A nondescript morning meanders through a busy road smack in the middle of a traffic snarl. Sun rays fall like rain on a young man walking without energy, his shoulders sloping downhill, their mantle of dejection pressing against his collarbones.
The young man has a dark blue striped shirt on, rolled up at the sleeves. His black jeans hang loosely from his hips. His shoes which were shiny in the morning are now covered with a film of sparrow coloured dust. He could be anywhere between twenty one and twenty nine. He could be an itinerant salesman; a medical representative, a computer mechanic, an-out-of-work engineer or an MBA on a sabbatical. The air of hopelessness around his thin body, in the forward tilt of his forehead that speaks of the futility of finding anything remotely good and positive in the world, could belong to anyone.
A small triangle of down just beneath his pendulous lower lip catches a stray filament either of yarn or bird down. The patch of down has the glossiness of young hair, and the filament doesn’t look out of place on it. The man’s eyes, however, display an age-old weariness that has nothing to do with fatigue. A name tag swings from a synthetic blue ribbon looped around his neck. The logo of a well known IT company is etched below it. The tag says he is R. Balaji; it’s a common enough name in these parts. Its shorter version – Bala, one that his friends and colleagues use — is even more universal, for it means youth or young in many Indian languages, and is connected with the biggest God’s name in the South. The bag, which he can also sling from his shoulder, instead of grasping it by its handles like a brief case and letting the long strap dangle on the road like he’s doing now, has the insignia of the same firm embossed on it.
Earlier in the day Bala had boarded a bus labelled with a placard that said “Chennai to Mahabalipuram” on its flat-topped forehead. He got in at the Koyambedu bus terminus at nine in the morning, a time he would have normally spent waiting for his office bus on any other day, along with a few other men and women like him. He was early and had a choice of seats. Instead, he chose to go right up to the last row, where the bus bounced the most. By the time passengers arrived and filled up the bus it was already a quarter to ten and he had dozed off.
Bala awoke with a start an hour later when the bus braked suddenly. Feeling stale and tired despite his nap, he made his way to the front of the bus, without bothering to find out where they were. The traffic signal showed green and the bus lurched forward; but in the instant between clutch and accelerator, he stepped down, taking care to face the engine side and running a few steps on the road in the direction of the moving bus. Nobody gave him a second glance. There were other young men doing the same thing all the time, though less often on long-distance buses.
Once out of the bus and on the rubble-strewed road, he ambled towards a stretch that met East Coast Road at a right angle. He walked unhurriedly until the road formed a bridge of sorts and looked into a canal that had halted beneath it, unable to proceed because of all the construction work going on, its water turned to garbage and mud. Bala gazed down for a while at the marshy land beyond the truncated canal, and then continued his journey until he reached what appeared to be a major crossroad, the intersection of Old Mahabalipuram Road and Sholinganallur Link Road. And there he stood, not knowing what he was waiting for, before moving on towards the intersection.
Now the morning meets him without greeting him as he crosses the road. He ignores the blare of horns, but nonetheless quickens his pace as a mark of grudging respect towards a lorry carrying workmen. The lorry seems hell bent in outrunning the sleek modern cars that vulgarly display India’s progress. He slows down again after a few moments, having safely gotten out of the bully’s wheels. The lorry on its part curves around him with surprising manoeuvrability, honking impatiently, though not necessarily at Bala who has already begun to saunter over to the sparse shade offered by the aqua blue glass wall of a Japanese car showroom. He stops to catch his breath once he reaches the showroom. He sits on the steps at a discreet side and allows drowsiness to wash over him again.
When Bala awakes he is hot and sticky again. He gets up and stretches his legs, and aimlessly walks across the breadth of OMR, over the concrete road divider and on to the other side where he clambers onto a pedestrian walkway made up of patches of crab grass, weeds, plastic bottles, discarded paper, rags, dog turd and gaping holes between the concrete slabs revealing sewer filled storm-water drains below.
Anyone looking at him would not believe for a minute that Bala has no idea where he is headed. His head is jam-packed with Gauri’s sitcom-load of screams, shouts and accusations and his denials, her tears and pleadings and his retorts, their emails, text messages, loving words, harsh words, and deafening silences amidst other sounds that are not hers, but not his, or at least that is how he remembers. They are words that belong to someone else inhabiting his body, and they are as damning as hers, and worse because the sounds have been producing smashed objects and splintered glass, a bleeding hand, things he had no idea could be produced by mere sound, but there they were, accusing him, and accusing him and accusing him until he is certain that he will go mad. At this time his head feels as if it has a hundred television channels open at the same time on a single screen, each sitcom in its own little square vying with all the other squares for attention, something like an electronic aleph, which is sucking away at his identity.
The commotion in his head prevents Bala from thinking about anything coherently. Every now and then Gauri’s face swims up before him, and he keeps batting his eyelids to make her go away. This could be dangerous, but he is out of the highway now. So unlike his gait at the intersection, he can now continue walking with the sure steps of one who has a specific destination in mind, and doesn’t have to watch his step.
A casual onlooker could easily mistake him for a salesman out on a service call, perhaps in a new area, one that he does not know well enough. In truth his head, above the hubbub of his immediate past, is quite numb. A hot thirst rages through his body, slowing his reflexes down to a snail’s pace. His mind, wired to tackle the thousand and one pitfalls of an Indian city road in the same way that birds and butterflies are wired to negotiate their migratory paths, now processes data with lethargic reflexes that just about prevent his feet from stepping onto spittle, excreta, rubbish and strategically placed potholes. The thirst is fast capturing his senses, and in the momentary blindness of sun-glare, Bala stumbles to his right, almost falling into the bosom of a side road freshly clothed in concrete.
The road is generously dusted with dry mud, powdered cement and sand. To the left of the road, a few old houses have stepped away from a spanking new wall, within which rise pale towers housing the newly returned rich from foreign lands. To the right of it a cream-coloured building recedes into a mango grove that is still alive despite the gated communities springing up all around it. The mango grove beneath the relentless blue sky soothes Bala somewhat. Then his eyes fall on a motley group of men and women collected around something that looks like a dirty cloth bundle on the overgrown-with-grass pedestrian pathway running alongside the road. He draws closer and snatches of subdued conversation flutter like dry leaves on a summer afternoon around him.
“Is she really dead?”
“Yes of course. Can’t you see?”
“Look, look. Rigor mortis has already set in!”
“My gawd! This is soo terrible.”
The sudden American accent revives Bala sufficiently to turn his head and look with interest. The woman is Indian, but obviously not local. The others that were gaping, like her, are also saying the same thing in different accents and different words. Despite the din, he smiles at a new thought that has somehow managed to stand up in his head and wave at him: English is truly an Indian language with so much unity in its diversity!
“She was alive at ten. I saw her on my way to work,” says a man who is still in his office clothes, but has shed the shoes for a comfortable pair of flip-flops.
“Yes. She was drinking water. Seems her grandson was with her, but he left to get food. And never returned,” says one of the security guards from the nearby gated community. He is glad to have found an excuse to leave his post, and wants to make the most of it while it lasts.
“Haven’t the policemen arrived yet?” an anxious looking woman asks no one in particular.
“They want money. We’ve got the money. Now they should take it away,” says a tall fair man, half in Tamil and half in American-accented English.
“Look here, this has happened in front of our complex. We’ll share the expenses,” says someone.
“Why aren’t the police here yet?”
“Can someone call them again please?”
“Yes, the security guard has been sent. Seems an ambulance arrived, took her pulse and left.”
The conversation drifts from spectator to spectator. Most of them are from the swanky residential complex a few yards away. The rest are the security guards and passersby. They are people with time on their hands, like Bala.
The ones who are most visibly upset are the ladies. They are looking at the old woman with their hands over their mouths, as if it’s their own grandmother who has died. Bala gets an irresistible urge to prod one of them in her round buttocks; this is a woman in her late forties, a Punjabi, he concludes from the looks of her, with too-tight spandex slacks on. A trim looking chap is standing protectively near her, as if he knows how the hoi polloi around him feel about his wife.
Bala weaves his way through the people and back again. His steps have begun to falter again, and their aimlessness is more than evident. The thirst has entered his nerves, and his eyes are beginning to look bloodshot. He is beginning to feel utterly miserable, and the burden of a promise he’d made in the morning to Gauri, before he left the house, is draining all his strength away. He wishes he hadn’t. He regrets his weak moment. But it is Gauri who is the real weakness. He should never have married her. The dullness of matrimony, the relentless routine, and worst of all the endless, meaningless responsibilities have all conspired together and made his life unbearable. And now she is claiming to be pregnant. Why? And why now? Bala isn’t even sure if she is telling the truth, that this is not a tactical move to bring him back. He doesn’t know what to believe. He can’t even believe in himself these days.
The sun begins its westward journey, burning the air below. Bala listlessly shuffles and reshuffles the dust with his feet, unable as yet to leave the place where everyone seems to be waiting for the police, the ambulance and the untouchable and outcast men who are normally hired to lift and cremate unknown bodies. The scene of death seems to hang in ether, and can only move after the arrival of these principal actors. He feels like a piece of iron perilously close to a large magnet. He hangs around the outer fringes of the tableau, turning to look at the road beyond every now and then. The sun moves, but time stretches like a string of molten glass behind it.
After what seems to be an aeon, a moody orange light settles over everything. The air begins to get cooler. The chirping and squawking of birds, some of which are migratory, returning to their places of rendezvous before night settles in, invade Bala’s head, unnerving him to a point where his limbs feel polio stricken. A police van arrives and right behind them, a pair of untouchable men on a bicycle, with one riding and the other perched on the side bar in front; these men are necessary for any work involving dead bodies. They heave the old woman on to the floor of the van. A woman from the crowd hands over an old sheet, which they use as a shroud for the body.
One of the other women says, “Let’s have coffee at my place,” and Bala knows the show is finally over, and it is time to leave. But where can he go? He was beginning to feel connected to this place. The crowd disperses and he tries to follow some of them, the ones that are not entering the gated communities and have apparently nowhere to go. After a few minutes even those people get inside places where Bala cannot enter legitimately, so he turns a random bend and enters the local Nilgiri store. He picks up a packet of cigarettes and a plastic lighter, pays and comes out feeling even more dejected. He stands outside the glass door, looking at the waned and wasted day before him. A sense of failure grasps him by the collar. He feels he can run into the path of a lumbering lorry and end it all then and there. He stands teetering on this decision, at the edge of a step leading to other steps to a rubble-heaped black road. Men, women, children pass him on their way to or from work, home or school. Construction workers jostle past him in groups, daily wages tucked into pockets, in anticipation of the toddy shops. Stray dogs sniff, move on.
Bala doesn’t yet know that within minutes from now, he will lope away from this place and walk back to the Link road which he had left earlier in the day. He will loiter at a bus stop for a while and then, without realising when or how, will find himself on a bus once more. He will alight again, and this time the place will be a small tourist spot called Tiger Cave where ancient carved stones and parts of a temple and an amphitheatre were discovered a few years ago. He will hang around with the tourists, young couples and groups of men lazing beneath old trees. He will slip in without paying the fee, because it has grown dark enough, and the sentry is too lazy to bother with one more ticketless entry. He will hover near a well-heeled couple listening to a guide’s practised but inaccurate lecture on the Pallava kings. He will loiter among the loose boulders and listen to the casual conversation around him.
When the sun has truly gone down to its watery grave beyond the small hillocks of salt that dot the far road to Pondicherry, Bala will quietly make his way to the stone-carved stage, where important men may have given speeches in ancient times. He will set his bag down and take out the all things he had promised Gauri that morning that he would discard; these are the very articles that are responsible for the unavoidable truth behind the simultaneous rush of soap operas in his head, and all the bits and pieces that patch together his disintegrating life and his sense of self. He will sort out the items after laying them on the stone slab before him. He will choose one, roll it and light it. He will inhale deeply, closing his eyes in contentment as the roar in his head eddies down to a soothing murmur. He will start to dream and the day will feel good and whole again. But his orgy won’t be over. Not yet. After a while his right hand will find and caress a spot on his elbow, where a vein will eagerly begin to throb, letting Bala know there is still life, sweet life in him and not in Gauri, damn her. And he will tell himself that all he has to do now is to get it started, and that nothing else is more important, at least not until tomorrow, when the dilemma will raise its ugly little head again, and then, he will… But what does it matter what he will and what he won’t do tomorrow? Peace and wellbeing is about to flow in. He stretches his body on the cold stone bed. The city’s keening is a distant incoherent noise, and no longer has any power over him. He is free. He is as free now as the cool briny air, that scatters the miniature translucent crabs before it, scrambles to come ashore and claim land.
RK Biswas is the author of “Culling Mynahs and Crows,” a literary novel published by Lifi Publications, India. Biswas has had more than 200 publications across the globe. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Competition 2012. She was long listed for her poem “Cleavage” in the Bridport Poetry Competition 2006. Her poem Bones was a Pushcart and Best of the Net Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2011.