Rupam Sindhu Kalita, St.Stephen’s College, Delhi
We were still looking for the woman when the streetlights came on. I turned and faced Bashir’s drooping eyes. “The old woman sleeps as early as nine o’ clock. And she doesn’t open her door after that even if you get a bulldozer,” he warned.
Bashir lived in the lane next to the one where we were standing now. The colony was a maze of narrow, intertwining lanes that overflowed with black waters from the gutter giving it the appearance of a permanent flood-affected district. There were barber shops at every turning and intersection. The ground floors of most of the tenements doubled up as shops. Housewives with drowsy eyes sat behind the counters most of the day, knitting and shooting an occasional glance at passersby, eyeing them suspiciously. In one of those tenements, Bashir confirmed, a woman who sold spices hired out girls for money.
We saw the sun set behind the maidan. Our day-long endeavour had left us exhausted. Now the din of evening shattered the calm in the streets. Pedestrians and hand-carts jostled for space at the edge of the road. On the pavement a mass of immobile young men gathered, cups of tea in their hands, talking excitedly among themselves. They were mostly students from the neighborhood who worked part time in the day to supplement the family income. Bashir knew some of them. But he said that we should be cautious before approaching anyone. We found shelter from the crowd in a push-cart that had been abandoned on the side of the road. Bashir lit a cigarette. He looked tense and eyed the crowd surreptitiously. He had not spoken for some time now. It was his daily habit to hang around in these crowded streets. He hardly ventured out of the colony. The familiarity of the colony was reassuring for him. There lived his family, all his friends and the girls whom he pestered every morning on their way to school. He had lived there all his life. The world outside was only an extension of his neighborhood. But the business we had that day estranged him from his friends and everybody else in the colony.
At noon Bashir and I had walked up to a shabbily-dressed boy in a shop selling hardware. Bashir took him aside and asked for directions. The urchin immediately pointed to the opposite side of the road and muttered something in Bashir’s ears. Bashir turned his animated eyes towards me, hesitated for a moment and then asked me to follow him. We crossed the empty road and entered a dark passage between two buildings. On reaching the spot we found a young woman with a baby in her arms. An old lady was dabbing the baby’s limbs with a piece of oilcloth. A scrawny dog was curled up under the string-bed. A clothesline dripped with cheap kurtas and discoloured vests. I felt chastened by this picture of happy domesticity.
We walked ahead and reached an alley broad enough to accommodate only two people at the same time. It opened up into a small ill-kept ground. Bashir gestured to a boy who was trying to balance a football on his head and asked him in a low voice for directions. The boy hooted, “They are found everywhere in the colony.” I noticed the irritation growing in Bashir’s face. The boy however named a tailor and directed us to his shop.
Bashir led the way. A high wall ran parallel to our left. It ran straight for a few hundred yards and then took a sharp left turn. We paused. Bashir asked me to wait outside and entered a house. He emerged with a young man roughly of his age who gave me a distrustful look and said, “Sajid the tailor runs a dishonest trade every evening.” We started walking faster. We left the high wall behind and reached a small chowk. A shop selling meat dominated the locality. The tailor we were looking for appeared to have closed his shop for the lunch hour. Three slightly built men with rough features sat on the steps. One was dressed in imitation military fatigues. He had a sullen face and gave us a fierce look when we stopped. Another got up and sauntered towards a circle of men playing cards. He had a pierced forehead and his cheap waist belt was studded with fake silver jewels. A few steps away, a man with a mutilated leg was begging for alms. There was a mid-day hush over the place. Everything was still. There were no signs of Sajid and his trade.
We were tired from our futile wanderings. A hot sun added to our discomfort. We decided to walk back to the bazaar. Bashir got some curry from his house which we ate with tea in the abandoned bus-shed off the main road. Then he took me to some of his friends’ hangout digs. I chatted with them and shared their cigarettes over cups of tea. I felt encumbered by my inability to speak the local dialect. But Bashir and his friends were kind. They enquired about my place only once or twice. When the name of my neighborhood sounded alien, none of them cared to ask which part of the city it was situated in. They were a closely-knit community who rarely interacted with the world outside. Among them were the scholars, drunkards and mystics of the locality. One of them, Bashir proudly told me, had topped the high school board exams from his school last year. Another fellow was the treasurer of the local Ulema. They were full of spirit. They spoke of the adventures they had every day in the colony. Some bragged about their capacity to drink whisky without falling flat. Then they talked at length about the neighborhood. Its inaccessibility during the rainy season. Its labyrinth of lanes and by-lanes. Busty old hags. Men who came home drunk every night and abused their wives. Horny young men who quarreled with their parents and sisters and frequented ill-famed houses.
Then one of them spoke about the illegal trade in the area. His eyes shrank when he said he knew girls who took money from customers. He mumbled something about households which sold ganja. Then he put an arm across Bashir’s shoulders in a knowing way and boasted about the close bond which affected everyone in the colony. It was dark when we came out of a basement room in one of the buildings. Bashir’s friends had left except one who accompanied us outside. He spoke with ease about girls who could be hired for a few hundred rupees.
We decided to walk among the dark alleys again. Bashir was less spirited now. I could discern in his eyes a feeling of being let down. He was being forced to the point of urgency. I understood his predicament. He felt let down by his friends. The familiarity of the colony had vanished like an apparition. He tried to conceal his feelings from me. He handed me a cup of tea and tried to sound convincing. But inside he seethed with silent anger at his friends. At the familiarity that surrounded him.
We resumed our search.
I saw a teenaged girl descending the stairs of a two-storey building whose ground floor was occupied by a grocer. The girl had a pretty face. Her tousled hair was tied behind tightly with a red ribbon. Her skin was scraggly and a layer of fine hair covered her arms. I noticed long white lines on her hands where she had scratched with her nails. I surmised her age to be around eighteen. She climbed down and turned towards the opposite direction from where I was standing. I perceived from her gait that she was aware of my gaze. She carried in her hands a jute bag folded untidily. Then she was lost among the tea-drinking mass.
I could hear one of them whispering, “There she goes. The ill-famed woman.”
The next moment I felt someone’s hand on my back. It was Bashir’s.
I knew that he too had been staring at the girl.
“I am afraid we are getting late,” I said.
Beads of sweat were visible on Bashir’s upper lip. I had seldom seen him so unhappy. He was a reliable friend and I knew his moods. His influence among his friends was well-known. And I was sure about his connections in the colony. It was clear throughout the day, since morning when I called at his house. He had not allowed me to pay for the endless cups of tea we had drunk. I noticed that he had an account with many of the tea-stalls. He kept a record of his daily expense and paid the money in bulk. I knew from experience that this was something that the shopkeepers allowed only the influential people in the locality to do. And sometimes these influential people came to the stalls after two or three months, gave a pat on the back of the shop-keeper and paid them less than their due amount. The shop-keeper did not object. None did. They were happy to obtain and sustain the patronage of important people in the locality. Even now I did not doubt Bashir’s standing in the colony. His presence made me comfortable in a neighborhood notorious for its night brawls, drunken fights and whores.
I had had enough of the day and was keen to return home. Bashir had gone silent. He was restlessly anticipating something. And he wanted me to be a part of his muffled enthusiasm. As if it was his responsibility to show me the whore house. He looked round, walked back and forth and exchanged greetings. The bulbs dangling from the porch of shops illuminated faces with an insipid yellow. People moved lazily. There was a rhythm in the manner in which their faces emerged in the light and disappeared the next moment. The owner of a small confectionery shop put down his shutters, clicked the locks, looked around and started his motorcycle parked outside. His eyes met mine as he rode away. I had an uneasy feeling that he already knew I was a stranger and unused to the place.
Then a metallic noise spread through the thinning crowd. Shutters were being downed. A series of short serrated sounds, a long rumbling and the clicking of iron clippers at the base. Silence. A bulb going on at the ceiling of the porch. The light illuminating the soiled ceiling. Then the shopkeeper’s final glance at the locks before he turned towards the road.
The tea-drinkers were tapering away. A few of them reluctantly walked back to the tea-stall for another cup. The departing tea-drinkers and the shopkeepers left behind a colony stripped down to the basics. The slant of the electric poles was more visible now and so were the potholes on the pavement. Rickshaw-pullers arrived, exhausted and looking for a cheap dinner. They parked their rickshaws in a row next to the pavement and traded remarks with each other, cracked jokes and laughed.
Bashir returned to where I was standing. He knew that I wanted to return home.
At that moment a cab stopped near a street light and dropped a young woman dressed in a shirt and formal trousers. She stepped down and headed inside the colony without straying her eyes. Two boys standing nearby passed lewd comments.
Bashir had gone silent. He was trying to call someone from his cell phone. The line did not connect and he cursed. Then he turned to me and said, “This son of a bitch is not yet back. Dunno where the hell he has gone. He could have made things easier for us.” I knew that Bashir wouldn’t hold me back any longer. He was burdened by the feeling that our search had not yielded anything. And he was further anguished that his friends had all been wrong. Yet in a corner of his mind he believed them. He believed that we had not looked at the right places. He trusted the contiguous familiarity around him. However as I stood near him, unable to decide whether to immediately move or loiter around for some time, I was oppressed by another thought.