Thursday, 27 December 2012


(adapted from a true incident)


One, two, three, four, f… twelve and then she herself – the thirteenth.             

At the head of the squirming file is Distrustful Old Man. The overseer gives him a thin pile of red currency notes which he counts thrice. Distrustful Man does this on every pay day. He does this even though, like everyone else, he knows Overseer Jabbar doesn't cheat the payees in counts. His schemes for stripping the workers of their money are indiscernible; or, in any case, not easy to catch; and not in the slightest by means of a simple count with saliva-lubricated fingers.          


Let this be quick!          


Distrustful Man steps sideways to leave. Stops. Takes a step back. But Jabbar's icy glare makes him start off.            

Eleven to go!

This one’s bound to be quick. It is the turn of  Heroin Addict who will grab his money with a shivering hand and stride off toward the powder-boy who lingers in the shadow of the bairi tree. The powder boy’s kamis pocket is sagging with the weight of the white powder wrapped in small conical pouches made of hand-torn pieces of newspaper.  

Heroin Addict paces toward the boy, fast, as though he suspects that the pouches will all be sold out before he completes his twelve strides. 

Once again, she counts the heads aligned ahead of her.   


Tenth from her, luckily, is another quick riddance; yellow-eyed Disease Junkie whose latest contact, an overseas germ with a a difficult name, has left him looking like a deflated balloon, hollow inside a crumpled bag of limp hide. From the pay desk, Disease Junkie diectly goes to pay off his outstanding credit at the pharmacy (not to speak of the mounting credit at the quack doctors’ clinic) before he returns to his tent, bent beat up his wife black-and-blue if she comes up with one of her intrinsically erratic demands.   

All of a sudden, Jabbar stands up. Her heart lurches. But it’s only to let the errand boy wipe the table top above which hundreds of slothful flees are hovering, collecting their share from the continent of dried tea and other remains of the meals Jabbar’s been eating through the day.

She turns her gaze towards the basti, the sprawling stretch of tents and huts, listening, trying to make out what goes on out there. But there are no sounds other than shouts of street lads playing a game of Pithoo Garam on the clearing near the swamp. Their high-spirited calls clash with the hazy gloom of the twilight that has cloaked the tents.   

What if one of the children shooed away by their mothers – they are highly intolerant of rowdiness and annoyance at this time of the day – enters her deserted tent? What if…?   

A deadly chill spreads in her limbs like ink dissolves in water. She curls her toes to stop her feet from gelling. 

And she jolts her mind back to the proceedings at the pay desk.  

Ten is gone. Money in being counted to pay the person nine heads up the line from her!          

It is Blind Woman’s Son who never looks up to let his gaze meet the overseer’s eyes. He accepts the money offered him rather bleakly; not yet looking at the money-lender who is standing a mere four, five feet away. Holding the money in his hand, Blind Woman’s Son walks straight towards the money-lender, gives him the pad of eleven red notes – still not looking up(or around) – folds the two purple one (enough to buy 21 cigarettes; three a day for the next seven days)and deposits them deep into his shalwar pocket, and, with his gaze still raking the ground, walks away.            

One, two, three…eight! She counts the heads again to be sure. Yes, there are eight left. Eight like eight corners of a coffin. The image of a small coffin emerges. 

The vision culls other images. Dark gaping holes. And sounds. Shrill and lamenting! Unbearably shrill and lamenting! She flinches.  

Bang! A shutter falls! Veiling the images; throttling the wails.  

Acrid smoke from fire made from kerosene oil on damp firewood is stinging her eyes now. So... basti women have already started lighting fires in their hearths to cook their evening meals. It’s earlier than their usual cooking time. Ah! It’s pay day.  They are impatient to cook and eat. They’ll all eat well today. Fools!!

A queer thought pops up in her head. 

Will I eat tonight?  

It is Wise Man facing Jabbar now. Wise Man is a bearded fellow who has no family. Just pigeons.  Oh, how she reveres his saintly judgment! His acumen which makes him see danger much before it becomes large enough to crush you to a numb pulp! Perhaps he knows that a laborer’ shoulders are not strong enough to carry the weight of a family. Perhaps that is why he has no family. Just pigeons. Pigeons are fine; low maintenance, non-complaining, less emotionally adhering, and self-caring. 

Wise Man's gone. That was quick.  

In spite of what happened when she went to tend to her sick baby during the tea break, she feels lucky there have been no holdups at the pay desk 

Thank you God!

God? Are you there?

Some delay, however, is inevitable. The next disbursement can take long; very long. It’s the turn of the payee who is seventh from her.        

Dark-eyed Female, her blatantly protruding breasts half visible owing to the fact that many buttons on her kurta front are missing, bangs Jabbar’s desk with her fist. He will now open another ledger and show her a muddle of numbers and words scribbled on an oil-stained page; and they will argue – a most friendly argument of course – over some money that was once lent (no one knows by whom). She will mock a frown and he will simper evilly. She will roll her eyes and he will tell her to add and subtract certain numbers to and from other numbers. She will bend down a bit too low to look into the ledger; his eyes will make the most of this opportunity to closely graze through the dark treasure behind the clammy fabric of her kurta. He’ll whisper. She’ll whisper. Only when he will thrust in her hand, a clump of currency notes that will seem a bit too thick as compared to ones the rest of them are getting, will it all end.         

Turning her head towards the huts, she waits for it to be over. 

A mushroom of smoke has haloed the basti from above. And there is a stench on the breeze now. Every day, at this time, a shitty reek rises from the swamp and sits on the basti, pressing all other odors down. Is it that or...? She sniffs to know.  

Back at the desk, the dark-eyed Female has moved from the head of the queue; not to leave though; only to stand behind Jabbar’s chair. And he has an ugly leer on his cigarette-stained lips now.        

Everyone takes a step forward. She too takes a step forward and bends her head sideways to count the workers ahead of her in the pay queue.          

One, two, three… six! Six like six sides of the coffin. Six little planks of wood. Why? Why do coffins have to be so dreadfully small? Oh, so dreadfully small and stiffling!

Time should move faster. Can time move faster? Oh please time move faster!!

It is the turn of Pubescent Boy who has cultivated a limp moustache to prove that he is qualified to stand in the row of adult workers and hence be paid full wages not half like other under-aged boys who get paid on Thursdays. He usually chews at a twig or hums a Punjabi song or takes a comb out from his pocket and starts combing his oiled hair to hide his nervousness till Jabbar brings a money-bearing hand forward. Then he grabs the money, quickly, denying Jabbar the loose moment in which he could change his mind and tell him that he should come back on Thursday. Pubescent Boy, she quite knows, is the kind who fight their fights to the end. What if a row begins? What if? What if? It all depends on one man. Jabbar.          

But dark-eyed Female has had the usual effect on him. He is flying high . He pays the boy without any argument.       

Next is her next-door neighbor, Dutiful Father. He is a gaunt man, ghastly with ever eating lesser than what he burns under the blazing sun through the day. He puts his sweating hands on the grimy table-top, rests his weight on it and waits. Jabbar will now tell him off for not doing enough work. Dutiful Father will explain that he's been unwell but now he's fine.                                                   

She can fortell every conversation at the pay-desk because these are all characters of a world that she  knows through and through. It's a world in which the builder is more moved by the slightest rise in cement rate than the fall of a worker from the tenth storey; in which the overseer does more free husbandry than the village bull and is as uncaring of the outcome. She can even see the future of dusky Female standing behind Jabbar’s chair; crystal clear: from pampered to pregnant to dumped. How similar she appears to what she herself had looked like a year ago! Hair-line a frame of two reddish-gold strands of hair bleached with hydrogen-per-oxide; eye-brows shaven into two thin bows; lips and gums dyed a deep red with maswaak .

A smile rises to her lips; a bitter, cheated smile.       

Dutiful Father leaves. Every one moves one step ahead; so does she. Leaning her head sideways, she starts the head count again. One, two, th-th… She stops. The world swa-a-a-ys; her vision wavers; her feet go heavy as if cupfuls of liquid iron have been injected into them; her temples throb. 

The world is about to topple over.      

‘You’ve waited so long; you can wait still more! You can! If I can, you can too!’ someone inside her yells to someone else inside her. She wrenches the tumbling world backward to fit it back into its old casing.

Just four payees are left now. Four, like four stumps of the manji on which they lay the dead body once they know  about the death; four like four wheels of the NGO van that takes unclaimed dead-bodies to unknown, far-off grave yards.      

She looks toward the huts again.  

Dusk is slowly eating up all shapes and forms, reducing the basti to a stark silhouette streched out against a gray brooding sky. Other than a shrill call now and then, there are no sounds coming from that side now.  

Why is the basti so still?? Why? It is not normal.  

And her next thought is to run back to her tent and pick up her baby in her arms; to hold it to her chest; to her lips; press its cold cheek against hers.   

She realizes that she isn’t numb; that deep down she has been thinking about the baby sleeping in a sling in her tent, throughout. Throughout reliving the instants that passed between her running over to her tent during the tea-break to see her sick baby and running back. Throughout feeling the stiffness of her baby’s cold body on her fingers. Throughout feeling that great need to cry out. And throughout telling herself not to. Asking herself over and over: What is bigger? The cry inside you or your want of snatching away this chance of redemption from Jabbar? You have tolerated his indifference. But can you tolerate his compassion? Can you?


So, the stronger half of her mind had drawn up a course of action for the weaker half.

‘Go numb and hold on to the numbness,’ the strong voice had ordered.  

Money. You'll need money? Some at least? Where would that come from? The meek voice had asked.   

 It’s pay day. Jabbar owes you three days’s wages…900 rupees… and if you complete today’s dehaari…300 rupees…  you will have enough for… the strong voice had said. 

And she had run back to the building site. She had begun hauling stacks of bricks – wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow – with a new, a much more passionate vigor. After all, only an hour and a half was left.        

Blind Woman’s Second Son shifts his weight from his right leg to left and right again, gearing up to receive his six day’s wages; wages that the money lender will not snatch away; wages that will light a fire in the blind woman’s cold hearth and keep feeding the fire for the next six days.      

He runs away with the money. 

He’s gone. 

Three left.        




All of a sudden her body craves giving up. Her ear-canals cringe against the hammers pounding on her ears. Her breasts pulsate with a raw anguish. She lets go. Stony body, loosens. Taut limbs liquefy.      

From somewhere deep inside her, a shriek tears toward her throat.     

‘Cash finished!’ Jabbar calls, scratching his bald head; yawning and stretching his thick limbs far and wide, he pushes his chair back to get up.       

A small whimper is heard above the buzz of compliant grouses against scarcity of pay-money. A nameless sigh. The three men in front of her as well as numerous others in the row behind her disperse quickly.        

She hasn’t moved. She looks the other way now, toward the road where buses that take people to strange destinations, stop. Where to are all these people always going? How come she doesn’t have anywhere to go? She often thinks of boarding one of the green, tattooed buses and asking the man dangling out of the door like a loose attachment of the lorry, to take her somewhere; to some other place; she doesn’t know its name yet; she’ll ask someone about it; there ought to be one out there for her. 

 An echo surfaces the sea of thuds roaring around her. A word. Is it her name? Is someone calling her? She looks towards the huts and sees the wife of Dutiful Father running towards her, beating the air about her mad with two hysterically-flinging arms. On the other side, a cloud of dust rises; a bus emerges from it and decelerates as it approaches the bus-stop.      

Suddenly, she runs.