By Vikalp Dubey
Delhi winters are a general anaesthetic. They numb the body and the mind. One dose of confusion and the effect lasts for weeks; that is why Hari avoids the rituals the city offers on marvellously lazy days. Sitting out front in a moulded plastic chair on a rare smog-free afternoon feels elevated, sipping tea with both hands and dazedly watching the neighbours in monkey caps walk past is a joy absorbed better than the fading sunlight of the humble days, yes, but why expose such a young body to cold winds and colder still gazes. The gully outside the house is too narrow anyway, and he doesn’t have a chair. Spending a day at the India Gate is another such activity. He never could understand why people love it so much. Travelling for two hours in a bus to watch others lying on the grass and buying bubble guns: what could be more useless than this?
All he wants to think about is work. It is the only activity that matters. Good work means consistency. More work means a fatter bank account and a better life.
Sitting cross-legged in his room, Hari is sorting today’s purchases into separate sacks of jute. He has lived with junk for quite some time now. He knows papers can’t go with plastic, and aluminium and copper are better apart. The floor is frigid. His buttocks are stuck to the ground. Hari is working with mechanical speed. He wants to call it a day before the sun, already hanging low in the cold corner of the sky, does.
10 Quick Breakfast Ideas Using Leftover Rice was the headline that jammed his arms. He is unable to let go of the glossy supplement of the three-week-old newspaper which carried the article. After reading the first paragraph, he reads it again. The recipes written further down are not important. He is stuck with certain words typed in the very first lines- trash, boring, waste.
Hari knows what extravagant means. People living in kothis buy new clothes every month and order large pizzas on weekends. They don’t haggle with fruit vendors. Some of them have two maids. The opulence and the ignorance stand like vigilant guards at every gate on every house he buys junk from.
These things never bother him. Hari has managed his life well. He was born on the streets. All his childhood, he begged for scraps. Not anymore. He works sincerely and lives in a rented house now.
Do people really throw food out because it’s boring? Damn the article. Hari is trapped.
As the evening gathers, Hari puts the newspaper aside and waits for his roommate to discuss the absurdity he has just read.
The house he shares with another boy is a perfect 10×10 room with a door attached to it. It has no windows; no kitchen either. The bathroom in the corner is actually a latrine with enough space to put a mug and a bucket. Fat people are not allowed in it; only poor and starved can squat there. Two mattresses covered with clean bedsheets are placed on the floor. The only wall visible from outside is the one facing the gully; the remaining three are shared with other houses.
‘Why aren’t you in the line outside?’ Kalu asks as soon as he enters.
‘The tanker is here.’
Hari checks the clock. It’s almost six. The tanker that supplies drinking water to the slum will depart soon. He gets up and removes the lid of the 20-litre plastic container; there’s enough water to last another 24 hours. He puts the lid back on.
‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’
Kalu doesn’t argue. He changes into a fresh white vest and chequered blue-green lungi, lies down on his mattress and lights a cigarette.
‘Have you found something interesting for me?’ he asks while passing the cigarette.
The article doesn’t interest him. Kalu loves gossip columns and textbooks. A 5-minute read on how to use stale rice is worthless.
‘Do they really toss the food in the garbage because it gets boring?’ Hari repeats the question.
‘All the time.’
‘Because they can.’
‘Na bhai, I’m sure the food goes bad first.’
‘You won’t get sick eating it; I can tell you that. Have you noticed how massive the street dogs get eating all that food?’
‘I know I am obsessing over it. Perhaps the article used lofty words only to describe stale food and nothing more. Newspapers do exaggerate.’
‘You are obsessing over it. You cannot reason everything people do. Most of them buy those black plastic bags to put the trash in too. Why don’t you use the thousand carry bags you have saved over the years, I want to tell them but who listens to the boy who collects garbage from their homes?’
‘It seems, however hard you and I work, it will always remain a wasteful world,’ Hari takes one last drag and puts the cigarette out.
‘Why are you complaining? It’s the world we make money from.’
They first met at the school under the flyover. Hari was nine-years old and Kalu was 10. The school run by some NGO and funded by the state government did not have different levels and sections. From the age of 5 to 16, everyone was in the same class; learning how to read, write, add and subtract. Once you were fluent enough, you were out. Most children lasted only a few months. They would quit after finding real work. Hari and Kalu stayed for three years. Kalu stayed to read storybooks which some generous teachers would bring specially for him and Hari stayed to be with Kalu. He was a good influence.
Seven years on they are still together.
‘What are your plans for the Republic Day?’ Kalu asks.
‘Tomorrow? I’ll probably have to make two rounds. People sell more junk on holidays.’
‘You can go meet your mother.’
‘She will be busy selling flags at the traffic lights.’
Kalu was already in the garbage business when Hari decided to stop begging on the busy lanes of New Delhi. He, too, wanted to have a respectable life. It was sort of climbing up a notch. He was not a miserable little kid any more. When his mother suggested him to get a crutch and practise wailing at car windows, it was time to go away.
‘I will come back when I am somebody,’ he had told his mother with an inexplainable confidence he misses these days.
‘Don’t come back at all. I don’t need you,’ she had replied.
The holiday came and went. Seven large sacks of junk were sold to the scrap dealers with shops in the old market and more than 1,000 rupees were made. The article stayed in the room. Each recipe had a picture of how the final dish would look if decorated with green coriander and served in designer china. Overstuffed refrigerators, half-eaten plates and the acidic burps of indifference were all cropped out.
Hari did not miss anything. He saw the zoomed-out version of the images.
He can’t snap a similar photo right now, but it’s always good to know the possibilities.
‘Let’s go somewhere else for dinner tonight,’ Hari suggests.
‘What’s wrong with Raju’s?’
‘We eat there every day. Let’s go to a new place. A dhaba maybe.’
The auto they hop on from outside the slum zigzags in the evening traffic. It follows a truck for a while, overtakes countless sedans, breaks a couple of red lights and stops at the border between Delhi and Faridabad. There is a lot of activity in the border. Everyone is going somewhere. Even the dust doesn’t have a moment to settle down on the ground. It whirls up with every car roaring past on the road. Kalu rubs his eyes while humming the song last played in the auto. Hari combs the hair down with his fingers. The ride has messed with his looks.
There are several dhabas on the border. They randomly choose one and sit down. A boy comes up and starts reciting the menu, ‘chicken curry, mutton curry, chilly paneer, egg biryani, Kashmiri pulao, lachchha paratha, naan, dal makhani….’
‘Kadhai paneer, dal fry and six butter naans,’ Hari interrupts the boy.
‘Six naans! How hungry are you?’ Kalu asks.
‘My treat, remember?’ Hari smiles and adds two Cokes in the order. The boy disappears in the back.
The food arrives. It’s hot. Kalu begins describing a lady who buys three litres of packaged milk every day for the street dogs.
‘They lick her hands and roll at her feet. It’s unbelievable. I would lick her too if you know what I mean,’ Kalu winks, ‘she is a killer.’
‘This paneer is not good. Dal is better.’
‘Those same fucking dogs bark at me. I’ve been going there for years, and they still aren’t friendly.’
‘They chase me too.’
‘Do you think they know who we are?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘They don’t attack people in clean clothes. They only come at me, the delivery boys, and the rickshaw-wallahs.’
Hari doesn’t reply. Dogs intimidate. That’s all they do to feel a bit powerful; a bit alpha. They have an immaculate sense of when and where and their instincts are always right. There is so much to learn from a street dog but why compare yourself to one? Why now? His shirt is ironed and jeans clean.
He scans the dhaba. There is a group of college kids- three girls and two boys. They are having fun; they are talking loud and clicking pictures. The rest of the crowd is just hungry truck drivers and tired labourers.
The boy appears one last time to ask if they need anything else.
‘Pay the bill at the counter.’ He collects the empty plates and bowls and disappears again.
While waiting for the ride back home, only the taste of smoke from tandoor remains in Hari’s mouth. Where has the smell of freshly ground spices gone?
Kalu is not going to the village in February this year as previously planned. There is a marriage in the family in April and his cousin, the bride, has trapped him in promises.
‘She made me swear on my mother. Fuck.’
‘I’m not even close to her, and I’ll miss the chickpea harvesting.’
‘You can go now. Give her a nice gift; she won’t complain.’
‘And let my mother die?’
‘I don’t know what to say.’
‘I’ll go in April,’ Kalu is dejected, ‘She came all the way here to invite me; that has to mean something.’
‘Maybe you can work on wheat in April.’
‘This year it’s all peas, man. April is too late for that.’
Kalu goes to the village thrice a year. Landlords are always looking for surplus labour to sow the fields and harvest the crops. They pay well.
Apart from the ancestral home, his family doesn’t have much. They lived in Delhi for many years but when the house needed major repairs they moved back for good. Kalu stayed and took over his father’s work in the garbage business. Village treats his family well. They survive on temporary jobs his father grabs in and out the village and fresh eggs his mother sells right from the home.
‘Won’t your father be mad?’
‘Why would he? He is the one always saying that family is the most important thing. And if I miss this wedding who will come to my sister’s.’
‘Is she getting married too?’
‘She will, soon.’
‘She is 19, right?’
‘21, man. Phew!’
‘Still, it’s a lot of money you are missing out on.’
‘There’s always a next time. He will understand.’
Hari tries to imagine what having a father feels like. Can you get a hug whenever you need? How often can you say no to the old man? Does he really jump in front of you at the sign of danger?
He doesn’t even want to think about mothers; especially Kalu’s. He has heard enough tender stories about her. She is made of putty. She always feels unreal.
Hari will never be as lucky as Kalu. Maybe in 10 years when he has a family and a home of his own, he can come close. The hope he sees down the road unsettles him. There is a lot to be done. Every day has to go right.
Coming back from the old market on the bicycle, Hari takes a detour and peddles to the traffic signal his mother works on. Being somebody takes time; he will explain. He will give her the money he made today and try to talk normally. February has begun, and the days are still cold. He will sit close. She will allow that much.
Lights turn orange, and a gang of eight men, women and children descends on the cars. Some are selling napkins and seat covers, some are holding magazines and some are begging in old-fashioned ways. Beggars are the most successful. It is easier to melt the hearts of the rich with your antics than to convince them to buy the cheap stuff. The rich are not after saving money. They keep their engines on the whole time the lights are red.
His mother is not in the mix. Did she work the morning shift? Is she someplace else? Maybe she is sick; god forbid.
As the traffic moves again, Hari goes to the girl sitting on the footpath wiping the nose of a toddler. She looks no older than 13. Her blouse is loose and her skirt is long.
Hari has exactly 90 seconds before the lights are red again.
‘Here,’ he gives her a 5-rupee coin.
She stares at him as if he has passed a filthy remark. Hari take out a 10-rupee note. She grabs it.
‘Where is Malti?’
‘Who are you?’
‘She is gone.’ The girl looks at him asking- you don’t know?
The toddler moves dangerously close to the road. She calls his name and the boy runs back to her. He starts playing with her bangles.
‘Here’s 10 more. Tell me,’ Hari demands.
‘She met a man. She is set.’ The girl gets up. The toddler climbs up her waist; he knows what he has to do. The cars have stopped. It is time to work again.
Hari stands there like an idiot. Questions are sputtering in his mind like popcorn. The worst part is he is the son of a bitch who already knows all the answers. This time he gives twenty rupees to the girl to stay on the footpath.
‘It was before Diwali when she left. She hasn’t been back since.’
‘Any idea where she lives?’
‘I don’t know. Somewhere in the north part of the city.’
Hari wants to tell the girl everything she doesn’t know: who his mother is, what she does and why she won’t last in the north part of the city for long. She will die turning tricks. He wants to tell the girl why he came; why he couldn’t earlier.
The girl smiles. Perhaps, she understands.
He turns the bicycle around. He looks as empty as the folded bags on the rear rack.
‘It happens,’ the girl touches his arm.
‘Give me a 50, and I’ll tell you my name.’
‘Are you kidding? Why would I do that?’ Hari is already down 40 rupees, the fog has begun dissolving his body and the hole inside his soul is already bigger than the intersection he is standing on. He just wants to leave.
‘You need it.’
‘You have no idea what I need.’
‘Do it,’ the girl orders him with a strange kind of authority. The firmness in the voice and the certainty it carries is inescapable. Hari forks out the fifty.
‘My name is Indu. When you lie down tonight, think about me. You will feel better.’
‘It is all about small pleasures, baby.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Old enough to wreck your nights,’ she sounds serious.
Hari hops on the bicycle.
‘And don’t blame your mother. The game is set differently for people like us,’ she jumps back on the road and starts knocking on the car windows.
Despite his efforts not to, Hari sleeps splendidly. He wakes up fresh, changes into his work clothes and makes rounds buying plastic, paper, furniture, metal and dead electrical equipment. He doesn’t go to the old market. Instead, he cleans the room and changes bedsheets. The article peeks from under the mattress. It breaks his rhythm.
Hari picks it up. The headline says- Don’t wait a decade for things you can have now.
‘Alright, I will do it. One dish at a time.’ He has had enough. He takes a quick bath with freezing water and sleeps until Kalu returns.
Around eight, they go to Raju’s for dinner. Kalu orders chhole and roti. Hari decides to have the same. It feels nice to sit near the tandoor. They can’t avoid the smoke, but their bodies are not freezing anymore.
A good meal, a friend and the warmth from the oven: a perfect moment to take the leap.
‘You are slow tonight. Normally it’s the other way round.’ Kalu removes pieces of bay leaf from the gravy. He is on his third roti. Hari hasn’t finished his first.
‘I am taking my time.’
‘Chewing every bite 40 times, heh? You can’t take every article you read seriously.’
‘I am thinking.’
‘Eat first. These rotis get hard quick.’
‘How much money do you have in the bank?’
‘30,000, give or take,’ Kalu answers without bringing the reason in to the mix. Spontaneity is a part of the trust friends have.
‘I have about the same.’
‘It’s not a small sum. Together, we can last a year. We are better than most of these mopes eating here.’
‘Do you feel rich?’
‘I am not rich. Neither are you.’
‘I am not asking if you are. I am asking do you feel it.’
‘You know why? Because, we eat when we are hungry. How pathetic is that. We order chhole and roti even before we sit down. We think poor; that’s the problem. We lick the plates clean.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘Don’t you get it? Being rich means throwing good stuff out. It means taking your time and making excuses deciding what not to eat. It is about having enough choices that you don’t care. You don’t have choices, Kalu. Can you not go to work when you are not sick? Can you abandon your family and not think about it for a second? You can’t.’
‘What is it really about, bhai? What do you want to do?’ Kalu tries to end the conversation.
‘I want to order a plateful of rice to take home,’ Hari gets up to wash his hands.
Kalu quietly finishes his meal. He will get a chance to tell his friend that a midget cannot hope to see the world from a giant’s eyes. He can’t do it tonight. Hari will not understand. Better let him melt before he hardens up again.
The next morning, Hari gets up shivering. The days are as cold as January. He wraps the blanket around his body and checks the rice kept in the corner diagonally opposite the bathroom. He has plans to take it back to Raju’s at noon. The day-old rice tossed with fried onions and potatoes, with a pinch of turmeric and salt to taste is going to be his lunch for today. Boring or not, recipe number one shall be done.
What he sees wakes him up.
The black has taken over the white. Ants are crawling all over the plastic bag. Those seemingly gentle, black fucking ants have ruined everything.
There will be no lunch today.
Hari sits squashing the ants, one by one. An hour later, he takes the bicycle out.