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No identity papers, no cards; I feel like a nobody

You feel vulnerable perhaps like a colonel stripped of all his decorations, like a sleuth who's locked up in enemy land.


Abhishek Sengupta

Published: Sun 6 Oct 2019, 11:03 PM

Last updated: Tue 1 Sep 2020, 5:38 PM

So, one fine morning last week, I accidentally drop my wallet on my way to work - smack in the middle of a six-lane highway. Left with no choice, I call the police who then hold up traffic for good two minutes for me to be able to go fetch it in full view of stranded (mostly office-going) motorists. The whole episode becomes an extraordinary real-life drama, a fantastic recovery operation for a poor man's humble purse, never seen or heard before. We publish the story and a video on Khaleej Times highlighting the magnanimous act of the Dubai Police. It instantly goes viral on social media but not all like what they see. Some label this a scandalously well-planned, well-oiled exercise to drive home some fresh content, a staged publicity stunt. Others, the sceptics of the lesser kind, if you like, call me dimwit, irresponsible, stupid and lather me up with pejoratives that suit their style, intellect, and upbringing. My friends and acquaintances on realising they know the victim well enough, call, message or drop in, as the case may be, intrigued, curious, and eager to get the story 'from the horse's mouth'. And six days go by just like that until it is time for me to write this column.
The (star)dust has settled by now. Lights, camera, and the ephemeral public glare have all faded and even though I have the wallet in my hand, I am what I am - bereft of money, both real and plastic and all kinds of papers that lend me my identity - male, 37-years-old, Indian, journalist, motorist for 9 years, driving a Canadian-made light vehicle. Everything in the wallet - from my driving license to vehicle registration to Emirate ID to my press card - had been swept away by the winds of time the besieged black wallet spent traipsing down the road in between wheels of buses and cars. Even though it was recovered, it was a wasted effort. But try telling that to the bank teller who must verify your identity before he can sign off that salary cheque over the counter or the petrol pump attendant who you must pay to fuel up for your drive back home and you soon know you are an absolute nobody without any of those hard-bound plastic cards that carry the answers to almost all your existential questions - money, status, profession, designation.
And how does that feel, in Bob Dylan's words, to be a "complete unknown?" In 1965, when he wrote the song after returning exhausted from a gruelling tour of England, he could get away with anything. When you ain't got nothing, he wrote, you got nothing to lose. That defined his now-epic Like a rolling stone song. Five and a half decades down the line, you know his lines would have been very different today - perhaps more cautionary, less recalcitrant than it sounds because it doesn't, you know, feel that safe, that secured anymore to be a complete unknown.
You feel vulnerable perhaps like a colonel stripped of all his decorations, like a sleuth who's locked up in enemy land. Life without the words and figures that define you may not be permanent but surely scary for as long as it lasts and while it lasts, it teaches one great lesson - nobody knows you, nobody must know you, nobody needs to know you unless of course you can document that you exist and have money, in the wallet or in the card. And at the end of the day, we are all nobody - with or without the plastic cards that define us. It's just that when you have them in your wallet, the illusion that we are somebody helps us get by.
- abhishek@khaleejtimes.com

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