Saturday, August 18, 2007 

It's a Wonderful Life

The air conditioner shut itself off with a rattle. From across the tinted glass of the cabin came the distant but unmistakable hush of the surf. The PA’s fan next door emitted its periodic whine of an awry bearing, and I willed myself to concentrate on it, anything to visibly shut myself off from the woman trying to compose herself on the other side of the table. Gradually her sobs died out, and I looked at her again.

“He’s not a bad man, actually”, she said. “He never used to blow up his money on liquor or beat me up, at least not as often as some of his mates in the quarters”. I nodded, trying to reconcile her defence of the man with the stark reality of the three laminated cards lying on the table. Three cards, different names, the same photograph, of the woman in front of me. Blood donor cards, since one card could not be used more often than once in 15 days. Or rather, the cards she used to sell her blood.

“He just left. We are still in the town quarters, and he has rented a house in the village here”, she said. The girls’ college was paid for, she said. But the milkman and the bus tickets and the gas and the vegetables and the rice was now so costly, and she therefore decided to sell blood… she almost sobbed again, then contained herself with an effort. “Life saar, we have to do something no”. And now the woman was falling ill, she was afraid that she could no longer sell enough blood to support two daughters and herself any longer. She had heard the saab could speak the language, and so …

I called for the driver, and told him tersely to put some food into her and drop her back to the bus stand for the city, a 2 km walk that she had undertaken, alternately ranting and crying her way through the occasional guards and officials who attempted to stop her. He came back to report that she had packed the lunch he bought her, presumably to carry back to the girls.

“Fireman, leading hand, means a pay of around 5 thousand”, he said, chewing his paan with some relish. “But these people, saar knows… they take all sorts of loans, and end up with just around enough to survive. Do not involve, saar, all worthless people. Must have found somebody to live with in the village, the dog. The tribal bitches out here will fuck for a handful of rice.” Given my unfamiliarity with the worker-related issues, I had asked around, and the local union rep had paid a visit. I asked him a few questions, and he categorically squashed my plans. “Cannot attach pay saar”, he said, shaking his head vigorously. “Need court order, and for that file petition. Too long”. He rose, and motioning me to wait, went outside. A noisy expectoration of spittle hit the flowerpot, and he came back picking his teeth with a matchstick. The break seemed to have made up his mind. He leaned close, and I could smell the sickly sweetness of the paan on his breath. “One way, saar. If you say so, I’ll arrange for small accident. A hand or leg fracture, only, nothing serious permanent type. Disability pay, goes straight to family, saar”. He leaned back with a complacent look. I stuttered and then shouted. “Don’t misunderstand me saar. It is not something we do every time. Generally we don’t interfere. And then mostly the threat works. But this chap… once in two three years a case comes where we have to do something saar. Life, saar, all sorts of things required. And then saar has taken a personal interest in the matter, I’ll have to take care of the bastard no ? ”
I escorted him with reassurances that I would definitely ask for his help and took a promise that he would not proceed till I asked.

I stopped at the panshop and bought a pack of cigarettes. Driving on, I stopped at the beach. It was a fine night, and I took off my shoes. Walking alone on the beach in the darkness produces its own peace, and I dangled my shoes in one hand and the bottle in another. I flopped down, opened the bottle, and pouring some into the plastic glass, took a swig. A shadow came behind, and I was mildly resentful of this intrusion. The man neared and I recognized him. He came and stood, and I gestured to him to sit down. He grinned, and sat down. I gestured again, and with a wide grin, he poured a healthy tot for himself into another glass, and gulped it down neat, clearing his throat with an ahhhh as the liquid seared its way.

“Did she tell you about the girls ?” , he asked, looking at the sea, not me.
“Mmm. She said the college is paid for”.
“Three loans, the third that whoreson Somaraju gave at three and half rupees”, he said.
“Three and a half ? Why did you take it, you idiot ?” Three and a half rupees per hundred per month … payable monthly, equivalent approx to 40 % p.a. The loan sharks charged ruinous rates of interest, and conversely, asked for no credit rating or documentation except a blank stamp paper.

“You should’ve asked her. One is in third year, BSc Computers. The other is in second year of Commerce”.
“You bastard. In a year, she’ll earn in a month what you make annually, and you’ll be begging for a few coins at her feet”.

“I may, and I may not”. Then he turned and faced me. “I get 1400 a month, after all the loans. The bus season ticket from there to here works out to almost 400. Then comes the electricity and the meals and the kids’ season tickets and …” He opened his palms and gestured.

“So you left. That’s a solution ?”
He shrugged. “A man can take so much. I left. Maybe they’ll make it through this year, till the elder gets a job. Maybe they’ll not. Now I pay 500 for the rent here. And I live off the remainder. At least I don’t have to face them daily.”

“And your wife ? Daughters ?” Then I finally spoke of what had been a red hot knife in my heart for the past three days. “She’s selling blood, you bastard. You fucked around with her and produced two kids and now she is selling blood to live.” In my anger, I leaned into him, gripping his collar, and flecks of spit landed on his face as I shouted.

He shrugged away, and then casually cleaned his face. “I couldn’t live there. I left and wiped them off from my head. Everybody survives”, he said. “And then, they are women, they’ll do something. Life saar, everyone has to live.”

And what a wonderful gift Life must be, that we each succumb to so many slights and indignities in order to live.