By Sunil Sharma
They finally caught up with the fleeing and puffing lean figure, off the burning city square, after a long hot chase on the almost deserted long street, sunk in unrelieved gloom. The orange glow of the burning tyres and buses and shops illuminated the dark street as an ominous fluttering backcloth. The tall trees swayed dangerously like a pack of drunks on the red-tiled pavements on either side of the dim wide street where ghosts danced in the threatening shadows – lit feebly here and there by the leaping fires hungry for more of the twisted urban symbols of progress. Hissing blasts of hot wind rattled off the dead leaves that flew some meters in the air and then settled down again – only to levitate again in the air and then come back on the hot earth – in a repetitive series of futile gestures. Murder and mayhem had suddenly replaced the frenzied pace of a big city on the fast track, now frozen in a time warp. Everything stood still. The malls too were burning, so were the high-end cars and tourist buses in the swanky business district of the global city. The looting and anarchy had spread from the slums to the district and the rest of the city in last three four days of pure madness. Nobody was safe from the marauding mobs. The drunken mobs were hunting their preys – the foreigners amid them. It was like chasing the green-eyed aliens on the Manhattan streets.
The decrepit man was out of breath and terrified. His dirty clothes were tattered, eyes sunk in big hollows, cheeks pale and graying hair plastered in sweat. He looked at the group of his tormentors in a pleading manner, sad eyes almost blank, mouth open and breath irregular. Your typical tramp…almost.
“What are you doing here in our sacred city?”
The man looked at the interrogating guy, in his early 20s, with three-day-old stubble and blood-shot eyes, shaven head, clad in a red-T and blue jeans. Others encircled the man silently, a bunch of 10-12 young men, prowling menacingly like the laughing hyenas. The wind hurried down the street like a ballooning gray phantom chasing some dry leaves.
“You deaf?” asked the interrogator haughtily. “What Ya Doing Here? This is our city.”
The frightened man said nothing. The fright made him totally dumb. This gave the crazed youth another high. He felt very powerful, towering over the hapless man. Still, no response. The thin baldie slapped the blank man hard. “Speak. Your name?”
The man, now bleeding at the corner of his thin mouth, got jolted by the severity of this violent blow and said in a small voice, “I– I–am Nobody.”
“A what? Nobody. What kind of name is this? Never heard such a funny name earlier. Names describe regions, castes and class. They can be a burden or asset for some. I cannot fit this name. You must be fooling me.”
“Naw, sir. That is how my pa and ma used to call me. I was a Nobody for them. Useless to them. Of no good. The name has stuck since then. That is how.”
The interrogator laughed dryly. “Funny. That is very funny. OK. Tell me, Nobody. What ya doing here? In our land? In our city?”
“But this land belongs to everybody. God created the land and all of us…”
The sudden furious slap left the pencil-thin man staggering. He doubled up on the lonely pavement. Others kicked the prostrate thin figure in the ribs, in a ritualized manner. The victim howled. An eerie yelp trapped in his throat escaped and bounced off the deserted street and travelled down, echoing farther and farther.
“Shut up ya. Do not give this religious crap. Ya, a preacher?”
“Then who the hell are you?”
The graying hollow man sat up on the edge of the red-tiled pavement. Others huddled around, waiting for the slow kill, stalking patiently, eyeing the human prey gleefully. An explosion was heard in the backdrop and flames could be seen leaping to the sky. The moon disappeared suddenly. The shadows crept closer. The wind again came hurtling down the bare street, like a charging bull.
“I am an odd jobber.”
“Na. You are a stealer! A S-T—E-A-L-E-R.”
The bleeding man, although young, looked gaunt and old, his skin leathery and tough, veins standing out in a washed-out face and body. “I am an honest man. I sell my labour. I am not a criminal. Honest. No police case against me anywhere. I earn my bread by the sweat of my brow, honest. I never lie, why should I? You check out.”
The young interrogator laughed. A hoarse sound that jarred on the nerves of the listeners. “It is I who will decide these labels, nobody else. Only I have got that power. A stealer. That means ya, a stealer. No arguing. No defense here. Ya accept the charge. That is it.”
The graying man said nothing. Resigned. Trapped. Waiting for the one-sided verdict. Guilty. He could see it coming – in few agonizing minutes.
“Why did ya come here?”
“To seek a job. Not for the sight-seeing. To survive. To get the work. Any work that others refused to do.”
“Why here? Of all the places in the wide world, you select this place and rob others of jobs by working here in this great sacred city of ours? Why?”
“Because folks told me poor man can work here and get two meals for his family. The city welcomes all. It has a huge soul. It is not dead like other cities of the world. Here, the soul is big. The poor are welcome and given a chance to change their bleak fate. You are not what others want to see in you. You are just a seller of your labour. Everything else does not matter here. No other consideration other than your skills. That alone makes it a world-class city where folks are not murdered for their surnames or region or beliefs.”
“Things have changed now.”
“I never knew things have changed so fast. New rules have come, banning me from the city. Who has brought new rules? Nobody told me, not even the cops. Who are the guys that have enforced these new rules for us.”
“WE, of course. We are the new masters. We decide who is to come and who is to go in this city or the land. Who is a threat to us? And who is not. We decide all these things for people like you. And, let me tell you, no one can act against us here. We are the Lords here. None can mess up with us. The judge and jury, we are the both. Got it?”
The bleeding man said nothing. He just looked past the baldie, towering over him, at the rustling wind in the empty lots where new high-rises were to come soon. Lot of debris was strewn in these lots. Giant cranes stood there mutely, watching the urban spaces burn below. It was a bleak landscape. Dug up, alternated by the glass-n-concrete high-rises in a symmetrical line. Some of the glass in the tall buildings reflected the leaping fires, a few kilometers away. Finally, the baldie spoke: “That settles it. YA, a stealer. You stole our jobs, our lands and our culture. You are a grave threat to all of us here. You deserve to die at our hands, you a rascal, a rat.”
The man was suddenly without fear of the goons – like every condemned man. He stood up and said quietly: “I do not buy all this shit. I work those jobs that none wants here. I work hard. I got a big family. I am no stealer. The city belongs to you and to me also. Is it a crime to work in a city to earn livelihood in an honest way? Has the God deserted us?”
“All that is shit. Ya a stealer of our jobs. You are a stinking wretch. You are a polluter and a criminal not wanted here anymore.”
“And who are you to decide all this?”
“We are the Law. We rule the streets. We are the Law. We are the enforcers also of our writ in these parts.”
“I am not going anywhere. I am going to stick around. Kill me. How long can I run from such madness? Kill me, if it satisfies your hatred of me. Go ahead, do it.”
“Then you have to die for defying the writ. Run to live or stay to die here. As simple as that.”
“I don’t care. The death will be a welcome freedom from constant pain and poverty for me. But the blood of a poor innocent will hang on your conscience for long.”
The interrogator laughed a gyrating laugh: “You are a scum. A bloody scum. You come first to our holy land. Then you bring your entire hungry village that sucks us dry. We will no longer tolerate this N-O-W. The thieves are disposable. None cries for a thief. You are not human. You are not us, your death will not affect us, or anybody here, or anywhere.”
“No. I am very much human. Like You. The only crime is I am a poor man driven out of my own land by humiliating poverty. I am no better in this megapolis also. I live on the pavement. Under a tiny, leaking sheet. Dogs are better off. I work in the construction sites, or hotels or, pull a cart for hours. I hire myself out to everyone in this great city and then earn two meals somehow. I do not live. I exist, simply because I do not want to take my own life, as many other desperate poor folks do. I still believe in hope and luck and God.”
His courage and honesty slightly disoriented the young judge. The others in the group stood silent, waiting for the orders like the newly recruited soldiers of a dirty war. The moon came out from the clouds and cast a weak light on the crackling-burning city below. The judge lit up a costly cigarette and blew the rings of smoke. He pondered. “You will die soon. Tell me more about you. I am interested to know more about aliens like you. The ones who are not US. I can spare a few minutes for you.” The others slightly fell away, widening the fatal circle. Military like. Precise.
“I have my aged blind mother in the parched-up village, now empty of young men. Three young sisters of marriageable age. A wife and two kids, one of them polio-afflicted. A run-down shovel of a home on a little piece of stubborn land tilled by my wife and sisters there. They somehow manage to exist.”
“What about your Pa?”
“He committed suicide.”
“He could not pay off his mounting debts. The ancestral land failed my pa. He hanged himself from the tree opposite our little house. We got the shakes next morning. He looked so thin and moved in the morning breeze like a dried-up reed suspended in the middle of space. We could not do anything to save him. I still see him in my dreams. Sometimes shrieking in agony. Sometimes, floating in the wind. Lifeless. Hanging like a stuck-up kite, fluttering uselessly in the hot dry wind of a desert.”
“What did you do then?”
“I left the famished village ten years ago. I worked in a textile firm that closed down.”
“Then I worked in a laundry, on sites, hotels, garages, a poor man offering manual labour in an indifferent market. I travelled a lot.”
“I travelled to London.”
“What?” The judge could not believe.
“Yes. I sold part of my little holding. Agents sent me to London where I worked in hotels and kiosks till, one night, the local gangs called me a Paki and clobbered me for being that. Of course, I was not what they thought I was. I survived the terror – I am a great survivor – and travelled to the liberal USA where I was attacked for the colour of my skin, while working in a cheap motel in the deep South. In the Gulf, I did not belong to their religion. In South Africa, I was not acceptable as I came from a different nation than theirs. Johannesburg still burns on hatred of the foreigners. Same was my fate in Kosovo or East Berlin. The liberal Paris was no different. Fiji was the same. So was Algiers. In my own country, I was called a stranger, as I did not belong to the powerful ethnic groups ruling at that point of time. I was everywhere, yet nowhere. Hounded out everywhere. Cursed. Powerless. No voice. No clout. The dispossessed. I am Mr. Nobody. A human, yet not human. A native, yet an alien among my own. A man without any dignity. A soft target everywhere. An unseen man. A zero man. Phantom.”
The interrogator sucked on his cigarette hungrily. The graying man kept quiet, blood on his lower lip now dry due to the wind and heat of the night. They did not speak for long.
“What is your story?” asked the victim. The baldie was shocked by this sudden query from a marked man.
“I have a similar story. Pa was sacked after an industrial death. He drank himself to his early death. Ma raised five of us. Sisters got married and some divorced also. I am the youngest. A graduate. Out of work for more than five years now. Drifting in life. Last year, I joined the Party. They have promised jobs. But first we have to drive out the aliens among us.”
The alien laughed. “Poverty binds us. That means we both are brothers in spirit and form. Our sufferings are same. We are one.”
“Naw. We can never be. You are the threat to us. How can you be family? You are a migrant after our jobs, not welcome anywhere. You stink. A piece of shit. You are a dangerous criminal. Unruly. No culture. No manners. Sending cash to your village only. We can never meet on equal ground. You are not Us.” Replied an agitated baldie.
“Do I look dangerous? How can the people resemble each other? No twins are same. Diversity is the cause of growth. Otherwise, all folks will mirror each other in this wide world. And that will be the end. Only carbon copies will circulate.”
“You are good with words.”
“I have seen the world and talked to people. Another way of education. Somebody once said to me that if the first migration had not taken place out of Africa, this rich colourful world would not have come into existence. The world owes a lot to those first few tentative steps that crossed the familiar and stepped into the unknown. That is the human spirit at its finest. Only a wandering Columbus can discover the New World.”
“And bring diseases and death to the natives.”
“Well, that is also the sad part of the story.”
“That precisely is the point. Migrants bring ill luck.”
“Not all. I am neither a general nor a voyager. A mere worker, nor a seeker of fortunes or lands unknown.”
“Still a threat to peace. Say your prayers, bloody alien.”
“My death will not solve anything for you or the Party. I am a mere foot soldier. History will take its revenge. Violence can work. Not for long. The poor will rise one day. This grim and callous System will collapse that feeds on their blood. The dead will rise. That will be terrific for all of you then.”
After returning home, a piece of news awaited the young exultant executioner who had eliminated the threat: his own elder brother and first cousin were beaten to death in distant Australia three days before. Their crime? They were the cabbies hated by the locals in the continent of Australia. They were the threat there and were also liquidated. The young executioner could not react to the news – it was so sudden, illogical and absurd. How can a poor cabbie working nights and ferrying drunks and stranded passengers in the 21st century Sydney – or for that matter, Melbourne or Canberra – be a threat to a highly educated and cultured western society?
Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet-freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 21 books so far, some solo and some in collaboration, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly bilingual magazine Setu. For more details on his publications, please visit his blog.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Rohingya Refugees: Identity, Citizenship, and Human Rights”, edited by Chapparban Sajaudeen, Central University of Gujarat, India.