Reflections

Reflections: On Character

‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a writer’

1. I’m trying to keep up but A is moving quickly. Already L had been shed from our company, lost somewhere in the bazaar behind us. It’s my turn I guess, but I’m not quite done. I catch up to him, walking briskly beside him while I try to assimilate the sentence that will get me what I want. I want two things, I want my goddamn story and I want my goddamn flip flops.

Which A is wearing. I’m wearing his- a somewhat expensive looking foreign thing all black leather and cushy and a bit too cushy for my feet. I’m not sure A is even aware I’m beside him until he speaks over his shoulder, all matter of fact-like without breaking pace, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’

Glancing at his feet, I weigh my options. It’s unlikely I’ll get both, and I’m not going to try his patience now- he’s on his way to the Holy Family clinic to see his girlfriend, she overdosed a couple of days ago and will probably raise hell if he doesn’t show up now that she’s okay. Damn. ‘Remember, I need to meet your nephew, the street racer? I want to do a story on him’

A is stumbling around the busy intersection, hanging on to the roofs of autorickshaws as he peers inside each looking for one without a passenger. If he gets hit by one, I’ll take what’s mine and he can have what’s his and that shall be the end of that. Fuck the story. But he probably won’t. Too many people know him here. Too many people fear him. The guy has clout- enough that his awkwardly bent frame shuffling furiously through the crowded market street with a head full of opiates demands no consternation, not a second look from anyone. They’ve seen the gold chains, they’ve seen the expensive watch. They know him as ‘seth’ here- boss. No, he’ll be fine. I’ll have to think of something else.

‘Meet with L and give me a call in the evening, you can meet my nephew then.’

I say nothing, and taking one last look at his feet, I turn around and head back. He’ll find an auto eventually and take it to the girlfriend. He kept referring to her as the girlfriend , the female.

When I’ll call him at around 8 that night, he’ll be with her, still obstinate and still high, and his voice still like jagged stone- just like I had left him, and I shall know that nothing that I had felt earlier had been an exaggeration or a play of memory. The fear, the danger had been real. I had spent the morning with the wolf, and I was not yet done. He still had my story. He still had my flip flops.

‘Who the fuck is going to read your magazine?’

2. It was about 10:30 in the morning, L had asked me to come in and meet A, whom he had introduced as a guy that was starting a rehab clinic. I had been interested in the process and had set up a meet with him at L’s place- a rundown hovel of a room in one of the side gullys of the main market without water or electricity and a filthy mattress for a bed surrounded by strange trash that I couldn’t guess the purpose of if I tried. L had showed me the place a few days ago- pointing at the door he’d said that A had donated it a year or so back, and he’d made do with a curtain for the last 22 odd years. L thinks very highly of A, he thinks of him as a brother. But then L thinks very highly of me, and thinks I have been sent by God, because we had ended up talking once in the back lot of a nearby church, a place he hadn’t been for 15 years. He took that as a sign, even though I’d really only asked him if he knew a quiet place we could sit and smoke. I had been interviewing him for a small story-he had seemed to be an interesting character. ‘I really like you,’ he had told me at our first meeting, ‘if you ever need any help… if you ever need someone killed…’ His eyes had trailed off and the quick, excited smile that played on his lips when he would have a generous thought faded, ‘Yeah, I’ve been looking for a job these days,’ he’d said, the creases on his face returning until his face was quite lost in the intersecting folds of skin that seemed to lay the geography of his difficult life. L is 60, looks 30, and is insane; but he’s a nice fellow. But I won’t get into the things he told me about himself, or even the things that I understood because this is not his story. This is mine.

It was bad politics to hang out with L- I’d been told (and he’d told me as much) that he’d been in jail a couple of times, most recently for slashing a man’s stomach with a thermocol cutter. L is kind of an interior designer. The bazaar is a close-knit community where word travels fast. But he’d seemed interesting and I figured it was worth the damage. When he started speaking of A, I thought I’d hit a new break, found a greater perspective to the story. And yeah, I guess I did.

Right on time, I found my way to L’s door; it was open and the curtain that was usually drawn in the doorframe was pulled backwards and swung over the door to let the breeze in. I found the two of them sitting cross legged on the mattress with L holding up a thin folded sheet of aluminum and running a wax match under a fat drop of brown sugar that A was chasing with a small chillum fashioned out of a playing card. So much for the rehab clinic, I thought as I took a seat beside them.

‘What do you do?’

‘I’m a writer’

I lit a cigarette as I watched them continue, absolutely unabated by my presence or that of the chai walla that brought me a cup of tea on L’s insistence, or the few that paused in the door and looked in or the many that did not. A asked if I was a teetotaler when I declined his offer to have L bring some whiskey for me. Before the shock wore off, A explained what a teetotaler was and I mutely agreed. A would demonstrate his literacy and acumen several times in the next three hours. He recommended the novel ‘Valley of Dolls’ and spoke at length of an old de Palma film I had not seen. As he dived into the heroin again, I asked him if he was aware of Killer Joe, attributing it incorrectly to de Palma. He was. Great movie.

He had a thick gold chain around his neck and a couple of bracelets, also gold, also heavy, on his right wrist. He wore a beautiful watch on his other wrist that he told me was worth a small fortune. Its pale metal gleamed dangerously in the hole of a room we were sitting in. I wondered what a man of his stature was doing in a place like that. He began to tell me of a film script he’d been approached to write but refused to because the money wasn’t enough. I said sometimes you’ve got to take what you get. He said he didn’t need it. Said I didn’t know who he was, at which point L introduced him. Yes, I would say he was a big shot gangster. But I would say that he was a big shot gangster. He was in construction now- screaming at people on the phone, promising to hang them from the roof of his office. I made note to myself- Never go to his office. His ringtone was the cry of gulls.

I looked him in the eye, the casual slits he was talking from shining eerily in the light of the single candle L had set up on a plastic bottle for some reason. The glint made him look powerful. I wondered what he could do for me. I asked him if he would write an article on the state of the drug trade, that he had been a part of back in the day, in the city today. He said he wanted to co-author a book with me about the rise of the drug trade in Bombay from the 1950’s until today- naming names, all that. I said that sounded dangerous. He said if I put his name on it, no one would come after me, no one would kill me. I said I wasn’t willing to bet my life on that. And I was too busy with my magazine.

‘How many people do you think would read your magazine?’

Yeah, I know. He said he knew a publisher in Dubai that would buy the manuscript guaranteed for a crore. It was a story that would sell, and I knew it. We’d split the money even. I said I wasn’t ready for such a big commitment, especially on such a dangerous subject.

‘How much are you going to sell your magazine for?’

Nothing. It’ll be free. There’ll be a page at the back with information on how to donate.

‘How much does a printing press cost?’

A lot.

‘I can put up that money for you’

Fuck you.

‘I’ll give… lend… you this book called Acropolis, by Julius Caesar. “You too Brutus!” Kya line hai!’

L pitched in, taking his turn on the foil with the heroin.

‘If-you-stick-by-this-man-he-will-help-you,’ he droned, his voice shaking tersely, strangely elongated from the smoke he was inhaling even as he spoke.

I am Faust, about to make a deal with the devil? No.

‘You’re not an optimist,’ I pointed out, coming back to the magazine.

In his voice like gravel he spoke with an intelligence that frightened, intrigued me, ‘I believe that black is black and white is white’

What I saw was a 50 year old man sitting in baggy boxer shorts and a pink shirt smoking cheap heroin with a junkie in a slummy room surrounded by trash. Yes, I’d be in his 2 million dollar flat (next to his other 2 million dollar flat) in an exclusive part of town the next day, hoping to meet his nephew, the real story, the feature story for my magazine. But he’d be wearing the same clothes. Actually so would I and it was only L who had seemed to have changed his shirt into a white t-shirt with a large black screw printed on it under the word ‘WANNA’ in bold. I’d also get my flip flops back, but just barely.

He pressed me on the book, said it would be my ticket. He was right, but I wasn’t interested. It was pissing him off that I wouldn’t see reason. I told him he was a businessman, I an artist, we have a fundamental difference in perspective. But then I wondered, why was I there? If I never wanted to meet the likes of him what kept me there on that damp, disgusting mattress? Did I need him? We exist in different worlds- he, of actions and consequences- routine and I, of chaos, medley, a very pleasant and very comfortable and very generous kind of madness, where I do nothing and prosper, where I commit grave action and mistakes to no consequence. I could not say to him, to his face and mine, ‘Who you are looking for to write this book is a man, not a boy.’ Too big too fast- the way things can work sometimes in this city, but I will not yield to just any tide.

He’d been on and off the phone with his girlfriend a few times. ‘Kaun hai abhi tumhare saath?’ He got up suddenly and made to leave, in a rush putting on my flip flops instead of his slippers, and was out before I realized he wasn’t coming back.

L and I raced after him, I needed my appointment and footwear and L, I don’t think L knew what he was doing at this point. As I caught up to A, I realized he looked dofferent. In the market, in the bright light of day, this dominating, serious man had been reduced to a worn out shell struggling through the crowd. In his boxers and pink shirt, he looked pathetic and weak- a hunched, beat figure squinting in the sun. Where was the ‘seth’ now? Where was the snake eyed man that had frightened me?

It wasn’t until I called him later that day, imagining the wistful serenity of his ringtone as the bell rang, and spoke to him that I was reminded of the gravity of my situation. It was real. It returned. Did A carry his strength in his voice?

Suddenly I was very weary, and wanted nothing more to do with L or A or his nephew. I wanted the moment to pass and leave no refrain. Nothing. I had to set the alarm for 8:30 when A had said he’d meet me at L’s, but I didn’t want to associate that hour with him. In the morning I was 4 hours late, but I don’t think he noticed.

And what about my magazine? The one no one will read and I’ll give out for free?

The one with news but not hard news. The one with writing but nothing that would put me in harm’s way.

Won’t I need a graphic designer?

I don’t know. I can hear him taunt me, and he’s right. Maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.

Hatred is an institution. We’re all playing catch up.

Reflections: Witness, Memory

He stood behind us as N. tried to teach me roulette or whatever it was in the same way that he tried to teach me the bus routes or anything- mumbling endlessly to hear his own voice. I despised him completely, but maybe I didn’t know it then. He watched the screen as N. played, clearly, or not so clearly he was waiting for the low stakes unit to be free so he could use it. N. would walk away at times to see the television thing or something and I would slide in so the seat was saved for us. The man stood there for a very long time, 10 or 15 minutes right behind us without any inclination to communicate. It was interesting. Somehow he got to speaking, I forgot how. I think he made a recommendation to N. and they got to talking from there. He warned me against gambling, said he’d been at it for 12 years, or was it 14, and said it leads nowhere. I asked him why he did it, he said he came when he had nothing to do, and was there most nights. Well dressed Eastern European with a Muslim finish- Albanian, Bosnian, he must be, I thought. There was too much in London for me to wonder what he did, if I did I do not remember. I told him I had no interest in gambling, was only accompanying N. because it was 2, 3 maybe 4 am and what else was I supposed to do.

An oriental girl massaged some guy’s neck on the corner machine for a pound a minute. I was staring at the television where the roulette wheel was streaming live from the floor on the ground level. Or something, I don’t remember what I was watching but I was watching intently. Something hit the back of my head. What the fuck? I look around, there’s a pen on the ground beside me. The Albanian is waving a hand a couple of rows behind me- it was him. He had wanted to break my concentration he thought I was being drawn into the game. Or maybe he just couldn’t see the screen. I moved away.

Hours later, I am bored and I’ve just had a cigarette on the little balcony overlooking a minute portion of the bustling night. I’m looking to write, I think it’s a good time to. I find a sofa with a guy sleeping in one corner, I take the other side and settle down with my book and find my pen. The Albanian guy is coming up the stairs, he spots me and says hello. I’m ready for some conversation and I depend on people to sense that and I guess he does; he looks exhausted- an hour or so later he’ll ask me how old I think he is I am 3 years off but that’s his weariness I was accounting for. We talk, I don’t remember what, what I do comes up. I tell him I’m a photojournalist, I’ve been telling everyone that. He doesn’t discount it. He makes me an offer. He has a story he says, and he’ll tell it to me in full, God knows we have time, if I can tell where he’s from. Bosnia, I’m wrong. I know he’s not Albanian. He gives me 3 chances. Says he knows instantly where I’m from, I feel fucked and know if I don’t get it right I’m not getting what I guess I was brought here for. Serbia. It’s the same thing you know, he says, Bosnia, Serbia. Why, how do I think he’s from Bosnia? Semiotext(e)? Why? I just do, I’m usually never wrong, and never with South East Asians. I tell him I’m from the wrong part of the world to be able to tell him where he’s from. I wonder, today, months later, if he was going to tell me the story he told me had I not made it out. He gave me a clue, he was Muslim- Algeria, I said, he said yes, I said no and he showed me id. It said Algeria. I couldn’t believe it and couldn’t have guessed it. I was eager to hear the story- this is what he told me.

When he was 18 he faked some papers and joined the Algerian police against his father’s wishes, I think he said it paid well. This was the late 80’s. The Islamic party had been elected unexpectedly. The country was still reeling from the French, who had fucked them and slaughtered them and the people wanted to get as far away as possible now. A civil war kicked off and people were killing people again. His unit would dress up as Mujahideen and slaughter villagers and outskirts people to inspire hatred towards the Islamic party, it must have worked. He said it got real bad. ‘Brother killing brother’, made real how he said it. A country fighting to become what it wanted to.They found out and started killing police. All government workers- teachers, politicians, whatever. They started killing off his unit. Three attempts on his life, they tried to kill him but couldn’t somehow and he left. I don’t remember the details, did someone try once to slit his throat. I think someone shot that man. I don’t remember. I think it was a boy. Another attempt had two cars full of armed men raining bullets on his car.

I think he left his family behind. He never admitted to killing anyone himself, or being involved in the dressed up in disguise killings he was telling me about. He moved to London without a thing and he’s an accountant or something now. Won 60 grand at the casino once. Or was it 30? He said they start watching you if you go over 40, and then they want you to leave and they’ll kill you on your way home if you don’t. It’s a mafia business, he said. He told me his name. I’ve forgotten that too. I only met him once, and all the things he told me are lost to the world now, through me. But all that remains is sacred, because it happened. He said his friends who were there were having a meal and some French guy, 20, came in and everyone was wild and the French guy kept saying ‘but I had nothing to do with it’.

But that’s not the point. I faltered, and no irreparable harm was done, and no amount of Baba O’Riley can bring back the moment lost into nothingness, my careful signing hand, too busy to choose- I refused it then and it left. ‘No take it with you’. Last cigarette to remember it by, but it’s borrowed; the 24 hour pharmacy does not sell them downstairs, but they sell chocolate. All wrapped up like a shiny pretty thing, all dolls. But not that thing I like. And the fear I felt in the afternoon when I was thinking, that’s also gone, gone too and I’m safe here, for now because no one’s been asking me to leave. When I do leave I’ll have to leave without it, his story, so many stories because I’ve lost them- I was a witness and I’ve moved on. Now one lone mosquito stirs the air in this room and is my only concern. I don’t remember what happened in Algeria or how it affected me. I don’t remember the names of the people or the political parties and hardly recall anyone’s motivations and who got killed and who nearly got killed or how- though someone told me, I’ve forgotten. I keep these things as I keep air. I keep many things as I keep air, not the least of all many other people. What was his name? Come on Baba O’Riley, tell me his name too. I just don’t remember.

Reflections: On Fear

‘They hold it in,’ she says gravely, matter of fact-like, looking me in the eye past my camera as the other two nod. ‘They prefer it to the shit they have to take from the bastards on the way to the (community) bathrooms. They’re too afraid and they don’t go,’ she says, talking about the girls in her slum. She’s in her 60’s, having moved to the city from god knows where with her family, she’s a resident of Ambojwadi, a vast slum frozen in various stages of development in North Mumbai.

I’d be there a few days later and take the 15 minute walk from the residential gulleys to the designated toilet area myself- it’s a large field with some scattered shrubs in the way of privacy and little else. Don’t forget your lota. I stood there after a night of bad Chinese, having slept on the floor of a small NGO office, and looked out in the haze, west towards the sea, fancying the facilities 2 miles yonder, off Madh Island on the exclusive Aksa beach.

The ladies notice the tear, the only betrayal of emotion, and I’m coughing too much to be recording anyway. It’s cold in the open here in Azad Maidan, my third night at Medha Patkar’s Andolan. I put my gear down and make to leave to find my place for the night. They ask me to visit them in the slum sometimes, I tell them I’ve been getting a lot of invitations but they say no, don’t go with the people you’ve been talking to we’ve seen you talking with, they’re thugs. They sense it’s been a rough day for me and invite me for a coffee to cheer me up.

Most of Mumbai grinds to a halt when the local trains stop at 1 AM, it’s now nearly 2. Outside the park, solely in the company of a van full of sleeping cops, I wait with them in the eerily quiet, empty city for a bicyclewalla to roll by, chiming his little horn.

The women are excited and it’s thrilling- they talk about everything and I feel like family. When the coffee guy does show up, he’s a little surprised when they women insist on paying for it but pours out the sugary drink in little white plastic cups from the steel box on the back of his bicycle with aplomb when they explain its their treat. He says something, something rich and large, but superficial and makes no sense. Maybe he was just lonely. We go back inside.

A guy in a cap, someone I’d spoken to earlier invites me to a person-wide space on the tarp he seems to have saved for me, it’s the only space left that I can see- there’s a lot of people sleeping in the park tonight. This guy is in a small group, some three men in their mid-thirties, awful and dirty but who isn’t? We make small talk, they inquire about my work, my gear, about the price of it- I quote them a third of what I’d paid, but here in the dark it still makes their eyes widen.

A guy, Javed whom I’d also interviewed, bedded a row down from me, catches my attention with a wave and comes near, ‘You want a coffee?’

Javed is one of the guys the women called a thug. He’s small but firm, and I had a very unpleasant experience with him a few hours ago when he took my East German Braun lighter and asked what I’d do if he didn’t return it to me.

‘Now? I’ve just had coffee’

‘Come on, it’s good coffee. It’ll keep you warm.’

I used to have this thing, something I’d say to myself every now and again like a fucking mantra- never say no. So I take my gear and join him.

We talk about weed. He tells me of the crazy shit they have in his area and invites me to visit to have my mind blown. We’re crossing the street towards the station, no cyclewallas now but Javed is confident we’ll find one on his return journey on the other side. In the 2 AM desolation, the city is vast and the broad lanes that were incredible with traffic just a few hours ago are deserted and wide in the pungent glow of the orange streetlights.

Javed crosses nimbly, jumping over the side railing on the street, where we wait behind some dividers which is normally a taxi stand. A couple of drunks join us, materializing out of nowhere. We all wait for the coffee guy.
Javed turns to me.

‘Those guys are gonna rob you tonight. That’s why I brought you here for a coffee, to warn you. Why do you think they offered you that space? What are you crazy, trusting just anyone?’

I knew he was right, I’d seen as much when they’d targeted a poor drunk sod in front of me, attempted to relieve him of a canvas bag he’d been carrying. I hadn’t thought anything of it then, which is insane in retrospect, but that’s how it was.

The cycle rolls by, we have more shitty coffee. We go back.

I return to my space, there’s no other. They welcome me back and adjust so I can be as comfortable as the situation allows. I settle down.

I turn to Javed in the distance in the dark; he nods, I nod back. I’ve caught it- the fear, the paranoia. Welcome to the jungle; trust no one and never sleep. I’m sitting next to the guy with the cap. He recommends I lie down, I don’t. I turn to Javed again, in the other row, I can’t tell him from the other bodies until he laughs, sniggers, smirks. It is acknowledged. I want to sleep. I need to. I want to sleep.