Reflections

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.

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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.