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Third Prize for Short Story 2014

Between the Mountain and the Sea

Mohit M. Rao

The train fell into a rhythm, rocking back and forth, a melody of metal wheels rolling over concrete sleepers and iron-fish plates. Baiju held on to the bars, his fingers wrapped around the rusted iron tightly and the nails, out of fear, dug themselves into his palm; his feet shimmied closer to the entrance and he leant out. The wind smacked his face making his eyes tear, and his hair flowed out violently as if trying to disjoint from the scalp. It was dark and he could see nothing but for a few dim ephemeral lights of villages and the littlest wisp of orange on the horizon. Telephone poles whizzed by at intervals, rhythmically, adding another beat to the music of the train. The wheels chugged in a rapid beat, punctuated by shrill rumbles which seemed to emerge from the first coach and then flow along the length of the train, like a shiver down its spine. And then breaking out, the vocals of the song, the engine would scream. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth slightly. It filled up, his cheeks expanded, and he held on even though he felt his skin was about to rupture. The noise of the gushing air in his mouth drowned the train’s music, like static over a radio song.
In his mind’s eye he was flying over green fields, non-descript villages lit only by a handful of gas lanterns; over crystalline rivers that meandered through silent valleys; over the seemingly infinite parallel tracks of black steel on which the train rolled to its destination; he floated towards the diamonds in the sky.
In the compartment, the sounds of snores and coughs, of low murmurs and restless movements blended disharmoniously with the sounds of the train. The air was tolerable only near the doors where he stood. Most of his fellow travelers were asleep or staring vacuously into the off-white laminates of the wall.
The train screeched and slowed. The night was receding and dawn was only a few moments away. The orange wisp of light had expanded throughout the valley. Everything looked as if in transition between shadow and material. He stuck his head out again. In a distance, with the tracks running towards it, stood a grand mountain, its top covered by white clouds which floated down its back and spreading into the valley as a fine mist.
Beyond the mountain, he knew, the city existed. Beyond the mountain lay a separate life, away from Maa and Dadiji and paralytic Dadaji. Instead, in the city, lay another life, of fear and opportunity; a life laid out by Munra mama and in the company of a million strangers.
As sudden as the dawn, apprehension, anxiety and excitement, all in equal measure, overcame him. He went into the compartment, grabbed his little suitcase (a whole life in this little thing!) and weaved his way back to the door.
The train approached close to the mountain. Tall trees stood erect; moss, creepers, and various shrubs covered the interstices, through which brown, glazed rocks poked their heads through. Everything looked an immodest green, wet with dew.
When the train entered the tunnel, his fellow passengers had woken up. Furtive murmurs had transformed into shrill tones of restlessness; like children on a long journey they raised their clamour, complaining about the slowness of the train. The air was heavy, loud, claustrophobic. Darkness pervaded. From somewhere in the tunnel, water seeped from the roof onto metal tracks; noise of daily activity, of clearing of throats, washing clothes and children laughing, percolated into the train. He peered into the darkness, there was nothing to see. He dismissed his imaginings. Who would live in the dark all their lives! 
When the train finally emerged, Baiju felt relief and then almost immediately shock. The light was bright, the day hot, as if it were noon on this side of the mountain. The mountain was different too. Defaced of all beauty. The green was missing; no giant trees were seen. Instead there stood tin shanty houses, like boxes, one stacked on another, stacked next to each other, stacked from base to the top. The tin reflected the sun sharply, the side of the mountain appearing like a giant tilted mirror. Brown creepers grew on tin huts. Little pathways weaved in and out. White rock jutted in intervals, covered by a multitude of plastic packets. And on one such rock, large and flat, like a cliff hanging out of the side of the mountain, groups of men and children defecated. They chatted, joked, laughed, hooted while they defecated. Their discharges fell into a slow oozing dirty river, that carried out the plastic, dirt and refuse of the colony. The river seemed to have been borne out of this side of the mountain. Manmade. Fetid. 

 
 
 
 
 

The train rolled slowly over the bridge, its wheels making a hollow sound, Baiju could see the river in its entirety. It curved along the mountain, and then in a sharp turn, flowed into the city, running parallel to the train. Shacks lined the river, with similar naked butts defecating into it, swelling its banks. As the river leaves the edge of the mountain, standing knee deep in the sludge by an empty bank he saw a group of loud women washing clothes and some scrubbing utensils. White foam surrounded them. White foam floating on a black fetid river. White, yet unlike the white clouds floating on the green valley.
“First time in the city”, a voice called from behind.
Caught up by the sights outside, Baiju hadn’t noticed the man standing by him. He was middle aged, callow cheeks, a protruding sharp nose, and thin jet black hair which flowed, and stuck with oil, from one side to the other. He pointed at Baiju’s suitcase.
“The station is more than hour away”, he said with a decipherable smirk. Baiju was ashamed at his ignorance. He kept silent.
“From the country, aren’t you? Got a job in the city?”
Baiju nodded meekly. His lips moved, forming the word yes but no sound emerged.
“Take my advice”, he continued in a deep voice, as if mimicking an oracle he had seen on television, “be smart and work hard. I’ve been here all my life, and I’ve seen a thousand people like you enter it everyday, in trains, buses, truckloads of them. Only the strong survive, do well, and make enough to send back. The weak get eaten alive.”
Baiju stood stupefied. Fear spread its tentacles, choked his throat.  
 “Where are you going to work?”
“With my uncle Munra”, Baiju answered. He reached into one of the flaps of the suitcase and produced a small folded piece of paper. “I’ll be staying in the shop itself”.
The man with the thin long hair stuck to his scalp, as if painted on, read it.
“Not heard of the place. Or the area”, he handed the slip back to Baiju who shoved it in his shirt pocket. “You see, the city is so large, it would take generations to learn about it. Whole universities with eye-n-stien (he said the last syllable with a sharp foreign twang) scholars cannot learn about this city.” He laughed a voluminous laugh seemingly sent out to fill a voluminous city. 
“It used to be a big city, only along the coast, with little towns and villages and smaller cities bordering it. Then you people came. Millions like you, rushing from villages, in trains and buses. The city grew, like bacteria (he said in English), and ate up the other cities, towns and villages. Now it is all one city. From the mountain to the sea.”
Baiju listened, fascinated, his eyes twinkled at the new found knowledge. Like a student listening to his master on the machinations which ran the universe, he peered at the man’s lips, determined not to let a word passed unnoticed. 
“Mind you, I’m not one of those complaining that you people are taking our jobs. No, No, no. In fact, I’m very happy. I welcome you, and your brother and sisters, uncles, grandparents, mistresses, your bastards, anyone. It is because of people like you that the city is growing. Biggest and greatest city in the world, this. You may leave the city, but the city never leaves you.” He beamed a wide smile, suitably satisfied with the ambiguity of his phrasings.
The smile conveyed trust, friendliness. It warmed Baiju, stripped him off his fear.
The train picked up pace, its melody returned. The passengers grew louder, more impatient. “We’ve got work to do”, one screamed, “why is the train slow?”
Outside, packed, compact houses whizzed by; while hundreds of motorists cast aspersions on those in the train for having made them wait in vehicles at the railway gate. Every now and then, a road that had decided to climb over the tracks revealed to Baiju the squalor of the people underneath it. Luckily, Munra mama will let him stay in the shop, he thought.  
His companion spoke at length about the greatness of the city. Only the tough survive, he iterated.
The wheels of the train screeched again. Like an alarm, galvanized by a singly familiar sound, the passengers got up, picked up their bags and made their way towards the entrance. The train still had speed, yet they pushed. Baiju held the vertical bars by the door tightly. His companion was pushed against him.
“Don’t worry. They always do this. You see, time is money for them. They need to get to work, else, they will be fired and someone else will take their job. You’ll get used to it, and you’ll be one with the city.”
They pushed outward. Baiju’s arm strained. His feet hung out now, only the heels held on to the footboard.
The station was visible. It stood like a huge shed, into which scores of tracks entered. The train entered it slowly. A concrete platform rose, and was a few inches from his toes.
The entire station, with its dozen or more platforms came into view. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people stood at the platforms, all staring at him, staring through him, an opening that could be penetrated if not for the obstruction that was Baiju. He held on tightly, but the passengers behind pushed even harder. Holding on was getting painful, unbearable. People at the platform crowded around the slowing train. They tried to get in, sticking their hands in, hoping to get a bar to hold on to and hoist themselves in. Baiju was being pushed from the front and back.
“Get off down. Now. It’ll get worse when the train stops”, his experienced companion, mentor, said.
He was pushed from behind and he stumbled now. He fell on two people who stood at the platform. They grunted, and shouldered him away.
A multitude of people crowded around Baiju and he is pushed around. Like a leaf in eddies of a stream he is tossed around. Sometimes towards the train, sometimes away from it. His suitcase gets pulled around, him with it, as if a number of hands were tugging at it. He tries to turn back, or pull the bag closer, or find his companion, but in this crowd it was impossible. He is under the caprice of the crowd.
A hand grabs his bag. “Follow me”, a familiar voice says.
For a brief moment he saw his companion tugging at the bag. He walks backwards, being led by the man from the train. Baiju’s back faces the man, his right hand which holds the bag is behind him. For a while, he walked in this twisted posture.
They walk along the platform. Baiju, with his free left hand, fend off people surrounding him. They shoulder him, push past him, and he pushes them back. The station is noisy; all the noise being trapped within the high-roofed shed. As perspiration coats his skin, he loses grip of his bag, and it is tugged away. He tries to turn back, to call out to his companion, but he can’t. People walk all around him, push him in different directions, giving him little space for movements.

 
 

By the time he jerks back, and his back regains its natural shape, the man is gone. Along with his bag. Hey, he screams, my bag! But in the din of the station his cry fell limply to the floor.
A half hour later, he found himself a solitary corner under a tree. It smelled of urine, and paan stains bedaubed the bark. Its leafless branches stuck out. More of a scarecrow, less of a tree.
His eyes welled up. The parliament of his mind was in chaos; a million thoughts and issues circulated through, confusing him. Anger, anxiety, helplessness, one after another, like the trains entering the station. He dug his face into his hands.
When he regained a semblance of equanimity he sought out the city map. It stood painted on a wall two-storey high in front of the station’s main entrance. The station was marked in bright red in the centre. He pulled out the paper, now damp with sweat and soft from the jostle at the station, and searched for the address on the map. His eyes scanned; his head screamed. The lettering was too small, and far too many dotted the roads. He could have done with just one eye-n-stien now.
“Sir, can you help me find where this area is”, he asked a man who was similarly perusing the map. Baiju was ignored. “Excuse me, sir”, he said a little more loudly. The man continued his scrutiny of the board, ignoring Baiju. Suddenly, having found his area, he cantered out. Baiju swore loudly. No one heard him. People walked briskly past him, ignoring his ghostly presence.
It took some time for Baiju to re-regain his composure and then some more time to find his destination. What if Vallab had come instead? He couldn’t read, and he wouldn’t get help from anyone in the city. He’d probably died of starvation by the board, becoming lean and lifeless like the tree nearby. That mama’s boy with all his baby fat who spent all day looking at cows, now turned into another branch of the tree! For a moment his spirits brightened.
Munra mama’s area was a long way from the station. Baiju started slowly. He was hungry, tired, dirty and his body ached. He looked at the fading map again, making a note of the route. He had very little money in his pocket, only the leftovers after tea and samosa on the train; the thief would find two months of daily-wage savings neatly folded in the bag. He could not take a bus; he felt the only option was to walk.
The route was complicated: down the main road, second left after a bridge, three roads after the grand bazaar, the right after a park, and then a long straight walk till Munra mama’s area comes. There he could ask them for Benarasi Chinese foodhouse. What a strange name! Munra mama has never been to Benaras, nor was he a Benarasi.
The station had made him feel small, and the two-storey board had made him feel miniscule. On the pavements with an endless line of honking, jerking, simmering cars to his left, and a horde of people swarming in front and behind him, he began to disappear as the cityscape unfolded with his every step.
Staggering buildings made of glass, seemingly stacked in neat columns next to each other by the giants that played in the city, reflected harsh light onto the pavement and road below. Everything glowed with an intensity that seemed to blind him. The air too, overpowered him, and he grew dizzy. The exhales of a million people, and the exhausts of a million cars, with whiffs of garbage, cigarette smoke, fried food, burning plastic, flowing sewage and a strange heady saltiness enveloped him in an opaque, oppressive ether. The air had weight in it, it felt thick, it felt used, it felt stale, and it resisted him on his every step, as if the city were trying to push him back to the station.
And yet, there existed blackness on the road. In the nook, alleys, interstitial spaces, where even the reflected light shirked from venturing, was an incredible abyss – a darkness that seemed to have no depth, no definition, no end. As torrents of perspiration deposited its salts on his eyelids, he retreated to this darkness, where a cool – or was it cold and lifeless? – lighter air greeted him. He welcomed the respite, and sat by a wall even though the strong stench of urine induced watering in his nostrils. Above him hung posters announcing the showing of the ‘Lady of the night’ at a cinema, covering haphazardly, posters of ‘Passionate flames of love’.
At a distance by him sat an old man, on a wooden plank that had little plastic wheels. The beggar squatted with his distended belly towards people who were walking rapidly past him. His legs were shriveled, and they hung out limply. Occasionally, the legs would be sent into a pendulum motion as a walker struck it with a shoe during his rapid stride; both the walker and the man seemed unperturbed by the ephemeral brush. His arms were covered by lesions, and his fingers stuck out in awkward directions, like a brush that is past its use. A grey beard – perhaps, once white, now covered in grime – held on loosely to his chin; and a wandering eye covered in cataract opaqueness completed the grotesque figure. Every ailment to have ever struck man, seemed to have found its way in, or perhaps even originated from, the man.

 
 

Ting. Every now and then, the corners of his cracked lips curled upwards as the steel cup in front of him rang out. He felt around – the jerking of his fingers almost tilting the bowl – reassuring himself that it was indeed a coin that was thrown in.   
From the wall of light, a figure broke through, and in a rapidity of movements, let out a volley of urine. He stared at the posters that allowed him to stay distracted in the darkness.
Baiju was stunned by the apparition that had sprung forward, had reacted too late to avoid the splattering of drops. He then decided to stay to the light till Munra Mama’s shop was reached. 
The city seemed to exist in two distinct, unconnected worlds, and Baiju was being given a glimpse of both for a decision he had to make. If he took the light, he would cease to see the dark and its inhabitants, and perhaps, even look through people like him who have just lost their meager luxuries. If he took the dark, he would be invalid by his blindness, groping around for scraps that pointed to, but did not confirm, the existence of another world.  
As he crossed the bazaar, absorbing the contradictions, vagaries, cruelties of the city, Baiju felt his fear retracting to the ignored darkness of his mind.
The city was unlike the village, where everyone knew where he came from, where he worked, what caste he was born to. He had felt watched, scrutinized, uncomfortable there. Here though, he was one with the isolation and loneliness. There were a million people, like frenzied ants whose mound had just been destroyed, and yet they never seemed to cross paths. Occasionally, like ants, they stopped, interacted, but it was all over too soon, as if their comfort lay in their solitude.
Baiju was not alien, nor foreign nor incongruous here. His disconnect fitted perfectly with the collective detachment. When he reaches the shop, he could see himself working at peace, occupying another void in the city. He was one man on his own here, adding a little more to the enormity of the place. No one to bother you, ask you, direct you, and with no such interaction, there were no responsibilities, expectations or duties towards the city or from it. A man on his own, a man free.
The village had too many intersections. Everyone’s life mingled into one big bucolic identity – everyone’s problems were your problems, and your problems were distributed among everyone else’s. A sense of attachment, with a strong sense of responsibility, and he was tied to it, and he was tired of it. When his mother mentioned that her sister’s husband was looking for a helper, Baiju jumped at the chance. He would have to send a little money back, but apart from that, there were no fetters binding him. The city was a collection of unconnected individualities, whereas, in the village, it came from the oppressive mingling individualities. 
As he crossed the park, he felt more confident in his ponderings. The vast textbook of life lay in front of him, and for all the animosity he still harboured, he could finally understand the man on the train: you may leave the city, but the city will never leave you. He felt ashamed of his sheltered, rural beginnings, and of the drollery and repetition that he had sought refuge in. He will finally begin learning in the city.
Everything fascinated him: tall, fair-skinned ladies, with their thighs showing as they walked, and their faces caked in makeup; men who came out of shiny, broad cars, with crisp shirts tucked into crisp black pants, and their hair crisply combed; offices and houses that rose above the streets, being commanding and towering peaks in a chain of peaks, and with broad roads, flowing between edifices like a monsoon river tumbling out of the mountains, carrying with it the flotsam and jetsam of cars and buses and bikes; chaotic forests of tin huts, like the ones he had seen on the mountain, stacked in the interstices of the peaks; squalid children, carrying smaller squalid children who waited in the comfort of the shade, perhaps, for a fair, perfumed maiden to claim alms from; numerous men and women, sitting quietly side by side, each exhibiting a different ailment, but each with a plastic bowl in front of them that was a sign of their furtive clique; men, decked in sun glasses and clothes that were too small for them that made both their bellies and arms bulge, hanging at the edge of the darkness, whistling occasionally at the ladies that walked by; policemen, whose khakis were wearing out of shape by the strain of the belly, strolling the roads, as if patrolling a different world and not this one; loud music, honking, shouting, screaming, screeching, pleading, laughing, crying, barking, mooing, cawing; men blowing smoke rings, women waving purses, men selling plastic bags, women sipping coffee in air-conditioned shops, men arguing by the road, women washing vessels under a handpump, men sleeping besides stained walls, women tugging at their tops, men rushing towards buses, children clinging on to their mothers who hung on to shopping bags, women selling fried potatoes that stained translucent the newspapers they were wrapped in, young men revving motorbikes, dogs fighting for territory, fat cows slumbering on dividers…
He was learning to see. The sights projected themselves into his head, vacuous for long in his village life. His head reeled. He had not eaten, he was thirsty, his legs ached with effort, he felt his stomach collapse upon itself. His road was nearly at the end, and so was the day. The sun had gone, replacing its the harsh light with jarring neon signs and headlights, while forgetting to alert the festering air that still breathed heavy on the city.
Placing his last Rupee on the counter, he secured himself a plastic pouch of water. He felt the swirl around the tongue, his throat greedily swallow the water. Even the water was different. He was learning to drink.
He walked straight along the road. The two worlds remained, one sustained by dim streetlights, hotel signs, parked cars, flickering lights of boutiques; the other sheltered in immovable darkness around poster-filled walls and tin houses.
The city did not cease, the traffic did not reduce, people did not seek the familiarity of their homes. They did not seem to realize the sun had gone down. Time had lost its meaning here.
His eye wandered around boards, and he finally let himself a smile that struggled against the aggregated grime on his face. Munra mama’s area had come. It looked the same as the rest of the city: shops squeezed against each other, as makeshift eateries and trinklets and clothes shops jostled for space in pavements.
He wandered around, taking lefts and rights, hoping that ‘Benarasi Chinese Foodhouse’ would be sitting majestically at a corner, serving up happy customers. What if Munra mama had an English board? He then stopped, and doubled back, to the main road, a bit more confused.
He took hesitant steps towards a paan wallah, who with machine-like precision was rolling betel leaves, applying paste, betel nut, tobacco leaves and a mixture of powders, wrapping it, and serving it to men who peered into his cubicle-like enclosure.
When the queue trickled down, Baiju asked him “Sir, do you know where Benarasi Chinese Foodhouse is?”
He was ignored. But, maybe he wasn’t loud enough. The cars were screeching, and Baiju’s head was barely seen over a steel bucket that was filled with cold water and betel leaves.
“Sir…Sir, do you know where Munra mama’s… Benarasi Chinese Foodhouse is?”
The man turned to Baiju, eyeing him steadily. “What do you want?”
“My uncle Munra runs the Benarasi Chinese Foodhouse. Can you tell me where it is…sir? ”
“I don’t know any Munra. Do I look like the tourism office? Too many shops here, and many sell Chinese food. More food than China eats. Go ask that old beggar sitting by the lamp. There, the one who is looking into his plastic bag. He collects leftovers from shops. He will know everyone here. Now go away.”
The old man blankly stared, when Baiju approached him. Surely, there was an unwritten hierarchy – where the paan walaah, a shop owner, was above Baiju, and where Baiju with his job at the foodhouse was above the beggar.
The beggar was hunched, emaciated, his skin dark and cracked, reminding Baiju of the ghosts in his village only his Dadiji could see. His vacuous countenance emanated a perpetual look of fright and confusion; and in that confusion, he pushed forth a wood bowl – the bottom hemisphere of a dried coconut – towards Baiju.
“Stupid man. I have no money to give you. I want to know where Benarasi Chinese Foodhouse is. Do you know where it is?”
The beggar’s lower jaw slowly moved, like he was chewing on invisible cud. A spark of light flashed in his eyes. “O, you see the big board there? He repairs bikes and cycles. There is a small gully next to it. Narrow gully. O, you walk in, and next to Saida’s tailoring shop you’ll find Munra…”
Baiju was already on his way, but if had hung around longer, he would have heard the beggar say that Munra doesn’t give out leftover food, and instead mixes old rice with ‘fresh’ rice in that grimy, uneven vat.
Baiju strode towards the big green board that had spanners, gears, wheels neatly painted on. His head brimmed with the confidence of new found wisdom. He felt a strange forgiveness for the city. Baiju just didn’t know how to ask. No wonder that man in front of the map had not answered him. It made sense. But he had learnt now.
He took the turn. Two slabs placed on an open drain led to the alley.
Three shops emerged ahead in the gap between buildings. A little square hidden from the rush of the main road: tailor was written in Hindi, while next to it, a hole in the wall, with a few stools outside, had a board in English. It probably read Benarasi Chinese Foodhouse, thought Baiju. He had expected a bigger set up. 
A few men were sitting, with a cigarette each. Inside the shop, steam and smoke floated around. A man in a brown vest, with sweat making strange patterns on his back, vigorously struck his ladle around the large black vat, while moving the vat around with his left hand on top of the flames that seemed reluctant to make contact with the black vessel. He wondered if that was Munra mama. His mother had told him that Munra had visited the village only for his marriage, and Baiju was too young to remember. Yet as he studied the figure of the potbellied man, he felt he had known him all his life. His only intersection in the city, he thought, letting out a weak smile. 
Baiju stepped forward, and a little urchin boy, whom he had not noticed standing uneasily between the seated men, stepped towards him.
Maybe, it was prudent to ask the boy if Munra mama was in the shop, thought Baiju. Caution was another thing he had learnt in the city. Even as Baiju lifted his arm weakly to point towards the man, the urchin rattled, with the rapidity of a boy practicing his lines moments before his big entry in a temple play: “Veg fried rice, chicken fried rice, paneer fried rice, gobi manchuri, paneer manchuri, veg noodles, chicken noodles, paneer noodles, chicken 65, chicken manchuri, pepper chicken, chez-wan (he paused here with uncertainty) fried rice, chezwan (no pause) noodles, Benarasi fancy rice, fancy noodle, special chicken, cool drinks, soft drinks, lime joos…”
“Oye. Stop talking to the beggar, and give these to the men,” screamed out the potbellied man, who had just tilted the pan, letting out glistening rice onto two plastic plates.
The boy left Baiju’s side.
“Munra Mama!”
The man turned towards him, ladle still in hand.
“I’m Baiju. Ma…Rukmini bai’s son,” he said, taking measured steps towards the threshold of shop.
“You’ve come late. My wife said you will come in the morning.”
“Ha ha, yes (nervously). I got lost. My suitcase was stolen at the ...”

 
 
 
 

“You came late. So late. I had to handle many many customers during lunch time. I thought you were not coming. This boy came along, and I took him on. He came here, and was not loitering around the city. What to do? Not my mistake, it’s…”
“But…a man stole my suitcase, I had no money for...”
“Is it my mistake then? You think I have the money to sit and wait for you to roam around the city before coming to work with me? No no...In this city, you can’t just wait.”
“But…but I didn’t know … no one told me where you are…I had to find my…”
“You think I should have come to the station? You should have been careful then. Just because you are my sister’s nephew, I should give up my customers and my business, and come to you? What nonsense are you talking?”
“But…I don’t have any place to…”
“What are you wasting my time for? You fool! You think you can come from the village and I will hold the place for you? What about this child? I gave him the job, and look how well he has managed. You want me to kick him out? What nonsense. Go away now. Shoo.” He swung around his ladle menacingly, little drops of dirty brown oil falling on the grimy floor.
Baiju backtracked, and walked towards the main road with a rapidity his trembling legs barely mustered. It was only near the mechanic’s shop that he turned around to see if his uncle had stage managed a drama to moralize about punctuality and was now beckoning him back, or that the scene had indeed played out only in his head, a panic stricken nightmare just before he entered the gully. He saw his uncle explaining to the men, who sitting on plastic seats with a plate in one hand had soaked in – to some amusement – the dispute that had occurred. Baiju hung around in the darkness that had managed to find its way between the neon lights of the `Decent hair saloon` in the gully and the streetlights of the main road. It was only when Munra threatened to come forth with the ladle being raised up and down, advertising its use also as a club, that Baiju left the solitary darkness and walked into the light.
As he sped past the paan wallah and the beggar, both of whom took no notice of him, fear presented itself, and he felt like crying. He felt like a child, an ignorant child. He longed for the serenity of the village, the warmth of people, the green of the field, the comfort of the silence, the security of his house, the familiarity of his mother hunched over a pot over firewood and his invalid grandfather letting out a spittle on the cot…
In the beads of sweat, a tear made its way towards his curled lips, and then more followed course. He walked on the road, took bylanes, going further into another road, another bylane.
He was in a world vacillating between self-pity, self-disgust and anger. In the tussle of the emotions, he lost track of time and space. The rush on pavements and the streets had become lesser, and most of the shops presented only shutters. He took no notice, showing the resolve of a person who had to, absolutely had to, hurry to his destination. He had no destination, but so caught up in the emotional turmoil that he did not know so yet.
As he took long, rapid strides, he pushed, trampled and stepped on the feet of beggars who collapsed by urine-drenched walls. He took no notice, he only marched on, fueled by the raging storm of the tempest in his mind. He was not in familiar streets, and was not heading towards the station. He knew that. 
It was only when wisps of orange streaked the distant horizon, in patterns that mimicked the streaks of red in his eyes, that Baiju snapped out of his reverie. He had returned to the world around him, and the world presented to him a parched throat and a hollow stomach.
A little while later, in a rapidity that comes with a spurt of energy, he scooped up a plastic bowl and ran till the shouts of protestations and invective ceased to reach his ear. He emptied the bowl onto the palm of his right hand, and felt the cold of the coins.
Traffic had started to build up on the road that skirted the manmade river that though flowed gently, viscously, had let its presence known through that overwhelmingly acrid stench. Even as the intemperate sun cast its caustic glare onto the streets, Baiju was making his way to the shade. Out of his left pant pocket stuck out the jagged edges of a sealed plastic pouch of cool water. In his right hand, he held a piece of newspaper, that covered two pieces of bun and a vada, which though was a day old had enough oil to stain the newspaper. 
Baiju had fought with the shopkeeper to include the stale vada for the five rupees he had handed over, and as he made his way towards paan-bedaubed walls, he felt a certain sense of happiness in the deal.
As he ate his buns and vada, a dog curled up next to him, with its tail still waging and longingly looking at his hands through its glazed eyes. Baiju took no notice. The harsh light formed an impenetrable screen in front of him, hiding from view the concrete, poster-filled embankment that separated the road and the river. Baiju bit into the bun and vada, allowing his saliva to percolate the thick crust and absorb the oil.

 
 
 
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