Smoke and Mirrors

by Sayantan Ghosh

 ‘Is this how it’s supposed to end?’ Apu made a fist around the bottom of the clay chillum, touched it gently with his lips like he was caressing the body of a mermaid, tilted it slightly upwards and hit the shit inside as he said this.

Menka was sitting with her arms crossed around her knees, like she always did; dressed in usual rags, bathed in dust and covered in the filth of her city from hair to toe. This was Calcutta well past her serving hours, where the bottoms of the bridges that dissected this bleeding city into parts, separated its limbs from its mast became the home for many; for Menka.

She gazed at him for a while and laid out her hand asking for the chillum. Then she dragged the hot smoke for long such that it went directly inside her lungs. And said – ‘I don’t believe in ends. Nothing ends, everything reincarnates’.

On the pavement just next to where the two of them were sitting, a young boy of about ten sat and smoked a biri. His name was Rabri. He would sleep almost all morning, and all night he would sit on that pavement and stare at the sweet shop on the opposite corner. On one of his Diwalis, Menka had bought him some of that sweet from the shop. He loved it so much that he renamed himself.

‘Do you like what you are smoking today? It’s from the other side of the border and I have received a lot of complaints from my clients. But I don’t mind it. It’s easier to digest.’ Menka was a small-time peddler of marijuana.

He didn’t say anything.

Then she asked him if he had done something wrong. He asked her why she thought so. Then Menka said that he never came on Fridays, unlike that day.

Apu was an addict. His story was no different from the thousands of other people in the city. He did not particularly have a reason to turn into a junkie. He had a supportive family, a job that paid sufficient, love that he found in abundance. He worked in an advertisement company and hated his job. But he needed it to meet the expenses that his addictions brought along with them.

‘You know Menka, I used to go to this old lady who sits on the footpath by a hospital in Lansdowne before. The only time in the past seven years that I have thought of quitting hashish was one day when I went to her and I had no money. And she smiled and didn’t ask for any either, but gave me the stash.’

Rabri finished his biri and walked up to Menka. Then he took the chillum from her hand and smelled the green grass inside. He took deep breaths with his eyes closed and his face looked as serene as the waves of the seven seas, as he gulped down that irresistible perfume and made it his own.

‘Isn’t he a bit young for this?’ said Apu.

Menka told him that he was not allowed to smoke pot until he was fifteen. So he would only borrow the stuff from whoever was doing it and take a small sniff.

It’s strange, Apu thought, that even a child who was growing up in the dumps – forgotten and abused, had so much character in him to wait for his time. For those who have the courage to wait for their time, are the only ones who don’t step behind when it finally comes.

‘Is that your husband sleeping on the rickshaw there, Menka?’

‘No,’ said Menka ‘…he’s the one in the corner, the one who’s passed out with an excess of local alcohol on the stairs.’

There were numerous people laid all around that street, like so many other parts of the city. They all slept in a pattern, as if carefully placed by someone, like pieces of some puzzle. They slept in utmost peace knowing completely well that their pieces would never fit, that there will always be one missing piece that won’t let them come together.

‘How do you understand the English words I speak Menka?’ asked Apu.

So she gently smiled and told him,

‘You know Apu, I had thought that you will ask me this question the day you came here, stopped your car and asked me to get inside. You remember that day?’

Apu’s head was low; tired and broken in the lilting quietness of the night and the screaming deafness in his heart.

‘I was not even a little curious to get a feel of the cushions of your fancy car. I was never looking forward to the way the conditioned air would feel on my skin… time has conditioned me to this heat and dust well enough. But I expected you to ask me a few questions, like I used to always ask about you. And you happily used to answer.

And in my eagerness I couldn’t see the rage that was burning in your eyes. I don’t know what had happened with you that day, whether you had picked a fight or suffered an irreparable loss.  But it never occurred to me that you were here to make me pay for it.

You drove your car to one of the quietest corners of this decaying city and parked it. Then you tormented every inch of my body as I kept begging for mercy. You know Apu… I have never begged for anything in my life other than that night; and not so much to save my body, but more because I was scared to lose you. When you poured that cheap rum on my chest after you thrashed my face with the same bottle, I thought for an instance that you are going to put me on fire. And I have never been afraid of dying, and you know that. In fact, I have always been in search of death… because I always pictured death as peaceful. But you were the only friend I had made in my whole life Apu, and I didn’t want our friendship to end that way.

And then you stopped.’

Apu then asked her why she still agreed to meet him after that night.

“Because you didn’t abandon me, you drove me back and left me here.”

Apu got up and lit a cigarette. The filter, the tobacco, and his insides they all burnt at once. He turned around and saw that Rabri was standing on the middle of the main street and urinating with all his might and humming a song.

Apu laughed at the sight and looked towards Menka.

She smiled and said, ‘Everyone who walks past this street pisses on our homes. So when all of them go back to their houses and go to sleep, we piss on their streets. Nature never discriminates, it always shows a way to even out.’

‘So you asked me how I understand your language that’s meant only for you elitists?’

Apu nodded and took another drag, as he unzipped to take out his dick from his pants to join Rabri in the fun.

‘I have faint memories but I still remember that I was a good student till Class III. I went to a Government school somewhere near Dhanbad where they taught us English and I would listen to the teachers with great attention. I remember I was very eager to move to the fourth standard, as they were supposed to teach us how to write letters. But just before our results, my mother sold me off to someone who took me to different cities in trains to try and sell me.’

Then she was still and silent for a few moments, a few drops of tears rolled down her beautiful brown eyes as she thought of her short-lived but happy past.

‘I must have been eight or nine years old then, defenseless and fragile. But unfortunately for him, he couldn’t find a customer for me. Perhaps the dark color of my skin worked against it. So he finally decided to abandon me in some station near the south of Bengal from where someone put me on a train to Calcutta.’ 

Apu sounded strangely pleased with her story. Once he finished pissing right at the entrance of that sweet shop, he came back and sat down again. Then he said, ‘I like the two words you used there; defenseless and fragile. I think I am in a similar state today as you were many years ago.’

‘How so’, asked M.

‘Today I went to my superiors who I work for and told them that I wanted to quit, that my brain has stopped functioning and all that I am selling to them in the name of creativity for the past few months have been dry, dead skin cells and nothing else. But all they did was that they showed me some contract, a piece of paper where there was my signature and a declaration that I cannot leave this job in the next three years. Then they smiled together like beats in an unmelodious symphony and offered me more money.’

‘So…?’, asked M again.

‘So I didn’t say anything then, but stayed back at my desk long after everyone had left. Then I took off the only picture I had hung up on the grey-board in front of my table, that of mother and put my desk on fire. I sat and watched the desk burn for a while. Then I quietly walked out of the building. The guards were alerted by then as the fire alarms had gone off.

Do you think I still need to send them a letter of resignation?’

When Apu looked up after finishing his sentence, he saw that Menka was sitting exactly where she was but her eyes were frantically searching for Rabri who was suddenly nowhere to be seen.

Then he said, ‘He’s your son isn’t he… this Rabri?’

 So Menka looked at him and asked that why he thought so.

So he said, ‘I always wanted to ask as I always had a doubt, but never somehow did. But why do you keep calling him an orphan in front of him then? Doesn’t he deserve to at least know?’

Menka breathed a sigh of relief when the little boy emerged from behind the gigantic bars of the bridge that guarded these thousands of Rabris from the daily storms this city and its people brewed upon them.

Then she wiped her face with the cleanest end of her saree and said, ‘It’s best that way you know. That way he’ll always learn to be grateful for the minimal things that I will ever provide for him. I don’t want him to grow up to become a goonda. If he at least grows up with some sense of gratitude and responsibility within him, then chances are he will not drift away from me as quickly. Otherwise, he will always be burdened with the information that his mother, despite her condition decided to bring him into this world amidst all the garbage there is and couldn’t provide even the bare necessities for him.’

Then they both were quiet for a while. Only the sound of the little boy whistling from a distance reached their ears.

Hum hain rahi pyaar ke, humse kuch na boliye/ Jo bhi pyaar se mila hum usi ke ho liye.

“He picked up songs very quickly from the radio.”

Then Apu told her that he had come to apologize to her for that night. That he was going away and perhaps this was the last time he had come to see her. Then he held her hands and asked her if she will ever miss her once he’s gone.

She said, ‘Do you believe in reincarnation Apu?’

Apu didn’t.

Then M said she did.

And added saying, ‘You don’t really want to know if I will miss you or not. You are too selfish for that Apu. The low ceilings and high iron bars in your houses have constricted you without your knowledge. All you are worried about is whether you will miss me someday and feel sad about it or not. You are worried about your own pain Apu, and honestly so am I.’

Then she slowly smiled and put her hands on his head and said, ‘Don’t worry. You won’t, because you are not ready to sacrifice on your addictions yet. And the addiction of drugs is such that it will take you to several such streets and unspoken, unheard of corners of cities… where you will meet me again; or someone who looks alike maybe. And that is how I will reincarnate and come back in your life.’

Rabri had fallen asleep on-his-own.

It was early dawn already and the merciless city was warming up to come back to life yet again.

The smoke from the chillum had died down by then. Its hard clay body lay cold on the concrete like the corpse of an ageing revolutionary.

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