- Mrinal Rajaram
(Listen to the audio version of this story, read by Kalyani Rajaram, here.)
The shed resembled a cell more than anything else. Ten feet by ten feet. It had a thatched roof that allowed stray beams of sunlight or droplets of rain in, depending on the season. It was unfit to be called anyone’s home. But it was their home. And that was the truth of it. Home. What did that word mean exactly?
The first rays of the morning sun reminded him, rather abruptly, that the rent was due. Those minions would come knocking at his door in a few hours. Morarji had fallen heavily short this month. He had about half the money, at best. The talk of work always left a sore spot in the pit of his stomach. Holding onto a job had never really been his forte. Security guard, waiter, daily wage labourer, odd-jobs man, gas cylinder delivery man… Morarji had done them all. But it was the same case always. He was replaced by someone else, someone better. Told to leave, forthwith.
This period had been trouble, though. Much less than the usual amount of work out there. His wife had tried her hand at several jobs too. But she was too sickly to stick to anything in particular. Her constant fevers and wheezing were a concern. And today, as if luck had willed it to be so, she was curled up in a corner, shivering. Another fever, perhaps?
Morarji drank on occasion. Whenever he had the wherewithal to, that is. But he never enjoyed it enough to go beyond the point of no return. He loved his wife, in a vague sort of way, but never had it in him to express those feelings properly.
The two of them, husband and wife, waited for an hour (if not more) every morning, to perform their daily ablutions. The endless lines in front of the badly constructed public toilets always greeted them, no matter how early they rose each day. At least their slum had such facilities. There were places where the sanction of public toilets had not even been discussed. As he stood hunched, chewing a fingertip, waiting his turn, he couldn’t help but think that there was someone somewhere who had the luxury of having many sprawling bathrooms all to themselves. His wife pulled out some muck from his hair distractedly; she looked pale as she rested against him for support. The thoughts stopped. The sea of humanity trudged forward languidly, much like the sun’s ascent in the sky. Ragged children ran amidst the chaos, playing. Not a care in the world. An exceedingly unpleasant odour emanated from the direction of the toilets. It hardly made a difference to those around. The senses could get attuned to anything in time, so long as the exposure took place on a regular basis, and in high doses.
There they were. Living out their stale lives from moment to moment, on the fringes of a sub human world, not knowing what the next day had in store.
The slum was under the purview of a local hoodlum from the mafia. Vikas bhai. It was to this man that the residents surrendered a portion of their earnings. His underlings scoured the area at the beginning of each month to collect the dues. Vikas would visit the slum every three or four months, without fail, stopping by a house or two, doing his pranams. He made himself out to be a benefactor of the people - chosen by a higher power to serve them, and them alone. The man may have even passed for a politician. He looked the part he played. Strutting about the place – sunglasses, wavy hair, un-tucked shirt, jeans – as if he owned it. Morarji had caught a glimpse of him on a couple of occasions. But they had never spoken.
Mid-morning arrived. And as he had predicted, there was a thunderous knock on the frail tin door. Much like clockwork. Three men stood in the clearing, arms by their sides. Morarji recognised the burly, moustachioed man in the centre. The other two, he guessed, were new recruits.
“Where’s the rent for the month?” asked the youngest, and leanest man in the group.
How was he supposed to tell them he was short? Morarji emerged from the shelter with a thin wad of notes. The young thug counted them slowly, assuming the air of a bank teller – feeling the texture of each note, examining some against the background of light.
“What’s the meaning of this? There’s only half of it here!” he said aggressively.
“I’m sorry, but that’s all I have. You can come check if you fail to believe me,” Morarji said, trying to sound helpless.
The men shook their heads contemptuously. He had to convince them. So he tried again.
“You chaps have known me for so long. I’ve never defaulted on the rent before. I’m good for the money… You know that. I’ll pay you the other half in two weeks… Somehow.”
Those sort of pleas always sounded bad. They lacked ingenuity. The heavyset henchman in the middle, who went by the name of Jagdish, stepped forward. He placed a hand on Morarji’s miniscule frame, as if to empathise.
“There are no friends as far as money matters go, brother. You know Vikas bhai. He’s very particular on such things. I’ll strike a deal with you… Just for old time’s sake. Give us your remaining share by the end of today, or we’ll be forced to throw you out. I’d have to lie to the boss, saying I broke your arms, or something like that, if you don’t pay up. See, I’m being reasonable with you.”
A flicker of sheer boredom washed over Jagdish’s swarthy face as he finished delivering the threat. It seemed as though he was fed up with working for someone else… He needed to be his own man.
Vikas’s men departed, promising to return before the sun went down.
“What are we to do, Morarji?” his feeble wife cried.
“Stop whining, woman! Let me think,” he said, raising his voice.
In her condition, burning up with fever, she could last out only two days without a visit to the doctor. The goons had taken every last stitch off him. No time to lament. He needed to act fast. There was no way he could come up with the rest of the money by the end of the day. Thoughts of flight flooded his brain. There were no guarantees that the men would not just throw them out. Bodily harm was not to be discounted. Being evicted by force was one thing. Being maimed in the bargain, quite another. And who was to say that they would spare his wife?
Inquisitive neighbours shuffled past Morarji with the usual comments.
“Heard you almost got worked over good,” someone said.
There were more murmurs as the crowd outside the entrance to his hut built up.
“Why don’t all of you just get lost? It’s not as if any of you will lend me money,” he said, a tad dramatically.
There was a general silence.
“I thought as much! Now leave! Mind your own business. Can’t you see my wife is sick?”
The anger fell on deaf ears. Most of them ambled away because they had had their fill of tamasha for the day. The incident would make an interesting subject for the evening’s gossip.
The tiny trunk that housed all their modest possessions in the world was hauled out of the corner, in a hurry, and filled with what little was worth carrying. Utensils, clothes… The usual odds and ends. It wasn’t much. But what of it!
They were all packed by half past noon. Neither of them had eaten. His wife looked more pallid than ever. Morarji was at his wit’s end. The ramshackle dwelling was left, abandoned, much like the first time they had entered it, four-and-a-half years ago. Bystanders shook their heads and clicked their tongues, others gawked, as the two of them made their departure. The couple wandered about the slum, and its surrounding areas, aimlessly, for the next two hours. He carried the heavy trunk across his shoulder so as to keep from getting tired easily. Wherever they halted, Morarji knocked on the doors of acquaintances, asking if they could arrange for any kind of work. But there was none at all.
Towards the early evening, it became apparent that his wife would faint, if they walked any longer. He felt her burning forehead, as they sat by the shade of a solitary tree. A drunken man staggered past, collapsing in front of them, moments after. A roadside stall stood a few paces from where they sat. Morarji knew the owner vaguely. He toyed with the idea of requesting the man for some food and tea. He would understand, wouldn’t he, if I explained my circumstances, wondered Morarji. Yes. His mind was made up. The man would surely understand. He stood up. But a small hand caught him before he could rise completely. It was his wife.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Here. Use this,” she said, as if she’d read his thoughts, and handed him a twenty rupee note. She took it out from the folds of her clothes.
“You had this all along?” he asked, incredulous.
“I hung on to it, for an emergency.” Small mercies.
He rushed to the stall, and bought a bun, a samosa and two cups of tea.
“Haven’t seen you in a while, Morarji?” said the owner, whose name had skipped Moraji’s mind.
“Well. Here I am,” he said, forcing a smile.
“What brings you to these parts, brother?”
Morarji had no answer for him. The hunted look on his face said a thing or two. But he shrugged, anyway. After listening to some small talk about business being stagnant, he bustled away. He was famished, but Morarji insisted that his wife have most of it. She needed it. She was unwell. He had just the one cup of tea. Two rupees remained.
Noxious fumes rose from the adjoining main road, entering their lungs. His wife coughed violently into the pallu of her saree.
Evening had descended on the city. The thugs must have been combing the slum in search of them, already. They would not be safe here for much longer. A public phone booth with the distinct black and yellow markings of STD/ISD/PCO could be seen from where they stood. A thought struck him. It was that of his brother. He stationed his wife next to the trunk, and headed to the booth.
Must he call that useless brother of his? Little had materialised of the latter’s tall talk of getting him a decent job. But he had to explore the option. He sighed at the sight of his sick, shivering wife, a short distance away. No choices left. Entering the telephone booth with great effort, he made the call.
How can life be unfair to those that it has already been unfair to? If he had the liberty to ruminate, those would have been his thoughts.
Mrinal is a freelance journalist and writer based in Chennai. His journalistic work has appeared in The Times of India, The Economic Times, Ritz Magazine and Score. He has been writing fiction since 2010.