Saturday, July 31, 2010


The door to his studio flat is open as far as it can on the rough arcing groove, etched over the years by the frame sagging on its hinge.

His room; six-hundred square feet of it. A small hall, a closet-sized kitchen at the back, and a three-steps bathroom along the passage leading to the kitchen: a step forward to enter and approach the mini-washbasin, a step sideways to the right to stand under the shower, and another with an about face to drop the pants and squat. The bed, lumpy and greasy mattress-pillow-quilt, lies rolled neatly in the middle of the hall and the books have been stacked against a wall in three canting columns rising to my shoulders, the built-in cupboard at the back bolted. The floor, a debris of books ash and plastic cups the last time I was here, is bare and glistens in the light streaming from the old newspapers stuck on the windows and blotched with the penumbral mottles from the letterings of a large headline; freshly mopped: damp patches still dry at the corners and the pail peeps from behind the door, the mop floating limply in the brown sludge. Even the smell of cigarettes is gone.

I walk to the end of the passage, to the kitchen. The sink is scrubbed and empty, only the kitchen rag drying on the ledge and a wet green soap. The thin supply of utensils – a pan, three unmatched mugs, a skillet, a spatula, four steel plates, a smattering of cutlery – are stacked hurriedly on a shelf. The electric stove stands alone on the rough four-by-one granite slab, two polythene bags filled with refuse under it, and the small window over it is thrown open. But despite the open window, despite the absence of clutter and smells in this narrow confine, I feel that anxiety again and walk back to the hall and look around as if I expect him to materialize in a corner any moment now. I notice the lump of the laptop under the mattress and hunker down to pull it out. My hands discover the rolled bundle of notes underneath it. I do not have to count them.

The man at the shop tells me that he did not see him go anywhere. ‘Bhaiyya cleared his account today’, he adds as I turn to the stairs. I turn to look him in the eyes but they do not tell me anything.

A thin ledge running along the parapet leads to the wide space at the back of the room where a black metal ladder climbs along the side of the open kitchen window to the roof and beyond, to the top of the water tank. A man in a vest watches me climb up with small, incurious eyes from a balcony – weight on beefy arms gripping the railing – of the building opposite, the building one amongst an uneven row of matchboxes standing on their edges, some of them tipping forward dangerously like drunks. He turns his head and goes back to his staring at a spot where there is nothing to stare.

I reach the top of the concrete tank and, after a moment of hesitation, walk to the edge where he sits. He has grown even thinner, vertebra poking out of the thin Tshirt on his hunched back, the shoulder seams dropping to the arms. I take a tentative, vertiginous, peek of the choked honking alley over which his knobby knees hang. The wires, like scratches keyed on a lift-door, would break his fall but probably electrocute him, leaving him hanging upside-down, wings splayed, a dead bat.

I light a cigarette and still see nothing of his face but the hair, grown to his shoulders now, skeins of silver running through them; not even the tip of his nose. I snap my fingers and offer the cigarette to him. He turns his head and looks up.

The man pauses at the gate and looks inside. I imagine what he sees –the tree lined front lawn, the driveway curling around it, the jut of the portico, the bungalow – but not me, sitting on the roof, watching him. He lifts the latch and steps inside, leaving the gate open behind him. The guard-room is empty – Gopal has stepped out to pee behind the alleys.

The man. Matted hair like a nest containing the wild eggs of his eyes; hair spreading to a shaggy beard and mangy tufts on the naked torso; a sooty rag wrapped at the loins; large bare feet, the rinds chapped and torn, the soles ashen.

He strides along the driveway, a cocky swing to one side, and leaves it to follow the path that cuts through the side of the house, separating it from the side lawn, and curving to an intersection where one path leads to the servants’ quarters and the other to the flimsy wooden double-door at the back of the kitchen courtyard. I follow his progress silently along the parapet, placing my feet in the bald patches where the gravel has been torn out of the tar, to make no scraping sound. The man pauses at the intersection and then takes the turn to the door and pauses at its doorstep – it is flung open. I crane my neck a little forward, hiding behind a black tank set at the corner of the roof, and see chachi sitting alone on the takhat, sifting grains on a chhaj. A rumble from the man’s chest startles us both – a clearing of the throat, a sharp admonition, a loud guttural belch. Chachi looks about uncertainly and then gingerly gets up.

She gathers a few handful of grains in the hem of her sari and rises from the takhat. She crosses the elevated courtyard shaded by a slab of roof, like a card resting on the bridges of the rooms spilt by the space of the courtyard, descends the two steps to the cracked stone floor of the lower courtyard, crosses the stacks of utensils piled on the square brick-lined basin under the tap – a sluice cut into the basin which gurgles with scummy brown water when Ba washes the utensils as it runs along the wall to disappear under the door beyond which the man waits. I watch the approaching black of her neatly oiled, centre-parted hair, peeping out of the half-crescent blue of the pallu, pause at the grey-brown ropy strands falling to his shoulders. I imagine the grease-smeared eyes holding her lowered gaze; of having unwaveringly followed her progress. Her hands rise, holding the hem of her sari, and diffidently offer the wedge of grains rolling and shuffling in its folds, waiting for him to bring a bowl under its tip. After an eternity, the man moves a hand below the rag at his waist and brings forth something – a dark tamarind pod.

Chachi turns and runs away – the hem abandoned, the grains scattering on the stone like beads from a broken necklace. No shout of shame or horror escapes her lips, even when she almost trips over her fallen pallu on the steps; only the slam of the inner door to the house. His palm opens, pink and callused, and the pod falls and disappears in the folds of the loin-cloth again. The head jerks, turns and lifts, and his dark eyes pin me at my spot. I lurch backwards, my legs, fallen asleep, buckling under me, and I fall on my back. A terror seizes me and I wriggle on my back, my shirt tearing on the gravel, my skin scraping, till I find the strength to turn over, rise and scamper away.

The smoggy skyline thins to a red strip over the straggly antennas-crammed roofs; the air dense and sticky.

‘It’s going to rain.’

He rises without comment, my hands poised ready behind his neck lest he stumble, and I follow him down the ladder to the room below, to the mattress where he squats to pull out the laptop and rolled bundle. I stand at the door, my arms folded, as he approaches me and offers them to me.

‘I told you I don’t want them back.’

‘No, take it – I can’t’, the words come in thick glottal stops as if snagging and tearing on phlegmy cobwebs. I do not unfold my hands; after a long pause, he crosses me and lowers them on the floor outside the edge of the jamb.

‘What about your book?’

‘There is no book. I do not have any story to tell.’

‘You are coming with me.’

‘No’, he steps behind the door, a hand resting on the edge of the open door, and declares with finality, ‘I am not going anywhere. Please go.’

I shake my head and my arms tense, expecting him to slam the door on me any moment. He does. I block the swinging door with my shoulder, and after a struggle, he flings himself at me. A long fingernail slashes under my eye and I pin his arms to his side as he pushes me with his head under my ribcage. I repulse him, his arms held pressed to his sides under my palms, his push hardly even makes me sway back on my feet. His feet climb over mine and he heaves again and again, but I do not yield. He collapses suddenly, his legs bucking under him, his head falling on my stomach, and I grab and hold him up by his bony arms. We stand like this for a long time, the sweat pouring from his hair from the struggle, soaking slowly through my shirt, my vest, its wetness reaching my skin.

‘Let me pack some clothes’, he mutters blankly.

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凱許倫 said...
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