Harbouring a free man
Harbouring a free man
It had been a quiet Sunday morning. The first one since time began in the wee bits of God’s imagination. Everything remained the same. Only, I was out of a tiresome job. At the moment, It seemed enough. Before the world would again come, trailblazing through my front door, this would be the only nectar of truth, coming my way.
So last night, I raised my glass to that and fixed on the one destination, I wanted my bike and my old cargo pants to be at. In the early days, when history did the same thing to me, I went for a rendezvous. One with an old friend. A twin island. Looking at the pathetic condition of them, these days, I was free to explore the city by myself. And there it was. Imagination. Mumbai harbour.
The idea came by itself on an excruciatingly dull afternoon, while I was at the office. Far from masturbatory afternoons, this seemed like a great option at first. A fellow in the cyberspace had written out his list of 100 things, that he would do, when in Mumbai. And surprisingly, none seemed too cool to be at. So, in came 101, the one which would be on my mind for some time. Before the thoughts of it disappeared into the ether of my own self.
Say it! Say it! I told myself. For once, say that you would like to do this by yourself. I didn’t. But, it was one of those things that you promise, while you are drunk. Gaurav bailed in the morning and Abhinay, well, let’s just say that I cared about his beauty sleep, as much as he did.
At 8’o clock, the engine roared and a few kilometres went by. In the busy market, I went around the women in body-hugging sarees and men in loose-fitting loincloths. Then came the road, and the road was clear. I broke a couple of rules by driving on the freeway. No bikes allowed on the freeway. But how can it be a freeway if it can’t even live up to its name?
With no cops in sight, the bike zoomed into the interior of the exterior Bombay, and some new scenes began to form. An old railway shed, completely covered in the undergrowth, and a hill right in the middle of the sea. It seemed peaceful and calm. It looked tired. Then the big gate arrived after 37 km.
I usually am awry of the rules. Rules at school, rules at the office, rules at the apartment building and the self-imposed rules. Then they marched in front of me, the rules to the container port. I know that it is a central government facility. The national security is at stake with a breach. But the only thing I could think of, at that moment was, ‘How pretty is all this’. I was fully in my senses, given as a rule of God. The rolled joint from 3 nights before, however, dangled inside its cute cigarette pack. Screaming to come out. To break the cardinal rule.
At some point in time, this seemed to be quite the opposite of dangerous. For some time it even felt doable.
I waltzed into the big gate and everyone seemed nice. The guard was welcoming. He even smiled at me. I was covered in a helmet, a handkerchief around my face, for the turds the flew in the air and the turds which had reached me. Trying to find an opening.
Some other day of the week must have been an off day for the guard, I suppose. He looked very pale. Only a brief introduction and an identity card did the job. I was in. I zoomed the bike into the huge premises and looked from side to side. It did not feel like an accomplishment. It shouldn’t have so too.
The second barrier was a few kilometres away. This one looked, even easier to crack. The whole of the 20-lane road was dotted by booths, in a line. Booths, similar to the ones you come across on a toll road. The guard asked me to wait and I did. Another jolly fellow. He seemed young. The early twenties, probably. After another brief discussion, he had with another guard, he asked me to wait for a shuttle bus. You are not supposed to walk around the container terminal. And, there it was again. Second time lucky.
The mind was full of thoughts and no deeds. The gargantuan cranes looked even prettier from this closely. There was only one way to go from here. Forward.
Nobody spoke during the short shuttle ride till the terminal administration block. Another one of those white enormous buildings, which jut out of the ground, in the middle of nowhere. This was not nowhere. But, it only came close.
Rain started to pour, and I had to take refuge under an extended balcony, right beneath the white sculpture. I felt ready. I felt hunger after a long time. It was right there. The sea. The terminal. The place from where most of us got our daily staple. For the body and the bike. The road was wet from the rain, but it was one of the most beautiful ones, I had seen in the entire city, in many months. It was inviting. A painting come to life. A ragged gypsy craning out of an old canvas frame, curling his fingers and smiling with a toothless grin, inviting me over to have lunch with his family.
There were only a few steps taken before a blue shirt hollered at me. And I knew that I was done.
Inside the white tower, several blue shirts gathered around me. It was a big hall with many glass doors opening from it. The exit door was right in the front. So, I was not bothered. Until that moment, I thought the life was still the good life, even if it was inside a high-security government tower. Then came the man with the moustache.
For the first time during the entire morning, I felt the fear. The fear that makes your heart go a big beating one. The one that makes your feet, trembling. Then he screamed. He screamed nothing like a madman, but he made me feel afraid and that was enough.
I remembered the days in Myanmar, the days when I was travelling the unknown 400 km. In a land which was not littered with 5000 hotels. The rebel army had created check posts to identify the foreign nationals. Even though. I did not look like a Burmese, I was able to circumvent through the check posts and enter the hinterland. When counted by hand, I could always raise three fingers to the people who could not understand my language. I fell short by one, this time.
Apart from the blue shirts, there was a man in a red jacket. I assumed that he was in charge. He blabbered out orders to the blue shirts in rapid Marathi. I couldn’t do anything apart from standing there like, well like someone who doesn’t understand a language. I made a mental note to learn Marathi.
While my legs had stopped trembling, there still was a hint of sweat rising on the brow. Then the moustache reinforced it.
The moustache was short and intense. His logic was flawed just like the others. But he had big scrawny hands, which I assumed were due to the demanding job, he was doing at the port. Alas! He was just a security guard. The authorities hadn’t had a security snag since years, otherwise, it would have been in the newspaper. In that case, the hands must be from all the beatings, he gave each night to his woman and children. He must’ve had more than one child at the least. Ample evidence to support my thoughts was absent, but that was all I had. I wanted to tell him the reason, of me, being there. Fruitless, it would have been. How could I have told him that sailors have the most interesting of lives. And because I was clad in a shroud of sophistication still, I could not visit the Kolis of Maharashtra. The modern-day sailor was all that I could manage at that time. Instead, I found a security guard. Complete with scrawny hands and a moustache.
It happened without warning. I turned around to look at the moustache once and he slammed a big baton in my back.
He had it wrongly figured out. Shoving the baton into my stomach would have been more damaging. However, it wasn’t the baton but the shock from it that threw everything into chaos. People started to grab and pull me towards a door on one side of the hall. I could see a fingerprint scanner on it. This was it. The word ‘Spy’ started forming across my mind. The legs started to tremble again.
As a slight relief, the room did not look like an interrogation room. It was a meeting room with a big table in the centre. Without any chairs. Everyone was supposed to stand here. I think the blue shirts hadn’t seen the inside of the white tower, until now. Then one of them started to tug on my backpack. And, it dawned on me. The sweet little brown joint was still there. Happily, in its cigarette packet. The panic began.
The only Sikh guard took my bag and started opening it. The sickly-sweet story of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of poppies popped out. With it came out, that day’s newspaper and a diary. Nothing suspicious. The rising panic though reached my throat and started beating out, as he started to open the other zipper. This was it, I thought. Even though it wasn’t something worthy of high alert, it would have given them enough proof to do as they please. A tight slap across the face or a baton properly rammed into my gut, this time. But, he was not at his best work today. He looked at the cigarette packet but didn’t look inside. Other items included a half-eaten box of biscuits and the bike keys. It was similar to the engineering days. Everyone would write the formulae of fluid mechanics on the back of the examination admit card and then hand it over to the invigilator. Hoping that they would not look at the back. And they never did. Why do my junior students still follow the practice, I found out. Right in that moment. In that white ivory tower. Right on the coast.
Then appeared Devesh. Devesh was not a blue shirt and drove a car around the premises. He drove the blue shirts and red jackets around the port, as and when they wanted him to. Until then everyone’s face had turned a shade deeper of red. Devesh was calm. He seemed like the friend I needed.
The baton bruise was still raw, and it pained when a blue shirt shoved me forward. Devesh informed me that I was lucky, not be beaten black and blue by then. I immediately looked at the moustache, who was still trying to voice his opinion in the sea of blue.
The mind can play nice tricks. I let out a sheepish subdued grin. Had the guys, found the dubious joint, everyone would have changed. Even you, Devesh.
The chaos now reminded me of the one night, many nights before. 1256 to be precise. Another one of the bureaucratic disasters, which led me to a bored policeman, more futile conversations and a trip in a police car. Those guys were swift though. They knew what they were doing. Notoriously enough, on that night as well, my comrade had a recently secured packet of fairy dust, stuffed right inside his sock. Like a gift, from Santa Claus. Only this one wore jeans and drove an Auto-rickshaw.
Failing to comprehend, what to do, everyone turned on the guard who had let me in. Caravans started filing out of the ivory tower. Devesh was driving me now. I was made to sit between the two of them, and the moustache sat in the front. The guard on my right seemed too radical for his age. His crude Marathi was peppered with stray English words. Words which we don’t know the meaning of in our own language. I could hear the ‘Police station’ and ‘case’. The police station was not far from there and a final baggage check would surely be in order. I started to look for ways to fool their eye and throw the packet, still dangling swiftly inside the bag pocket.
I missed Vietnam. Another Sunday morning and the international border check post. The bag of herbs still laid out in the middle of the road. I thought that throwing it under the bus, so to speak, would help. But that cunt of a bus just ran away. Leaving the beautiful bag, stranded on the strange road. More so, the road fell on neutral land. Neither Laos nor Vietnam. I had hoped that good things happened to that bag. Since it was not on anyone’s territory.
Now, a few light blue shirts joined us on the toll gate. Sweaty, topless truck drivers still went about their business, wondering, why a Sunday had so many blue shirts gathered on a single spot. I was ushered into a room on the side. People started pouring in. Each one getting angrier by the minute. The room became stuffy and my fear sweat complemented the sweat on everyone’s brow. Now the red jacket entered and handed me a phone. For the first time since morning, someone spoke in English. I knew the drill. Clear the throat and speak!
The supervisor incidentally, had come to know that my college was big, and I knew fancy words. He threatened me with an arrest and be put into custody until the investigation was finished. I chose my words carefully. The soft language. The by-product of our breed. Peppered by apologies, not ‘simple sorry’ but deep, mindful, shrewd, sycophantic ones. I worked the best, outside the office.
The supervisor asked me to give my details and hand the phone over to the red jacket. He said a few words and went out. The room fell silent again. Blue shirts kept staring ahead. Without further ado, I was escorted to the main gate, where a few more joined the chaos. The red jacket blasted the guard and came back. By this time, I was brimming with confidence. I had made it.
Six forms were handed out. One for me and five for five light blue shirts. Five, I counted on my fingers. Instrumental to my entry into the facility. We were all directed towards a makeshift barracks room, on the side of the big gate. Everyone sat there staring at the form in silence. Then, one of them pointed the other at me and they walked up. They asked me to stand.
‘We are going to get fired today’, said one with a straight face.
‘Because of you’, chimed the other one.
I offered them an apology. Not as articulated, not as soft. Naturally, it did not work.
Without warning, the baton came out and was slammed into my gut. I was not sure if this was ordered. But it was happening. There was no time to protest as well.
This time, the baton found the right spot, and I was left, crouching, gasping for breath. The gasping could not last long as more fists, kicks and sticks started hitting all the right notes on me. Out there on the coast, in a small hut, by the side of the big gate, that had come after 37 km.
‘No blood’, I heard one.
‘Well Thank you’, I felt like saying, but the blows were too hard for multitasking. I felt bad for the people who would be fired today. No inquiry, no notice. Plain old goodbyes. With a duly filled form. Mine, lying at the bottom of the pile.
The blows kept coming from all directions. I was getting kicked while standing up and punched while lying down.
‘It’s all wrong’, I thought.
First the moustache and now you.
‘Learn to beat a person properly. Otherwise, there would be blood’, I managed in my head.
After the turds, which came flying to my shirt earlier in the day, I was now covered in shoe dirt. A big imprint, right on the chest, from where it had hit me. I felt remorse, and I felt pain. Bruises would show for a couple of days, but it would be fine. The guys lost their living. Now, if they didn’t, I may not find out. But it would piss me off if I did.
It was not murderous. For a second, I felt I was getting lynched by a mob. One of them could have gone crazy and I would have been nowhere to be found. It wasn’t as I thought it would be. They used their military boots and kicked me in the dirt. Eventually, they stopped.
A few moments passed and everyone settled down in their corner of the room.
‘Surely, you can take a beating?’ said one from a distance.
‘Don’t worry about it’, said the rest of me lying in shoe dirt.
Rupesh walked up to me. I saw him coming and thought that I had spoken too soon. Lying down, hoping for another kick, a correct one this time, I curled up.
Rupesh held out his hand.
‘Help me with the fucking form’.
Taking his hand was an excruciating experience. Managing it somehow, I sat down on my butt. Checking for torn clothes, I found many.
‘Ah, fuck it’, I thought. Bruises will heal. Clothes can be bought. Rupesh deposited me between the two guards and sat in the front. Just like the car ride. I looked at each one’s face. None had contempt.
‘This is over, I guess’, I said to myself.
Later, I helped everyone with their forms. Considering it a penance for my eventful Sunday ride. They opened their lunch boxes and began to eat. More guards joined us and sat down. It seemed that everyone was in on the plan. These five just wanted to do it more than others.
Rupesh told me that he was a singer and songwriter. He fished out his phone and played a song for me. The song was about women and how their nectar of beauty is purest at the age of 16. I wished him good luck.
A good hour passed before the sun came out from behind the clouds and I found my cue to exit the barracks. I was too bruised to shake everyone’s hand and just walked to my bike. Limping and cursing under my breath, I found the ignition and found the road. I looked back and found the moustache smiling.
Everyone else was getting busy again with the post-lunch shift. They filed out of the cabin, one by one.
The raw bruise from before was still there. Many others had taken its place now.