By Mosarrap H. Khan
Writing is a luxury. Speaking for others is an audacity.
Since my arrival in India this time, I have been haunted by the question: Does writing matter?
When I see the jumble of human forms perpetually knotting and unknotting itself, I ask myself: What the fu** do these people care what I write? In a country where survival is the greatest virtue, who has time to read your cogitations?
Perhaps, it’s better to think you write because you want to humor yourself. Writing is an act of self-pleasuring, then?
Once you move the focus from writing to listening, you will be amazed to hear the stories floating around. In this crumbling, decaying metropolis – Mumbai – where every moment is an assault on your olfactory lobes, people are always ready to share their stories. You also realize that this restless city doesn’t have listeners to their stories. People are ready to share bits of their life, their despair, their hope with you.
I sit at a roadside tea-stall – a shade on the sidewalk outside the housing society, where I’m staying. There are autos lined up in front of the stall. The drivers in white and khaki are the main clientele. The owner of the tea-stall speaks to a despondent man, who looks to be in his mid-30s. I attune my ears to catch their conversation. It doesn’t take long before they include me in their communication.
The man drives a water-tanker, which is parked in the lane right opposite. Looking at his distraught face, I ask him, “What’s the matter?”
“The battery of my tanker was stolen last night when I left the vehicle for a bit and went on to enquire at a Bisleri outlet.”
The owner of the tanker blames him for leaving the vehicle unattended. The man tells me, “I have been asking maalik to provide a helper for the tanker. But he doesn’t listen.”
The old man, the tea-stall owner, speaks to him in a hushed tone. He wants to bring a helper for his stall from his native village in Bihar. He wants to save costs and doesn’t want to travel. He wants the driver to help him get the young boy from the village through one of his acquaintances who is visiting Mumbai.
I ask the old man, “Do you always bring these workers from your village?”
“Haan. How could I trust people from other places? If I hire a Marathi or a Rajasthani, he might scoot with things after a while. But a boy from my village will stay with me and eat with my family. He is like one of us. I can trust him.”
As we speak, he holds my hand. He has stories to share about his family and about his life back in the village, which he left 35 years ago. Perhaps he doesn’t know that he trusts complete strangers with his stories.
The man’s large eyes look red early in the morning. His job is to keep a watch at the gates through the night. When I go out early for a cup of tea, I always notice this square-jawed man with a vacant look. I have hardly seen such empty eyes, which make his face appear bland. He looks at me and then averts his gaze. Sometimes he acknowledges my presence by raising his hand.
I walk close to him and say, “Aap Diwali nahin mana rahain hai? (Aren’t you celebrating Diwali?)”
He strains his head to hear me. He steps close and tells me, “I can’t hear properly. I had met with an accident. Since then, I have been hard of hearing.”
“Where are you from?” I raise my voice.
“I’m from Badaun, Uttar Pradesh.” He rattles off, “I have my family there. My wife, two sons, two daughters. My brother recently died of heart attack. I look after his family. I have two old parents. How do I look after all of them with a salary of Rs.9000/- for a twelve-hour work day?”
“How do you manage, then?”
“I save as much as possible. I don’t even drink tea. I live with 5-6 other people and eat with them. That’s how I manage to save around Rs.7000/- every month which I send back home.”
These are moments when a story grabs you by the throat. You wrestle to free yourself. You want to erase them off your memory. But the story has already taken hold of you. There is no exit route.
But the man is unaware what his story does to the listener. He continues, “Sometimes I sit here and think of my accident. I feel traumatized. I am unable to do any other work. I wonder if things will ever improve for me. What else can I do but think?”
That very morning, his son in the village asked him for money to buy firecrackers for Diwali. He did send him some.
He is a small man with a roundish face. He always wears a smile on his face. We chit-chat when I go out to buy cigarettes during the day. I ask him how he ended up as a security guard at this apartment complex.
“I was working at a plastic factory. The owner faced hard times and asked me to take a break. That’s how I ended up here.”
“Aren’t you taking a day off for Diwali?”
“Saab, in our job, there is no day off. We work every day. Still the agency doesn’t give our salary before the 15th of the month. For Diwali, we tried to contact the owner for a bonus. He is evasive and doesn’t entertain any such requests.”
His family is in a village in UP. He wants his younger son to continue his studies. His son wants to join the army.
“What’s your plan for the Diwali?”
“I’m going to the satsang after I get off duty at 8 PM. I am a follower of Nirankari Baba.”
“What’s so special about his teaching?”
“He teaches manavta (humanism). He teaches, ‘Mazhab nahin sikhata aapas mein bair rakhna’ (Religion doesn’t teach to fight). Why don’t you join me today evening? I will take you there.”
I smile and walk off.
P.S.: Namelessness is not act of rendering people invisible. Rather, it’s an act of making these stories everyman’s story.
Mosarrap H Khan is a founding-editor at Cafe Dissensus.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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