It isn't until a week after I start working that I notice them. There are so many of them that I am surprised that I didn't register their presence earlier. They line up along a sidewalk, which is wrapped around an overgrown cemetery and separated from it by an eight foot wall of crumbling stone. Sitting with their backs to the wall at roughly equal distance from each other, they resemble grotesque statues, an ugly extension of the cemetery behind them. They remain as still as statues too, dead eyes staring out into the distance from grimy faces and hands lying idle by their side on the dusty sidewalk. But the minute someone walks close enough to them, they spring to life. Eyes snap to, black fingernails reach out from dirt creased empty palms, mouths open to reveal rotting teeth while emitting incoherent words of prayers and blessings. Sometimes infants are thrust out to do the job, bawling their underdeveloped lungs out.
And that is how I notice them. I am walking as fast as I can one morning without actually breaking into a run. All I can think of is that I will miss my bus and be late for work. I turn around a corner and almost trip over a woman sitting with her legs splayed out. In the time I take to regain my balance, she has scrambled onto her knees and is jabbering away incessantly. She keeps pointing towards a bundle in her arms that seems to quiver with excitement. The thin face of a baby peers out of the swaddling shawls and blankets to regard me with calm disinterest. The mother, on the other hand, is animated and inching ever closer to me. I instinctively clutch my tattered briefcase more firmly and try to walk around her. She doesn't get up but pivots around on her knees, her outstretched hand almost touching me as her calls become more desperate at the sight of me retreating. After a few more hurried steps, I turn around expecting her to be at my shoulder but she is sitting down again at the corner with her face looking the other way. The bundle starts crying, a pitiful sound that seems to be directed at me.
* * *
It's only been a week at work in one of the most prestigious stock broking companies in the city but I am already painfully aware of being a fresh faced graduate. Especially one who hails from modest means and is overawed at rubbing shoulders with people who have been dealing with huge amounts of money like it's petty change. My life could be the script for a rags to riches movie, a cliché not lost on me or on those around me at work. I can hear snide comments from peers and seniors alike drifting in over the cubicles, from my undernourished and permanently pale face to my stilted accent. I try my best to be invisible and blend into the background. Coming early to work is a good tactic because I cannot bear the sight of people watching me as I enter the office and make my way to my cubicle. I feel like a person on death row who is walking to the gallows.
But today, I am too shaken from the little encounter on the street to pay attention to the whispered jokes or condescending glances. I walk with quick steps to my cubicle and collapse into my chair. I wipe the sweat on my brow with the back of my hand, glad for the central air-conditioning. It is absurd that I should be so unnerved at being accosted by a woman begging for money but the cries of that child keep ringing in my ears like an awful case of tinnitus.
* * *
I seek out my landlord in the evening after I'm back from work. Mr. Roy is a small wiry man of indeterminable age, with a mop of fluffy gray hair and a filter-less cigarette always hanging from his fleshless lips. I do not know if Roy is his first name or last.
I find him on the porch after dinner, staring mournfully at the polluted night sky, smoke escaping his mouth like the chimney of a factory. He knows instantly what I'm talking about.
“They call it Beggars' Street now.” His face wrinkles in disgust at the thought of that human throng that I witnessed today, making him spit into the gutter adjoining the porch.
“One of them nearly grabbed me today.”
“They're a right menace, I can tell you that. They beg to your face and pick your pocket the minute your back's turned.”
I feel glad to have clutched my briefcase the way I did in the morning, like a child with a favourite toy in the middle of a hostile playground.
“You should avoid that route if you can, you know.”
“I can't do that. I have to pass it on the way to the bus stand.”
Mr. Roy hums in response and throws the butt of his cigarette into the gutter. The two of us watch it for a while until the current sweeps it away from our gaze. When he continues his silent contemplation long after its gone, I realise that the conversation has run its course for him. He will ignore my presence if I do not cajole him for more information.
“Where do they all come from? Where do they live?”
He looks at me like he is surprised that I'm still standing beside him. He takes his time to reply, conjuring a fresh cigarette, lighting it leisurely and exhaling that initial breath of smoke. The used match goes into the gutter and promptly begins the journey of following the cigarette butt that preceded it.
“They have been in the city a long while now. Where did they come from? Who knows? Where people like them come from, I guess. Uncouth and poor people from the countryside, hopeful idiots searching for a better life. They lived in a big dirty slum beside the old cemetery.”
“I never saw a slum there.”
“That's because they tore it down, didn't they? The authorities did. They needed it for more burial space. So they threw these people out onto the street where they sleep and shit and beg all day. It's funny, isn't it? The dead taking over the land of the living. Not that it was theirs to begin with.”
The barking laughter that follows this seems to hang in the humid air of the city. I look up at the skyline again and wonder how toxic the air that I'm breathing right now is.
“Say, that place you say you work in. I heard it's a real fancy place. They must be paying you well.”
My face reddens as I look at Mr. Roy again. He taps some flaky ash off the cigarette and subjects me to a casual scrutiny of his beady eyes. I shrug and try to keep my voice from getting defensive. “They pay all right, I guess. I haven't finished a month there yet.”
He nods and puts the cigarette back into his mouth. “Once you start earning enough, you will get a real big car. And then you won't have to worry about walking amongst filth like that.”
I think about how if what he says comes to transpire, I will be the first in my family to own a car. But I stay silent because the idea of owning a car seems beyond the limits of my imagination, a preposterous idea that is better enjoyed in the guilt-free throes of childhood.
* * *
I approach the corner with trepidation. The hurriedly put together breakfast of slightly stale bread with a little butter dabbed on it, my staple breakfast for the past few weeks, swirls uneasily in my stomach. I walk as close I can to the traffic-laden road, away from the squatting crowd. None of them talk to each other or even make eye contact. It's almost as if they are ashamed of what they do and looking at the others indulge in the same activity only reinforces the shame.
For an infinitesimal second before I turn the corner, I am convinced that the woman and her child will not be there. And when I see that empty spot on the sidewalk, everything that happened earlier will instantly vanish from my mind.
But she is there, and so is her child. I stop dead in my tracks and watch her. Her whole attention is focused on the baby, obscured within the depths of her (I don't know why I think it is a girl but I do) blankets. The mother uses one knobby finger to stroke the baby's exposed forehead, just below where the hairline begins. I hear a happy gurgling, and a smile comes unbidden to my lips.
The mother suddenly notices my skulking, smiling presence and in a jiffy, she is up on her knees again. With an almost practiced air, I make my way to the edge of the sidewalk to dodge her the way I did the last time. When I'm almost past her, I see out of the corner of my eye that she is fumbling frantically with something in the baby's bundle. Despite myself, I slow down a little. With an exclamation and flourish, she extricates the baby in one smooth move out of its warmth and extends her to me like an offering.
I find a terrible coldness grip my heart. The baby's head seems grotesquely bloated in comparison to the rest of her. Her naked body looks like a wilted vegetable, with limbs that are little more than bones and a chest cavity that has caved in on itself, showing the outlines of whatever wretched organs that are still working to keep her alive. Her eyes, the only part of her that is alive, look at me watching her useless body. Without a prelude, she starts screaming her lungs out as the mother takes a further step towards me, pleading in her alien voice.
I find myself walking away again but this time, I do not turn back.
* * *
I try to sit still but my legs twitch nervously underneath me. I'm glad that the Boss cannot see them indulging in an involuntary tap dance below the thick wood of his magnificent desk. He sits behind it, peering at me over his glasses.
He is in his fifties, dressed in clothes so sharp that touching them might cut you. Intelligent brown eyes gleam from behind severe looking glasses. His hair, like everything else about him, is trimmed in an exact manner and peppered generously with white. His skin positively glows in the soft light that seems to emit from everywhere in his cool, dark chamber. This is the first time that I'm having a face to face conversation with him, and my heart beats painfully against my chest. Horrible thoughts of being given the sack keep flitting around my head, and it is all I can do to ask him outright to spare myself the awful suspense. And yet he sits there with an eerie calm that I cannot share, one that makes me envious of him.
“Your work is impressive.”
His baritone resonates in the chamber, and it takes me a while to understand what he is saying and more importantly, that I will definitely be going back home with a job tonight. So intense is the sense of relief that it takes me some time to mumble a hasty thank you to him. He accepts my weak gratitude with an almost imperceptible tilt of the head.
“I read about your background, and it impressed me even more. After all you have been through and all the hardship. I am glad to have you here, boy.”
Boy. That word could as easily have been used dismissively but the way the Boss utters it, I know that I am gaining an affection that all the people outside this chamber would cut their right arms off for.
“How do you find the experience of living in a new city? It must be quite terrifying to be here, amidst new people and a strange language. Have you had any trouble adjusting around here?”
This time, I take care to answer soon. “No, sir! Not at all. It's been a very good experience so far. I'm really enjoying it, and the work.”
He gives me a smile. Teeth all perfectly aligned and shiny. “I'm happy to hear that.”
He gets up, and before I can follow suit, he motions with his hand for me to continue sitting. I sink back into the soft but straight-backed chair. He walks around the desk to come stand next to me, leaning against the desk. I smell an exotic scent that must be his cologne.
“Now listen to me carefully, son. This is a hard line of work that we are in, and it is not easy to be successful. The people out there might peg you to be a bottom feeder. They might ridicule you and your background. I see things from in here. Nothing escapes my eye.”
I nod my head, not sure what I'm supposed to say.
“But do not listen to them. Your success in this firm is dependent solely on how hard you work. You are just as well qualified as they are, and make no mistake, if you work harder than all of them out there, I can personally guarantee that in a year, you will have left them all behind in the dust.”
His words tug at my imagination, springing scenes of success that I can barely grasp before his heavy voice brings me back to the ground.
“But I want you to continue doing what you have done in the past three weeks since joining. Your work ethic is exemplary, and your output impressive. And a week from now, when you get that first paycheck, you will know that it has all been worth it. All the hard work and all the struggle.”
I sit there and nod my head till he flashes me another one of his perfect smiles.
“Now go out there, son, and do what you have been doing so well till now.”
* * *
The ten-rupee note in my hand seems so thin and fragile that I keep looking down every few seconds to reassure myself that it is not getting torn by just being held. I remember the time when I was a child and a note that was supposed to buy the family's dinner split clean in two after being wedged in the doorway. Panicky and desperate, I tried to put it back together with glue but the man selling the rice in the government sponsored shop took one look at it and nearly threw me out.
“Dirty little scoundrel! Trying to trick me into giving you food with that useless piece of money? Go starve with the rest of your good-for-nothing family!”
His words ring in my ears as I fold and refold the note in my hand repeatedly, getting ever closer to that dreaded corner. I try to imagine the look on her face as I flourish the note in front of her. The dawning look of gratitude as she realises that the note is for her and her child. She would be beside herself with joy, lost for words, warbling in her alien tongue and showering me with blessings, the only thing she could give to me in return. I would smile back at her, benevolent and sweaty in the muggy weather and then leave wordlessly like a true knight.
I look down at the note again, trace its outline. Ten rupees is the fare for my journey to work now, not the cost of a dinner. I wonder what she will buy first from the money I give her.
I reach the corner still lost in my thoughts and stop abruptly. Her spot is empty. The first emotion that pricks me is a mild annoyance at not being able to savour the act of helping her. Of all days, she had to choose today to skip her slouching and begging. Today, when I had decided that I could no longer walk past everyday and ignore this cesspool of human degeneration like it didn't exist. My thoughts surprise me when I realise that I am thinking them in Mr. Roy's dry, sardonic voice, complete with the pauses he would use to blow some smoke out as he lit his cheap cigarettes. Feeling a little bashful, I suddenly start thinking of the worst possible scenarios that could have befallen the poor woman.
Her child could be sick, I think with a cold enveloping my heart. That little babe couldn't possibly be expected to continue living in this world with no sustenance. I picture them in a drab hospital, sharing a bed with an old patient coughing and spewing blood all over the old sheets. The baby taking slow painful breaths into its battered body, the mother wailing and calling for help that doesn't come. I try to shake the image out of my head but it remains like a soreness in the limbs after a bout of fever. I look around the spot where she usually sits as if I could unearth some clue as to her whereabouts. I even consider for a brief moment to ask her neighbour sitting five yards down the sidewalk, an old crone with ugly scabs on her arms and wispy white hair poking out of a misshapen skull. But I know it will be futile. I wouldn't know how to speak to these people anyway.
Reluctantly, knowing that I would miss my bus if I keep standing, I start walking again. The note is crumpled in my fist but I cannot bring myself to smooth it out.
* * *
I count the digits flashing on the screen. In truth, it shouldn't be a surprise since they had told me before joining about what I could expect to earn. Yet, the amount of money that has been transferred to my bank account seems so improbably high that I cannot help but think that someone is playing a prank on me. I look around the office to see if anyone is smirking in my direction but find the place deserted. I am the only one left for the day; even the Boss's chamber is dark. To reassure myself that it is all happening, I tell myself that I am rich. I say it out loud, my eyes still hovering over all the zeros on the screen that I am still counting obsessively.
So much money. And I was trying to give her a measly ten rupees. This is not what I wish to think about at this instant but the thought forces itself into my head. I was going to throw ten rupees at her to assuage my own bruised ego. I feel the same shame rising up in me, the same shame that overpowered me when I walked away from the naked and dying body of that baby.
Maybe it was all for the best, I reason, that I didn't get the opportunity to see her today. Maybe provenance has a better plan, one where I can actually help the woman. A hundred or even a thousand rupees maybe. A pragmatic section of my brain tells me that I will never disperse with a thousand rupees on a whim. A thousand rupees still means a lot, even with my newfound richness. I settle on a hundred rupees, an amount that will at least allow the woman to buy something warm for her child. She will be able to shelter her from the relentless rains. Maybe get a half-decent meal too. I know that every little bit counts, even if one is living a day to day existence.
* * *
She is there the next time. Back in her old spot, like she hasn't missed a day at all. Before I can feel relieved at seeing her and dispelling all my unfounded fears, as if even considering them could have actually led to her suffering, I notice that she is alone. Her hands are bare, lying on her lap with the palms facing the cloudy sky. Her hair looks even more unkempt than usual, and it is only when I go closer that I see the streaks through the grime where tears once flowed. I know in an instant what has happened.
The woman scarcely notices me when I walk up to her. In a daze and with my vision clouded with tears that surprise me, I find myself taking my wallet out of my back pocket. Without even looking down at what I'm doing, my eyes focused entirely on the woman and her grief, I hold out my hand. She looks up and regards me with eyes that remind me of the child's. I look away from them and after what seems like ages, find a rough hand taking the money from me. I relinquish my grasp without resistance and start walking away.
I have barely moved a few steps before her voice, harsh and unforgiving in its tenor, halts me in my tracks. I turn around with an ominous sense of foreboding gnawing at my insides and see her standing. Instead of the tears of gratitude that I had envisioned, her face is contorted in a mixture of anger and grief and revulsion. Before I can try to ask her what's wrong, in the rudimentary sign language I adopt whenever I have to interact with the locals, she holds up her hands.
The note that I have given her, buried within the confines of my wallet for a long time, has come apart in her hands. She holds the two pieces separately, and I see from the hurt in her eyes that she thinks that I have played a cruel joke on her.
I want to do a lot of things. I want to run back to her, take away the worthless bits and replace them with more from my wallet. I want to look her in the eye and tell her I know how hard it is. I want to apologise for running away from her so many times before, ashamed and even embarrassed without any just reason. I want to tell her that I do not wish to be the snob who forgets his roots, like Mr. Roy and the Boss want me to. But more than anything, I feel the urge to laugh out loud at the bizarre twist that fate played on me, to show me that no matter how far I have come from my past, it will always be a part of me.
I know I can do none of these things so I just turn and walk away from the place as fast as I can.