Friday, June 13, 2014

Across the brick wall

“Remember that aunty I told you about in the letter I sent last November? This morning she looked such a faint image of what she looked yesterday. I had gone for a walk to the park but then I just decided to sit on that bench. Rains have caused considerable damage to the plaque that reads the name of the dead man in whose name the bench was installed. I would otherwise be quite interested to know who the man was, who died to make space for the rest of us thankless lot.

I sat there long. Leaves were beginning to melt into the diffused sunlight. The track was covered with their pale shadows. People were kicking about the ones that had fallen off the trees. They were staggering… drunkenly, unarmed… across the sky.

These street lights are beginning to annoy me. They stay on till late in the day. I am thinking of writing a complaint note to our council representative once I’m done with writing to you.

She, aunty wore the same taant saree today as well, but the thread work has started to fragment. Her white pallu had hues of blue on it. I think she is using too much fabric whitener. I was meaning to ask her today to go slow on it. But then I realised, who am I to say anything to her? I use it too.

Someone’s underwear fell on me, mid-way through the walk. A bunch of boys stopped playing football and started to giggle.  Honestly, I was really embarrassed. If it was a shirt falling or even a dupatta I would have been fine. You know what I mean na?

Robin… it is called Robin… the whitener that I use. It has a colourful bird on its packet. I think it’s a robin. Maybe that’s where they get their brand name from.  Funny, that whitener would be blue in colour. Haina!

I don’t know what to cook for lunch today. This is one question I never have an ideal answer to. Remember, how when we were together, I always left it to you to decide and you would invariably settle for either gobhi or bhindi. Even the sabziwala knew our kitchen drill.

 I had answers then. You gave some… but your questions were many. Stop asking questions Gautam. Sometimes silences make more sense.


Pal… the loose and perhaps the only definition of ‘love’ in his life… his superlative… the woman who redefined his boundaries and then forced him to disregard them… the sensual embodiment of freedom and yet his philistine captivator - Pal, in a moment of unrestraint, left Gautam behind, as mere residue of a fractured partnership. Monthly letters with no address to write back to, were offered to him as an insufficient pension in lieu of a long inning.


Moisture was reeling down his scarlet cheeks. It was hot. Light had gone off again. Someone downstairs in the building compound was cursing the government for all their sufferings. The ceiling fan was lazily motioning itself into a deathlike silence. Harish had fashioned his beard into an obnoxious stubble, lately. The mirror was standing over the bathroom washbasin to look straight into him… reminding him of his abject misery.

Harish… He was raised on the sprawling mustard fields of a small hamlet – Thathi Bhai in independent India’s Punjab. His father was an influential jaagirdaar – landlord, who had amassed ample property from the village poor over unlawful pretexts but no one had the courage to question the efficacy of his word.
Two days back he had publically accosted Harpeet Cheema’s fifteen-year-old daughter Preeto to be beaten with leather slings by ten men, under the grand peepal tree, in an obscure corner of the village. Her crime - she had fallen in love with a Muslim boy from Bhatinda, whom she met on a bus ride on her way back from her grandparents’ home in the same city. Harpreet and his family of a wife, ten other daughters and one son stood watching until the ordeal lasted… rest of the village recoiled into their comfort zones… a dust storm hit the scene of unrelenting drama as Preeto’s injured body was left to naturally be devoured by the earth. Harpreet’s family returned to their modest home that evening where ten other daughters were reminded of the consequences of falling out of line, over basic bread and daal (lentil soup). The son, youngest of the lot, meanwhile was wondering where the ten leather slings came from and how he could get hold of them… one each for the surviving sisters.

On the previous Sunday, Jaagirdaarji, as Harish’s father was reverentially addressed, read out Harish’s destiny in two lines.

“Go to some foreign country and work there. Bring pride to the family name.”

Pride – it was some crude logic that equated pride to one son living ‘abroad’ in many Punjabi families. The colonial hangover had the most lasting impact on this community.

Harish had passed matric from the only public school of the village, unsurprisingly named Guru Nanak Public School, after the founder of the religion. By the standards of the village he was over qualified.

The next day, a day prior to ‘the Preeto justice’ – as would the episode find name in the annals of the village history, Harish left lock-stock and barrel, for Delhi. Some well-wishers had given him the details of an employment agent and so he headed straight for Rajouri Garden in East Delhi after alighting at the Old Delhi Railway station.

“Afghanistan is the latest favourite of all you Sikh youngsters. Bada paisa hai vahan. Lots of money,” the agent emphasized; his office – a near mock brothel. “A very lucrative opportunity has come up in the construction industry in Kabul. You will earn $800 per month plus a trip to-and-fro India every six months, a place to live, food and clothing and a mobile phone with unlimited talk-time and sms.”

This last promise in the verbal offer came handy. Mr. Agent had hit the right spot with it. Harish was a victim of the mobile phone boom in India where the word ‘unlimited’ was used for pretty much everything, from the sex drive of men his age to the time taken in getting a customer care executive over the phone to resolve a simple problem with the mobile connection.

Faith was another permanent fixture in the long parody of the Indian psyche. Wherever electricity, technology, air and water failed, faith intervened. On the basis of mere faith, not a legal document, Harish accepted the offer and flew to Kabul with his father’s dream and cash in his secret pocket on the inside of his pants, placed between his groins and left thigh.

War had settled over Kabul’s fate like an enduring dust cloud. Life was surviving between sprints from one hide-out place to the other. A stopped heart stumped his toe like a sudden pebble, as Harish walked to the construction site where he was due to start work in a day.

Afghanistan has 10 million land mines. Kabul is the most heavily mined capital of the world. When one of those 10 million exploded, Harish’s amputated left leg became a number in the UN report on the War torn nation. His hopes were scattered across the street, alongside broken car windows and a gush of blood. Silence followed the explosion. It left behind questions.

Harish spent a lonely 15th August in a Sikh Temple in the capital, until the Indian Embassy made arrangements to crate him back to India.

He had promised his father Pride in return for the years and money spent on his up-brining. In his father’s mind his son continued to live ‘abroad’, as Harish sat rotting on a wheelchair, used by seven other deceased orphans in the orphanage across the brick wall that separated Gautam’s plush villa from Harish.


As Gautam lay dejected on his antique teak wood bed, in the care of an asylum nurse, the wreckage in Harish's world was pain too. Pain of a different nature, nevertheless, pain.

Yet for either, theirs’ lived to remain the only reality… the only suffering that could possibly, ever take a man down.

No comments:

Post a Comment