Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pack-up Man

My name, you ask? What do you want my name for? That hardly holds any significance. If anything, let me tell you what I am and how I look. I’m middle-aged, around forty years of age (no one in my family remembers the exact date of my birth), with a slight paunch, drooping shoulders, and a head that’s getting bald with every passing day. I am dark, around five feet nine inches tall, and keep a beard which has gone completely white with time, at odds with the hair on my head, which is still more black than white. People, intrigued by this peculiar contrast, ask me whether I dye my hair, to which I can think of no reply.

My family has been a family of farmers; since generations, we have known no other means of livelihood. But now the times have changed. With big landlords eager to get hold of as much land as possible, ready to pay amounts which are too hard to refuse for people like us who never know what tomorrow would bring, its very rare for a man with meagre land holdings to get enough to pass his days. He has to look for a new job, that too in a place where they are hard to come by.

I got a job in one of the many multiplexes that have come up in this little town over the last few years. My task, as they told me, was to maintain cleanliness in and around the place. I am not the only one assigned this responsibility, there are a few others who work with me, and together we clean the floors of the porch, the lobby, and also the toilets, once in the morning at nine, and then in the evening at four. The building is huge, with two floors, there’s a lot of ground to be covered, and it turns out to be a tiring task, especially because we rid the floors of dust with a broom first, and then polish it by wiping it with phenyl and water. To make it shine. As the manager, our boss, likes it. We also, along with the above, hold the responsibility of cleaning the halls between shows, empty coke glasses, food packages and popcorn strewed here and there. But that doesn’t take much time.

As the oldest among the workers, and the one who looks most reliable, I have also been given an additional piece of work. On weekends, in the evening, just outside the entrance to the halls, they have a music show. A bunch of youngsters, all of whom look like they have just got out of their beds, come together and sing noisy, mostly English songs. My job is to assemble the equipment before the shows starts and dissemble it after it ends – the stand on which they keep the keyboard, the drum set, the huge black speakers, the microphones.

It isn’t something that takes too much effort, just fifteen minutes before and after. But what’s exhausting about the task is the wait, to stand there and wait for the show to get over, to hope that the song they are playing will be their last for the evening. When the rains are around, I can’t even leave the place for a moment, lest it starts pouring suddenly and the equipment needs to be replaced to safety. The manager thinks me responsible, and I’m too eager not to lose his confidence. So, I sit in a corner and wait.

I sit there and look around, the players - working away at their instruments, looking absorbed and lost in the music, smoking cigarettes without break, one after the other, the crowd – people eating at the cafeteria just behind, more youngsters, some standing and some sitting on the floor, listening to the music, many of them constantly smoking as well, and then there are, of course, the people who are here to watch a film, who just pass by, some pausing to listen to the music for a while.

The variety of people that can be seen near the place is quite remarkable, there are all kinds – boys and girls dressed for their evening out, company executives just back from office, uncles and aunties who wonder what the fuss is all about, and very old men and women, who don’t give the band as much as a glance. Yet, they are all together there, who have come to this multiplex for some form of enjoyment or the other.

Somewhere between ten and ten thirty, the band stops playing. I, in anticipation, go into the crowd and stand there much before that, hoping that they would wind up soon. This is the most difficult part of the waiting, it’s late and I am desperate to get back home. I can see a few eyes turning towards me, giving me a cursory glance, wondering whether I too was there for the music, and I’m conscious of the fact that here, where almost everyone is dressed to kill, having a good time, I look odd, a man who doesn’t belong, maybe even a blot on the landscape. But it hardly bothers me.

When it’s all over, and the whole place seems immersed in sudden, complete silence once more, I pick up everything from the stage and put it inside the store room.

My work for the day is over, and I leave on my bicycle, for my home in a village just a few kilometres away.

This is what I do. Clean. Assemble. Dissemble.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bridge Chalein?

All the characters and events in this piece are entirely fictional and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely co-incidental.

From the flashlights of the motorcycle, it was pretty clear to all of them that what stood ahead, just about fifty metres away was nothing but a police jeep.

Their little plan had all it takes to get into the deepest possible shit. It was past one in the night, they, Abbas, Muahid and Tayseer were on someone else’s bike, in a relatively unknown city, without anywhere specific to go, but sure in their minds that they had to go somewhere. After all, they were happy. That’s the least they could do. Go somewhere.

So, having taken a packet of wafers and two Thums Ups for their little picnic from one of the very few places that were open so late, they decided to go to the famous bridge, a broken one, about two to three kilometres into the wilderness. On their way there, the talk was of murders, encounters and cover-ups, and many other possibilities their lives could meet at the bridge, depending on which they might accidentally meet there, the police or some scoundrels. None of them suspected that weren’t after all building castles in the air. The first sight of the jeep was just the preamble for what was to follow.

Abey koi hai wahaan pe…truck ya jeep…’, said Tayseer, as if this was a fact that needed mentioning.

Jeep hi hai…police ki hai kya?’, added Abbas, fearing the worst.

Haan police ki hi hai…’, replied Muahid, and after letting the realization sink in, ‘Waapis chalna hai kya?

This was a crucial question, the sort which one would rather like to pose than answer. There was a brief silence, not more than a few seconds, as the question needed to be answered quickly, the three of them getting closer to the jeep with every passing moment.

Abey chalte hain….faltu mein panga na ho jaaye’, Tayseer, chicken heart, finally uttered. This was all the other two chicken hearts needed, and without wasting further time, Muahid, who was driving, took a U-turn and headed back.

The danger dealt with, the three breathed easy again. Ripples of nervous laughter were complemented by remarks such as ‘Bach gaye yaar!’, ‘Kya kismet hai!’ and ‘Ab kahaan jaaye!’. But this hadn’t gone on for long, before Abbas interjected.

Abey waise problem kya hai?...na humare paas daru hai, na kuchh aur…bas 3 dost hai, chips aur cold-drink peene aaye hai…unko isse kya problem ho sakti hai?

This was another good question, again one which was really difficult to answer. It is hard to say what transpired next, but within moments, chicken hearts turned into brave hearts, the bike headed back towards the jeep, all three infused suddenly with a new-found confidence in the innocence of their little outing.

They parked the bike just a little beyond the jeep, and though it was pitch dark, each searched for the others’ eyes, for a mirror to their apprehensions, waiting for someone to break the uneasy silence. It was broken, but it wasn’t they who had spoken.

From the back of the jeep, came out a moving a torch, and a voice beckoning them. None of them were really taken aback, they were expecting it, almost waiting for it.

As they approached the back of the jeep, it turned out that there were no less than four policeman present at the spot, three at the back with one asleep, and one in the front, who as they would later discover, was their boss. One of the two awake sub-ordinates, whom we would hereafter refer to as Good Cop, was the first to speak.

Kahaan se aaye ho tum log? Kya kar rahe ho yahaan?

Kuchh nahi uncle…woh aise hi…’, replied Abbas, leaving Tayseer a little surprised as to how quickly he had moved on to buttering the policeman, calling him ‘uncle’.

Raat ko dhai baje tum yahaan aise hi aaye the! Woh kya hai haath mein?’, Good Cop retorted, his tone a bit harsher this time, pointing to the chips and soft drinks in our hands.

Kuchh nahi uncle…woh chips hai….aur…’, Tayseer replied, thinking at the same time whether ‘sir’ would have sounded better.

Bas yahi laaye ho?....’, Bad Cop finally spoke up, sounding rather disappointed. He sounded drunk, and excited, this little incident perhaps being the only diversion in his otherwise long and uneventful night vigil. ‘Yahin khade raho.’, said the Good Cop now, and both of them walked towards the motorcycle.

What they were looking for was liquor, and had it been found, it would have been the perfect excuse to have the youngsters jailed for the night and extract some nice cash out of them in the morning. But as they found nothing, even after an elaborate search, they returned silently, almost not knowing what to do now.

Having won a point in their favour, Abbas, Muahid and Tayseer now started to ask the cops for forgiveness, saying that they would never come here again, that they were just a bunch of stupid, innocent teenagers wanting a good time, that they had absolutely no idea that a small picnic on a deserted piece of land in the wilderness at two in the morning wasn’t the safest thing to do.

When they had no more excuses left, all three fell silent and there was a rather uncomfortable silence for a second or two. Bad Cop now took over the proceedings.

Thane le chalo sabko! Saale chutiye…subah tak inko wahi rakhna hai…tab samajh mein aayega inke…jab newspaper mein photo niklegi na….’, and then, as if struck with a sudden amazing idea, ‘woh India Today walo ko bulaon….haan wahi jo poore din idhar udhar ghoomte rehte hain

Good Cop had gone on staring at the hapless three all this time, while they looked ready to shit in their pants. They started on their pleadings again, to which Good Cop said he understood but they had to talk to their boss once before anything could be done.

The boss sat in the front seat. He was asleep, probably on two or three bottles of desi liquor. When Good Cop explained the situation to him, he suddenly got up on his seat, as if awakened by a call of duty and scowled at the three.

Band karo inko!...madarchod kya karne aaye the yahaan?...bhodsi ke!’, and then as if exhausted by this sudden surge of activity, he dropped back into sleep again.

Bad Cop, now encouraged once more, added that the three must be thieves, as only thieves come out at such hours. To this unbeatable piece of logic, none of the three had an answer.

Kahaan ke rehne walo ho tum log?’, he now asked.

Dilli ke, sir’, Tayseer replied.

Kabhi dilli mein 8 baje ke baad nikalte ho?

Another stupid taunt. Tayseer wanted to laugh at the policeman, but kept quiet, knowing that this wasn’t what he was looking for.

Ten or fifteen minutes passed in this fashion. The three of them kept pleading, calling the policemen ‘sir’ and ‘uncle’ alternately, the Bad Cop pouring taunts and threats, one after one. Good Cop now started to talk calmly to the three. He explained how there was a suicide by some Maharashtrian youngster in this area just a few days ago, and how much trouble they had to endure for it, and how unsuitable this place was, therefore, for a midnight picnic.

Slowly and steadily, as Good Cop talked to the three, they started to feel that there was still a way out of this, that there could be a negotiation. And no doubt, Good Cop finally offered to let them go, only if they pay the fine for their little adventure.

Tayseer didn’t even have his wallet with him, Muahid had all of forty or fifty rupees, and Abbas a few hundred. They informed Good Cop of this fact straight on his face; he was disappointed, but did well to maintain his composure.

Kitne hain tumhare paas?’, he asked, getting down to the bottom of it all.

Mere paas to kuchh bhi nahi’, Tayseer apologetically replied, ‘Iske paas 40-50 honge’, looking at Muahid, ‘aur tumhare paas?’, turning to Abbas.

Abbas dig into his purse and said ‘300…350….’

Muahid, who wasn’t really keen on paying the policeman more than a hundred in any case, who even in such dire circumstances was keen to hold on to his money, now reproached Abbas by hitting him on the arm. Good Cop noticed that, and when Muahid tried to speak again, he asked him to shut up and learn some tameez first.

Tayseer now did all the talking, intentionally sounding soft, trying to make Good Cop feel that he could start crying any moment. Good Cop finally gave in, showering elderly advice on the three, telling them again and again how difficult the job of a policeman was, how they had to cover up so much, how the world would break into pieces if they didn’t do their thing. He sounded like a depressed Atlas, on whose shoulder all the burden of the world rested.

Having exhausted (or bored) himself ultimately, he asked Muahid to fetch the motorcycle, and continued talking to the other two.

Ye ladka theek nahi hai…chutiya kahin ka!...poori tarah bigad chuka hai yeh’, said he for Muahid, perhaps remembering the earlier fine negotiation, and then for no apparent reason, added, looking at Abbas – ‘Tum bhi aadhe bigad chuke ho…’. Abbas might have wanted to ask him why, but stayed shut for good.

The three got on to the motorcycle, and after saying ‘Dhanyavad’ and ‘Shukriya’ about 5-10 times, sped off. Their little adventure was over, they had come out unscathed, without even parting with a single rupee (the three had repeatedly informed Good Cop that they were 'student log' and could therefore may kindly please be exempted from the fine), and though their nerves hadn’t quite calmed yet, they laughed loudly, maybe at themselves, maybe at each other, maybe at the hour just gone by.

Then, Muahid, the courageous asked – ‘Ab kahaan chalna hai?