Finally the old man moves out of the way so the Mercedes can pass.
He is rich in his taste of cars. Having educated himself in the more expensive cars, he spots well, waves his banner of Kaali at the windscreens, lays it beyond their hoods, and hopes they are Hindus. But it works even on the others; fearing communal riot at a red light they all comply. In India everybody knows everybody’s god. He was inspired by the curious appearance of Hindu gods on the street walls to deter men from urinating on them. If they don’t piss on gods, they won’t run over them, he understood. And the same week he found the banner- hanging desolately in a post-festive fete ground strewn with plastic cups and paper plates. They had forgotten the god behind and he claimed her.
Victorious, he bundles up the Kaali under his left (and only) arm and walks with a swagger, fanning himself with a crisp fifty rupee note. A constable who had been watching from a distance- too haggard to bother with an everyday nuisance- catches him after the car goes out of sight.
“One day you will get run over by some naastic”. Why don’t you just beg like the others?” the policeman taps his shoulder with his baton.
“Rich people hate to be inconvenienced, sir. They won’t kill me.”
“What’s your name?”
“You are a Muslim!”
“They don’t know that!” he winks. “You should see some of the Muslims. They go pale with fright, and are far quicker and more generous than the Hindus,” he chuckles.
The policeman pats his back, chuckles along, and then with a poke of his baton in his arse, shoes him away. Kamaal escapes the prod, belying his age. But he isn’t really old; the un-burnt skin peeping from under his vest gives him away.
Done with business for the day, he leaves the high-pitched road for the shady alleys that run alongside the train tracks. Relishing a delicious thought, he slips his money somewhere in his crotch.
Alternating between like he owns the city and as though he is a tourist, he walks purposeless and purposeful. Sun is merciful today. Clouds go in and out like they’ve lost their way. The dry air travels down his lungs, soothing his throat in cool irony. He spots bottled water in a mound of garbage that’s waiting to be picked up. He gulps it down. It tastes like metal. He tosses it back where it had been and walks on, some of the lost swagger back on.
The landscape has changed. The canopy of the high rises and its shadow are of same size. Time for the first meal of the day, and he veers towards a chai stall.
He hoists the note at the tea seller, “One cutting!” The chaiwala smirks, “How did you manage this?” “What manage motherfucker?” He takes out a creased and tattered plastic wrapped photo ID from his crotch and shoves it in his face. It is a driver’s license from a time when he looked much younger and had two arms. “You think of me a beggar or what?” “Yeah yeah… then why just chai, have some paav bhaji also?” “Eat and then shit it out? Not with this!” The tea seller takes the fifty rupee note from him and tells him to step away and wait. The stall is busiest at noon.
He sits on the pavement, at a distance, watching priority customers in slim pants being served during their cigarette break. One of the guys has shabby hair like his. Kamaal gives his twin a full gummy smile. The guy looks away incredulously. Kamaal digs out a beedi from a pocket in his grimy kurta. The beedi promptly slips out into the mini sewage running under him. Tea leaves, milk, sugar, it’s practically chai! Yum, he thinks and picks it up laughing. No sign of his tea yet, he runs his tongue over his lips and tastes the city. A pedestrian’s leg nudges his back. Their clean body gets uncomfortable and he says sorry, simply out of habit. He tucks the beedi in the wedge of his ear and waits.
Finally, a boy brings Kamaal his tea, some change, and a free vada paav wrapped in newspaper with some well-oiled green chillies thrown in. He waves at the chaiwala and pockets the vada paav as it is. He relishes the tea with eyes closed at the sun that has been threatening to set for hours. For a hungry man, he isn’t hungry enough.
He stands on the divider surveying the horizon- cars zipping past, competing with one another. As the light turns red, he steps into the standing sea of cars facing homewards. A garbage truck grabs his attention. He spots something hanging out of its hinged crevices- a slipper! He runs towards it. Cars stuck around the truck roll up their windows in disgust. It smells like a thousand dead rats, foul enough to kill a thousand more. He pulls out the slipper and tries it on. It fits, and is barely broken in. What a day! The signal turns green. He quickly sticks his old slipper in the truck, replacing what he had taken, and beats on the truck twice. The driver acknowledges Kamaal’s good luck, laughing in the rear view. Thrilled, Kamaal looks at his feet: sunny yellow and rugged brown. He pulls out the beedi from his ear and holds hit under his nose. It’s baked and smells of satisfaction. He hops, skips, and jumps on the divider as the traffic inches. Maybe on his next lucky day he can find a replacement for the other foot.
Sitting on the esplanade, he counts his money under a street lamp. Several coins and some notes- a total of 46 rupees. A dog perhaps bored of munching on fried peanuts closes in. It grunts and then sneezes. One of Kamaal’s notes almost flies off into the sea, but he is quick. Furious, he kicks the dog in its belly. The dog yelps and the polite people scowl at him. Some even gasp, but no one dares confront him. His dirty clothes, grey hair and unshaven beard give him an aura of a madman not to be messed with. He walks off, giving another kick to the dog, putting away his money back in the safety of his crotch.
The mother is shooting looks at Kamaal as he marvels at the cheaply made toy gun of shiny plastic and her son trapezes from her hand. It’s a crowded, crammed lane divided between vendors and pedestrians and an occasional pushy two wheeler. From fresh fish to fresh flowers, the market is full of things to buy. Judging by the pace of the commuters, one would think shopping would be the last thing on their minds, but the vendors were flourishing, enough to afford freebies for the men in khaki. The toy-seller is irritated by Kamaal’s presence affecting his clientele: “Boss, it costs money. Don’t waste time,” and lunges to take the gun back from him, but Kamaal pulls away and his elbow digs into something behind him. In the next moment the entire lane is drenched in water and shards of glass from what used to be a fish bowl, which a man, who now sat atop Kamaal, was moving for his client. In one corner, dying fish dance on dead fish; in another, pieces of glass shine through bouquets of flowers they’ve slashed; and all over, dust stains appear on garments on display. Settlers of the lane by now knew that bashing him up was the only compensation to be had, so they began. Pedestrians had already diverted themselves.
Moments later, a policeman shows up, sniffing the ruckus. He pulls the men and women- all limbs engaged in thrashing Kamaal- away. He points out the blood to the irate crowd, hoping satisfied by the sight of blood, they’d stop. All the mud and gunk Kamaal had rolled in deepened his brown by a few shades. Now shielded by the policeman, he spits forcefully in anger. Livid, the crowd groans. The policeman slaps him to rein him in. Kamaal spots his banner under someone’s feet. The Kaali was visible. People begin touching it in reverence, mouthing apologetic mantras, and a few of them even whack Kamaal for being so careless. At this point policeman realizes Kamaal didn’t have a hand, and he promptly uses it to shame the crowd. Kamaal’s expressions change as though his missing limb was a revelation to him too. They all tone down and go back to salvage their spoilt merchandise, except the labourer, who was on the phone pleading with his client. To placate the labourer, the policeman promises he’d put Kamaal in a lockup for two days. Kamaal grabs policeman’s legs. The policeman reasons with the labourer- what could possibly a man like Kamaal compensate him with? At this Kamaal swiftly clutches his crotch. The labourer is quick to notice. The policeman manages to unclamp Kamaal’s hands, but is amazed by his strength. He grabs the 46 rupees and gives it to the labourer. It isn’t enough to cover for a fish eye, but enough for a pound of flesh. Kamaal watches the mother and the son carrying the toy gun pass them by. His fight gives in. Policeman pulls him by the kurta and drags him out of there. Two rights and a left later they were out on the main road. Having better things to do with his time than locking up invalids, the policeman gives him a tight slap, warns him to lie low for a week, and then walks off. Kamaal stands still, looking through his muggy eyes at the dusk of lights and sounds.
Suddenly his sides twitch. He holds his stomach and with a certain familiarity plops himself on the ground. From his pocket, he takes out a soggy mash of bread and potatoes and newspaper ink. He throws the green chilly at the pigeons nearby. And as one of them shudders, he almost chokes on his laughter. He moves his head tortoise-like, as the food travels in his body, and watches the blood on his elbow thicken.
A row of tarpaulin homes dwell on a pavement in a ubiquitous, god-forsaken part of the city- he watches men, women and children going about their open air lives. Kamaal is home; he doesn’t own one. He reorients himself and puts his one-arm swag back on. A boy of about seven runs to him and hangs by his neck, “Kamaal Chacha!” Kamaal looks at him apologetically and runs the back of his palm over his face, but the boy pulls himself from him and with a leftover enthusiasm joins his friends into devouring a flat tyre.
It’s quiet on the pavement, and on the street. Only dogs are up, scrounging through garbage. The air is cool and salty. While families are asleep in their plastic cocoons, Kamaal is lying awake, farther from the dwellings, but looking at them, alone. He turns away, on his side, his shoulder hurts. Finally the ache has set in. An involuntary tear travels to his nose and soaks into mud. He feels a presence behind him, but he doesn’t turn. He knows. He unrolls the banner from under his head and spreads it over them. The boy slips his hand in Kamaal’s pyjama and searches for him. Wrapped warmly in a child and a god, he thanks for the tender mercies. He shuts his eyes, and through his wounds, smiles at the tomorrow.
The story is published in aainanagar.com, a Bengali/English bilingual online literary magazine from Kolkata: https://aainanagar.com/2017/05/20/tomorrow/