Half a Rupee: Stories (5 page)

The Rain

The rain was unrelenting. It had poured night and day, continuously, for five days in a row. And Damoo had been drinking relentlessly, day and night, all through those five days, competing with the downpour. Neither would the rain let up nor would Damoo let go. The steadfast rain and stubborn Damoo. Drunk, both.

Damoo had always been like this. When he picked up the bottle he had to completely take to it. His drinking bouts stretched into days, going on for twenty days, sometimes thirty. He would drink all through the day and right through the night. When his wife stopped Laksha from supplying him more, Damoo would conjure up a bottle from anywhere—from under the mattress, from inside the containers in the kitchen, even from the rafters on the roof. He had an insatiable capacity to drink. And he was happy when he was drinking. He was never the man you would find in a drunken brawl;
in this Damoo was quite unlike others. And when he gave up the hooch, he really gave it up—he wouldn’t touch the devil for three or four months at a stretch, sometimes even for a full six months. When he was on the wagon, there wasn’t another man like him in the basti—there was no better father than him, no better husband, no better worker.

But all that was in another season. Seasons change. This monsoon he had started drinking with the very first showers. And this year it wasn’t raining, it was pouring. Such a downpour had not been seen in the last hundred years.

The city braved the first day of the onslaught. Local train services were suspended, then resumed, and then suspended again. The second day took its toll—trucks were unable to enter the city. They started grinding to a halt on the highways. The city was flooding. The supply of fresh vegetables dried up. Prices shot up like the ears of a rabbit. The rain kept falling—in sheets. Steadily, unfalteringly. And Damoo kept drinking, matching the intensity of the rain.

By the third day the signs of danger were loud and clear. Rain and more rain accompanied by strong winds. The wind drove the sheets of rain into the lane, and it quickly started filling up. Half the household lay strewn outside Damoo’s house in the lane—his wife started dragging it all into the kholi, their one-room tenement. The kholi had the wingspan of a sparrow. It could hardly accommodate Damoo, his wife Shobha, and their daughter Kishni who was to be married off the next month. When
the wife pulled in the family goat as well, Damoo lost it: ‘Abey, what’s the need to get this behen inside?’

‘What am I to do—let it soak in the rain? Till when?’

‘Look at the bloody thick coat she has! She’s not going to wilt in two hours.’

‘You say two hours, but it’s been two days. Today the lane’s flooded. Even the drain’s spilling over. I think this accursed rain is going to sweep Punya’s shanty away.’

Damoo fell silent. He smacked a little salt off his right hand, picked up the glass and guzzled half a glass of hooch. The booze scorched his innards and he belched out a thick, filthy curse—directed this time at the maker of the hooch.

‘The bastard. Saala has poured so much naushader
into the booze it tastes more like battery acid.’

Shobha did not respond. She tied the goat in the corner and spoke to Kishni instead. ‘Get up beti. Pick up all the things from the floor and put them on the shelf. I’m afraid some water will seep in. This rain is not going to let up. It has started raining harder instead …’

She hadn’t even finished speaking when a clamour rose in the streets, ‘Look at that, that’s Punya’s shanty—it … it’s gone.’

Shobha looked out of her door: Muqadam’s roof had collapsed and slid onto the lane. People ran across to hoist it up again, but there was no point. Instead of flowing in from the lane, the water was now filling in from the top. The sky was stubborn in its intent.

Kishni wanted to run out, to help, but Shobha stopped her: ‘You stay put. You’re going to get married next month. I don’t want you to break a limb.’ She muttered something more under her breath and hurried out of the house.

Damoo looked at his daughter. There were now only the three of them—Damoo, Kishni and the goat. Love for his daughter was spilling out of his bosom. He wanted to reach out to her, to strike up a conversation.

‘Are there any onions in the house, beti? Will you give me one—sliced? Sprinkle some salt on it.’

Kishni began to slice an onion without a word. And Damoo scooped up the bottle of booze from the window and filled his glass all over again.

‘Pour me a glass of water too, from the

Without saying anything, Kishni filled a mug with water and gave it to her father. Damoo now had half a glass of booze topped to the brim with water. Kishni had walked back to her corner of the room before Damoo could extend his quivering hand over her head in blessing. The hand kept flapping in the air for a few orphan moments, quite like a bird in mid-fight, and then came down to roost.

‘You no worry, beti. I’ll arrange your marriage with style. Will give you twenty-five thousand rupees kholi, another twenty–five thousand for clothes and jewellery. And also give your man twenty-five thousand cash. Full one lakh I’ll bring. Will spend all on your marriage. One lakh, too much, no? All right, fifty thousand then. I’ll get fifty thousand for your marriage.’

He must have said this at least twenty-five thousand times, this talk of fifty thousand rupees. Every time Shobha would snub him, ‘Where from? Where will you bring the money from—bet on a race or do a dacoity or what?’

This was what Shobha told him every time. And he too, in every drunken stupor of his, would put his hand in blessing over his daughter’s head in his own inimitable style and repeat the exact same words, ‘You no worry, beti …’

Kishni put down the plate of sliced onions and salt and moved out of Damoo’s sight. The floodwater had by now started seeping into the house. The bucket in the kitchen was still ringing with raindrops trickling in from the leaking roof. The goat had been squatting on the floor. It now stood up on all fours.

Shobha was not yet back. It had been quite some time. Kishni had braved the rain and ventured out to find her mother. She too had now been gone for over half an hour. Damoo began to worry about their possessions.

The first thing he secured was his litre of booze: he put it on a higher shelf. The other bottle was still safe, hidden inside a canister of daal in the kitchen. Then he filled a jug with water and kept it safely aside. After that he hauled the two tin trunks up on the wooden plank that also doubled up as their bed. The third trunk proved too heavy for him. He hurt his feet trying to drag it up—so he let that be.

The goat stood crouched in a corner in silent prayer. Damoo found some puffed rice in a jar, filled some into
his pockets, scooped some in his hands and returned to where he had been sitting—and continued drinking and munching. The kholi was now fast filling up with floodwater.

Now, Shobha returned, but not Kishni. She had hitched her sari over her knees. She yelled, ‘Listen, today no cooking possible at home. Maliya’s hotel is flooded, half-filled with water. People are running for shelter to the garages on the upper side.’

He was drunk but he remembered, ‘What about Muqadam—his house, flooded or no?’

‘Poor man! He’s still at it, hauling his stuff upstairs to safety. Everybody’s at it—Heera, Gopal, Sulaiman, everybody. But what to do—look after the young and the old or save the belongings?’

Shobha was picking up the foodstuff and keeping them aside safely, one by one. She had brought some vada-pav for Damoo. As she was giving it to him, she kept on the prattle, ‘How many kids these people in our mohalla produce? At least ten kids you’ll find in every size. Thank God, we only have one.’

Damoo was relieved to see his wife back. He shook the droplets of rain from his hair and said, ‘If you could have held on to your pregnancies, here also would be a long line of kids.’

Shobha glared at him, ‘There is a God above, no, to save me. Here … eat it.’

Damoo grabbed her wrist, ‘Why, God’s your relative or what?’

‘Let go of me!’ Shobha said in mock irritation. ‘Be ready
to leave … just look how fast the water’s filling up.’

Shobha had propped a chair on top of the two trunks. Damoo quietly stood up and climbed atop the chair, ‘This high your relative cannot come also. Forget the water.’

‘Be careful! Don’t fall down. There won’t be anybody here to pick you up.’

‘Why? Where are you going?’

‘To the roof on the garage. They need help. Even Kishni’s there.’

‘When is she coming back?’

‘As soon as the rain lets up we will all return.’

But this time round nobody let up—neither the rain nor Damoo. The floodwater in the lane kept surging. The drain metamorphosed into a river. Muqadam’s youngest son fell into the water and was swept away. A few people ran to pull him out but the current dragged the boy further away. A few people got wounded in the effort. Some people thought that the boy had got sucked into an open manhole above which the floodwaters had created a whirlpool.

And then the electricity went. Or perhaps the government had shut off the power to stave off electrocutions from short circuits. As the day began to wear off the city begun to drown in darkness as well. The three garages on the upper side of the lane got filled with six feet of water. The cars, stripped of their engines for repair, were floating in the water like graves. There were a number of huge floor-to-ceiling cabinets in the garage. People threw out the stuff from the shelves closest to the
ceiling and crawled into them. No one had any intention of stepping down till the rain abated.

Those who could escape sought shelter on the roofs of sturdier buildings, in hospital verandas, in school classrooms. Kishni was sitting lifelessly in a hospital veranda. Somebody had broken the news to her—they said Shobha was seen drowning in the floodwater; a few others said that she had been bitten by a snake. A number of serpents had been seen swimming in the deluge.

While there still was some daylight left, a couple of young men did venture to enter Damoo’s kholi. But they could not break in. The water now reached up to their necks. The goat hung in the water, legs up, in the doorway. It was long dead. The undercurrent near the wall was strong, and the window at the back was totally under water. Damoo had somehow managed to pull the other table—on which Shobha kept their utensils—up on their bed. A few pots and pans were still floating in the water. Most had been swept away. The roar of the rain and the gurgle of the surging water threatened to split their eardrums. The young men called out for Damoo, yelled his name till they were hoarse, but Damoo—a bottle in one hand and a long wooden stick in the other—was busy trying to fish out a few floating tomatoes and cucumbers from the water. He was actually fishing—hooking them and then reeling them in. And he was laughing. He neither heard them call out to him nor did he call out for help. Perhaps he had not even thought of seeking help—he was still above the water, he was still in the race, the bet was still in play: who would let up first—the rain or Damoo.

The Charioteer

The first steamboat to Elephanta Caves left the piers of Gateway of India at seven-thirty in the morning. That was why Maruti had to be there by six-thirty. His chores were well-defined: sweep the boat, pick up the litter of last night’s passengers and finally wash and mop it clean; then move on to the next boat. That was what his mornings were all about, that was his routine.

Narasingha Rao, his employer, was happy with his work but he had the foulest mouth one could possess—he had no control over his tongue, swearing out a litany of profanities. Agreed, he did not mean a single one of the foul words he spat out, but each of his foul utterances did rankle in Maruti’s ears and singe his heart nonetheless. Narasingha Rao’s lungi was hitched high up on his thighs and there was a six-finger-wide tilak on his forehead, freshly anointed. He must be waking up his god pretty early in the morning.

By the time the boat was all washed up and clean, a motley crowd of passengers would have queued up for the ride. Tourists from abroad, mostly American and Japanese, herded in groups by their travel agents. Quite often the passengers for the first boat ride strolled out of the Taj Hotel right in the front of the pier, clutching onto their small little bags, an assortment of hats on their heads, cameras and binoculars slung across their shoulders. But the peace with which Maruti cleaned the first boat would go missing when he started work on the second one. No sooner would the first boat leave than the passengers left behind would jump into the second one, even before he could finish his mopping. And to add to his woes, the passengers for the second boat would be of a different kind—less classy, more demanding. Gone would be the meaningless swearing of the morning, the gentle cursing. The cussing now developed a sting—Maruti could feel it whiplash against his skin—worsening as the sun became stronger.

Narasingha Rao owned three ferries. They trawled the waters between Gateway and Elephanta—filled their bellies with passengers on one shore and emptied them at the other, leaving in their wake crumpled, empty packets of spicy savouries, shells of peanuts, peels of oranges, wrappers of chocolates and candies, vomit, angrily tossed packets of contraceptives, beads from a broken necklace, somebody’s cap and another’s handkerchief. Maruti’s arms would tire picking up the trash.

The passengers were not allowed to throw anything overboard into the sea, but Maruti never ever stopped
anyone from doing so. If they insisted in their own ways to lessen his burden, lighten his load, who was he to stop them? Scraping the dried vomit from the floor of the boat was the hardest thing to do. And it was very common for those travelling in a boat in the sea for the first time to puke; it was the common curse—the shared disease. Most people leant against the railings and puked over them, and in their effort to do so, puked mostly on their own shirts and onto the benches. It was worse during high tide. All that they had eaten would come out. Narsingha Rao had issued a standing order to scoop water up from the tank and clean the vomit immediately. It was back-breaking work and Maruti would double up in pain. At times he would even be kicked by the superior. On these ferries he was the lowliest of the low—he was the
, a mere sweeper. So they would ask him to do whatever they liked. The captain of the boat brought his lunch in a box but ate with proper plates and cutlery. And Maruti had to clean both his tiffin box and his plates and then arrange his basket before he left in the evening.

For ten, continuous hours he maintained his balance on a boat rolling on the waves of the sea; by the time the boat anchored at the harbour, every single bone in his body would be aching. He would be left with hardly any energy to clean the boat.

Narasingha Rao cussed at Maruti’s mother lewdly and swore at him: ‘Why don’t you clean the boat now itself … otherwise in the morning you will have to slog your own sorry ass!’

Maruti did not even have the energy to answer him. He gestured to say, ‘In the morning … no breath left right now.’ His limbs felt lifeless.

Pushed, shoved through the multitudes of crowds, scraping through somehow, he reached Churchgate Station and managed to board the local; his shoulders drooped, his eyes begun to close. At Jogeshwari, the crowds spat him out of the train. It was a daily ritual.

Somehow, gathering every little bit of energy, he staggered on to the hillock near the highway into kholi number 109 of shanty-town Sawant Nagar. Tulsibai, like every other day, filled the shining bowl with water from the kalsi and thrust it into his hands, saying, ‘Tired? Here, have this.’

He propped himself up on his elbows and drank the water in one swoop, washing it down his throat.

Tulsi came and sat by him on the bed and, pressing his aching feet, narrated the happenings of the day.

Laxmi had come from her sasural … her in-laws had gone to Nasik.

Maruti closed his eyes. A moment passed. Tulsi said once again, ‘Chotti has become wicked … imagine, she called me Nani! And she was calling you by your name, asking you when you are going to come … lisping, stuttering and all, “When will Maluti come? When?”’

A smile broke across Maruti’s careworn face, the tiredness on his features rearranged itself into a smile.

‘She speaks in Hindi!’

‘Oh yes!’

‘Hasn’t learnt Marathi!’

‘She will! There’s still time.’

The tiredness of the day began to creep away. He rested his head on his folded arms.

‘How did she go back?’

‘She didn’t … they have gone to see a film.’

‘Chotti also?’

‘The little devil does not let go of her mother for even a moment. What was she to do? So they took her along.’

Maruti grunted and took a deep breath.

‘And Karthik? Where’s he?’

‘Today he again fought with someone at school!’

‘Mother of …!’

Maruti turned on his side and abruptly got up.

‘Bloody idiot, every day he gets beaten up at school and comes … bloody coward. Ghati. He is a disgrace to the Marathas!’

Tulsi also got up.

‘Go … freshen up … I’ve made some poha … have a little.’

Maruti pulled down a towel and lowered himself into a corner to have a bath. ‘Take out my dhoti-kurta,’ he said.

The stove was lit. The lamp too was switched on. Maruti folded his hands in front of the idols kept there, murmured some words of prayer and put on his fresh dhoti-kurta.

Karthik walked in. Maruti jumped on Karthik, put a hand between his legs and threw him against the bed and pressed him under himself.

‘Come, you idiot. Come wrestle with me!’

It tickled Karthik.

Maruti said, ‘From tomorrow get yourself massaged with mustard oil, go to the
and train yourself to wrestle. You will achieve nothing by reading books and being a Gyandev!’

Karthik kept laughing. Despite the gushing noise of the kerosene stove, Tulsi could hear everything and said, ‘Why are you teaching him stupid stuff …?’

‘I’m teaching him the right stuff. A Maratha’s son has to be a brilliant Maratha!’

Babu arrived now outside the door and called for him to come outside the kholi.

‘What say, Maruti? Want to come along for Patkar’s meeting?’

Maruti said from inside the kholi, ‘Holy shit, do you have any idea why people go for that meeting? My wife says that all you do there is scratch your balls.’

From inside the kitchen Tulsi cussed at the two. ‘Woe be upon you, bastards!’

Maruti moved out.

‘You heard what my bai said?’

After the meeting at the local brewery, they argued. From Baba Ambedkar to Medha Patkar, from Chavan to Pawar, they discussed everyone and analysed everything threadbare.

In the middle of the night when a couple of drunks shattered the silence of the alley, Tulsi got up from the cot. She lit the stove and began to warm the food again. Her son-in-law was sleeping on a cot in the alley. Maruti’s cot too was laid next to him. Maruti stepped inside laughing. Karthik was sleeping on the wooden bed. Laxmi too was
asleep, the little one cradled next to her. Maruti put his hand over the child’s head and pinched her cheeks and tried to mimic her lisp: ‘Maluti’s come.’

Tulsi scolded him, ‘Let her be. Don’t you wake her up now.’

Laxmi woke up. She hugged the father. Chotti also woke up. Karthik turned on his side and muttered: ‘Bapu!’ The son-in-law bent down to touch his feet.

Now, Maruti wasn’t the lowliest of the low … not a mere
; he was the captain of his family: the charioteer steering a seven-horse chariot!

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