By Aysha Baqir
Inside the ancient haveli a young girl, the great granddaughter of a Mughal nobleman forced into Her Majesty’s Service, moved slowly as if she sensed my presence.
The city had fed on the foam-white sprays of the surging Himalayan waters, and swelled from the invasions and intermarriages between the Persians, the Arabs, and the Mongols. By the time the British arrived, a fortress of thick walls hid a maze of winding lanes jammed with narrow red-brick, stone, wood-worked havelis and long, deep stalls of silks, spices, silver, gold, and gems. Time pushed forward relentlessly, tides receded, wars were fought and lost, and the river shrunk and shrivelled into grey, brown sludge promising revenge. The shaded streets of the bazaars darkened and despair closed in like a swarm of locusts. The dwellers with means and motives, packed their belongings, and struck out towards concrete and glass housing schemes. Some tottered and fumbled like drunkards, unsure whether to venture out or hide within.
Every day, except Sunday, the girl woke up early for the call to prayers. She scrubbed, washed, cleansed, and dressed for her last prayer of the day. She ignored the rubbery slice of white bread and the blob of blood-red jelly on the dusty breakfast table, pocketed her mother’s medicine prescription and slipped out of the door with a backpack and a day bag. Hidden under the burqa, she walked swiftly and left the winding lanes behind in minutes. A grey car with tinted windows waited for her at the deserted crossing. She sat in the car and pulled out her phone. When she connected, I tapped into her.
Half an hour later the car stopped. The girl squinted at the tall glass tower that caught molten fire from the morning sun. She stuffed the burqa in her backpack before alighting. She wore a smart black and white suit, something she had picked out from one of the swanky mirrored shops in the mall. When she snapped a selfie, I saw and saved it. Whatever was online, was mine.
The girl had made herself up to please. Her round hazel eyes, set off by a dark liner, glinted under the bronze shadow. Her lips were pale but glossy. Her thick straight hair brushed her shoulders. She had cleared the six-month training with the highest score. No one could tell she wasn’t a bank executive.
She climbed up the wide marble stairs and the glass door with a metal latch sprang open. She cleared the security designed to recognise her thumbprint. There was no room for breach, not in this business. She entered the massive foyer adorned with wall mirrors and glossy planters, turned left, and pressed the button down to the basement. In a few minutes, she strode down a passageway and opened another door. The dim lights and murky matting matched the nature of the business, but she would have worked here for free to hide from the changing moods and madness of the city.
The room was mostly empty except for a few men behind the glass cabin who never left the office. She made her way to her workspace. It was bare. She had no mugs, photographs, or other belongings. The less people knew about her the better. The only equipment that sat on her desk consisted of one dark screen and the worn out keyboard. She pulled up her chair and pressed the button.
I sprang up, awake and alert. She fed in her details and hit enter. A vibe. A buzz. The girl jumped back feeling a current, something alive that pulsed and circled her. I smiled when she frowned. She felt me. I wanted her to feel my power. Within seconds her work order popped up, generated every morning at 6 AM for the morning shift and 6 PM for the evening shift. She had a busy day. She had to cover three areas, one park, one school, and the sabzi mandi, the wholesale vegetable market. The numbers rose and the lines of poor grew every day, and some even bribed to jump the cue. Who wanted to work when there was an easier way to make more money?
Her boss, Mr. K Shah, boasted of the brainwave he had while attending a six-week training on social entrepreneurship at a global leadership institute. Before sending him on the course, his father had urged him to make a difference to his constituency, his ancestral lands, and to uphold the honour of his ancestors, the revered Sufis who had travelled from Iran to the Subcontinent.
Karim Saab quickly grasped that there was opportunity in the chaos that fed upon millions of poor in his country. He discovered a win-win. For him, for his company, and the poor. In that order. He had asked himself three questions. How much money did the country make? How much of it was lost on the streets? How much could he get back?
He had returned to his country and funded an algorithm and business to do exactly that. He housed the business in the basement of the company he owned, and rumours ran that he made more money in the basement than in the bank. The business harnessed the poor across the city and then set them out on the streets. It ran upon a network of the drivers and guards belonging to the few hundred of the flagrantly wealthy and upon the millions of beggars, runaways, and ragpickers. The business model was built on detailed, precise communication and organisation in which the company excelled. The poor were happy to get a fixed income each day — three times higher than the national minimum wage. The calculations made sense even as the economy crashed, and the terror escalated. Even on the darkest days the numbers made sense. The more the people lost, the more they feared, and the more they gave.
The girl’s mind ran over the calculations. Fifty some beggars in one area per shift, add two shifts per day and then multiply it by over two hundred and fifty areas in the fast expanding city and the numbers swelled to a grand total of twenty-five thousand beggars per shift. With the average earning per beggar per shift coming to over two hundred rupees even on a bad day the total company revenue rocketed to over five million rupees per day. The costs were minimal.
There were problems. Sometimes, the children went missing. Part of running the business, shrugged Karim Saab. There were many more to take their place. The girl pushed back her chair and glanced around the empty, endless rows. In another few minutes they would be full. There were three rooms in total, one for each business. The model spared no one, not even the very young. There were rumours of a project up for a bid. Karim Saab said they had to keep innovating otherwise others would catch up. So now they focused on street children. The city that once exported cotton, silk, and gems, now sold something else.
 Palatial house
Aysha Baqir founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing business and marketing training to girls and women in low-income communities. and has authored a novel based on her experiences called Beyond the Fields.
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