Half a Rupee: Stories (4 page)

It was quite late when we left the mess. The streets were unlit, and the cold night was so dark that we could not see our own hands. We began to grope for the fight of steps that would take us to the ashram. There wasn’t a man in sight whom we could ask for help. The car headlights were hardly of any use. The wind howled. We crawled back into the car, but Taran was unwilling to get in. A few freezing minutes in the howling wind later we saw a man with a torch. We rushed out of the car and grabbed him. He explained that the fight of steps was just a little down the road and even offered to lead the way. But he only walked a few steps with us. Once he had seen the extent of our drunkenness, he simply switched off his torch and slipped away in the darkness.

Finally, we did see a fight of steps. We were sure that these were the ones we wanted and began our climb
down. I was leading the way, feeling every step with my foot, speaking aloud, guiding Bhushan and Taran—step, slope … step, slope. Suddenly, I realized that there was no one behind me. Somewhere in the distance, drifting through the darkness, was Taran Taaran’s faint voice, ‘Step, step … slope! Step, step … slope!’

After every two steps there was a small gap, a gradient. Taran Taaran was being painstakingly careful in guiding Bhushan.

Somehow, we managed to reach the ashram. Only after the key clicked into the lock could we believe that we had arrived at the right place.

Thankfully, we had made the beds before we left. We tucked Bhushan in and threw a quilt on top of him. It was so awfully cold that whatever we touched seemed to have been taken out of the freezer. We tried to start a fire—heaped some coal in the
angeethi
and tried to use some old newspaper to kindle the fames. But try as hard as we could, the coal would just not catch fire—the paper would fare up and then turn into ashes, all we got were short bursts of light. The coal looked like pieces of ice and was damp to the touch—have you ever tried setting cubes of ice on fire? Our stack of old newspapers and magazines was fast getting depleted. I had now begun to despair, ‘Taran, if this continues we will soon have to burn our books to warm ourselves.’

The fire didn’t light up, but Taran’s eyes sure did. They lit up with a spark. There was a lot of brandy left in the bottle. He went and brought the bottle over. He then lit
a paper kindle under the bed of coal and began to pour the brandy on top of it.

‘All we want is just one piece of coal to ignite—that’s all. One piece will be enough to start a decent fire.’

When the thin stream of brandy hit the bed of coal which was being kindled from below, a beautiful blue fire leapt out. For a few moments the coal turned into dazzling sapphires. The whole thing looked so mesmerizing that you wanted to scoop it up into your hands. The brandy was nearly over. But the effort had paid off: a piece of coal had begun to glow red, drunk on nearly half a bottle of brandy. What more could we ask for? We began stoking the fire, blowing at it from below, fanning it from above. And soon we had a steady fire raging. Pockets of smoke had begun to billow and collect in the corners, though. We had nearly spent half the night trying to turn the black coal red.

We dusted our beds and climbed into them. Hardly had I closed my eyes when Taran softly called me. When I said ‘Hoon’, he whispered, ‘There was a lesson I had read in Matric—that one must not sleep with a coal fire raging in a closed room. Burning coal produces a gas that can knock you unconscious. You may even die. Therefore it is a must that we keep a window or a ventilator open, letting in some oxygen.’

I scanned the room. I could see neither a window nor a ventilator in any direction. We were in a soup.

I looked at Taran, ‘Taran yaar, did you have to remember what you read in Matric tonight?’

To comfort me, he added, ‘But I don’t think there’s any danger.’

‘Who’s going to become unconscious with all this shivering in this cold?’ I managed to say—but the restlessness remained.

Taran said again, ‘Let’s keep the door a little ajar, shall we?’

‘All right!’

When I opened the door, the cold air rushed in like a rogue. When I kept the door ajar, just a wee bit ajar, the wind began to whistle like hooligans. We were at our wits’ end: we just could not think of a way to stave off the cold and silence our fear. A solution did eventually flash through our minds—to prop a suitcase between the door panels and tie them together. But tie them how? We did not have any string. Finally, we pulled the drawstring out from a pair of pajamas. We stuck a suitcase between the two panels of the door and tied them together. Our fear was a little assuaged but the room once again started growing cold. All this had kept us fairly occupied, but time and again, our thoughts would wander to Bhushan—how was he faring in this gnawing cold? Was he warm enough? He was already holed up under a blanket and a quilt. We threw another quilt on top of him—just to make sure that he stayed warm.

Taran turned on his side again and said, ‘The cold air is bouncing off the wall and is going straight in search of Bhushan.’

And then a silence. After another quiet interval it was my turn to break the silence, to say something.
‘Taran, as the night is deepening, it’s growing colder. I think I am going to throw even my mattress on top of him. God forbid if we find him in the morning like the weaver’s son-in-law with his body stiff and his smile frozen.’

Taran kept quiet. I got up, pulled out my mattress and threw it atop Bhushan and made do with just a blanket. The fire in the
angeethi
was beginning to die. Taran got up to throw a handful of coal in the dying fire and also picked up his quilt and put it on top of Bhushan. And then he crept under his mattress and lay down. Somewhere along the way, exhausted as we were, we did not even realize when we fell asleep.

It was obvious that we had slept till late. That morning, Bhushan woke up before us. I turned on my side and saw him stretching himself awake.

‘How are you?’ I ventured. ‘Did you sleep well?’

He yawned and said, ‘Yes, I did sleep well. But tell me one thing: why did the two of you keep throwing your stuff on top of me all through the night?’

Taran burst out laughing, ‘Hear hear! Hear the man! We stay up half the night worrying to death over him and this is what he says. Now, get out of your bed and fetch us some tea.’

The khansama had prepared a fresh pot of tea and was laying it out in the lawns when he saw Santoshji coming out of Bhushan’s room and asked, ‘What happened, even you failed to wake him up?’

Santoshji had her face hidden in the folds of her shawl. She sank into the chair and with a violent jerk, she shook her head and said, ‘No! He’s not going to wake up. Never again!’

And then she stifled her sobs in the folds of her shawl.

II
 

Feet on the ground, water over your head—
This is the megalopolis
Of Mumbai—

The Stench

‘What all didn’t we do to get you people out of that squalor—out of the indignity of that ghetto! Nine years … for a full nine years we kept at it—we fought and bled to get these cement roofs over your heads … to get this place recognized as a civic colony … and you have the audacity to say that we have squeezed you into boxes …?’ A belligerent tone had crept into the voice of the man from the party.

My husband would invariably pick an argument with him: ‘You call this place a colony? A civic colony? Looks more like a warehouse crammed to the roof with people … you have crated us into parcels …’

I sat behind the door, curtained from their arguments. What did a woman like me have to do with their politics? But my husband was not one to cow down.

‘Arre sala … between two buildings shouldn’t there at least be enough room for two handcarts to pass? The
way these buildings have mushroomed, people going from this end cannot even walk past someone coming from the other.’

‘What you talking, my man Methu? Stop exaggerating. Why two men … two police jeeps can pass each other … you can measure it any time.’

‘Cut it out man, just cut it out … keep your hand on your heart … yes … now tell me, can you put two charpoys in here—gather in a few friends for a round of cards? Can you? Tell me!’

‘Now, now, come on … the alleyways of Bombay are not meant for charpoys, my friend!’

Come to think of it, the contours of the land around me had changed. There was a time when the bay would flush in just a little water and the land would become wet and muddy like a marsh, half the year round. And for the other half, the sun would scorch the mud and the wind would cover everything with fakes of sun-dried mud. The mud and the dust nurtured everything: a multitude of half-naked children and a horde of mangy, scrawny mongrels—and all of Jaani’s cockerels and hens. The kids would strap strings around the pups and drag them around all day long in the mud and the dust. When you saw a mutt with a long neck you could be sure where it had grown up.

But now on this stump of land, the government had built three-storeyed buildings, with twenty-four fats on every floor. In every fat there was a single room, a kitchenette around which skeins of fumes wound themselves like balls of yarns, and a lone tap in the
semblance of a bathroom; the toilets were communal—two on every floor. There was no need to run with the water spilling out of your tin can into the open any more, but the queues still formed. The only difference was the shape of the queues—they used to form in straight lines earlier, now they snaked along the staircases.

When they began constructing these buildings, they dragged out all the shanties and dumped them in the far corner of the ground, just like the way Gaffar piles his empty wicker baskets in the bazaar. In Gaffar’s pile, a few rotten vegetables would still remain—unwanted, unsaleable. And in this pile, rotting children and their unwanted parents howled and yowled their days away, scavenging a life under a scorching sun, burrowing through life like bugs, sponging up the sun and the dew and whatever else the sky would think of hurling at them, into their bones. These concrete walls gathered no moss. The shanties used to be quite green, though.

There used to be a little patch of open ground right in front of our house where Santosh had planted a few seeds of bitter gourd. When the saplings sprouted leaves and began to send out rootlets, she propped them up with a lattice of bamboo splinters and soon the creepers leapt across the trellis and covered it with vines of tender green. A beautiful green wall now separated Santosh’s hut from the next. But a wall of vines was only a wall of vines. It failed to stave off a neighbour’s envy or her greed—miserably so when temptation sprouted in the form of pods of bitter gourd that sat enticingly just an arm’s reach away. The moment the pods bloomed, out
would come the neighbour swinging her bucket to wash clothes by the green trellis. And when eyes wouldn’t be watching, her hand would shoot out and pluck the pods and conceal them under the mound of washed clothes in the bucket. She would fry the bitter gourds with some potatoes and a toss of red chillies. With the chillies you couldn’t even smell the bitter gourd cooking. How would Santosh ever find out?

But all the same, she had become suspicious. That’s why when Rajjab Ali’s garage was pulled down by the municipality, Santosh’s husband got hold of a thin sheet of aluminium and put it behind the bamboo laths in such a way that it totally hid the bitter gourd vines. That’s how occasionally the smell of bitter gourds cooking would drift out from Santosh’s house. There was no need for the aroma to be stifled with red chillies any more. Oh yes, if you asked her for some bitter gourds she would give you a few sometimes. Even she took unripe tomatoes from my flower pots. Everyone had grown something or the other in front of their shanties. Tulsi plants were there, of course—watered every morning and evening. No one knew why the tulsi was planted, why an earthen lamp was lit under it. Everyone—Amina, Karima, Shanti and Puro—would say, ‘Whenever the old man coughs I give him tulsi extract.’ Some people’s vines had crept up the huts and spread over the roofs.

But Aunty, being Aunty, had constructed a still—right behind her shack, not like Bakshi who had his distilling apparatus in the corner of the maidan. Bakshi would brew liquor only once in ten–fifteen days and distil just
enough to fill his drums. The days Bakshi would fire his still you could see the havildar making rounds of his hut right from the morning. Bakshi owned another two huts—the men of honour would sit inside one of these and drink. And the men of normal stature, whose honour would neither increase nor decrease if they were seen drinking, would squat outside the huts and drink the country liquor. For snacks they would lick the salt kept on the plate in front of them. But Aunty was Aunty—she would distil her alcohol with great love and tenderness. She would put some rotting fruits in her brew and very little sal ammoniac. Her alcohol was the colour of gold. And if you brought in your own empty bottle she would give a discount of one rupee on the price. Her customers were mostly regulars. They were the only ones who came to her and never after 10 p.m. After that it was her time to drink. She would drink herself senseless, feast on beef and then go off to sleep. If somebody were to wake her up, she would hurl such choice abuses at them that the entire basti would become redolent with the language.

But now even Aunty was imprisoned behind walls. You no longer got to hear her—as if her voice has been choked. She did not seem this lonely earlier.

And Jaani … these days he says that the money from his hotel job is not enough, not any more. He sold off some of his chickens, ate some and some died. What could he do? You couldn’t raise chickens on the second or third floor!

This year, Gaffar did not buy a billy goat either. On Bakr-i-Id, he sacrificed his own she-goat. What else
could he do? Earlier he would let his goat loose and the goat would look after herself—she would graze for food somewhere in the rubbish heaps of the basti. Now she was eating away the clothes in the house—the cost of two lungis had got added to Gaffar’s monthly budget. Poor Gaffar. When he did not have his pukka house, he was so much better off.

My husband too used to often bring his friends home. He would set the charpoy outside our shack and drink and argue most of the night away; and then they would roll over there itself and sleep through the rest of the night. In the morning they would all get up and go about their duties. Now my husband had stopped bringing his friends over. In these one-room homes, what would all the men and women do now? Earlier the children would lie on the floor inside and the men would sleep outside. The women, after filling their buckets with water from the tap, would come and pick up their bleating kids and wrap them around their bosoms and go off to sleep. What were they to do now? The grown-up kids … they all kept staring wide-eyed.

I have told my husband a number of times, ’Damn it, is this any life? The government had locked us up in boxes and you know why … so that the stench of poverty stays contained, stays inside. Come, let’s sell this pukka house and go somewhere else … to some other slum. Surely we can find some place that we like.’

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