Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction Shortlist: Ahana Chaudhuri

Ahana Chaudhuri

At three pm one Wednesday afternoon a three headed woman walked in through the gate. I was sitting inside the watchman's cabin savouring the last dredges of my afternoon nap. The sight of her made me sit up a little. I regained my composure soon enough and asked her to fill in the visitors' register. She glared at me with viscious green eyes, flicked her forked tongue, hissed a dirty word and slithered away into the building. I made a mental note to inform the secretary. 

Of late, such occurrences had become increasingly everyday. Earlier, I was the only watchman keeping an eye on the building. Then they hired that Raghu for the front gate and sent me to the back gate. I was getting on in years, they said. Someone more alert was required for the job. Someone who could be trusted to keep watch for long hours at a stretch. What a joke! Because the only thing Raghu seems to watch are those sleazy videos on his phone. 

Ever since I was demoted to back-gate duty, I have little to do. Very few people use the back gate - what with the slum being right there.

But there are things I can see from here that I couldn't when I was on front gate duty. Just the other day, I was watching a yellow sunbird pecking the flowers on the jaamun tree, its head bobbing up and down, when suddenly, without warning, it darted away. My eyes shifted to the open window adjacent. There I saw Gaelyn baby and that boy with dirty hair, the one who comes to give her guitar lessons. What happened next didn't look like the kind of guitar lessons Gaelyn baby's mother had in mind. But memsaab was at the bank. There was no way of her knowing. Unless, you know ... but I'm not a rat like that. 

When you're a watchman you need to know how to keep a secret. Or which ones to keep. Like that time Phulki, Mehra madam's maid, the one she got home delivered from Chattisgarh, ran away with that bevda gardener who couldn't keep a cactus alive, I knew what was brewing. I'd seen them chatting on the sly. Of course they didn't know I was watching. I let things slide for a while. But then I found them in the metre room doing ... Ram ... Ram ... I can't even. Like any honest man, I performed what I thought was my duty and informed Mehra madam. Sparing her the details of course. That evening Mehra madam took matters in her own hands and gave Phulki a sermon that most people in the building had the misfortune of being privy to, thanks to the decibel levels it attained. Turned out Phulki wasn't the quiet type she appeared to be. She just didn't have a language in common to spar with her mistress. The showdown which spanned Punjabi, Broken Hindi, English and Sadriculminated with Phulki's well-timed exit at midnight. I won't deny I saw her leaving but I pretended not to notice in order to avoid a confrontation. Things would have been awkward, you see. The next morning, Mehra madam discovered Phulki was missing, along with Mehra madam's silver cutlery. She flew into a rage, the likes of which haven't been seen in this part of Bandra. To pacify her, the building secretary threatened to take the money out of my salary. There was little I could do except to beg and plead and think of an illness to attribute to a distant relative. 

If I'm to be completely honest, that wasn't the only time the secretary threatened me. Once a group of Hijras came to the building. I asked them to go away. 'There are no babies here,' I added. They said their regional office was organising a Valentine's Day party and they had come to collect funds. I thought it was a joke. I waved my stick at them and yelled, 'Do I look like a donkey? Go away.' I don't know what I did wrong but they grouped together to form one giant nightmare. It stood there, bang in the middle of the street, blocking traffic. Clap. Clap. Clapping. The sound of a thousand hands high fiving themselves, till the noise was deafening. I watched the giant gyrate obscenely. Like an ulcer festering on the face of civilised society. I had to give in eventually. I couldn't let the show go on. I let them in and they went from door to door demanding donations. Not like those sisters in grey with the white hankies on their head who come from the blind school. But like thugs and bandits. The whole building blew its fuse and the secretary took it out on me. It's a good thing I don't take such incidents to heart. They would've had to find another watchman long ago. You would think they ought to be thankful for that, but no, I get none of that.

Why, one day that nasty stray from 402 was making eyes at me. I said, 'Hatt gutter goo,' and it came charging at me, calling me all sorts of names. Unmentionable, all of them. I don't know how a dog born and raised in Mumbai picked up that many Bhojpuri cuss words. Like a shotgun spraying bullets, it showered me with gaalis, all the while snarling like a rabid monster. That idiot dog walker could barely handle the maniac. Yet there he was, laughing like he'd lost his mind. If I had no use of my legs, I'd kick him as hard as I'd kick that dog. I complained to Rohan baba and said take that dog of yours to the dog pound. It is not fit to live in human society. Curses like a murderous sailor. Rohan baba looked into my eyes like it was clear that the lights were on but no one was home. 'Ram Singh bhaiya, are you alright?' he asked. Of course I'm alright baba. Your dog is insane. 

As if that was not enough,  there are those witches on the 5th floor. Chudails! They live together. Like husband and wife. And they say am mad.  That too because I was responsible enough to tell them that someone was shining blue light out of their kitchen window while they were away on a holiday and no one was at home. The light was aimed at me. The rays crawled into my head and gnawed at my brain, so I started forgetting things. I left the pump on and the garden tap running, all because of that evil blue light from their window at night. I crept away to the darkest corner of the compound to escape it. Those chudails, they listened to my whole story. Then the short fat one said, 'But Ram Singh why won't you let me take you to a cycle-ogist?' Arre, I don't want a cycle. Why should I go? Both of them are crazy. 

I could have lived with all of their insanity. I've been here as long as this building. I know they call me Schizzuu Schizzuu behind my back. Like that blind rug on four legs that belongs to Temi Maiji from 504. They think I don't know it. But I do. I just don't take it to heart. Because I've known them all for so long. The children here have always been my friends. They don't know the difference between us and them. We are just people. Two eyes. Two ears. One nose. We're all the same. 

Yesterday when I lost my temper, I was watching the children play in the compound. When the balloon man came with his fancy wares to lure them. Myra baby from 8th floor went running after his bicycle. There were balls of colour trailing in the wind. The balloon man stopped for a moment and handed her the biggest balloon. One that looked like a fish. Her nanny tried to pull her away but she clutched the string with her chubby hands and kicked up such a fuss that  nanny had to part with the spare change stashed in her blouse to buy her the flying fish. I noticed that a drum seller had appeared from nowhere and was now standing next to the balloon man hoping to get a piece of the pie. He bust a beat and the kids flocked to him like bees to honey, dancing like circus monkeys. There was nothing I liked more than to watch the children play like that. They pulled me up to join them. Just then I saw the balloon man giving Myra baby another balloon. This one even bigger than the first. Before we knew it, a sudden gust of wind blew Myra baby away. The flying fish tugged her further and further away into the sky. That wretched balloon man stood there and laughed, baring his filthy tobacco stained teeth. The nanny sat under a tree, a few feet away, staring into space, chewing betel nuts, cracking them one by one with concentration. Oblivious to the kidnapping of the little girl by the balloon man and the flying fish. No one seemed to notice Myra baby was floating away. Except me. I raised an alarm. I screamed myself hoarse till my face turned crimson and my veins threatened to pop. I rushed to the balloon man, pummeled him to an inch of his life, and forced him to say he'll bring her back. And he did. I left him with no choice. When I was done with him, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there she was. Clutching those wretched balloons. I snatched them away and pounded them with a brick till they were deflated beyond hope. No harm would come to Myra baby. Not on my watch. 

I didn't expect to be applauded for doing my duty but what happened this morning was unexpected. They fired me. The secretary came down to give me the news, along with some of the old residents in tow. They probably felt bad for doing what they did to me. They certainly made a great show of it. They even offered a severance fee but I'm an honourable man. I may be poor but I have my pride. Charity wasn't going to be how I earn my living. They said they were going to replace me with a camera. Not even another man. A camera. They accused me of imagining things, of mixing fact with fiction. They weren't unkind but they implied I was mad. The word was that I could no longer be relied on to keep a watch on the building. They couldn't trust a watchman who saw things they didn't. I was to be dismissed with a month's notice and they hoped the month would pass by without much incident. I didn't know what to say so I bore my fate in silence. 

After they left, I sat in my old chair and watched a crow circling overhead. Wings stretched out as though it harboured delusions of being a hawk. The mind is a funny thing. It rewound like a kite's spool and took me back to a summer's day back in Baheri, my village. There was a famine in the district. All the water had dried up. The fire had been burning on funeral pyres for days. Mai, Bapu, Gudiya and most of the village had turned to ash. I crouched under a peepal tree staring at the smoke mingling with the washed out blue of a cloudless sky, praying for nothing. I sat there staring till the sun didn't prick my eyes anymore. Till the storm clouds gathered uninvited and I tasted the first drop of rain. It trickled down the bridge of my nose, cruised along my lips and gently forced their way on to my parched tongue. I could taste it now. Only today, it tastes a little salty. 


Ahana Chaudhuri is a part time copywriter and a full time junk food junkie. The most oft repeated compliment in her life is 'You're a total grandma'. She likes sweaters, cocoa and all things furry. She's also a strong proponent of the 'Hit the sack by 9 after a glass or 20 of wine' philosophy. An avid reader of gossip columns and the back of biscuit packs, she has recently discovered the joy of writing about herself in third person. She entertains the idea of winning a lottery someday and quitting her day job to move to an island and pet baby turtles, whether they like it or not. 

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