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  1. 1

    If marriage symbolizes beginning and death, end, then, when you walk down the pavements of Golpark in South Calcutta, or perhaps the one by the Lake Market, you will end up finding beginning and end sharing space under the sky blue tarpaulin roof of the roadside flower-man’s little shop: rows of funeral-white wreaths displayed below rows of bride-red bouquets, the winter season ideal for both new beginnings and last breaths. Quite far away, at the Nimtala crematorium, the aged patriarch burns away on the pyre, as shivering drunkards and mad men warm themselves up by the blazing pyre’s soothing heat. They’ve always said that this city of ours, Calcutta, it is the least xenophobic of all Indian cities, the xenophobia smothered by three decades of Communism or perhaps a way older practice of secularism. But aren’t we Bengalis genetically programmed from a tender age to passionately hate the rich business class? Or racially abuse impoverished Bihari taxi-drivers refusing to take you home from Park Street, your anger knows no bounds and you start screaming, ‘Bihari madarchod! Bihari Motherfucker!’ to your heart’s content, forgetting for a while that inside in that bar, in a serious debate an hour ago, you had discussed the scary possibility of India electing a new government with a xenophobic leader at its helm. Then, when another taxi finally stops and you get in, as you go windingly through the city southwards, a Francis Lai composition punctuating a cheesy, late-night radio show catering to the love-struck adolescent, a part of you hopes that the radio will be turned off or the station, changed.  The more the host talks of sugary love, the more you can visualize that young listener craving to be loved, despising the loneliness which is so painful in youth. And from that image of the sixteen year old girl by the radio, your mind fleets to the typical image of the anorexic single woman – perhaps a much-loved aunt or the neighborhood spinster (as they call her) – spectacled, with a pixie cut and with braces, usually in a dark skirt and a colorful blouse, the mischievous smile suppressing the screams of inner agony, as middle age, like cancer eats up her last remains of youth. Are those screams, perhaps like the last screams of the little sparrow being devoured by the crow from its nest? Just like the shrill cries you may have heard as a child from the forgotten ventilator of your grandfather’s old mansion, where sparrows had nestled? Do the childhood memories of helplessness still come to haunt you when you hear similar cries on early mornings? Or have you finally realized that the early morning cries you wake up to in your new home are not of agonized sparrows but noisy, breeding kestrels atop the palm tree by your window?

     

    But our Calcutta, this crumbling city, it echoes with the cries of pain and the howls of agony, everywhere during heartbreaking winters, when the other half is having the most beautiful time of their lives. You just got to lend your ears to those silent cries, whether in the depths of the neighborhood garbage vat, by the trapped soul of the stinking dead cat and the unconscious mad man, flies buzzing around them, or in that country liquor bar buzzing with the grumbles of impoverished melancholy drunkards, the stink of urine from the lane leading to the bar and the stink of bangla from the glasses and the bottles and the countless mouths amplifying the atmospheric melancholia. At times, Calcutta seems to be the bleakest of all places. The city, like that forgotten pot of tea, feels so bitter, the tea-leaves resting in the teapot’s womb – like your love for Calcutta – responsible for all the bitterness. But you’re not alone. So many others are bitter. Have you ever witnessed a car-crash and its aftermath? You must have seen how the driver of the more expensive car gets lynched mercilessly by an enraged mob, as curious onlookers with smiling faces enjoy the spectacle. The privileged individual begging for mercy is momentarily knocked off from his pedestal by the common man, as showers of obscenities and punches drench him. Or, when you take the metro to work every morning, what seems to be bitterer than the frequent venomous fights between co-passengers hustling for space in the train’s black hole? But is this bitterness just about this city? Isn’t it a national phenomenon, the primetime debates on India’s news channels, testimony to the Indian bitterness?

     

    But not everyone is bitter. Every evening, Yadav sells phuchka on the pavement in my neighborhood, his stall quite popular with tired people in the mood for a light evening snack in between shopping at Gariahat. I also happen to be one of his regular customers, the yogurt-filled phuchkas a lifesaver after a long day of wanderings. Sometime ago, he announced with a big smile that his wife at their village in Bihar had given birth to a baby boy. He said he would shut shop for a few days, travel to his homeland to see their first child. For a few days, by the corner of the crossroads, there was no sign of him. And then, when I walked home last night, there he was again, selling phuchkas to the late-evening shoppers. The sight of him in a cap concealing his newly shaved head made me numb. ‘He is dead,’ he said, a helpless smile concealing his pain, ‘The doctors kept him in that glass box but even then he couldn’t be saved. It was perhaps His will that the baby died. Maybe god will give me another child, maybe twins next time!’

     

    Another person who’s always hopeful about bright days ahead is Swapan, the neighborhood parking-fee collector. Like all Bengalis, he greets me with a smile every night and pauses for a while to share a slice of his life. During summers, he talks about the agonizing heat and how he is confident that the rains will be here very soon. During the monsoon, he counts the last remaining days of the rainy season, days when he can leave his umbrella back home, ‘They’ve predicted in the papers that monsoon has reached its end. Any day now, the skies will clear up and it’ll be dry once more!’ During the autumn, he talks about the great rush of traffic owing to the month-long festive season and how tired he is all the time, running from car to car, collecting money and how January will save him from this season of rush. When winter climaxes, he’s always found longing for spring and how he is confident that the bitterly cold winter nights won’t last another ten days. At other times, he talks about how he aspires to be a real-estate broker and how everyone seems to be cheating him and how none of his clients have paid him a penny till now for the services he’s provided and how he hopes to get back his due at any cost very soon. Seasons fleet and new deals are made. But Swapan still talks about how he’s yet to recover his dues and how he is hopeful that he’d be successful in another one week. His optimism, in ways is like that of the lamb outside Haji Meat Shop chewing away the hay happily on a Sunday morning, as my father queues up behind a dozen men, with his nylon shopping bag, a translucent plastic bag bulging with onions peeking from it.

     

    2

    Amidst the tsunami of people walking towards the Sealdah Station, amidst the grunts of the Bihari porters of Koley Market loading and unloading vegetables from trucks all day, amidst the prostitutes waiting patiently for clients, it is very, very easy to lose track of the petite figure of Pagli – frail as a pole, wearing a stained shirt and muddy shorts, barefoot, her eyes wild, her face a face of pain – as she staggers through the countless heads and vanishes into an alleyway teeming with little shops and finds her way to a bustling country liquor shop. Munna, stylishly dressed, sporting even a sunglass so late into the evening is chatting with his friend, the nut-seller, sitting surrounded by glass jars full of cashew nuts and dates. ‘Oh fuck, there she comes! Not again!’ Munna yells giggling, as Pagli approaches slowly towards them – with two ten rupee notes – requesting one of them to get her some liquor from inside. Under naked tungsten bulbs, innumerable men are huddling together drinking. Deeper within, behind iron grills, men, like machines, are handing over liquor and grabbing in money. A tough guy in a chequered lungi is keeping things under control, aggressively pushing and shoving would-be troublemakers. An elderly man muttering to himself collapses at the entrance; a few pairs of legs cross over by leaping while a few hands pull the unconscious man outside – blood now streaming down his nose. ‘This bastard, he’s old, in his seventies! Every single day, something or the other happens! When his son was here, there used to be a rickshaw-puller who’d carry him home at night from the footpath. Not anymore! Who’d spend money on a hopeless prick like him, you’d spend money when there’s some hope, but not on this chutiya!’ Pagli is still tugging Munna’s hand, the nut-seller turns to him, ‘Get her the booze, man and get rid of her! She’s spoiling my business!’ By now, Pagli has started wailing like a child, one of her hands pointing into the liquor shop as Munna half-reluctantly drills his way through the crowd and to the counter inside.

     

    A dozen paces away, a sole Maruti Omni is parked – and behind it, huge machines are at work as extension of the metro line is in full swing now. Meenu, in an electric blue saree, is leaning against the car, waiting. When – and if – she finds a client today, they’ll head out for the room in Bowbazar. It’s been six months since her operation and she’s making more money now. Earlier, she used to work out there in the open – at Maidan but not anymore these days. In fact, you’ll still find some of her friends there: Bobby, Madhu, Zeenat. Yes. Zeenat. She will not talk. She’s mute. Five fingers – fifty rupees – and you’re all set for a blowjob – and as she blows you, your hands claw at her silicone-stuffed tits. It is dark, really, really dark, when you walk down one windy evening, when the sky is red, the moon an anorexic crescent playing hide-and-seek in the cloudy ssky. There she stands every night, silhouetted against the dark red sky, amidst the overgrowth lavished by the monsoon rains, everything engulfed in darkness.  A lone figure, like a long-forgotten statue of a colonizer marooned since independence, left at the mercy of the purging birds. A lone figure in a little violet dress, waiting for you – her face caked with powder and her lips glistening with blood red lipstick.

     

    If you cross the road dodging fast cars and make it to the other side alive, and walk a little bit through the emptiness and suddenly into the hustle and bustle of Esplanade, chances are, you’ll find Sarola pacing up and down the pavement impatiently, glancing at her slender watch from time to time. Every night, you’ll see her in front of Metro Cinema – in her black synthetic saree, her hair neatly tied in a bun, clasping a worn-out handbag – waiting endlessly for a client. It is actually very rare, when she’s not waiting outside the cinema hall – and when she indeed is absent on a rare night, it is most likely that her father is sick again. Every trip to the tiny toilet – white ceramic tiles stained orange with time – is hellishly agonizing: it’s been years he’s been living with piles, the old man bleeds and bleeds as if there’s no end and prays and prays to god to liberate him and his daughter from the daily agonies of life. On nights with a client, Sarola will take a taxi, make a u-turn and drive to Sonagachi. But then, at this age, getting a client is quite tough; the oddballs she takes to her room are usually the difficult ones. ‘There was no way I’d let them have my ass back in the early days, its funny how you got to change yourself with time for survival. Then, there are those motherfuckers who want me to blow them without a condom on – and come in my mouth – there have been times I’ve agreed to do it without the rubber on the condition that they can’t ejaculate into my mouth – but the way they’ll hold my head while I blew, you just can’t remove your fucking head when they came – and if you do, it’ll be all over your face, everywhere. But times are such that you got to take these rotten bastards with you.’

     

    In a couple of days, Durga Puja will kick off. The traffic snailing through the throng in Esplanade shows no sign of thinning down. Niladri Pramanik in Capital Electronics is still attending the last of the buyers keen to get home a new TV before the festival. It’s been overwhelming, these last couple of weeks; he’s hardly had any time to breathe – or smoke. Putting on a smile, every day, from morning to night, all he must do is convince people to not go below the 43inch threshold – for it’s a matter of preserving one’s social stature, he will be reminding everyone all day – and warn like a soothsayer that people hardly buy a TV below 43 these days. Then on some days, the troublemakers come to create nuisance; in this city of unending unpleasantness, there is no dearth of customers returning to the showroom to claim their yet-to-arrive gifts – speakers, video players or mobile phones – and flare up in rage when told to wait for another two weeks. Why do they create such a scene for a three or four thousand rupees gift – Pramanik wonders once in a while – is it really worth fighting for, especially when you’ve splurged on a fifty-thousand-something television set? When, at the end of his day, he is out heading towards home – tonight, in a taxi – it suddenly feels so wonderful. Feels festive already. Group of boys on a truck carrying the Durga idols from Kumartuli are celebrating like a gang of victorious East Bengal supporters at the end of a football match – the white plastic sheets covering the idols fluttering wildly in the wind like those gigantic red-and-gold East Bengal flags. Or is it perhaps like a gang of men on a truck accompanying a corpse to Nimtala Burning Ghat?

     

    The taxi comes to a halt near Statesman House; Central Avenue is still chock-a-blocked. From the window, Niladri Pramanik can see a crowd of men huddling together, cheering and whistling wildly. A young woman – not more than thirty – her head shaved, her eyes schizophrenic, her dress a tattered, stained nightie, her smile a smile of felicity – is dancing wildly to a Bhojpuri song being played on someone’s mobile phone – her pelvic thrusts greeted by a roar of cheer every time. In the peak of the moment, an urchin pounces on her from behind, cups her breasts for a split of a second – to the great delight of the crowd – and retracts back to the gathering, giggling. She dances and dances on: sweat dripping from her forehead, her sweat-drenched nightie clinging on to her back like a child to its mother, her spinal cord trying to tear away from the confines of her flesh, fly away like a pterodactyl to the sky. She stops for a moment when the song ends, panting; a new song begins immediately and she resumes dancing. She dances away until a Police Sergeant on his Royal Enfield pulls up a while later, ‘What’s going on,’ he grunts,  ‘you guys should be kicked out of here, fucking motherchods, wasting time on a filthy mad woman! Go to Sonagachi and bang one of those dirty whores for a few bucks if you need it so badly, if you’re so tired of the cunts you have back home! Get lost before I break your balls.’

     

    ‘Ar nachbo ni?’ the girl mumbles like a five year old, puzzled. ‘No more dancing?’

     

    The crowd around her has dispersed. The traffic has thinned down. A few solitary taxis are waiting here and there.

     

    Buses, like raging bulls, hurtle past her southwards, their blinding headlights singling her out in the darkness of the night.

     

    She prances northwards happily without looking back even once.

     

     

    And soon can be seen no more.

     

     

    3

    Laltu stood there in silence, his bloodshot eyes full of rage, his body stiff, only his jaws trembled. His mother sat cowering in silence at the corner of their slum hut, as his wife screamed at the top of her voice, telling him how worthless he was and how, like a lousy pussy, he had made his way back home for dinner, after spending an entire day drinking away with the bastards he called his friends. ‘Go back to your gutters in Garcha’, she told him, ‘Go back to where you belong, this place is no place for you, even if it is a lousy slum.’ His six year old daughter was deep in sleep; her brown-paper wrapped textbook was still open – if it was summer, the pages would have fluttered under the electric fan but now, it was winter. Laltu’s son, not even a year old, kept crying ceaselessly in the midst of all the commotion – perhaps it’s the cloth diaper, has he soiled it already? With his eyes, Laltu was almost eating up Shampa. She’s got fat as a pig after childbirth – he thought – and was throwing tantrums every day these days! She wouldn’t shut up, just wouldn’t, that cunt. Motionless, he stood there in silence facing her: only his jaws trembled. On a kerosene stove, a saucepan full of water was boiling – a few more minutes now. That bitch, Laltu was thinking, she needs hot water to take a bath at night, now that she’s going out, working, what guts – wasting kerosene to take a bath! Motionless, he stood facing his furious wife. She was still screaming, still screaming at him – How ugly, he thought, she looks when she screams! If only, if only he could just kick that ugly face so hard with his foot that it’d be deformed forever beyond recognition, if only he could do that, but – but that wouldn’t be too smart, he knew even in his state of drunkenness.

     

    ‘Janowar! Jontu kothakar, jah sala nordomay giye mwor! Khete esheche shurshur kore khankir chhele raat hotei! Eta tui hotel peyechish, hna? Hotel? Saradin mod kheye tal hoye pore achish, pet e khide jei legeche, bokachoda khete eshechish! Hobe na, ja bhag ekhan theke! Sala aya hoye ami khatbo, onyer pod ami chuchobo ar babu hoye tui saradin modh kheye pore thakbi, eta hoy? Bol, hoye? Ko mash holo bekar hoye boshe achish, bol toh! Bol komash holo!’ she was screaming, ‘Filthy beast, go rot in the gutter, creeping home to eat in the night, son of a bitch! Is this a hotel, huh, tell me, is this a hotel? The whole day you spend boozing away, the moment you are hungry, you come back home like a pussy! Can’t happen, just scram, get lost! I’ll work all day as an attendant, wiping other peoples’ butts and all you’ll do is booze away, can this happen, huh, tell me, can this go on? Tell, me, how many months have you been sitting on your ass, tell me, how many months? How many months?’ By now, tears were rolling down her eyes, her voice was starting to tremble. And then, before she knew it, it happened.

     

    I had once heard a dog being run over by a motorcycle late into the night – it howled and howled in agony until it died, and the howls, believe me were unnerving even for the iron-hearted.  Sampa’s howls were worse. She sprinted out of her one room home and through the maze of hutments all around, all the while trying to get off her nightie drenched in boiling water – the more she tried, the more agonizing it felt – the nightie seemed to be stuck onto her or something and she kept screaming until some neighbors ran over to the nearby tyre repairing garage and borrowed the iron tumbler full of water meant for testing punctured tubes and poured the water on her. It was not too late – not yet eleven, but then, the streets were unusually empty, because of tonight’s soccer finale – even the boys who play away carom on the pavement late into the night, under the naked yellow bulb were not to be found.

     

    ‘Meroni go, meroni amar cheletare! Ore chairya dao, meroni ore, bhul hoya geche, paye pori tomader! Baap nai, koto koshto koirya biya dichilam, ha kopal ki kando koirya boshlo, bou ta re mairyai phello bodh hoy! Meroni go, meroni orey, paye pori tomader! Koshte ache go, mon mejaj bhalo nai or, bouma rojkar korche baire giye, chhele ghore boisha ache, mone dukkho hoy, bedona hoy, bouma muk korle aro koshto hoy go or, purush manush er mon – meroni go, meroni ore! Chhaira dao, aha becharar bhaat o pore nai petey, chhairya dao go, chhaira dao ore, moirya jabe!’ Laltu’s mother pleadingly wailed, trying to shield her son from the punches and the blows with her frail hands. ‘Forgive him, I beg you, forgive my son, let him go, don’t beat him like that, it’s a mistake, it’s all a mistake, I beg you all, let him go – fatherless lad, how difficult it was for me to arrange for his wedding – and oh fate, look what he has done – almost killed his wife! Don’t hit him, hey, hey, don’t hit him, I beg you, the poor lad’s not even had any food – oh I beg you, don’t hit him like that, let him go, forgive him – jobless, wife going out, earning, how torturing it must be for him to bear it as a man – it’s been so many months without a job – and then being humiliated by her – such a shame it must be for him to feel so worthless –  please, please let him go, don’t beat him like that, he’ll die, please stop, I beg you!’

     

    They bundled Shampa up into a taxi and drove her to the nearest hospital. The courtyard which is usually so crowded, full of people and cars all the time, was empty now, a strange silence seemed to have swallowed up the whole of the ugly campus. The old taxi drove into the courtyard noisily; they carried her into the sleepy ED illuminated by depressing fluorescent tubes – the stinging smell of phenyl everywhere and the coldness of oil cloth spread on examination tables, the grimness of the blue-clad staff and the scowling old matrons in starched white uniforms, the swift footsteps and the rumblings of wheelchairs and the sudden screams of an agonized patient being stitched up somewhere nearby, there seemed to be no place more depressing than the emergency department of this hospital at this hour of the night. But then, compared to police stations or crematoriums or morgues, or even the EDs of some of the other hospitals in the city, this place was quite heavenly, actually. Ashoke Rajak and Montu Biswal were outside, smoking – others were inside taking care of the formalities, so it made no sense all of them crowding together causing chaos. They were smoking silently, feeling a bit sleepy now that it was quite late, when a familiar taxi drove into the hospital; ‘Jah sala, eta toh Mahesh da’r taxi re, ki holo eta? Baliya, Potla dekhlam bhetore boshe, bepar ki, chol chol bhetore chol, dekhe ashi!’ Rajak said, stubbing his cigarette, ‘Damn, that’s Mahesh-da’s taxi, what’s going on? Saw Baliya, Potla inside, let’s go, let’s go see what’s the matter.’ Swiftly, they walked inside – they were not close, but they could see Baliya alighting from the taxi at the entrance of the ED. His yellow sweater was drenched in blood, his hands were bloodied as well – he darted out of the taxi and went inside, screamed for a stretcher or a wheelchair or anything – an empty wheelchair was right next to the counter at the corner, he grabbed it and ran back to the taxi, then, along with Potla, carried out Putu’s limp body, then wheeled him inside. The pink towel with which they covered Putu’s enormous head was blood red now. As they wheeled him inside, Putu left behind a trail of blood on the gray concrete.

     

    *

    I’ve seen kids freaking out at the sight of Putu – but since I grew up around him, he was very much a part of my life – his eyes were big, really big, his head was enormous, and his body, frail as a pole, almost skeletal. When I’d go to playschool in the early nineties, he’d run find a taxi for me and my mother during rainy days; once in a while, someone in the neighborhood would send him with a list and some money to go grab some groceries. If he was born in a privileged family, they’d have diagnosed him as autistic or something, but since he was the youngest son of an impoverished electrician, they just labeled him as mad; he grew up on the streets, roaming around in the neighborhood doing odd jobs – at times, he helped the neighborhood shopkeepers deliver their goods to the various apartments of the buyers; the elderly doctor who runs a little clinic in the neighborhood, Putu would help him unlock the rusted collapsible gate, turn on the various switches, receive the odd patient who visited Dr. Bakshi. During political processions, you’d have found Putu marching with the countless heads of party members, he’d get some bread and some chai and he’d make a few bucks and that’d be enough to make him happy for the day. When he was younger, when his parents were alive, he used to help his family by making grocery bags made out of newspapers – but with them long dead now, he no longer made grocery bags. Sometime back, there was this young widow in the neighborhood, who started this business of supplying home cooked meals to the various offices in our locality during lunch time. She employed Putu to go about deliver the lunch boxes – it was a big hit in the neighborhood but alas, business isn’t so easy, her funds dried up soon after and like countless similar ventures, it came to an end; early one morning in September, heaps of cheap leaflets were thrown away in the neighborhood garbage vat, the neighbors were all kind of sad that she couldn’t be in business any longer, people usually join you in grief when you’re going down and chances of you climbing up again are bleak; so, everyone was sad, only the rag-picker kids had a blast making countless paper jets that day.

     

    When you’re vulnerable, when you are lonely and when you have no one to look after you, when there is every chance that you’re going to rot, there is always this possibility that somehow, somewhere, someone is there making sure you are looked after, making sure you don’t perish and rot away. In the case of Putu, the whole neighborhood was behind him. Everyone loved him here, everyone – all of them made sure he was looked after, made sure he wasn’t ever in harm’s way. Of course there were those brats who’d always tease him, but brats had been teasing him for the last forty five years or so, and hence, Putu knew how to deal with them. But then again, for a while, they didn’t bother him so much, especially since the demise of his mother – there was always some elder chasing away the bastards, making sure no one messed with him. Things have been going good for Putu – but just when everyone thought he was managing quite well without his parents, things got a little messed up. For the last six months or so, he’d been acting strangely, going about telling the whole neighborhood about the woman who’s fallen for him – who lavished him with all the love in the world, in whose home he watched cinema during lazy afternoons, the woman who gave him money whenever Putu needed some; his Rani, whom he said, he had finally decided to marry, the sweetheart, who was his everything. No one quite believed him of course, they thought she was just a figment of his imagination, but still, they were somewhat worried, for he would never stop, he would just go on telling everyone about this girlfriend of his. And so, naturally, this created opportunity for the neighborhood brats to tease and taunt him – in Calcutta, when you have nothing except frustrations within you, life makes a master of caustic humor out of you; in bars, in restaurants, at the marketplace, in buses and trams and metros,  in the midst of chaotic traffic jams and stuffy cubicles in countless offices, in schools and colleges and playing fields, in the confines of homes and amidst nighttime gatherings over guitar and Old Monk on the roof, everyone has mastered the art of caustic humor. But to tease Putu, you never needed to master anything – to see him flare up, you just had  to tell him Rani’s asked him to see her no more; with a roar, he’d start chasing you, chasing you with madness and anger in his eyes; if you ran away giggling, out of his sight, he’d be calm in a while and all would be okay soon after; but if you taunted him a little more, he’d leap and bound towards you, picking up a stone or something from the roadside and all hell would break loose. But then, when you are young, when your blood is hot, you don’t give a fuck, you just do it for the kick, for the rush; in our youth, we all pretend to be some sort of adrenalin-junkie or something, and sometimes, when we take our pretensions a little too seriously, we end up being utterly foolish, messing it all up.

    *

    Near the Vivekananda Park, there’s this ugly looking six storey building owned by a Mr. Saha who, in his heydays made quite a fortune as a plumbing contractor. Now, with his wife dead, his daughter far away in Toronto and his son working as a software engineer in Bangalore, his life revolves around following up with his lawyer regarding the countless cases he’s filed against his tenants, whom, he’s been trying to oust for more than two decades now. He lives all alone, he’s got two cars which are rarely used, he’s got a chauffeur, Meghnad, who’s been with him for almost thirty-five years now, who, in the last six or seven years, have mainly functioned as a sort of a peon, rather than a chauffeur and is seriously in need of practice. Now, he lives in a one-room apartment at the very back of the house right next to the pump room behind the car park; all the young chauffeurs in the neighborhood, Sanjay, Purna, Laxmi, Ajay, Bappa, they hang out in his apartment, for there’s a television they can watch and much needed privacy during drinking sessions in the evening. All the tenants in the building are kind of pissed off with these folks, for they make noise late into the night, for they’re all huddling together all the time, drinking and smoking; they would not have objected perhaps, if things were smoother with the landlord; but with everyone pissed off with him, the tenants are always looking for ways to annoy the old Mr. Saha – and tonight during the finale of the soccer league, with Mr. Saha’s driver Megnad and his gang creating a lot of commotion downstairs, it was the ideal opportunity for them to call the police, complain. Two tough cops on a Royal Enfield arrived in fifteen minutes, and in another five minutes, the party ended, the group forced to disband for the night. In another five minutes, fireworks were lighting up the Calcutta sky, with local boy Muhammad Rafique scoring the 90th minute goal, making Atletico de Kolkata the first champions of the soccer league.

     

    In Putu’s world however, Atletico de Kolkata had no existence. It was around ten in the night, Putu was returning home with his dinner – four chapattis and an earthen cup full of tarka daal, a small onion split into two and a green chili, all in a translucent plastic bag. Sanjay, Purna, Ajay, Laxmi, Bappa, having missed the final moments of the game had decided to go screw whores in Manohar Pukur – all of them down there were ugly old hags, yes, but it hardly mattered today, they just needed pussy tonight, anything. And then, they could also buy whiskey there – it was late and the wine shops were all closed – though the bastards would charge exorbitantly, they knew. But fuck it, it was just for one night; with no family to look after and no responsibilities at all, and tomorrow being Sunday, no need to wake up early for school duty, it seemed to be the most reasonable thing to do. And ahead of them, when they suddenly came across the skeletal silhouette of Putu, their excitement knew no bounds.

     

    ‘Oye Putu, oye Putu, shon, shon, edikey aye bara, shon shon!’ they called him, ‘Hey Putu, hey Putu, hey, come here, listen!’

     

    Putu turned around, furrowed his brow when he saw them, asked gravely, ‘Ki hoyeche? What’s the matter?’

     

    ‘Shon, shon,’ Sanjay sprinted to him laughing, the others a pace behind, ‘Ei jacket ta abar kotha theke elo re? Where the hell did you find this jacket?’

     

    ‘Rani diyeche amay…Xmas gipt…’ he replied with pride in his eyes, ‘Rani’s given me this…Xmas gift…’

     

    ‘Aare Rani diyeche, Rani diyeche! Tui toh sala hero hoye geli re bara! Shon, shon, tui chudechish Rani ke? Thik kore bol toh? Chudechish? Kemon laglo tor chude? Bol bol laganor somoy kemon bhabe gongachhilo? Ei bhabe?’ ‘Wow! Rani’s given him, Rani’s given him, look look! You’ve become a goddamn hero, huh, cool! Tell me something seriously, have you fucked her? How was it, fucking her, tell us, tell us! Tell us, how she was moaning when you were doing her? Like this?’ Sanjay was now moaning and groaning mockingly in front of Putu, the others having a ball, what fun it was to tease that retard, what a sight it was, as he froze in anger, about to explode. With a roar, Putu jumped on Sanjay and punched his face hard, blood was streaming down his nose, Sanjay was on the ground; Putu’s eyes grew wilder as Purna and Laxmi jumped on him, trying to pin him down but it wasn’t easy, Putu was way tougher than they thought he’d be. But can someone outfight five men singlehandedly? And Putu, of all people, who learnt to walk by the time children of his age were riding bicycles, how could he defend himself from Sanjay, Purna, Ajay, Laxmi and Bappa? He kept whimpering in pain as they unleashed themselves on him and he whimpered on until all was blank.

     

    The neighborhood strays, Lali and Kalu, while venturing out in search of food were the first ones to find Putu. Every night, when things calm down, when people finally retire to their homes, when the streets are empty, when, taking advantage of the desolation, people throw away plastic bags full of garbage from their balconies and onto the road, the dogs have a great time feasting on the thrown-away leftovers. Often, they have to dodge past the younger strays on whose territory they intrude into, during their nocturnal wanderings; there are times they got to fight – Kalu once had a part of his left ear bitten off by that pied dog in Purna Das Road; the recent wound on Lali’s neck is yet to heal completely. But tonight, things were easier, they had struck gold. Tonight, they found Putu’s dinner, a few paces away from his limp bloodied body.

     

     

    4

    Through the grayness of this concrete city, streams of tin-box vehicles flow ahead languidly – and like at a river’s delta, distributaries of little hatchbacks and dented yellow taxis branch off from the main road, spreading in varied directions. From your roof, you can see the whole city, you can feel it’s pulse – yet, there is such a strange silence around you, it’s as if the noise below is far, far away, so far that you are actually longing for it. And around you, tall dull skyscrapers finger the sky and the rusty old bridge looks almost toy-like from a distance. You can see everything, whatever you wish to see – yet, when you lean out clasping the coarse iron railing, look down to see if you can see the temple spire underneath, butterflies flutter wildly in your stomach – one swift glance, the heart starts racing fast, the head spins, the eyes blur – you promise to never peek below again, though you know, it’s the vertigo which pulls you once in a while to the roof. The temple: it’s not huge, now though, quite popular, nourished by the generosity of the local politicians and the Marwari shopkeepers in the neighborhood. If you are driving by, on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays, you’d be stuck in the snarling traffic jam for quite some time, people in hordes on the road, jostling to get a view of the pantheon of gods and goddesses inside, people with hands folded, lost in prayer, seeking the almighty in deathly desperation. On some days – I am not sure which days – but on some days, they feed the impoverished ones at night – and then, there is more chaos, dirty men and women in a haphazard line are served khichri on paper plates, mangy dogs with hopes of leftover wait behind them, saliva dripping from their tongues. The young men are the chootiyas, the temple volunteers say, they are able-bodied, none of them are cripple, yet they beg in tattered clothes, these cunts, if they just invested in a plastic bucket and a piece of cloth and stood by a tubewell at some street corner early on mornings, they’d have made a fortune washing taxis, but these buggers, all they want is enough money to buy a few tubes of adhesive, that’s all, bloody animals, they even fight for food between themselves when meal is provided, snatching stuff from each other. Things around the temple’s got louder and grander these days, ever since the rightists came to power last year: donations have swelled up, they are even allowed to play devotional music on the loudspeaker all evening, no cop to bother them anymore. They’ve got this mp3 from somewhere, the folks at the temple, so from five to ten, the same songs get played again and again in a loop every evening round the year, only the guys manning the traffic are a bit pissed off, they say they’re sick of it – the chaos in the evenings, the fumes, the wild buses overtaking each other, the pesky autorickshaw-wallahs defying death driving like crazy, the cars and the bikes and the cycle vans, the jaywalkers, and then, the same songs on the loudspeaker– it’s so annoying, they just can’t stand it anymore! Now, it’s nearly nine, the bells in the temple have started ringing wildly, conch shells in unison are being blown to drive away evil spirits. The songs thankfully have stopped, the priest has taken over, now chanting mantras – things are climaxing and soon it’d be quiet for the night. The crowd has swelled up, for once it seems there is no divide – millionaires rubbing shoulders with beggars, policemen and pickpockets brushing against each other, seeking blessings – even the drunkard is there once again, who was kicked out from the premises for creating a nuisance, dancing in a lewd way to the devotional songs.

     

    At times, religion, devotion: they seem to be the biggest farce of all – the sight of the autistic teenager in a wheelchair smiling ahead impishly at the alter, his mother with graying hair behind him lost in prayer, the sight of the bitch carrying in her mouth, the limp body of her dead puppy, the sight of endless streams of urine flowing through the gutters, and on its slimy surface, the reflection of the moon – and you end up disowning god in anger. Across the road from the temple, you have a row of cheap restaurants catering mainly to passengers arriving at the railway station from all across the country – you have a few bars too, booze is cheap here, there is music, at times, they may have one of those ugly crooners no decent bar in the city will employ. Outside the restaurants at rush hour, when business is brisk, you may find mad men and women waiting frozen like statues with helplessness in their eyes, hunger in their stomach, gazing into the countless people dining inside – if they’re lucky, someone will hand over a half-burnt tandoori roti, then they’d move on and someone else will take their place. The municipality guys are still digging – what retards they are, when everything’s nice and clean, after they’ve paved the sidewalk with red-and-white interlocking tiles, they’ve started digging once more and everything is again in a mess, angering the eatery owners whose businesses are being affected because of this constant digging work. Outside Ramchandra Pice Hotel, on a dune of stone chips, a middle aged mad man is squatting – he is weeping actually, though no one gives a damn; under him, there’s a huge pile of bloody shit – his pulled-down trousers, his underpants, his bottom, everything’s messed up – silently, he weeps, tears flow down his face making his dirty face messier – behind him, across the road, the priest on the temple loudspeaker is still hailing the gods and goddesses, devotees screaming back to his calls in a frenzy. A Volvo bus heading towards the airport has slowed down in front the temple, the driver seeks blessings from inside his vehicle, buses and cars behind him, honking like crazy. Nearby, an elderly man in starched white kurta-pajama is handing over ten rupee notes to beggars standing in a long winding queue – the wads of teners thin in no time and finally is no more, then the man walks to his sedan parked nearby and motions to his chauffeur to drive homewards, as a one-legged midget on a crutch pursues him from behind. Lochmi, Mongola, Purnima, Sarala, Geeta and some of the other women who’re in the queue collecting alms have meanwhile surrounded Parveen, now beating her up – ‘What a witch’, they are snarling, ‘a Muslim, how dare you stand in a line with us collecting alms outside a temple, what guts, wearing a goddess kali locket to fool people into thinking you’re Hindu – characterless Muslim whore, fucking van-drivers for twenty bucks at night, go beg outside some mosque, if they’d allow a dirty slut like you to go near one, that is! Get lost, go! We have already warned you several times to not come and beg here, one more time and we’ll smash your head!’ A temple volunteer, hearing the women squabbling, walks to them, orders them to shut up immediately or leave the premises. The women calm down, Parveen reaches down to his three year old toddler still crying to be up on her arms, picks him up, then walks away swiftly through the chaos and disappears into the madness of the bus terminus amidst countless buses, sea of heads, vendors and beggars, commuters, lovers, tired office-goers returning home, cruising men and squatters, drunks and prostitutes, sweat drenched bus conductors and aimless vagabonds. The deeper you go into the night, the sleazier this terminus becomes – bike stops by lonesome young woman, along with the two men on the bike, she disappears; heroin addicts appear out of nowhere, crouching with their foils sheltered by darkness, a cop with his boots kicks a bootlegger selling chullu in plastic pouches underneath the overpass, keeps kicking him in the chest until the old man begs for mercy clinging to the very boots that bloodied him a few seconds back; naked mad man talks to the stars and Mary, beautiful Mary, under an abandoned ticket booth, homeless, injured, homesick, longs for her family far away in Bombay and every minute, every second, she curses herself for running away here from her employer’s mansion in Andhra Pradesh – at least she’d have gotten meals there, at least she’d have had a roof above her, at least they’d have paid her at the end of the month – yes, they’d beat her up if she didn’t listen to them, she would be confined in that mansion all the while and yes, the brothers, they’d have fucked her again and again, sometimes taking turns fucking her, bloody bastards, fucking their wives on soft beds at night behind closed doors and the maid on the kitchen floor when no one’s around, but at least things would have been better, what a mistake it was running away to West Bengal in search of work, if only she’d have taken the train back to Bombay, life would have been somewhat different, it’d have been difficult, but it would at least have been livable. And now, with her gangrened leg, in her stinking salwar and her locks chopped off by the  roadside barber, she wonders what she will do here in this city, will she ever make it to her home again – it’s been ages, yes, it’s been ages she’s been away from home, will her papa recognize her the way she is now, will he be able to hold back his tears like he did when her in-laws kicked her out of their home, will he be able to recognize her? – How long, she wonders, she’s not seen herself in a mirror: five months or six, or more than that? When life’s hard, time’s a motherfucker going slow – the harder it gets, the slower it ticks – until one day, suddenly, it stops ticking altogether, when tears dry up, when hope, like god, is nowhere to be seen, when the numb body can feel burning agony no more, when the body is an empty shell breathing; that’s when madness overcomes you, that’s when you grow wise, that’s when suddenly you forget, that death comes as the end – and unexpectedly, hope rushes to you – on littered streets and stinking fly-buzzing dustbins, on a winter night’s brutal rainfall or a summer afternoon’s flaming streets, when dogs lose their bark and thirsty crows maddeningly search for a drop of water – and – bored folks in the backseat of their air-conditioned cars gaze at you, wondering why such a filthy rotting beast like you is giggling in happiness by the roadside, laugh at the unreasonableness of madness, failing to realize it’s necessity for you to keep living on until the municipality folks on a foggy dawn find you lifeless, clean up the body, cleansing the city’s soul.

     

     

    5

    She stood trembling in silence – she knew she had it coming, she thought she’d just submit – sometimes when you’re submissive, sometimes when you give up all attempts to shield yourself, men, if they are male enough, are once in a while less cruel. She stood there in silence, waiting for the policemen hounding towards her: yes, they’d spotted her, she knew they were coming for her, their hearts filled with cold blooded anger – hounding towards her, yes, to teach her a lesson. She made no effort to flee – it would make things worse, she knew. The jeep stopped a distance from her, two men in uniform tore out of the car and were coming, yes – baton in hand, madness in each eye, running towards her like a mad dog in a dog race. When the baton, like a shark, bites into your body – thighs, hips, groin, belly, knuckles, and face, for a split second you become numb – numb as a dead body – and then when your senses return to you, you wish they hadn’t. ‘Motherfucker, knew it was you, knew it was you, still trying to be smart, huh? Still trying to be smart! Tonight, we’ll teach you a lesson you’ll remember all your life, what balls you got robbing those idiots, because of you we got to face the heat – the bastard, didn’t he pay you enough for that dirty blowjob you gave him, wasn’t that enough, what made you rob him, huh? What made you rob that son of a bitch? You no-good whore, even robbing him was not enough, you attacked him with that puny razor, how  come you become a slut in panties, with such cold-blooded guts, huh? Huh? How? Answer me!’ he was screaming, all the while hitting her with his baton, she now on the road, curled up like a foetus, silent, dirtied, bloody. He kept hitting her, ‘I told you to stop robbing your clients, I told you so many times – this time you’ve crossed all your limits! Tonight, I am going to teach you a lesson, tonight I’ll teach you such a lesson you’ll shudder at the very thought of mugging another bastard!’

     

    It seemed to be endless, the beating – when he finally stopped, she thought they’ve got tired of beating her; the fat one, he asked his subordinate to bring out the bottle of water from the car, guzzled it down like a beast. She still was on the ground, curled up like that lifeless foetus you must have seen in a garbage vat outside Calcutta Medical College – then she heard them talking – they were planning to take a left and drive into the road which borders the Dhapa dumping grounds. The two policemen, they carried her into the car and drove off into the smoky darkness, the mild yellow street lights creating ahead of them a ghostscape with wild, wild creepers swallowing the lampposts and the wires for endless miles. The serpentining road was a real mess – because of the monsoon, it was filled with craters. The jeep rocked like a ship sailing on turbulent waters, moved ahead slowly for ten minutes, then stopped. They took off her torn black dress, they ripped open her panties and they tore off her black stockings. She was naked, bleeding, bruised. They took turns fucking her for what seemed to be never-ending. They fucked her, ejaculating into her all their anger. When they were done, they carried her into the car again and drove towards Park Circus and dumped her by the Hindu Burial Ground enveloped in mist.

     

    As she lay there, bleeding and dirtied and violated, slices of her life flashed before her in a blurry slideshow – she could see herself in that dark room on that torrid May afternoon many a lifetimes ago, her uncle drilling into her with anxiety in his face, as one of his hands kept caressing her tender, pink dick; yes, yes, she could still feel the coarseness of his fingers, yes, it was as if it was just yesterday, just yesterday. Men, they’ve always fucked her – but then, there were also men who made love to her. She saw Arindam, yes, Arindam – her first lover – they were perhaps fifteen, not more, she remembered their naked bodies wrapped around each other, she could still feel his tender kisses, she could still feel the way he made love to her tenderly, their bodies wrapped around each other, as if they were conjoined twins. What became of Arindam, she wondered – was he still around? – where was he and what was he doing now, was he even alive?  But her mind was restless tonight, her memories were gushing out of endless hidden crevices in her brain and like some crazy avant-garde film, played before her – she could see everything: that first look of disgust in her father’s eyes, the first time he found her in salwar-kameez; and the first stares and the first jeers, when she stepped out of her home for the first time in those clothes; the first taunts and the first catcalls – and that first night she walked the streets and the first time she had gone to Bihar as a launda dancer and the first time she had performed at the Hazra Crossing on the occasion of Chhat Puja. All of it, all of her memories were coming back to her – the first notes she earned, the first saree she bought for her mother, the first time she went to the hospital to get her blood tested, the first time the bastard at the hospital laughed at her, when, instead of a man, she appeared before him when her turn came, for him to draw out her blood. What was happening, why is it all coming back, she wondered, as she lay there on the pavement, waiting for death to come liberate her. And then, all of a sudden, a shadow appeared – no, not a shadow, a face – yes, a face, a very ugly and tortured face of a man, his head tonsured, his eyes the eyes of desperation. ‘What has happened to you, huh, what?’ he hissed, scanning her body restlessly with his wild eyes. ‘Help me, help me, call someone!’ she wanted to say, but couldn’t. Only her eyes pleaded. The man, he came closer, he was so close, she could feel his breath, he was on her – his eyes had lit up, wait, what was he doing? What the fuck, he’s up to something, what’s he doing? And in an instance, she realized what was going on – she realized he was taking off her silver earrings, yes, what a motherfucker, he’s already succeeded in taking one off, he was now going for the other one! She tried to push him with her hands, then, when she failed, she held on to the remaining earring still sparkling from her ear. Where, I wonder, she got all the strength – but the crack addict, he was now having a hard time removing it. He pushed her, he punched her, it did not work, her hand was still holding onto the earring. And then, he lunged into her wrist with his jaws and clung onto the flesh until the hand was limp. Then, he took off the earring like an artist and disappeared swiftly into the darkness of the smoggy November night.