Wednesday, April 14, 2010

THE BASEMENT JACK

I woke up once again with the sound of a drill going through concrete floors. Today, it seemed to be inside my head too. I lay motionless, waiting for the grinding to stop, or to prolong the arrival of what was to come. The day ahead.

As I lay there watching an innocent cobweb flutter back and forth like a dead captain’s sail, the noise started to fade into whiteness and the nausea in my head began to ebb. The workers started work at ten, and I had not needed an alarm for the past two months.

The construction began three weeks after I moved into the basement of (well it was only a basement with nothing above it), with a carton of books, three pairs of trousers, five shirts, two shoes, one music player and a toilet kit. The broker found me a broom lying behind the over ground toilet and took a year’s deposit in exchange. The basement was built over a quarter of the plot of land, a city regulation perhaps, and it served as an underground bunker with rusted iron beams poking out of its roof, or shall I say the ground, marking this unsavoury hole’s existence. My colleague had found the lone basement rather macabre and had abandoned me as his prospective roommate.

It wasn’t that I liked the basement. I simply did not want to ride the broker’s scooter for another ten kilometres and look at five more rooms, no better than the one under the ground. Besides, there was no landlord to avoid, no neighbour to befriend, no dog to beware. It suited me just fine.

When the workers arrived, they did not inform me and used my toilet at leisure. The contractor later reasoned that there had been no door bell to ring, and that I should argue with the landlord about my living situation. I would have done that had the broker not told me that the landlord lived in San Francisco and was dying of pancreatic cancer. One of his four sons had decided to build a fort above it, with a steel skeleton and tonnes of concrete filling the space between vertical rows of columns.

I decided to live through the mayhem for three months, the time I had to serve if I wanted to see the year’s rent I had deposited again. The broker gave me a glass of orange juice as he smiled and pointed out sub clauses in the rent agreement. I looked through him at the glass window behind him. There was a crow gnawing on the window sill at something that looked like flesh. The office boy came in to take away the empty glass of juice. He pointed vaguely towards the wall on my left filled with shelves, that were filled with files, and told me that since the vultures have disappeared, the crows have taken over and carry around bits of flesh from the nearby tower of silence. The broker had stopped speaking by then and was looking at me without expression. He must have finished what he had to say and I had nothing more to say.

The construction work did not bother me in the beginning. I would leave for work when they started slapping the day’s fresh mortar on burnt red bricks and find them gone when I returned at night. Only my toilet bore scars of dried up cement and a clogged drain.

But then I was told that great things were in store for me in Mr Mehra’s office.

I was the inventory supervisor at a garment factory. The work was simple and paid for my modest expenses with enough left for a visit to my mother once a year with a cheque in her name and three new saris. The ulcers in my stomach which I have carried since I drank a bottle of vinegar ten years ago ensured that I cooked my own meals, light and simple with only a tea spoon of salt every day. The one luxury I allowed myself was the nine o’clock drink of rum and water. It puts me to sleep in a matter of minutes and I am never bothered by dreams that usually linger in the morning and leave you exhausted for no reason.

I had visited the factory owner’s office just once before, when he had hired me on my distant uncle’s request. I was called by Mr Mehra’s secretary a week after the construction had started. I quietly walked up to the glass cubicle and sat patiently on the blue cushioned bench opposite the rather unattractive secretary who had decided not to look at me. Her name was Savita as I recalled from her phone call down to the inventory. She looked thirty five, with stretch marks spreading in concentric circles all over her plump waist that rested comfortably around her sari. It was strange that she did not have a desk, only a chair and a stool with a red phone on it. Then she spoke to me as if she had read my mind.

“Sir is re-furbishing his office. My desk has gone for repair and they are going to buy new chairs, the new designs which are good for the back. I saw the bills myself, each costs eighteen thousand rupees.”

I did not know if I was to congratulate her so I settled for a nod and a smile. She looked satisfied and went back to looking away from me at her red phone, waiting for it to ring. I too waited for it to ring, so that I could be allowed inside Mr Mehra’s office. So like I said, great things were supposed to happen to me in his office, but I could not fathom the coming of this greatness yet. He had looked at me with a bored smile and a cell phone pressed to his right ear. Then he told me swiftly that I had been promoted, and that I will make three thousand rupees more as the new chief of packaging and warehouse. Then he got up, shook my hands, told me great things were in store for me, and left the office, still waiting for someone to pick up his call.

Now a promotion after four years was overdue, and I would have celebrated with an extra drink in the night had I not witnessed the death of the old chief of packaging and warehouse the previous morning. He died coughing out some kind of pale yellow fluid which I was told later was a result of a ruptured intestine. He was a forty year old man who had worked in the factory since he was a ten year old boy. He must have started as a daily wage worker and climbed his ladder of success by following the work flow day after day, but in his case, night after night. The finished garments were always loaded in waiting trucks at three in the morning and it was now my job to watch and account for an endless stream of brown boxes filled with collared shirts, T shirts, undershirts and socks neatly stacked upon an army of trucks and leave after the trucks had thundered off at six in the morning.

The cobweb fluttering on my basement’s ceiling suddenly stopped its animated dance. I realised it was late afternoon and I had not left my bed all day. Maybe I had slept or maybe I had drifted in and out of a wakeful solitude, the only kind of sleep I had enjoyed since the promotion six weeks ago. Either way, the shadows across the ventilation windows had changed their course and now cast long horizontal lines on the walls across. The workers had cut off the electricity again and sweat was pouring out of my pores onto the pillow, down the steel skeleton of my cot and into the invisible cracks of the cement floor.

I was running away from the rhythmic hammering, the crushing drill, the shouts of squatting men, and wailing of unattended infants, the sweat from my chest now flowing into a deliberate trickle, soaking the faded photograph in my pocket of a group of young girls, smiling and posing against the whitewashed wall of one of the hundred tiny photo shops. My legs carried me faster than they had carried me ten years ago from a long forgotten town to the comforts of a forgiving city. They usually lifted and dropped themselves out of their own mechanical desire, but today they carried my burnt up intestines towards the one tower, men did not visit breathing.

As I climbed the twenty feet high wall, the last of my breath gave way to gasps made up of vacuum. The throbbing in my head had stopped, the smell in my nostrils had vanished, and the muscles in my legs had withered away to a static numbness. I lay sprawled under the evening sun that was casting one, two, three, four, ten... now a hundred circular shadows, of wings flapping, coming down in a spiral towards my heavy eyelids. I remembered the story of the French captain whose salt tears made the hinges of his door go rusty. I was no captain, no sailor, no survivor, no victim. My insides were flooded not by the harmless acetic I had tasted a decade ago, but were corroded with the acid they had left in the toilet today.