Authors: Uday Prakash
Tags: #Fiction/Short Stories (single author)
The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir.
Sanjay Chaurasia's paan cart stood less than five hundred yards from my flat; Ratanlal sold chai right next to Sanjay's. Sanjay had come to Delhi from a small village near Pratapgarh, and Ratanlal from Sasaram. Their makeshift shops were on wheels so they could make a quick getaway in case an official came nosing around. Cops on motorbike patrol came by all the time, but they got their weekly cut. Ratanlal paid five hundred, Sanjay seven. The two men didn't worry.
âWhat's the big deal? I've got no problem. Say I did have a real place. I'd be paying the same money in rent anyway. Or more. Am I right? As long as a man is getting his daily bread, he can fight off the rabid dogs. When I'm right, I'm right,' Sanjay Chaurasia said, smiling. I wondered whose life was more like the dogs'.
A few steps away was a third enterprise on wheels â the bicycle repair cart belonging to Madan Lal. And across the road from Madan Lal was Devi Deen, the shoe repairman, and just down the road from him was Santosh, a mechanic who fixed scooters, cars, and repaired flat tires. Santosh had come to Delhi four years ago, making his way from a village in Haryana, close
to where Madan Lal and Devi Deen were from. All the vendors and hawkers set up camp wherever they could. As night fell, Brajinder joined them, pushing his fancy electric ice cream cart, âKwality Ice Cream' printed in rainbow letters on the plastic panels. So did Rajvati, who sold hard boiled eggs. Her husband, Gulshan, was there too, with their two kids. Behind her shop, four brick walls enclosed a little vacant lot. As night wore on, people pulled up in cars asking Gulshan for a little whisky or rum. The government liquor shops were long closed by that hour, so Gulshan would cycle off and return with a pint or a fifth he secured from one of his black market connections. Some customers wanted chicken tikka with their hard boiled eggs, which Gulshan would fetch from Sardar Satte Singh's food stand up at the next set of lights. Sometimes, the customers would give him a little bit of whisky by way of a tip, or a few rupees. Rajvati didn't make a fuss, since it was a hundred times better for her husband to drink that kind of whisky, and for free, than to spend his own money on little plastic pouches of local moonshine. You could count on that kind of hooch being mixed with stuff that might make you go blind, or kill you outright.
The rickshaw drivers also hung around. Most of them came from Bihar or Orissa, and stood wearily amid the bustle on the lookout for passengers. Tufail Ahmed had come from Nalanda with his sewing machine, which he plonked down right beside the brick enclosure. He did a little business for a short while. But since Tufail Ahmed didn't have a fixed address, people were wary of leaving their clothes with him. So the only jobs he got were mending schoolchildren's bookbags, or hemming workers' uniforms, or patching up rickshaw drivers' clothes. After a couple of weeks, he stopped showing up. One person
said that he was sick, another said he went back to Nalanda, and still others said he'd been hit by a Blue Line bus. His sewing machine was tossed into the scrapheap behind the police station.
It was the same story with Natho and her husband, MangÃ© Ram, whose cart was right next to Rajvati and her eggs. They sold channa masala at night and chole kulche during the day: no one had seen them for a few months. Someone said that MangÃ© Ram came down with stomach cancer, and that Natho had drunk away the money for medicine; and, after MangÃ© Ram died, she took the two kids, crossed over to the other side of the Jamuna, and took up with someone else who had his own kulche cart.
That's how it was around here, as if there was an unwritten law. Every day, one of these new arrivals would suddenly disappear, never to be seen again. Most of them didn't have a permanent address where you could go to inquire after they were gone. Rajvati, for example, lived two miles from here, near the bypass, with her husband and two kids, in sixteenth century ruins. If you've ever been on the National Highway going toward Karnal or Amritser and happened to glance north, you'll have seen the round building with a dome right beside the industrial drainage: a crumbling, dark-red brick ruin, with old worn stones. It's hard to believe that humans could be living there. The famous bus named
that travels from India to Pakistan â from Delhi to Lahore â passes right by that part of the highway.
But people do live there â families, for the most part, and two single men: Rizwan, whose right leg and hand have wasted away from leprosy, and Snehi Ram, who is so old that he sleeps all day long under the neem tree growing next to the sewage
runoff. Snehi Ram knows the entire Ramayana of Tulsidas and the Soor Sagar by heart, and people swoon when they hear his rendition of the
and other epic songs. The two men can count on food handouts from the families living in the ruins. Rizwan gets up first thing in the morning, heads toward the bypass, drinks his chai and eats his bun at Gopal Dhandhar's, before installing himself at the bus depot until evening, begging. Rizwan's beard is streaked with grey, his face reminds you of Balraj Sahani from
and he does quite well for himself.
Others live in the ruins: Rajvati's sister Phulo; Jagraj's wife, Somali, who sells peanuts by the gate of the Azadpur veggie market; and Mushtaq, who sells hashish by the Red Fort, and his cousin, Saliman, currently Mushtaq's wife. The three women turn tricks. Somali works out of her home in the ruins. She takes care of customers brought to her by the smackheads: Tilak, Bhusan, and Azad, who are always hanging around. In the evening, Saliman and Phulo go out in rickshaws looking for customers. Sometimes, Phulo also works at all-night parties.
Phulo occasionally sleeps with Azad, even though Rajvati, her sister, and Gulshan, her brother-in-law, both object. Gulshan always says, âDon't lend money or your warm body to those living under the same roof.' Gulshan, Rajvati and Phulo have the most money of those living under that particular roof. Since Phulo came from the village and began to turn tricks, their income has increased so much that they've been scouting out land in the neighbourhood around Loni Border where they may build a house someday.
Azad says, âIf you move away, don't worry, I'll still manage,' but over the last few days he's been shivering and writhing around at night, sick. Gulshan says that he won't last much
longer. All of the smackheads are in the same sorry state. Azad has the innocent face of a child, and is very light skinned. Tilak says Azad is the son of a rich family from Fatehpur. After his parents died, Azad's brother and sister-in-law took over the whole family estate. Azad's own brother-in-law was in on the deal, and got Azad hooked on smack â until it got so bad that one day he had to run away. Supposedly, he'd once been a real bookworm.
Azad and I had long talks, and he spoke quite articulately, even elegantly. I was amazed how much he knew about things like European perfumes and colognes, and their Indian counterparts, and horses, too; it seemed that he was fully knowledgeable about every topic, no matter whom he was talking to. His personality was perfect, apart from being a smackhead. But he'd been shivering these last few days, like someone with malaria or Parkinson's, and I had a strong premonition that one day I'd come visit, and Phulo or Tilak or Bhusan or Saliman would say,
What can I tell you, Vinayak? I haven't seen Azad for four days. He left in the morning, and never came back. You haven't seen him?
And so the story goes with all of them. Azad wasn't coming back. What about me? I am Vinayak Dattatreya! Am I any safer than them? I've fallen to a new low, with no work, squeezed on all sides, and now I spend all day long sitting at Sanjay's paan stall: stressed out, useless, numb.
Now I'm just another piece of that world, no different from the rest. I don't have the courage anymore to come home and face the way my wife and son look at me. I watch my son eat his food at dinnertime, chewing ever so slowly, and I feel as though he's walking down a long flight of stairs, down into a darkness where I'll never see his face again. My soul â or whatever it is
you want to call it â quietly weeps. Believe me that every time I do a bit of soul searching to try and figure out what's wrong with me and why I have such bad luck, I come face-to-face with every single rotten thing about this whole system we live in â a system surely created by some underworld gang.
One day I'll be the one to disappear from this little corner of the neighbourhood: it's a fact. The poor, the sick, the street corner prophets, the lowly, the unexceptional â all gone! They've vanished from this new Delhi of wealth and wizardry, never to return, not here, not anywhere else. Not even memories of them will remain.
They're like the tears of an ill-fated fakir, leaving only the tiniest trace of moisture on the ground after he's got up and gone. The damp spot on the ground from his spit and silent tears serves as protest against the injustice of his time.
But it seems we've got off track. I was talking about Sanjay's, the neighbourhood paan shop (right near my flat), and then I got carried away to sixteenth century ruins near the bypass. But that's what happens. Try it yourself: look closely at anyone from a forgotten corner of any neighbourhood, and you'll slowly but surely find yourself entering a tunnel inhabited by very different characters. You'll notice that these city creatures are lodged in unfamiliar sorts of dwellings. But don't expect to read any news about the bad things that happen to them. Newspapers'
is to hide that news, to edit out everything that they suffer.
If you're in Delhi, and you're the kind of person who doesn't sleep very well at night, and, at three or four in the morning, you're up, and you leave the house to go wandering around, then you've surely seen the road that goes toward Raj Ghat from Kingsway Camp, now called Vijaynagar. If you head toward Nirankari Colony or Mukherjee Nagar from the crossing at Vijaynagar, you'll find yourself in a desolate place that's known as Coronation Park. Even though they've turned the place into a big, beautiful park, it's the spot that gave the area the name of Kingsway Camp.
They say that during the time of the British, when George V or Charles came here (I don't know which one), all the Indian kings and queens of all of the princely states set up camp right there, gathering as one in order to warmly welcome their Imperial King. They say that it was a little like the reception that Bill Clinton got when he visited. The kings and rulers of the princely states performed a crowning ceremony, or the coronation of their English King. The speech that the King of England gave has been stored in the national archives, and the copy of the speech is considered a very important document in the history of India. On top of that, the King of England had a statue of himself installed slap bang in the centre of India Gate, under a lovely canopy. After the British returned to England in 1947, that statue, along with others dating from British rule, were uprooted, collected, and relegated to Coronation Park at Kingsway Camp.
In the years after Independence, the park became a magnet for loonies, beggars, the disabled, lepers, the maimed, druggies, and other wandering, unsettled individuals. They mutilated the statues, turning them into stoves, grindstones, sledgehammers,
and using them in all sorts of other creative ways. A king's head was severed, a hand was taken, a leg removed. The torsos of the other statues lie scattered on the ground in a frightening, limbless state, surrounded by tall grass and shrubs. As soon as the sun sets, the special inhabitants of this park converge from each and every corner of Delhi, and pass the night among the felled, ruined figures.
So, as I was saying, if you're in Delhi, and things are such that an endless nightmare loops in your head all night long, and, in a fit of restlessness and depression, you go out wandering in the middle of the night, or right before daybreak, then you've seen them: the mass of human beings skulking out of Coronation Park, Kingsway Camp, loping toward Raj Ghat on Mall Road. The dark of the night hasn't fully dissipated, and dawn is still a hazy mystery, while you watch a great mass of broken, maimed, crippled, halfway-human beings, like characters from a Fellini or Antionioni film, as they quietly pass into the capital.
They're like a group of survivors of a devastating bombing campaign from a twentieth-century war, who pick themselves out of the rubble in the city that was the scene of the carnage, and carry their wounded bodies to a place of refuge, in search of a final protector.
After the sun comes out, you see them everywhere in the capital: at the train station, at bus stands, in temples, at holy sites, at intersections, on sidewalks. These are not the slum dwellers: they form their own constituency â one that's only got bigger since Independence.
In the corner of the neighbourhood where Sanjay's is, sometimes you'll also see one-eyed Rupna Mandal whose face is dotted with white spots from vitiligo selling colourful paper
flowers and pinwheels. She, too, journeys from Coronation Park. Sometimes Sohna, a nine-year-old with no arms, another of the dispossessed, also comes along.
You see how this tunnel that starts from the little corner of the street that's home to Sanjay's paan stall leads to the Bypass ruins, from there to Kingsway Camp, and from there extends to each and every corner of the capital. Enter the tunnel, quietly make your way deeper and deeper, and you'll soon discover that the tunnel traverses the entire length of the country; then, it continues below the ocean floor, until, finally, it circumnavigates the entire subterranean earth. This is a different kind of globalisation, one so stealthy and so secret that not a single sociologist in the whole wide world knows a thing about it. Those who do know keep quiet, stay put, and wait until tomorrow. But the important thing to remember is this: the tunnel originates mere steps from my home.