provoked by an ideological disgust with the plunder of tribal land, forests and mineral reserves by the government and multinational corporations. The movement has spiralled out of control, with splinter groups fighting daily turf wars. The police believe that young men join these groups to settle personal scores, or because they are tempted by the government’s policy to reward surrendering rebels with cash. In Gumla, one of the state’s ‘affected’ districts, a local jail superintendent whispered to me, ‘Every day, five or six young men get together and form a Naxal group.’ Within Gumla district is the Bharno block – described on Wikipedia as ‘an almost developed place’.

The Bharno block office

My family had lived in a series of such blocks in the initial years of my father’s career as an officer within the state administration, and now my sister has chosen the same life. One of her first postings was as the ‘block development officer’ of Bharno – referred to as the ‘BDO’. Block-level officials are never mentioned by their names, but only through the acronyms of their designations: CO (circle officer); BPO (block programme officer); JE (junior engineer). They are only the sum of their powers, sign-and-stamp authorities that keep changing faces. Irrespective of the dramatic pace of block-level postings and transfers, villagers come to the headquarters in an endless stream every day for the same two things: to enrol in welfare programmes or to complain about the functioning of welfare programmes.

The sarkar (Hindi for ‘government’) is an intimidating thing for the average block resident, an entity as inscrutable as it is inaccessible. I grew up amidst stacks of files and folders with content so convoluted I would wonder how anyone understood them. The gap between the aam aadmi (common man) and sarkar is the widest at the very bottom, where the government deals with the people least aware of what they are owed by those in charge. Even those who know their rights find it quite a task to claim them. Nobody is considered more resourceful in a block than the person who knows how to work the government.


This is what makes Pankaj Prasad the man to know in Bharno. Of course, you can’t tell this from looking at him. Prasad, a slight man with an oval face and big eyes, looks much younger than twenty-four – even the well-combed moustache and short hair worn in a side part refuses to produce the gravitas that should accompany a man of such local prominence. But Prasad is determined to approximate the appearance of a man with responsibilities – buttoned-up striped shirt, a ballpoint pen in his breast pocket, ironed pants, black belt, an old-fashioned dress watch. The only concession he allows himself is open-toed sandals.

Rural stringers are said to be wily figures, manipulating the local networks of power to further their own interests. There are many stories of people who enter this line of work with the intent to run dodgy businesses freely – an unlicensed alcohol factory, perhaps, or an extortion racket. Prasad’s initial ambition, in comparison, was small: he wanted to be a fixer, an intermediary between the state and its neediest citizens. All he wanted was to make five hundred rupees every day.

Prasad makes most of his daily income from his house in Domba, or Dumba, a farming village of nearly two thousand families only a short drive from the block headquarters. You recognize the entry to the village from a painted noticeboard on the state highway, calling on Domba residents to enrol under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a government scheme providing a hundred days of daily-wage employment a year to rural households. You pass a long stretch of stock rural scenery – farmers bent over fields of brinjal and wild gourd, sloping huts, loitering cows, men playing cards in a chai shop, a dysfunctional solar panel – before reaching Prasad’s envy-of-the-village house, a two-storey structure painted powder pink, as if blushing on account of its singular beauty. Most visitors to the house don’t go in the main door. They are expected in Prasad’s office, a glass-fronted enclosure attached to the main building and with its own entrance. Painted on the glass in bright red is a list of services offered: ‘Aadhaar registration, MGNREGA wage distribution, bank account opening, old-age pension, widow pension, passport photos, railway ticket booking, mobile phone recharge . . .’

I was taken straight to the living room. On my way down a long corridor I had to step around workmen fitting white marble tiles onto the cemented floor. Prasad had bought the tiles the previous week, he said, ticking another thing off his long list of life goals. I sat in a plastic chair and ran my eyes around the living room – a box-framed television set on a wheel-fitted stand, framed photos of the family on the walls, plates of biscuit on a fabric-covered table before me. He asked me what I thought of the house. I told him he had done a good job with it. He was far from pleased. The day was a disaster, he would later tell me – his father was roaming around in a lungi and vest instead of a clean shirt and a pair of pants as instructed; his mother had gone to wash in the village pond even though he had recently arranged for piped water in the bathroom; everyone was talking to me in the native Sadri instead of Hindi; children were peeking from behind doors instead of presenting themselves before me and saying hello. He said he understood it would take time for his family to adjust to its changing status. It wasn’t so long ago that they were as luckless as anyone else in the village.

Eight years earlier, when his father was unable to find work for months, Prasad, who was then sixteen, urged him to buy two things with the fifty thousand rupees he had saved: a computer and a digital camera. Prasad proceeded to hang a blue sheet from a wall of his tiny old house, and announced he would start making passport-sized photos – sixty rupees for a set of eight photos, 120 for sixteen. His family thought he had gone mad, but Prasad wasn’t concerned. They hadn’t shown any particular faith when he, as a sixth-grade student in Domba’s government school, had pestered his father for a mobile phone, the first in the village. They knew what he was on to after he started going home to home offering it to people to make calls – for a small fee.

Few favours can be demanded of the Indian government without the submission of a passport-sized photograph, and there was no reason why people should travel twelve kilometres to the district headquarters to get a service that was available within a kilometre. It was 2006; the two-year-old Congress-led government was announcing one welfare scheme after another and everyone needed passport-sized photos. The photographs came out awful, he told me, holding up a blurry impression of a young woman’s face from four years ago. All he had for lighting equipment was a white fluorescent tube, but nobody ever complained.

This was the beginning of Prasad’s life as Bharno’s go-to man. In 2009, the Congress-led coalition came back into power, launching its most ambitious social scheme yet: the Unique Identification project. It planned to issue every Indian citizen a twelve digit unique identification number linked to one’s scanned irises and fingerprints. This ‘Aadhaar’ number would smooth the passage of benefits from sarkar to citizens.

In 2012, the same government made it mandatory to have an Aadhaar card in order to receive any state benefit, starting with MGNREGA wages. This led to some commotion in rural areas. To apply for an Aadhaar card, you needed proof of your address: a bank statement, a driving licence, a ration card, an electricity bill, a passport. These documents all presume a lifestyle unlikely to be found in a Jharkhand village. Since there is a way around every hurdle the sarkar throws in its citizens’ way, one was found. A village panchayat could give you an application form that turned into legitimate proof of address if you filled in your address, stuck on a passport photograph and got the local village council chief to sign it. Passport-sized photographs were back in demand. ‘My brother, my father, I, all of us took photos day and night for weeks,’ Prasad told me. He made around one hundred thousand rupees by the end of the year.

Many photo studios have now opened in the block, but Prasad’s is still the only one in his village. He saves the raw photos in a folder on his desktop screen, a remarkable visual archive of the stoic faces of the Indian government’s aspiring beneficiaries. There is no reason why they should go on an application form and out into the world so utterly bereft of glamour, reasons Prasad. So every day at 3 a.m. he gets up from his bed, turns on the computer, opens Photoshop and works on these faces. When he is done, he prints them out.


One afternoon in August, Prasad took me to his home office, sat me down on a plastic stool and turned on his computer. As if on cue, the children outside dropped whatever game they were playing and pressed their noses against the glass. It was still the only computer in the village, and much of the aura around Prasad came from the fact that he had mastered the machine. Even the wealthiest businessmen in the area had to come to his house when they wanted to look up the latest model of luxury car. Prasad opened the folder containing passport photos yet to be processed. It was a mixed bunch. He wanted to pick a woman, but the only one in the lot was old and withered. He decided to go ahead anyway. It was a challenging face for him – dark skin, sunken eyes, furrowed brows. He was going to do just the basics, he said. It started with the smoothening of her skin into a flawless tone, followed by shaping the eyebrows into neat, evenly-filled arcs, outlining her eyes with kohl, making them pop and giving them a bit of twinkle. The makeover was finished with three or four rounds of lightening the skin tone. The last step was important.

Within a couple of years of its inauguration, the photo studio had become an assured source of income and Prasad had started thinking of other ideas. By 2008, he was selling subscriptions for a regional daily, so when the paper was looking for a stringer from his block he offered his own services. He loved to read and write, and had published a few articles in a local magazine published in Sadri, the regional language. The new job would pay him three thousand rupees. Most of what he reported on was everyday stuff for the area. In Pahartoli village, a sub-zonal commander of the People’s Liberation Front of India, a home-grown Maoist outfit, shot his relatives over an old family feud. In Bodekera, another sub-zonal commander of the PLFI shot a member of a voluntary peace force working in the village. An acquaintance of the victim disliked his blossoming intimacy with his niece and invited him over for khassi-bhat (mutton curry and rice), a commonly deployed trap in the region. The PLFI men were waiting outside as he left the house, drowsy from dinner. In Bedo, the deputy chief minister said that the state’s youth needed to pick up books instead of guns to face up to reality.

Other reports from Kehsri were no more uplifting: in Londra Magra Toli, a villager crushed the head of the panchayat president with a stone for ignoring his requests to be enrolled in a welfare scheme. Across Bharno, Prasad reported, middlemen were demanding bribes of 1,500 rupees to facilitate a loan of 15,000 rupees from the government-run Bank of India. In Supa, police were hunting two youngsters who had fallen in love over ‘missed calls’ and run away from home to marry each other; the girl’s family, Muslims, had charged the boy, Hindu, with abduction and sexual abuse.

Prasad told me he didn’t understand young people who did risky things for love. Why would anyone need to marry outside one’s caste when there were so many options available within? he argued. There wasn’t a lack of marriageable girls in his community of Hindu Kayasths, at least. It wasn’t going to be anyone in Bharno, though, because the local girls didn’t meet his approval in either looks or brains. What he wanted, deep in his heart, was to marry a girl from Ranchi, the city, where they appeared to be pretty and knew how to carry themselves. Why not someone from Delhi, which is famously full of beautiful and fashionable girls? I would tease him. ‘Arre nahin, nahin – kya baat karte hain?’ (No, no, what are you talking about?) he would say. ‘Sasur mar gaya toh rajdhani mein char hazaar ka ticket le ke jaana padega’ (It would cost four thousand rupees to go to Delhi in a train if my father-in-law were to die), he said, with an air of deep concern.

One day in August, he took me to see his girlfriend, a tribal girl from a neighbouring village who was training to be a nurse. They first met a few years ago, in a computer coaching class where he taught off and on, and had been talking over the phone for a year now. They avoided seeing each other in person as it would complicate things; since marrying someone outside of his caste was out of the question, there was no point getting any closer than this. On this day, too, the ‘meeting’ was kept short: we drove past her village and she came outside her house and waved at us. Lately, he had begun to wonder if she was even his girlfriend anymore. Her phone was busy every time he called. He had a gift in mind for her. Her family, which he described as extremely poor, had applied for a loan under the state housing scheme, and he was planning to use his clout with the block officers to have it approved. But perhaps it was too late for that. His Facebook updates, always posted in the middle of the night, were often lines from sad love songs out of old Hindi films. I wondered if he was heartbroken.

He called me up one day to ask what I thought of his new profile picture on Facebook – he had Photoshopped his own passport-sized photograph. I told him his skin looked so fair I could no longer distinguish his features. He now had a smartphone, and was using it to chat with Facebook friends, some of whom were girls he had no way of knowing in person. At least one of them was from Scandinavia. Some of these connections could be further explored, he said, if he could chat in English, but that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Prasad doesn’t know much English and doesn’t make a big deal about it. He doesn’t have the time to sit in an English class, although coaching institutes offering quick fluency in English are popping up all over the district. He is more interested in knowing the ways of the English-speaking world. He asked me what it was that English-language journalists wrote about – was it really very different from the kind of reports he filed? ‘English mein bhi upanyas chapta hai?’ (They print novels in English as well?) he asked another time, seeing what I was reading. He knows English as a language of purpose, not entertainment. Prasad told me that at night, sometimes, he translates a paragraph or so from the English-language magazine I send him every month into Hindi, using translation software on the internet.

In 2009, Prasad became a VLE, or a Village Level Entrepreneur, turning his office into a photo studio cum news bureau cum Pragya Kendra. A Pragya Kendra, or common service centre, is a way to get someone with a computer and an internet connection working to ensure village-level delivery of government – and private-sector – services. A VLE doesn’t earn a fixed income, but gets a commission, a few thousand rupees, to ensure a fixed number of service deliveries. To become a VLE, one needs to know how to work a computer and the internet, show ‘entrepreneurial ability and networking skills’ and invest 75,000 rupees in setting up the centre. Prasad was found to be an eligible candidate for a cluster of villages around his own.

The job gave him a great deal of authority: the ability to issue caste and income certificates; to open bank accounts and make transactions; to dispense state pensions to old women, widows and the disabled; to pay wages for work under the rural employment guarantee scheme; to book train tickets and to prepay mobile phone charges. Most of this new agency was contained in a fascinating piece of equipment resembling a credit card swiping machine, called a micro ATM. Prasad would pay the villagers in cash from a set amount allotted to him by the government. One didn’t need to make several trips to the block office any more, or to sit in supplication before the local officers. The queue outside his house began at the crack of dawn. A white towel now covered the back of his leather chair, announcing sarkari authority.

Power rarely comes without its usual seductions in the mofussil world. Once in a while, Prasad’s visitors hand him a fifty or one hundred rupee note after he issues a caste certificate or enables a bank transaction. The first time it happened, he told me, he didn’t know whether to be sad or happy. Then he got over it. The villagers aren’t used to getting anything from the sarkar for free. To Prasad, it isn’t corruption but survival. Why should he feel guilty for taking an occasional bribe of fifty rupees when the people who were actually in charge were rolling around in millions? A previous chief minister of the state had been arrested for a mining scam amounting to thousands of millions; he was said to have allotted iron and coal mining licenses to corporations at artificially low rates. Forty per cent of the allocated foodgrain did not reach the target population under the public distribution system, only about half of the houses commissioned under the rural housing project were built and losses under MGNREGA, overrun with fudged muster rolls and fake job cards, stood at hundreds of crores. The system is rotten and it isn’t Prasad’s fault.

This June, Prasad became a registered Aadhaar operator, a man authorized by the government to receive application forms, record biometric details and issue Aadhaar cards. It was another four thousand rupees a month. Being a registered Aadhaar operator meant he got a proper office in the block headquarters, a small, poorly lit room in a leaky building where the elaborate Aadhaar machine was set up on a desk. For a few hours every day, Prasad sat purposefully in a chair behind it, scanning irises and double-checking names and addresses. An identical machine was installed at his home office, now a photo studio cum news bureau cum Pragya Kendra cum Aadhaar centre.

The afternoon crowd outside Prasad’s common service centre

The crowd outside his house was growing bigger. It also seemed more desperate. Prasad’s was the only common service centre for five villages, and a considerable number of locals walked a considerable distance to get there, clutching sheer plastic bags in which they’d put any document that certified their identity. On a day shortly after the new addition to his work portfolio, I walked in to see him surrounded by a group of wailing villagers as he crouched in his chair holding a sheaf of application forms. Unable to hear any of them, he led them out and closed the doors. Prasad then organized the forms into a pile, scanned the one on top and opened the door, calling for Suko Devi. In came a woman bent over from the waist, using her walking stick to edge past the press of people at the front. Suko Devi was eighty years old, had travelled five kilometres, and needed an Aadhaar card made in order to receive her old-age pension, six hundred rupees a month. After making her sit as upright as she could against the white dhoti, Prasad held a web camera to her terrified face, checked the reflection on the computer and, satisfied, clicked the ‘submit’ box at the bottom of the online application page.

Next, he rubbed her fingertips on a wet towel and pressed them against the clear, gleaming top of the fingerprint scanner. The equipment failed to register any reading. Dirt had settled too deep into the cracked skin of her hands. Weary of the process already, Suko Devi asked Prasad if it wasn’t natural for someone who worked with cow dung every day to have such textured skin. Just a few weeks into the launch of the Unique Identification scheme, the Indian government had realized that the majority of people it aimed to cover had labour-roughened hands, but it was too late – and nothing a little dab of oil or Vaseline couldn’t solve. Prasad wet the towel again, ran Devi’s fingers over it a few more times, and pressed them to the scanner. Five attempts and the job was done. Devi was back on the stool and staring, wide-eyed, into a telescope-shaped iris scanner Prasad held in front of her face, one eye at a time. It took only three attempts. Prasad took her thumb impression on the form and slipped it into a bulging folder. Suko Devi quietly gathered her things and walked out.

Prasad moved on to the other ‘customers’. As they left, some of these people gave Prasad money, anything from thirty to one hundred rupees, that he slipped into a drawer. He explained, more to himself than to me, that it was money he was going to use to give them a better service, such as laminating the Aadhaar cards he printed off the website. He had to be more careful about it, though. He couldn’t just take money every time someone offered it or from anyone who offered it. He was watching his back, he told me. There were people who wanted to bring him down, none more badly than his former equals.


One day in September, Prasad woke up to find himself exposed in the local edition of a rival newspaper. It was written by a fellow stringer. The report quoted a man saying that he had paid Prasad a hundred rupees after receiving an Aadhaar card at the block office. Prasad was summoned to the CO’s office, along with the man quoted in the report. The man was asked if he gave Prasad money. He said yes. Prasad was asked if he took it. He nodded in confession. ‘I asked the officer then if it was unfair to accept a little money from someone for earnestly doing his work,’ Prasad told me over the phone. The officer thought about it – and said it didn’t seem all that wrong. But she also told him he couldn’t use the block headquarters for the Aadhaar work any more.

Prasad told me he wasn’t going to let the incident affect him. He has taken on so much work that there is no time to think about anything else. In his free time Prasad now takes photographs for the beneficiaries of Indira Awaas Yojana, the state housing scheme. Under it, the government releases 75,000 rupees to a villager in three equal installments: at the beginning, halfway through and upon completion of construction. A beneficiary needs to show work-in-progress photographs to get the last two installments. Prasad charges a total of five hundred rupees to shoot the two stages. For two or three thousand rupees he also digitizes survey data for the district administration. When waiting for someone to arrive, he pulls out a phone and types reports as dictated to him on another phone by semi-literate stringers he is still friends with.

In Prasad’s own conception of himself, he is still a small man struggling against an unfair world. On 15 August, Independence Day, Prasad called me to say that the real freedom for India would be freedom from corruption. As he sees it, the difference between him and the people hunched outside his house is that he understands the system for what it is and uses it for survival, while they live their lives first in ignorance and then in fear of the system. He has, at twenty-four years of age, built a spacious pakka house for his family and equipped it with things that he thinks of as building blocks for decent living – a television set, a geyser, a mixer-grinder. If he hadn’t done this, his family would still be living in the one-room house without electricity and running water that he had pointed out to me earlier. I often wonder if Prasad would have been the same person if I had met him a few years later. If he keeps rising at this rate, he will soon be making a far bigger commission than fifty rupees and will have to start dealing with people who aren’t always hapless villagers. For the moment, however, I am rooting for Prasad, imagining him completing his list-of-things-to-do-when-I-am-rich.

On top of the list are two things: to sit in a plane and to see the Red Fort in Delhi. He has no wish, however, to stay there any longer. He once asked me if it was true that in Delhi the employers cut you up into little pieces if you fail to do what you were hired for. Someone visiting from Delhi had told him this, and although he never fully believed it, it added to his fear of big cities. It wasn’t that different from what my father, a formidably wise man, thought of big cities: sites of modern-day slavery. Do people in Delhi ever have the time to even sit and eat? he asked me every time I visited. Prasad doesn’t doubt that if he went to Delhi he would find work, but he has no interest in slaving away as a sales executive or pizza delivery boy for a quarter of what he earns now. He is happy being a big man in a small place. However damned the system, he is now hanging on to its edges.

Three months ago, Prasad and I went to meet the goat thieves in the district jail in Gumla. We spoke to the accused through a hole covered with rusty mesh, standing among creaky cupboards leaning over from the weight of files. What were we to do if not steal goats? the boys said. Both came from big families with small incomes, had dropped out of school and tried and failed at all dignified ways to make a living. Stealing goats was easy. Nothing lured a goat like a ball made of bread crumbs and crushed biscuits. And if it was a nicely rounded animal, it could fetch you no fewer than twenty thousand rupees in a local market.

It wasn’t their first time in jail, but what bothered them was that the police had seized the bike they had worked so hard to buy, an Apache. They were in for at least a year, they estimated. It seemed too long a sentence for stealing a goat. The first thing they would do after being released was get Aadhaar cards and seek work under MGNREGA – building trenches or levelling roads.

On our way back from Gumla, I asked Prasad what had happened to the goat. The Indian state was sure to have come up with a complicated procedure to restore a seized goat to its rightful owner. It had. The goat was to be deposited at the police station first, he said – but what went to the station was not the same goat. The actual goat, a twenty-kilogramme animal, was taken from the site of the capture by the henchmen of a local politician cum crime lord, and a thinner goat was handed over to the police in exchange. Pleased, the boss had thrown a party of khassi-bhat for his men that night. And there was another khassi-bhat celebration in the block the same night – at the police station.

The above is an extract from the author’s book on new Indian small-town life, published by Penguin in 2016

Photographs courtesy of the author

Snigdha Poonam

Snigdha Poonam has written for the Caravan and the Hindu, and for a number of international publications including the New York Times and the Guardian.

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