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Home page > English > Short Story > 56, Lane No 70

Translated from the Malayalam by Sunil K Poolani

56, Lane No 70, is the title of a door in Bulandaar. The door opens into a corridor soaked in darkness. The corridor ends at an iron-grilled window. Beyond the window there is a yellow-coloured compound wall. The wall blocks the light meant for the corridor.

Near the window, the light resembling the sunrays, which pass through an uncut window, harbours at daytime. In that light sits a girl with curly hairs and big eyes, stitching children’s costumes. When the darkness spreads from the corridor to the window, with the aid of crutches she collects all the shreds of cloths into a bag and disappears into the darkness.

‘The heroine of a shadow play’, that’s what hornbills call her.

The hornbills stay at the thirteenth number room on the second floor.

In the centre of the corridor, on the left side, light could be seen spread across. While aiming at the light the legs would entangle a staircase. Along with it a strong smell of marijuana, rotten jasmines, urine and sambrani.

From the roof of the fourth floor hangs a serpentine concrete staircase. Venturing up, the second floor’s red bricks could be seen protruding into the steps. Take two steps, and there is the thirteenth number room where the hornbills reside. Thirteen hornbills. Thirteen symbols of thirst.

Foras Road and Grant Road receive a downpour. The hornbills quench their thirst from the rainwater mixed with orange-coloured dust and motor smoke. The cheap illicit brew helps hide the water’s dirt, saltiness and oiliness.

With the help of the crutches the heroine of the shadow play starts her sojourn to sell kids’ clothes on the streets. By the time she returns her face is sweltered by the blistering sun. Like a sweltered raat ki rani.

The hornbills compare her to the flower, raat ki rani, the queen of the night; the white-petal flowers on which the autumn’s first rain dews throb. On the rain drops the sky reflects.

Around that time, the father, Ramdhani, who introduces himself ‘Gwala’, could be seen sleeping below the stairs on a yellow towel printed ‘Ram, Ram’. He reached Bombay from a rustic Bihar village with two oxen; a milkman. But he ceased to be a milkman for many years. He was a watchman at Gijibhai’s mill. One day, tangling his uniform on the mill’s gate, he walked down to Bulandaar in his underwear. What then left were poverty and the name Gwala. The wife fell down at the entrance of Arthur Road Hospital, and breathed her last. The last spring cleansed by cholera.

Against 56, Lane No 70, there is a lamppost. Also a red signpost that claims the thirteenth number bus will halt there. The thirteenth number bus starts from the seashore where eagles feast on the naked, dead Parsis. The destination is an electrified crematorium.

‘The survival act of the survival’, that’s what the poet hornbill termed the movement of traffic on Lane No 70. ‘Survival of the fittest.’ Reminding the chariot race that apparently happened in Rome. The race is not based on speed, but strength. Colliding each other and collapsing, the vehicles pace ahead. The weapon of the thirteenth number bus is the First World War’s ‘smoke-screen’. An immaculate life-and-death moment of the vehicles on the street. The thirteenth number fills the sky with black effluents. Seconds later, once the screen of smoke recedes, all the vehicles will be on the streets.

Where is the thirteenth number?

The hornbills start their journey in the first trip of the thirteenth number towards the crematorium. The dawn might have descended by then. The sot-stained trousers and shirts of the machines. When they return at ten in the night the sot would be decorating their faces and bodies. In one corner of the room, in the sodden light of the kerosene lamp, they take their bath from the water filled in the earthen pots. Then the carbolic smell of the cheap, red soap would fill the room. And they go to sleep pressing their faces into oil-stained pillows.

Around that time, in the light of the candle erected on a trunk-box, on an ink-spreading paper with the help of a violet pencil, the poet-hornbill could be seen scribbling something.

C Vasu is the ever-pristine poetic hub of the poet-hornbill.

If the trunk-box is removed one could see, on the cement floor, scribbled by an iron rod, the name of C Vasu.

Years ago, in the monsoon season, the poet, who was finding solace in the veranda of a shop, was brought into this room by C Vasu, and gave him place to lie down.

C Vasu was a welder who earned twenty rupees a day. Died due to a cough called tuberculosis. The poet had to borrow the thirty rupees meant for the electric crematorium. C Vasu couldn’t repay that dept in the form of currency. That’s how this room came into the hands of the poet.

The personal properties of the hornbills are thirteen iron-boxes, thirteen pillows and thirteen earthen pots. And the public properties are the kerosene lamp and the thirty rupees.

The poet is the caretaker of the thirty rupees. Even if hunger threatens to kill him he refuses to touch that money. It is meant for the needs after the death. The charge that is to be paid at the electric crematorium. Things shouldn’t fail to happen without those thirty rupees.

Ramdhani’s snoring and the chariot race on the road outside would continue to break the night’s tranquillity.

 

Apart from the flower called raat ki rani, Ramdhani has seven offspring. When five of them reached the age that made them capable to prey, they were scurried away. The remaining two get beaten up by a bamboo stick, and driven away, every dawn. But once dusk falls, they seek the same abode. Two dry wheat rotis each would be kept for them.

One day they wouldn’t come. That day this practice could be stopped.

The city is the world of the banished people from the country. Hunger banished them. They live on in the faded dreams of a lost spring.

The hornbills on the ornamental, twisted coconut leaves that adorn religious functions, and the oil-soaked, untied hair; Ramdhani on the baang mixed in badam sharbat, and the Bhojupri songs, which praise Lord Ram, and are sung in the shade of a lone mango tree in the centre of wheat fields.

The handful of flowers that Ramdhani brings every evening to 56, Lane No 70, is what announces the spring in this desert-like city. There is a picture of Lord Ram in the darkness that surround under the staircase. A picture that shows a hunting scene along with wife Seeta and brother Lakshman. The flowers are meant for there.

The only person who celebrates Holi at 56, Lane No 70 is Ramdhani. He bustles in and out of all the rooms with a paper packet that contains saffron. Sometimes he goes down the streets and sings a couple of ribald songs. And returns in the noon and would take some baang. And dream of Lord Ram.

The year he drove away his last son. The hornbill with a long beak and firewood on his head stopped Ramdhani who was venturing into the thirteenth number room with saffron. There is somebody sprawled on the floor. Red eyes. A kerchief tied around the neck.

The face has started sprouting boils.

The same morning he was taken to Arthur Road Hospital.

A sore called small pox.

All of a sudden a silence overwhelmed 56, Lane No 70.

The hornbills were reduced to twelve. In three-four days, the hornbills’ number came down further.

One morning, one of Ramdhani’s driven-away sons was seen lying down the lamppost, with boils. A few minutes later, a municipal vehicle came and took away the body.

The fifteen-year-old raat ki rani clamped on to her crutches and wept.

The poet said the return has begun.

The same day the eighth hornbill too headed towards Arthur Road.

The last news of the first hornbill who had gone to the hospital arrived that day. He wouldn’t require the thirty rupees, the common property. That expense will be borne by the hospital. On that day’s mail there was a letter, bearing a pencil-written address, arrived for him. The five hornbills opened it. He has got a son.

Suddenly, the poet ran his fingers over his face.

No problem. They are pimples.

The rest of them looked at each other with suspicion.

One of them sold his wedding ring and drank that night. Drank till surpassing the knowledge that his alive.

The trust is losing, the poet said.

The poet was ready to spend the common property of thirty rupees, the charge meant for the electric crematorium. The poet went to the slums where Dravidian stonecutters from Salem live, and brought back marijuana. He sent Ramdhani to get some baang. Some hornbills went and beaked their way back with illicit brew. Vinegar, spirit, ammonium sulphate, aspro, tranquillisers, potassium cyanide… like sparrows bringing the twigs to build their nest, they collected all these by evening.

Ramdhani brought saffron, to celebrate a new Holi. In the menstrual blood where beliefs were shattered.

When saffron was smeared the contempt towards pimples got receded.

Alcohol made the small pox look like malaria, jaundice, warts or pimples.

When the baang that looked like leaf-ground chutney went inside his abdomen Ramdhani became an animal and stood on four legs. The hornbills forcibly opened his mouth and poured into it arrack from a tumbler. Then he became a snake that has had its prey and lay down calmly. The hornbills took him and laid him on the terrace. Like Garuda placing the rattlesnake on the branch of the tree.

Alcohol helped the poet to talk more and more. Four hornbills listened to him carefully.

The poet had indeed loved the raat ki rani. Not anymore.

When they heard that, the four went down. They caught hold of the heroine in the shadow drama who was stitching near the window. She tried to wriggle out. Kicked them with her helpless legs. She was drawn up the staircase. Two stretches were seen abandoned on the staircase.

The poet could decipher one more thing. C Vasu has ceased to become the poetic hub. And C Vasu is not something that he loathes or loves.

And the poet noted that beliefs and relationships depend on the flow.

Still they ran their fingers over their faces. Seeking a pimple called small pox.

(First appeared in Janayugam Onam Special, 1964)

Home page > English > Short Story > 56, Lane No 70


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