Through the grayness of this concrete city, streams of tin-box vehicles flow ahead languidly – and like at a river’s delta, distributaries of little hatchbacks and dented yellow taxis branch off from the main road, spreading in varied directions. From your roof, you can see the whole city, you can feel it’s pulse – yet, there is such a strange silence around you, it’s as if the noise below is far, far away, so far that you are actually longing for it. And around you, tall dull skyscrapers finger the sky and the rusty old bridge looks almost toy-like from a distance. You can see everything, whatever you wish to see – yet, when you lean out clasping the coarse iron railing, look down to see if you can see the temple spire underneath, butterflies flutter wildly in your stomach – one swift glance, the heart starts racing fast, the head spins, the eyes blur – you promise to never peek below again, though you know, it’s the vertigo which pulls you once in a while to the roof. The temple: it’s not huge, now though, quite popular, nourished by the generosity of the local politicians and the shopkeepers in the neighborhood. If you are driving by, on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays, you’d be stuck in the snarling traffic jam for quite some time, people in hordes on the road, jostling to get a view of the pantheon of gods and goddesses inside, people with hands folded, lost in prayer, seeking the almighty in deathly desperation. On some days – I am not sure which days – but on some days, they feed the impoverished ones at night – and then, there is more chaos, dirty men and women in a haphazard line are served khichri on paper plates, mangy dogs with hopes of leftover wait behind them, saliva dripping from their tongues. The young men are the chootiyas, the temple volunteers say, they are able-bodied, none of them are cripple, yet they beg in tattered clothes, these cunts, if they just invested in a plastic bucket and a piece of cloth and stood by a tubewell at some street corner early on mornings, they’d have made a fortune washing taxis, but these buggers, all they want is enough money to buy a few tubes of adhesive, that’s all, bloody animals, they even fight for food between themselves when meal is provided, snatching stuff from each other. Things around the temple’s got louder and grander these days, ever since the rightists came to power last year: donations have swelled up, they are even allowed to play devotional music on the loudspeaker all evening, no cop to bother them anymore. They’ve got this mp3 from somewhere, the folks at the temple, so from five to ten, the same songs get played again and again in a loop every evening round the year, only the guys manning the traffic are a bit pissed off, they say they’re sick of it – the chaos in the evenings, the fumes, the wild buses overtaking each other, the pesky autorickshaw-wallahs defying death driving like crazy, the cars and the bikes and the cycle vans, the jaywalkers, and then, the same songs on the loudspeaker– it’s so annoying, they just can’t stand it anymore! Now, it’s nearly nine, the bells in the temple have started ringing wildly, conch shells in unison are being blown to drive away evil spirits. The songs thankfully have stopped, the priest has taken over, now chanting mantras – things are climaxing and soon it’d be quiet for the night. The crowd has swelled up, for once it seems there is no divide – millionaires rubbing shoulders with beggars, policemen and pickpockets brushing against each other, seeking blessings – even the drunkard is there once again, who was kicked out from the premises for creating a nuisance, dancing in a lewd way to the devotional songs.
At times, religion, devotion: they seem to be the biggest farce of all – the sight of the autistic teenager in a wheelchair smiling ahead impishly at the alter, his mother with graying hair behind him lost in prayer, the sight of the bitch carrying in her mouth, the limp body of her dead puppy, the sight of endless streams of urine flowing through the gutters, and on its slimy surface, the reflection of the moon – and you end up disowning god in anger. Across the road from the temple, you have a row of cheap restaurants catering mainly to passengers arriving at the railway station from all across the country – you have a few bars too, booze is cheap here, there is music, at times, they may have one of those ugly crooners no decent bar in the city will employ. Outside the restaurants at rush hour, when business is brisk, you may find mad men and women waiting frozen like statues with helplessness in their eyes, hunger in their stomach, gazing into the countless people dining inside – if they’re lucky, someone will hand over a half-burnt tandoori roti, then they’d move on and someone else will take their place. The municipality guys are still digging – what retards they are, when everything’s nice and clean, after they’ve paved the sidewalk with red-and-white interlocking tiles, they’ve started digging once more and everything is again in a mess, angering the eatery owners whose businesses are being affected because of this constant digging work. Outside Ramchandra Pice Hotel, on a dune of stone chips, a middle aged mad man is squatting – he is weeping actually, though no one gives a damn; under him, there’s a huge pile of bloody shit – his pulled-down trousers, his underpants, his bottom, everything’s messed up – silently, he weeps, tears flow down his face making his dirty face messier – behind him, across the road, the priest on the temple loudspeaker is still hailing the gods and goddesses, devotees screaming back to his calls in a frenzy. A Volvo bus heading towards the airport has slowed down in front the temple, the driver seeks blessings from inside his vehicle, buses and cars behind him, honking like crazy. Nearby, an elderly man in starched white kurta-pajama is handing over ten rupee notes to beggars standing in a long winding queue – the wads of teners thin in no time and finally is no more, then the man walks to his sedan parked nearby and motions to his chauffeur to drive homewards, as a one-legged midget on a crutch pursues him from behind. Lochmi, Mongola, Purnima, Sarala, Geeta and some of the other women who’re in the queue collecting alms have meanwhile surrounded Parveen, now beating her up – ‘What a witch’, they are snarling, ‘a Muslim, how dare you stand in a line with us collecting alms outside a temple, what guts, wearing a goddess kali locket to fool people into thinking you’re Hindu – characterless Muslim whore, fucking van-drivers for twenty bucks at night, go beg outside some mosque, if they’d allow a dirty slut like you to go near one, that is! Get lost, go! We have already warned you several times to not come and beg here, one more time and we’ll smash your head!’ A temple volunteer, hearing the women squabbling, walks to them, orders them to shut up immediately or leave the premises. The women calm down, Parveen reaches down to his three year old toddler still crying to be up on her arms, picks him up, then walks away swiftly through the chaos and disappears into the madness of the bus terminus amidst countless buses, sea of heads, vendors and beggars, commuters, lovers, tired office-goers returning home, cruising men and squatters, drunks and prostitutes, sweat drenched bus conductors and aimless vagabonds. The deeper you go into the night, the sleazier this terminus becomes – bike stops by lonesome young woman, along with the two men on the bike, she disappears; heroin addicts appear out of nowhere, crouching with their foils sheltered by darkness, a cop with his boots kicks a bootlegger selling chullu in plastic pouches underneath the overpass, keeps kicking him in the chest until the old man begs for mercy clinging to the very boots that bloodied him a few seconds back; naked mad man talks to the stars and Mary, beautiful Mary, under an abandoned ticket booth, homeless, injured, homesick, longs for her family far away in Bombay and every minute, every second, she curses herself for running away here from her employer’s mansion in Andhra Pradesh – at least she’d have gotten meals there, at least she’d have had a roof above her, at least they’d have paid her at the end of the month – yes, they’d beat her up if she didn’t listen to them, she would be confined in that mansion all the while and yes, the brothers, they’d have fucked her again and again, sometimes taking turns fucking her, bloody bastards, fucking their wives on soft beds at night behind closed doors and the maid on the kitchen floor when no one’s around, but at least things would have been better, what a mistake it was running away to West Bengal in search of work, if only she’d have taken the train back to Bombay, life would have been somewhat different, it’d have been difficult, but it would at least have been livable. And now, with her gangrened leg, in her stinking salwar and her locks chopped off by the roadside barber, she wonders what she will do here in this city, will she ever make it to her home again – it’s been ages, yes, it’s been ages she’s been away from home, will her papa recognize her the way she is now, will he be able to hold back his tears like he did when her in-laws kicked her out of their home, will he be able to recognize her? – How long, she wonders, she’s not seen herself in a mirror: five months or six, or more than that? When life’s hard, time’s a motherfucker going slow – the harder it gets, the slower it ticks – until one day, suddenly, it stops ticking altogether, when tears dry up, when hope, like god, is nowhere to be seen, when the numb body can feel burning agony no more, when the body is an empty shell breathing; that’s when madness overcomes you, that’s when you grow wise, that’s when suddenly you forget, that death comes as the end – and unexpectedly, hope rushes to you – on littered streets and stinking fly-buzzing dustbins, on a winter night’s brutal rainfall or a summer afternoon’s flaming streets, when dogs lose their bark and thirsty crows maddeningly search for a drop of water – and – bored folks in the backseat of their air-conditioned cars gaze at you, wondering why such a filthy rotting beast like you is giggling in happiness by the roadside, laugh at the unreasonableness of madness, failing to realize it’s necessity for you to keep living on until the municipality folks on a foggy dawn find you lifeless, clean up the body, cleansing the city’s soul.