One of the recent issues of The Economist had a nice article written by a Chinese on living in times when things were scarce and rationed. The young generation, especially in metros, can hardly identify what a ration card is. When we were growing up in Ranchi, it was the most valuable piece of document. It entitled us to ration or in other words subsidized rice, wheat, kerosene, sugar and so on.
This is an age where even Big Bazaar has started home deliveries. Earlier, visits to the friendly neighborhood ration shop now called as Fair Price shop, was a ritual. It was done by the father, or the unemployed uncle. As the father aged, the next generation took over. In most cases, kids would be sent to wait in the queue.
Since I had an elder sister, the task of going to the ration shop to buy provisions was handed over to me. The first time I went to the ration shop, my mother accompanied me and instructed to watch the weighing pan very carefully as well as measuring cylinder for kerosene. There would be a large queue in front of the shop and you have to go and stand there patiently. Standing in the queue itself taught us the virtue of patience.
I get agitated when nowadays youngsters lose their patience when they are standing in the queue of any sort including check-in counters of airlines. This is the queue where even the so called elite behave most rudely and try to jostle, push as if they are boarding the last ST bus for a village. I always take a deep breath and remember my ration card experience and smile benignly.
The time spent standing in the ration line was measured in hours and not in minutes. The clerk or the assistant shopkeeper scanned through your ration card and then depending on your rapport would smile or grumble. Given the fact that it was a monthly ritual, some petty conversation used to begin and often conclude with enquiries on the state of the family. By then you had the person behind you glaring – giving an indication to get over with the conversation. If you happened to have illustrious siblings then their achievements would be the key topic. The clerk would almost turn cleric and preach to others how the useless person in family has come to stand in a ration shop while other illustrious siblings are making their mark in pursuit of knowledge or sport.
In those days, even the landline telecom revolution had not swept our country and word of mouth was at its best – like in Phantom comics where drums were used for communication or Three Investigators “ghost to ghost hookup”. Kerosene and Sugar were two scarce commodities. Word used to spread like wild fire that the ration card shop is open and sugar or kerosene has come.
Shorting the queue was a skill. I never had that. Some people used to carry two ration cards to help their neighbor short the queue. The irrational ones among them used to carry four to five ration cards and that was unanimously objected; two was socially acceptable. Heated arguments often broke out. To pass time, most would carry story books, newspapers and magazines. “Sunday” magazine was a popular choice because it was filled with readable articles cover to cover. And of course, most people shared everything. Reading the Sunday magazine and newspapers cover to cover helped me improve my general knowledge of the political situation of most states. The queue was a hotspot for neighborhood gossip. Here, favours were taken and returned very fast. If helped the neighborhood prosperous uncle by holding his place in queue, you had the privilege of getting a lift in his car, which was a luxury even if it was an oversized Ambassador.
Transferring the ration card from one state to another is another story by itself. After shifting to Bombay, I decided to get my ration card transferred from Ranchi to Bombay. Here again it was a story of patiently waiting in queues and facing the tantrums of the ration card officer who refused to acknowledge a piece of paper written in Hindi as he wanted it to be in the local language Marathi.
When I shifted my ration card from Bombay to Bangalore, I had to spend time getting it translated to English and then to Kannada which only some lawyers would do. My tragedy was that I fought hard to get the ration card shifted to Bangalore and the moment the ration card got shifted, I had left my job there. The lady at the counter let out a smile and said all my hard work was a waste as I was moving out of Bangalore. Then I decided that I don’t need a ration card and got it shifted to Madras back to my parents and it remained there till I got it again transferred to Bombay after getting married and being blessed with children. I did not want my children to suffer the pains of not having a ration card.
My generation is the last of the “ration card” generation. The humble ration card drove the savings mentality of the Indian middle class. We were trained from childhood to save. The next generation of Indians is the consumers and I fear with time, our savings rate will fall.
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