© Anup Roy 2018, edited by Vincent. The story was originally drafted in December 2008, inspiring my piece “Ghetu Files a New Story“. I started an edit in Jan ’09. It didn’t get very far, but Ghetu provided some edits of his own, amounting to a partial rewrite. We didn’t pick it up again till Feb ’13, but he became preoccupied with other matters and it remained unfinished. I think it’s a strong story with many elements, which make a good ending difficult, but I think it can be aired publicly now, to see what readers think.
Lokesh is always hungry at this time of the evening. His meal schedule is erratic, tends not to include lunch or dinner. He doesn’t really believe in those. His system never complains. The mere thought that he’s supposed to eat at set hours triggers a revolt. Instead, he waits till he’s hungry, then seeks out whatever is available. His sleeping habits are no better. He might stay awake all night, two nights even: catching up with his sleep on a busy weekday, sleeping like a log in spite of urgent assignments and the priorities of his boss. It helps that he’s the best worker in the office and his boss is pleased with his output. He can take advantage of this, for Mumbai takes a professional view. What you’re like as a person doesn’t count: your output does.
Strangely, his physique seems to have its own regimen and doesn’t listen to his rebellious mind. For example, at precisely seven in the evening his stomach rumbles like a monster awakening from slumber, newly ravenous for small wild animals. That’s when he gets too hungry to concentrate on work, slips out unnoticed, takes the lift and heads for that side of the office building where a boiled-egg vendor keeps his humble stall. It has become a habit. The vendor expects to see him. Without prompting, this wizened man with leathery hands starts knocking an eggshell with the handle of his knife, ready for peeling.
Of all his regular customers, Lokesh is his favourite face. That dreadful terrorist carnage happened here in Mumbai last week, November. Relatives of the victims still mourn but the rest of the city has staggered back to something it calls normal functioning. That is to say, the traffic snarl-ups have resumed; and so has the way people behave to one another: a mix of brazen pettiness and instinctive mistrust—and yet a sense of fellowship that Lokesh finds very confusing. How can you be so indifferent and insulting; yet ready to lend a helping hand to someone who offers you no challenge? What kind of a city is it? What does it want to be? Lokesh has given up on these questions.
It’s the time of day when the city is at its ugliest. Trains overflow. People fall from moving trains, unable to grasp any handhold not already claimed by ten others. People die every day on the tracks, no one is disturbed, no one gives it a thought.
Each new morning, the city’s everyday face is restored: a giant cauldron of ranting inhumanity. Once more the trains are packed like sardine-tins. The buses are over-stuffed with passengers. The atmosphere is heaving with motor fumes. The cheats are back on the streets looking for victims. Within days of the city’s being humiliated in its worst disaster, the usual “Spirit of Mumbai” has regained control.
He finds it hard to believe what happened to his most-hated, most-loved city, his Mumbai. How could ten terrorists, arriving in boats, hold the entire city hostage? Only Hollywood could write such a movie script: it was definitely not Bollywood material.
Thanks to the idiot boxes and the stupid flashes of “breaking news”, everybody was glued to their sets, trying to catch the action real-time. It was a boon for the foreign handlers of those ten misguided youth—they got instant updates on the movement of their commandos. It was the biggest day of ‘breaking news’ business. The real-time updates left many people dead and broke the backbone of free-media believers. Those idiots are, nevertheless, still not ashamed of appearing on the daily shows questioning the role of the police. Politicians, the ones so good at rousing mass hysteria, trying to turn one sufferer against the other, were nowhere to be seen. Those that were seen proved to be bumbling idiots … these small incidents happen in big cities, some of them said and earnestly believed. Mass murderers!
Nowhere else in this world could you see such shattering indifference. You could call it the “Spirit of Mumbai”.
Like everything in this city of Bollywood, the tragedy served as entertainment for those who came out unscathed. For these movie-buffs, this drama unfolding on TV was the best ever. But like all movies it ended, life reverted to normal. In retrospect, it blurred and dissolved, another unreal tale; faded into something he couldn’t feel any more. For here he is, quite unharmed. In an echo of Descartes, he declares “I am, that’s why I am.” Period.
And so, his little habits, like his daily dose of two eggs, sprinkled with pepper and salt, loom large in his life. Without this punctuation to his existence, he’d feel lost, crazy. Perhaps this leathery old vendor adds some drug to the salt and pepper? He could find an different one: there are two more at least in the area. But whenever the old man isn’t there, his hunger too disappears. He has no stomach to get his daily dose from anywhere else.
There’s a ritual. The old man peels off the shell, Lokesh watches mesmerized as if in the front row of a Chekhov play. He sees a perfectionist unperturbed by the sound and hectic activities of the street; who with a goldsmith’s precision takes the egg, beats it with his knife; presses it between his hands, rolling it for some time like a potter making an intricate round pot; then peels off the shell with a dreamy concentration. Lokesh recalls his grandmother cleaning the rice before cooking, back home in Kolkata. Then the old man cuts the egg neatly in equal halves, and sprinkles salt and pepper on them.
All this time, Mumbai trudges along incessantly, its buzz of life accompanied by a cacophony of sounds. While it parades its trivialities, it constantly dangles its promise, its hope; like a magnet that traps and intoxicates all who come to this great city.
Standing here at the stall, taking his daily dose of eggs, his attention is diverted to the four-point crossing. Things happen here; vehicle collisions once in two days or so, for example, in which the police constable must intervene and pass summary judgment, assisted perhaps by a small fee. If he gets irked, or the scene too grave for his personal jurisdiction, then he must pass the case upwards to his superiors, filing charges against offender and victim alike, confiscating their licences.
The end of his feast coincides with a great chorus of honking, which gets taken up by the queues of cars from all directions. Generally the flow of the intersection is regulated by the changing traffic lights; but at green the front car fails to move. There’s only one lane, no chance to overtake if one breaks down. The strident noise of impatience rises to a crescendo.
This kind of sound pollution enrages his senses. If he were the Incredible Hulk, he could teach those people in smart sedans some manners. He sees that despite the green light, a boy is walking across at the intersection; his legs thin like bamboo, his crutch weakly held in a stick-like hand, his dirty hair recently trimmed. He wears a new orange t-shirt decorated with the name of a tyre company, together with giant tyre-prints. His shorts are dirty: probably because no company hands out free pants.
As with other such vagabonds, his age is hard to guess but can’t be above eighteen. It’s apparent he’s impoverished and malnourished. He crosses at a snail’s pace, constantly in danger of falling from his crutch. His head shakes, not from giving up in despair but from the frailty of his neck which can hardly support his head as he inches across. His distorted lower limbs hardly touch the ground whilst he shifts his crutch.
Now some drivers, especially the ones impatient to get home, get out from their cars to see for themselves what’s holding up the flow. The frail youth is soon focus of their anger: how dare he singlehandedly hold up this great Mumbai tide? Nobody comes to assist his passage to the other side of the street. The dirt on him makes him untouchable in this city where everyone has been declared equal.
Now a lady does step forward to volunteer. But once she realizes the extent of his need, she backs off at the last moment. The boy has his hand stretched out for the fine lady to hold but when she withdraws it, he clutches at the air, overbalances. No guardian angel swoops down to catch him before he hits the road surface.
Now he can’t reach his crutch, and tries to crawl towards it; but writhes in pain as he tries to drag his body along the hard surface. Like howling mad dogs, the cars keep on honking.
Lokesh having filled his belly watches the spectacle like everyone else, wants a happy ending as in any good Bollywood movie. Not that he expects the hero to make a swift rescue. This is more drawn-out, like one of those art films, in which it’s hard to avoid boredom. You’d think someone will be impatient enough to get out of his car and carry the boy out of the way; but no one does. Surely the police constable will do something. Doesn’t the government employ him for this very purpose, to guarantee free-flowing traffic? Someone is surely saying the government should have built a flyover to ease congestion at this narrow intersection, so this couldn’t happen.
It’s getting him anxious and irritated that nobody is coming forward to carry the boy out of the way. He’s not the only one. Of course he could have easily gone to the boy’s rescue but why he? He’s on foot and his way remains unclogged. At this very moment he can turn round, slip into his office building and take the lift back to his desk. No, it’s the duty of the driver at the head of the queue to clear up this mess. But he’s sitting in his air-conditioned sedan behind his designer glasses, waiting for someone else to do it. In that situation Lokesh would have got out, picked up the boy tenderly and put him at the side, out of harm’s way. He would hear words of sympathy from other onlookers, too. But then, the boy was dirty. Who would want to touch him, and expose oneself to God-knows-what germs?
Why should he push himself forward, in front of all these others, all equally eligible to volunteer? He left Kolkata six years ago, tenderly innocent like a puppy; but the city has armoured his heart in toughened steel. Oh, it has been trampled and broken many times: in truth it is held together with screws and sticking-plaster. When he left his parents for greener pastures he thought goodness natural and boring. It took two years and a thousand heartbreaks to realize that goodness is not just rare, but non-existent in this world. He sees his parents as good, but what does he know? They only love him because he’s their son.
He’ll wait on the side, a spectator like everybody else. He’s never signed any contract to clean up the world, so he can join the crowd in finding someone else to blame, he’s not sure who but at least he can always complain that the “the country has gone to the dogs”. And the traffic policeman? Nowhere to be seen.
But here’s Ravi, a colleague of Lokesh stepping out from their office building, wired up to his new mobile through earphones. Thanks to pirated recordings on mp3, on sale at the roadside, he can listen to at least five hundred Bollywood songs for half the price of a decent CD.
He doesn’t stop to say Hi to Lokesh, but dashes into the action, careful all the while to stop his precious toy from falling out of his shirt-pocket. He scoops up the boy and carries him like a baby, collecting the crutch on the way, and takes him to the roadside.
Like a giant python, the Mumbai traffic slowly uncoils and resumes its normal crawl. Ravi sets the boy down on the steps of the saree shop, on the ground floor of their office building.
Thank God for people like Ravi. His heroism lifts people’s spirits. Lokesh smiles in relief, but Ravi has his back turned, removes his right earphone, listens intently to the rescued boy.
No doubt he’s still listening to some Bollywood hit song through his left ear. But here he is now, rushing towards Lokesh till they meet face to face.
— The boy is hungry man. He said he didn’t eat for two days. I better buy something for him. And Ravi rushes to the cut-fruit vendor.
— Shall we buy him some bread? It would fill his tummy.
— No no. We should give him something that would help him in the best way. I see fruits as the only answer. Bloody damn, there is no fruit juice shop here. Anyway, these fruits will do, Ravi says, taking two wrapped plates of mixed fruit to the boy. On closer examination he sees the deformed legs, hand and face; the head swollen like a giant eggshell with hydrocephalus.
The boy takes the fruit piece by piece, hurriedly devouring each one as if fearing it will be snatched away. Clearly he’s in genuine need, unlike those beggars who claim to be hungry but only accept money. Mumbai is full of them, as with people like Ravi, like Lokesh, all the kinds of people ever created. Surely part of a giant experiment playing out across the face of the earth.
He decides to buy two eggs for the poor boy. Seldom does the urge descend upon him to perform any charitable act: when was the last time? He’s gratified to discover that his heart can still respond to the genuine need of a fellow human being.
— Two eggs uncle, he tells the old man, who once again undertakes his professional ritual in all its detail. In a wordless flash of insight he sees the old man like a priest; one whose rituals magically stop the world, reducing the chaos of these streets to a pinpoint focus where the moment is infinite. As when a child is born.
— Do you know this boy uncle?
— Yes sir.
— Where is he from?
— I don’t know but he was in the care of a missionary who used to bring a group of kids, some crippled, some retarded, to the Central Park near my shanty in the evenings. They would utter strange cries. You would hear them coming, and the weird sounds they made were disturbing, I tell you. They are not like ordinary people.
The wizened man fell silent, concentrating on his craft.
— Ok … then what happened?
— The padre died a few days ago, that I know. I’ve no idea what happened to his flock of cripples—except for this one, of course. I imagine he’s looking for the missionary. Who’d want to tell them the bad news? They know little of the real world, these poor fellows, cursed by none other than God himself. Who knows what sins they may have committed in a past lifetime?
If I might make a suggestion sir? It’s good that you are feeding him. But don’t make it a habit. Once he knows you are there for him he will come everyday … he might even die crossing the road.
One more thing, forgive me sir, but I have seen much life. These people have a special charm, they are actually little devils. They will very easily trap you to meet their needs. Once you fall for that invisible trap … you will be accursed for life. You cannot throw it out, you cannot swallow it. Don’t look at him, I am telling you. Stay put, for you are perhaps a good man. The devil can easily catch you unguarded. We use special charms to stay away from unseen evils on our daily life, you see we have to interact with all sorts of people. I can see this boy has influenced you much already. Not a good sign, sir. Here’s your eggs.
He never knew this old man could speak so much. Old people … once they get an audience, they start. His father, too—slowly turning into this kind of blabber.
— Do you eat eggs? Lokesh asks the boy who is clutching a small piece of pineapple in his dirty hands.
— I love them, says the boy in a feeble voice with shining eyes. He takes them in trembling hands.
Lokesh feels the warm touch of the boy’s arms. What makes those hands shake so? The vibration stirs him somehow, as if it shakes him out of a deep sleep. He’s dismayed to find himself catching the shakes too, as his strength seems to crumble inside. He can’t have caught an illness from him already?
It’s like a fit, he can’t control it. He looks around to Ravi for rescue, to be scooped up in his arms as he did with the boy. But Ravi is nowhere in sight, perhaps vanished into the swaying rhythms of a Bollywood soundtrack.
He runs for cover, sprints towards his office, jabs the elevator button. How long it takes to reach the floor! Must get out of here, save himself somehow.
He takes the stairs, reaches the first floor of the car park, where it’s poorly lit. Hiding in the shadows behind a car, he shakes with silent sobs till his shirt is wet with tears. the world is too heavy, it crushes the soul. He swoons into some kind of anguished reverie.
Later: how long has he been here? He has no idea what time it is now. Mosquitoes are biting, the air smells of dirty engine oil; but he doesn’t notice his surroundings. In thought he’s reliving last week. His fellow Mumbaikars were being shot by terrorists. The usual throng was sitting or sleeping on the grimy floor at the CST—Chtrapati Shivaji Terminus Station, where a grenade was thrown into their midst. They were quite helpless: he felt it with them, for them. Someone, a fellow-citizen, had a gun pointed at her by a lunatic. He felt her panic a second before the bullet hit. He read the silent plea in all the victims’ faces as they thought of their loved ones—wife, husband, children—in their last moment.
He steadies himself. How can anything matter in this lottery? He’s alive, he could die any moment, his body mangled in a heap with others. A bomb could go off in a commuter train, on his way home. Can he do nothing about any of this? As a small clog in this giant wheel of efficiency, shouldn’t he just keep on turning and not squeal? That’s all a cog has to do, turn smoothly and silently. Not step out of line, not agonize about salvation.
His sobbing stops. He feels the wetness of his shirt, his body aches from crouching in this spot. It’s swarming with rats, this is their turn now. At other times of day, groups of drivers play cards here while waiting for their bosses. Sometimes they share the humble contents of their tiffin boxes. Their eyes light up at a hint of achaar, spicy pickle. Meanwhile Lokesh and his colleagues, a few storeys above, would be wondering what tempting new dish to order up. He has never seen so many rats in one place. Huge ones, like bandicotas. God knows where they come from, where they go back to.
Now he feels like an uninvited guest, interrupting these rodents’ routines and family life. If he stays any longer they might tell him in human tongue he’s not welcome. Time to decide, before Mumbai swallows him up in its cruel indifference. Time for a change.
Why not go with the wretched, to wherever he’s staying, find some way of rescuing the others? Inhuman the city may may appear; but still there are pockets where it’s an oasis of humanity. Plenty of people have dedicated their lives, given up lucrative careers, just to take care of the not-so-privileged. Even in Mumbai.
What’s to stop Lokesh doing likewise? Not for them, only his conscience, his own salvation. Why run with the crowd, their prejudices, their rules? There’s a greater rule: to treat all humans with humanity.
He takes the stairs down through several floors of this multi-storey car park. The walk will freshen his mind, a clear head is needed. No good relying on every emotional impulse. He’s not the type to rush into anything. In fact he’s not one for decisions. He returns to the steps of the saree shop, where he’d left “the wretched”. No one there. Everything back to normal, just another day. Another minor collision. The policeman calls both parties aside, hears their arguments, settles the matter.
His phone rings: it’s Ravi.
— Where are you? Still in the office or gone home?
Lokesh doesn’t want to betray any emotion.
— Still here, going home now. You?
— No man, I am at a strange place. I’m with all these handicappped. It’s a shithole, man, next right from Central Park. Gopal lives here, I came to drop him home, if you can call it home. More like a pigsty, it stinks so bad. And there’s blood, some of them fight each other you know—fucking retards!
— Who’s Gopal?
— That kid who fell down crossing the road, that you were sitting with. I went to fetch a taxi, drop him off at his place. When I came back you were not there. I waited a while but then he fainted. The egg-seller told me the address.
— Oh, that kid?
— Yes, they are all kinda retards. They’re hungry but can’t even say so. I’ve just ordered a huge amount of food for them. Look, I need some contact details of societies for underprivileged. Can you be kind enough to google it for me please from your computer?”
— I will. Do you want me to come there?
— No need. Things are under control. Just give me some numbers, kind sir.
— Okay. Lokesh disconnects. He feels as though a heavy door has been slammed in his face, leaving him an outsider, shut out from everything, an exile in his own land, wretched.
See also “Yin and Yang”