They often asked Ramesh about the chase and fight. And the slim teenager willingly obliged.
“How did it start?” They asked, after finishing the day’s job, around 11 in the night.
And Ramesh, feeling heroic, would start unspooling the same reel again.
“I was coming back after delivering the clothes to the Hill residents when I see this man. A deserted street, rain falling, around 10pm, I stop, braking my cycle. A thin man, eyes popping out, a paper- slip in hand, apparently lost. I try to show him the direction; he, still confused. I say, come with me, I will show, and then suddenly the skeletal guy whips out a knife and asks for money. Scared, I hand over the collection and he pushes me and then runs away. I stand there, paralyzed. Then realizing I have been mugged by a junkie, I become panicky. Money lost. What will I tell the shop owner? Galvanized, I give a chase to the running mugger…”
“Then?” They asked inevitably, eyes wide.
“…And catch up with him under a tree, counting the rupees. He gets surprised by my sudden entry. I snatch the wad of notes from his hands, he lunges towards me and I, enraged and fearless, kick him hard in his lions. The mugger falls down, writhing in pain, and I pedal my way up the incline, happy to have made a quick recovery from a lunatic!”
“Wow!” The boys would chorus.
“Nothing! Part of the money was mine. Meant for my family. I cannot allow a junkie to take way what belongs to my family, said Ramesh. I can do anything for my family.”
They all nodded. They mirrored Ramesh in every way—toiling in a sweatshop in Mumbai for families tucked away in distant villages, surviving precariously on their money orders. The exhausted boys would applaud his act and then retire to a humble bed—a mat and a pillow on the hard floor of the Royal Laundry, Mumbai. In few seconds, the boys would be sound asleep. Except Ramesh. He would think of a dim home, a far-of village in north of India, an ailing Ma, a shy younger sister and an alcoholic father found often in the gutter.
It always returned in grey dreams.
Dim land, rolling in mist, grayish-grayish, trees moving about in soft gloom, a home…red-tiled, partially thatched, mud-walled, a neem tree in the compound, a Tulsi in the corner, a rusted hand-pump, coughing frail mother, eyes blank, face hollow, little sis waiting under the tree…he has returned from the city, bearing gifts but nobody notices, he stands in front of Ma, Bapu and sister but nobody sees him…he waves, shouts, dances but they do not react. Strange! He is there, yet not there. What has happened? The family fails to observe his presence or hear him sing. Is he dead? Pinches hard and grimaces. Even the adopted stray does not recognize him! This is odd! It has never happened earlier. Family always looked up to Ramesh. Has he become invisible? There were many such stories. Old people, widows, out-of-job young men living in village homes but hardly seen by the other members, although common sightings were reported by the villagers on many occasions. This has intrigued Ramesh: How can a person living in the same house become invisible? Now, it was happening with him also and it was scary—his non-existence to those whom he loved so much. Disturbed, Ramesh starts running away from home…Ma still does not react, eyes blank, left suffering from cataract…he crosses the border between a dark jungle and the old village and looks back. Ma is waving at him, saying, “Go earn something in Mumbai and survive. Here we are starving. You will get good food at least”…and then huge mists roll down and swallow him up like a hungry giant…and he wakes up.
Ramesh’s world was the laundry. A hall with four ironing stands where teens worked 12-13-hour daily shifts. He ironed mountains of clothes and then, evenings, dispatched them to high-rise houses. He got 60 percent; remaining went to the owner of the laundry who belonged to the same village and often scouted for young desperate boys for his many shops. Two years ago, Ramesh came down from Delhi to the busy Andheri shop, after a long journey in a general compartment. His tin box contained few clothes, a mirror, a comb and a red cap. Fuelled by the energy of youth and the power of the multi-colour dreams, Ramesh got down in Mumbai, determined to be successful in the city of millions of migrants.
“Work hard here and you will have your dreams fulfilled in Mumbai, a kind mother to all,” said his Seth, the owner. All successful persons were called Seth, the rich man. The term was pleasing for a city that dreamt of money only. “I will.” The Seth was happy. “I came with a tin box like you 35 years ago. Now, I own three laundries, one coconut-stall and one juice shop. Bought two apartments and bikes. Kids are reading in English-medium schools. I am lucky! But Mumbai loves and rewards hard work. Even you can become BIG here!” Seth had said. He knew the power of aspirations and an aspirational mega-city and their twin hold over the imagination of a migrant ready to sweat in demanding conditions.
“Everybody wants to be successful, wealthy and wealthier,” Seth’s father once told him. “So, make the impoverished migrants from rural setting dream…dream big in a big city. Provide a shelter and bare wages. Enough for these bastards starving in their village. They will work for you for long.”
That appeal, that formula had never failed.
Seth sold dreams to these boys. And they, grateful, slaved for him for impossible hours and wages, dreaming of bikes, girls and a fat bank-account.
Ramesh was thrilled by these words and the reassuring tone—of a kind benefactor.
If Seth can, why cannot I?
One day, I will be running my own mini empire here. Boys like me will be working for me too. They will call me a Seth. Ma will live comfortably. Family will not starve. I will marry off little sister.
Seth secretly chuckled. Looking at the boy’s eyes and remote look, Seth understood fish was caught for few years.
Surrounded by the gleaming high-rises, posters of film stars, ads of fancy cars and apartments, Ramesh too dreamed…big. He worked hard, cooked his meals at the back of the hall on stove and then, late-night, spent half-an-hour in the empty streets nearby—his freedom hour—and came back to sleep. The boys would talk to each other and share their grim histories…abusive father, sick mother, starvation in a feudal village, lack of education and manual labour, their only passport to success.
Weekend visits to the beach revived them—and occasional drinks. A rare adventure was going to a whorehouse.
Ramesh soon got his first exposure to the dirty city. They took a few pegs in a bar and then headed to the Kamathipura—the red-light district. Ramesh was a bit hesitant. The Nepali woman was kind and wanted him to lose his virginity on her narrow bed. But a drunk and shy Ramesh could not bring himself to unzip his pants before a total matronly figure in a seedy room in a run-down house in a seedy lane. So she took the teen in her lap and talked to him in a gentler tone, smiling kindly, eyes tender, strikingly different from her earlier blunt sex-worker image, a slut in a hurry to dispose of a young client in few minutes flat and usher in another drunk and hungry man with plastic smile on her painted face and then another throughout the long night, every night…and thus lulled by the rhythmic fat hands of a transformed woman selling sex in a hungry city, the overworked teen drifted off into deep sleep and saw his mother in the prostitute’s smiling face and cried in sleep…and the other brazen boys woke him up and laughed and called him an impotent: “You are not mard! You are not a real man!”
How perceptions change!
The innocence and fresh-faced charm of Ramesh became the reason for losing his cherry a few days later. The wife of the owner called the teen one summer afternoon and seduced him gently. The Seth was away in the village, scouting for more cheap labour for his another upcoming laundry shop in Mira Road. The squint-eyed, oval-faced woman was lonely and bored. She treated him very kindly and gently instructed the blushing boy what to do with her obese body.
“You are my real Seth,” she crooned in his ear. “Come daily.”
And obedient Ramesh went daily, in afternoons. Afterwards, Ramesh was treated to good food and almond-laced milk. “You need to be healthy and active for me,” she told him. “This will boost up your energies. My man has lost the zeal. Always counting money only, hardly bothered about me.” And she would cuddle him to her vast bosom. The secret meetings, although refreshing, were not that secretive. Satish, a tall boy few years senior, one day smiled and said in low voice, “So, how was the trip?” And winked. Ramesh, frightened, feigned ignorance. “Come on, she has invited some of us also, the slut. She becomes bored soon. Needs fresh supply.” And the two laughed. “Never tell your friends,” she advised, “If you do and Seth learns about our relationship as secret lovers, he will kill you. He is possessive, extremely jealous and dangerous. Can be violent. After couple of drinks, he becomes a devil. If he confronts me, I will tell him you tried to rape me. So, dear, my new Seth, do not squeal on us.”
Why will I? At least, in the mega-city, one thing came free! Thought a bemused Ramesh, catching up fast the ways of the world.
The dark world was to invade soon.
The letter from the village was depressing: Ma was constantly ill and her medical bills were rising. Bapu had fractured his leg after a long binge of drinking country liquor and then falling in a gutter on a dark night. They were somehow surviving on coarse rice and few vegetables. They needed more money.
Ramesh got real worried. He was saving drastically and sending Rs. seven thousand every month. He ate only rice-daal. Occasionally, he ate sweets. Seth was back. So, the trysts were few and fraught with dangers. The boy worked harder, cutting down on his sleep. This affected his health. But there were no choices for a laundry-boy. You have to get up early, sprinkle your mounting loads with water, iron the clothes properly, bind them in individual bundles, deliver them in evenings on a creaking bicycle up inclines and rough roads, come back, iron remaining load, then cook supper, wash utensils and then sleep on hard floor. Then, you can earn 60 percent of your labour. And, in order to send money to family, you have to eat less, deny yourself, work more and…fall ill…in that simple order. To recover you have to eat well. That means spending money. That you cannot afford.
Family needed every paisa. Not you. The spiral will continue…
One night, a bit ill, he fell asleep quickly, only to be woken up by a hand running over his back, a breath reeking of country liquor, and a man bent over him in darkness. Something hard was pressed against his slender lower- back.
Ramesh, groggy, got jolted. He turned around and stood up swiftly, while the silhouette slid down. He kicked in the loins and slapped hard the prostrate figure.
He switched on the light.
It was Satish, blood-shot eyes, drunk, swaying in pain. Other workers had gone to the red-light district on their routine weekend escapade. The two were alone.
“Next time,” hissed Ramesh, brandishing a kitchen knife, “if you touch me, you are a dead man…and a castrated dead man.”
He was not violated again.
The full darkness in noon arrived suddenly….
Ramesh was headed to the post-office, a twenty-minute walk, in a crowded market. He was having Rs. 10, 000/- in his pocket. The savings of two months. He was happy—the amount will tide over family’s burden for some time. Temporary relief but welcome. Ma will smile through her pain; little sis will bring medicines, fruits and provisions in that bleak house in a bleak country.
And then darkness happened in bright afternoon. Bombs went up, smoke billowed out, twisted vehicles flew up in rancid air, bleeding dying persons screamed, splinters scattered around, deafening sounds radiated outwards.
A badly-wounded Ramesh lay dazed on the street, amid the debris, blood oozing out, eyes shut, numbed by searing-white pain, surrounded by other victims, some writhing, others still…
And he saw sick mother smiling, beckoning him from a far-off place enveloped in mists, her thin hand outstretched, eyes pleading, voice trailing…while a retreating Ramesh entering a grey zone, slowly separating from a family he held so dear and close in an age where in middle-class India and elsewhere, it was completely dead.
Sunil Sharma, a senior academic and author-critic-poet--freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the the monthly bilingual journal Setu published from Pittsburgh, USA