Clad in white kurta pajama, Gandhi caps and matching glasses, lest someone couldn’t tell they were identical twins, the septuagenarians grab their window seats. Trailing behind them, tired and annoyed, Ganesh takes the aisle seat – his aged plastic bag carefully placed to hide a speck of dried daal on his pant.
The other twin looks over from top of the newspaper.
“This is what the shopkeeper was talking about,” looking at the bottom corner of an inconsequential page, while the surrounding eyes linger on the front-page splatter of a Bollywood couple's pastel wedding.
Gayatri mantra chimes in full volume, competing with the tracks. A man who had settled into slumber, stops snoring; others shoot mixed looks of relief and inconvenience at Ganesh. In a sharp contrast to his apologetic demeanour, he whispers into the phone sternly, “I didn’t get time... The world isn’t coming to an end in two days, is it?” The phone disconnects. “Hello... hello...” Sensing all eyes on him, he pretends: “Ok...We’ll talk once I am home... Bye!” He puts the phone away and looks up at anyone who cared, “Bad network...” No one did.
“Charni Road, platform number two.”
Ganesh breaks his meditation on the blob of dried paint at the window rail and attempts to peep, but his eyes were too tired to strain on a page-twelve font after nine hours of pouring over bad handwritings. He worked during lunch hours to impress the boss for early confirmation, even though it wasn't the boss' call. Freshly absorbed into the Ration Card office outside which he sat for two years translating forms for the out-of-town lost souls, he was so giddy from landing a 'secure' job that three months were not enough to cultivate the confidence of a government servant. As the Computer-wala – an unnecessary post created to weed out bureaucratic redundancy – he fed the filled-in applications into the computer word by word, making him the third hand doing exactly the same job. The country had decided to digitise itself; neither illiteracy nor irony could come in its way.
“Says ‘internal haemorrhage.’”
“Yes, inside the brain.”
“It doesn't say brain...”
“Brain haemorrhage can only happen in the brain! Must be a mistake.”
Everybody nods in agreement-- three other passengers had joined the conversation.
“He was a pickpocket.”
Ganesh feels his chest pocket for the pounding heart. He had forgotten-- his right leg had palpitated until he entered his house that night; he had to sit crossed legged at work all day; he had felt the ribs under the new Bata sandals and despaired that the sole was cheap. That a skeleton sits underneath our skin was too unsettling a thought for a Monday morning, thus lamenting the decline in quality of a shoe brand provided comfort. But his leg had felt what his brain was rejecting – the guy on the platform was a person.
Ganesh looks at his feet. His toes wiggled, and his fingers followed.
“Name? Maharashtrian or what?” said someone.
Bilal ran his fingers on the name – ‘Santosh Pede.’ Death had made him unfamiliar. Upon hearing someone’s footsteps, he threw away the newspaper quickly. It was his wedding day. Raja had been gone only a week.
In his toli, he was called Raja, mostly in hope; outside, he was Shanty. Everybody in the community was proud of his gift, which barely made him average. He must have inherited it through the nose, they would say, for his mother went into spontaneous labour the day Hawaldar Pede died. He had jumped off a running train on a dare, they said, or to escape an irate crowd, which no one said. Post-mortem’s heart-attack was talked in hushed tone. Since the only physical injury was to the nose, the whole community was convinced he had died of broken nose. Hawaldar Pede was a legend and his nose was as much a part of it as his skill. It was a long and bulky nose, of which Raja was reminded at least once daily. If it weren't his neighbours, then it was the assistant directors. Their feelings about it, though, were opposite. He either had the wrong nose or the wrong face. What added to his father's allure was an odd feature on his boxy face of small deep-set eyes. Yet, the nose made him look at the mirror too much, which Bilal chided him about, just as when Raja hung out with the Michael Jackson’s. Bilal thought it beneath Raja to be keeping company of the eunuchs – as he’d call them. They were background dancers with passports – their skills greater but fortune lesser than the men and women they danced behind.
Shanty, too, was a dancer. He could slither snakelike on any beat and resembled a fading Bollywood hero. He went for auditions with more gusto than he picked pockets, and in between he practised with the Michael Jackson’s in parks. As they danced, their phones cued in and headphones on, unlike when people didn’t mind each other’s music, the trees and the dogs watched the mute bobbing heads and flying limbs.
Raja’s toli was embarrassed by his closeness to the dancers, but, out of respect for Bilal, they kept it to themselves, even if Bilal didn’t. Bilal and Raja’s families had been neighbours for generations. Mumbai was their home that their grandfathers had bought from the ‘Dam’ money. A few dozen families were displaced, and Raja and Bilal’s were amongst the ones who took this as an opportunity to move to the city. Between the two, even though Raja was one with the gift, born to the artiste pickpocket, it was Bilal who had the skill. Bilal never teased Raja about his nose; he never saw it the way others did.
Virar Fast was contesting its infamy – the compartment was sparse. The newly cautious Meteorological Department had overestimated the havoc, as the last year’s mayhem was still fresh. Although it had not rained since midnight, those who could, took the “rainy day.” Shanty, half swooning from a pole, lost in his headphones, was imagining himself as the third lackey of the second villain. Following the same routine that he had for four years – his introduction along with his phone number, followed by the dance moves and then a mimicry of the ham actor whom he resembled – he was finally cast in a movie. This could be a start to his career in films, he thought. One moment he would think he’d have to give up pickpocketing once people began recognising him, then in a quick humble follow-up he thought there was time to that. Bilal would be upset, though. He would say it did not suit him. Bilal took Raja’s name too seriously, he thought and smiled to himself with a long yawn. Morning auditions always tested his passion, but today his mind was too racy for his body to fall asleep.
Making way to get off at his station, Raja bumped into a man in orange kurta and tilak whose wallet dropped on the floor. A man next to them glared at Raja and another accused him of stealing from His Piousness. Shanty smirked at the claim, as it was impossible to bungle such an opportunity. The wallet had been jutting out of the pocket for a while. On any other day, this would have made his day, but his days were set to change. Every time his maternal uncle had paused and looked beyond their faces and thrown “honest work is hard” at their family, even as a half-hearted pickpocket he didn’t think his was an easy job. But he found the pause most curious. Today, watching that wallet, he understood the meaning of that look – they were memories of longing.
He was about to explain his accusers their ridiculousness when the first slap landed on his ear. In shock, Shanty stared at his earphones on the floor – one of the noise-cancelling caps missing. He sprung up, indignant, and gave one back to the guy. Considering his small frame, the audacity was jarring. A couple of others joined in – with their umbrellas, purses, backpacks, polythene bags. Shanty had become Raja, and the crowd became a mob.
As the train came to a halt, he was pushed on the platform by a dedicated lot of which Ganesh was a part. The indifferent passengers squeezed in and out without a bother. Fifteen seconds later as the train started, most of the men who took precious time off their urgency to teach the parasite a lesson, jumped back into the train and left. Ganesh scooted as the crowd thinned. As though to make up for the loss in number, a few others awaiting the next train came together to give a hand – and a leg. Women on one side watched in horror, men who did not partake ignored, and curious children were dragged by parents. When they dispersed the leftover was strewn with pieces of wrist watches, caps of a cola bottles, two left-foot black sandals, couple of broken pens, back of a mobile phone, handle of an umbrella. A pickpocket was lynched on his day off; because the orange was saffron, and the men were hardworking.
Ganesh stood on another platform to catch the train he had abandoned. His face quivered and flushed. He wondered if anyone else had noticed the black bud stuck in the guy’s ear.
His wallet revealed very little and his phone too much. For ID, they found an expired Cine Artistes’ Association card which bore his address, and a phone filled with homosexual porn, for character. The constable who recognised him was embarrassed for Hawaldar Pede’s soul. Whispers spread everywhere. Bilal promptly agreed to marry his first cousin whom his family had chosen years ago.
Police delivered the body wrapped like a toffee. Raja’s mother sat with her daughter and grandson, and without the son-in-law. People were gathered as spectators, not mourners. Curiosity had replaced their sadness.
“FIR was lodged against ‘unknown persons’” – a new pair of hands was holding the newspaper.
“CCTV cameras did not work because the lenses were covered in pigeon shit,” says one of the twins.
“This can only happen in India,” chuckles the other twin.
They all nod and laugh. No one asks anyone how many other countries had they lived in.
Ganesh takes a sigh of relief.
The train halts at the last station, Dahisar. Men and women with plastic bags, like Ganesh, are first to rush out, followed by the backpacks, and lastly the ones with earphones and newspapers. The twins stay on to say goodbye to the fellow passengers they had befriended. Having enjoyed their time, they make plans to match their timing so they could travel together, perhaps to enjoy another twelfth-page story. They leave the newspaper behind, face up. Ganesh still seated looks at the newspaper – a man killed by ordinary folks like him was now buried eleven pages under famous people. Rain pattered heavily; monsoon had come in late but overstayed. Two rats hop into the compartment taking a shortcut to switch platforms.
Sitting under the Exit awning at the station, Ganesh was tracking a trickle of leftover rain make its way under the sheet right above him, and the droplets land on his shoe. He quickly takes out a handkerchief but does not wipe; instead, he throws the cloth into a puddle in front of him. A dog hanging out by the garbage bin grabs it as though it recognised it. It wrestles with the cloth briefly and then drops it back into the muck. Ganesh stands up gingerly, holding on to the railing. Feeling confident of his legs, he slides out the newspaper from under his arm and tosses it in the bin furtively, missing his aim. It lands next to a sandwich, a condom, a laptop charger and a mound of mutilated marigold. The crumbling bin had more out than in. He takes out his wallet and puts it aside, and then reaches for the shaft on top and yanks out the debris. A gush of water comes pouring down on him. He stays still until the last drop. Gently, he removes his shoes on the last step, takes back his wallet and walks away. Drenched and barefoot, his mind wanders to the rubber bud in the ear: was it still there when they burned him? Is the smell of the rubber burning more acrid than burning flesh?
He steps out of a half-shuttered dairy shop with a litre pack of milk. They must have taken pity on him. Streets were water-logged and the breeze was unusually cold for September.
He makes a call. “Hel...” Before he can say anything, he has to listen. “Hey, it's okay, really!” He nods a couple of times. “I’ve got milk.” After a couple of seconds of pause, he asks as casually as possible, “By the way, what was their son’s name, the Mr Pede who lived next to us in Aurangabad?” He gulps. “No, no reason... Just saw the same name on a form today, was wondering if I remembered correctly, that’s all...” He clears his throat. “No, couldn't have been him! This guy... was... older.” His voice trails off. “I’ll be home in ten minutes. Battery is dying,” he lies.
It had been a long day-- of a longer night.
Issue 87 (Sep-Oct 2019)