Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Street-level Scene

The mini-market has one vegetable shop, one grocer who also does milk deliveries early in the morning, one defunct barber shop, a medical shop and the Jubilee Wine Spot. The ‘market’ stands at the corner of one main road and a lane leading off to a quiet residential area. This used to be a lazy kind of market once, but not any more. Ever since the liquor shop moved here, there is a bustle at the beginning of every month. The first Sunday sees crates of beer being delivered. By mid-morning, there’s an informal party of men crowded around the shop, which has large supplies of namkeen, plastic disposable glasses, plastic pouches of water and small change.

Drinking is a serious business here. The men talk among themselves but they are rarely raucous. One or two plug a bottle of beer to their lips and detach themselves from the bottle only when there’s nothing left in it. By late afternoon, the crowd disappears. If they have any money left, it has been consumed or invested in more alcohol for later.

Parked just outside the wine shop at around four in the afternoon, waiting for others to finish what they have to, I have a good view of two men on the pavement, right next to the large blue MCH rubbish bin. They are both ragged, both bleary-eyed and very, very drunk. On the pavement beside them is an empty bottle of cheap rum: only an optimist would consider tipping the bottle for a few fugitive drops of liquor. As I watch, a remarkable altercation is in progress.

The men are sitting close together. The older one in the dhoti and shirt tries to put his hand in the breast pocket of the other man. Each has one affectionate hand around the other’s shoulder but the second hand seems to live independently of the first. With careful imprecision, the one tries to reach for the contents of the pocket and the other defends his pockets from assault. It looks quite companionable.

The younger man finally sneaks out a ten rupee note from his pocket and crumples it up in his fist tightly the way children do. The older man, unable to reach or prise open the other’s fist and increasingly desperate, reaches for the younger man’s crotch. The younger man tries to retaliate in kind. There is something hilarious and sad about the seriousness with which they try to grab at the other's crotch.

Though neither has sufficient control over his movements, the whole thing seems rehearsed: it has the slow, coordinated rhythm of a dance class, the utter concentration of one who is attempting to remember the next step while doing this one perfectly.

A young girl returning from school stops to watch. She stands quite close to them but they are oblivious. The ten rupee note is the most important thing in their blurred, circumscribed world. The older man is now almost lying down on the pavement with the younger one half on top of him. One hand searches frantically for something with which to defend himself. He finds a large slab of granite and tries to pick it up but from where he is, it is too heavy to lift. The girl, having watched enough, moves away.

The younger one now has the money back in his pocket, which he has twisted and is holding with one hand. The older one has the slab of granite in both hands but manages to shift it to one while holding the younger man with the other. Now the battle shifts to who gains control over the stone. In all this time, neither has uttered a word or let out a sound.

The boys from a nearby supermarket have come to dispose of several large cartons full of garbage. One boy is on a cycle while two others try to stuff too-large things into the MCH’s meagre bin, spilling plastic and thermacol over the side. They stand around and look at the two drunk men on the pavement and laugh. The one on the cycle practices cycling in tight circles. Once the others are done, they all head back to work.

A boy from the liquor store – no more than 13 years – comes to pick up empty bottles. He bends down to pick up the bottle of rum but the two men temporarily abandon their private fight to defend the bottle from marauders. The boy goes away, having picked up a few plastic cups. He seems unsurprised and incurious. The younger man picks up the bottle and takes a hopeful swig.

There must have been something in it because in a moment he is retching and sick. He holds his head in his hands and sways back and forth. Long lines of spit fall to the road. The older man strokes his back and after a few moments ruffles his head. They straighten up and say a few words to each other that have all the brevity of code. But they understand each other. The younger one looks around.

I, who have been looking at them directly, suddenly look away, pretend to be looking in the rear view mirror but I can see them from the corner of my eye. The man looks at me for a moment. His eyes are bloodshot. Eventually his eyes slide away and I can turn my head slightly to see what is happening.

Nothing is that hasn’t happened in the last fifteen minutes. They resume their intimate dance, oblivious of everyone and everything and will no doubt continue until either the one decides to share the ten rupee note or the other steals it and buys whatever liquor can be bought for that sum.

We leave but the next morning when I pass that way I glance at the pavement for signs of bodies lying lifeless, or passed out or in another tableau. But there is nothing. Just the garbage bin, a few sweepers and a liquor store that hasn’t yet opened for the day.


SUR NOTES said...

really loved reading this post...

??! said...

it's like there's a meaning in this, or perhaps it's just really pathetic.

lovely post.

Menaka said...

beautifully observed

Space Bar said...

I had no idea there were comments to this post! Didn't turn up in my mailbox...

Thanks all.

??!: Or both?

dipali said...

This was like reading a modern day Premchand story ! Wonderful.

Space Bar said...

Dipali: that is quite a compliment. thanks.