Why does one keep quiet? Because one thinks. One thinks too much. One imagines consequences, repercussions, unknown contacts, how far is their reach, who do they know, will they attack me or my family, one thinks and thinks till the enemy grows, till the local lout and the sordid bar-owner become untouchable giants in one’s head. A new enemy is born everyday. Everyday someone finds some way of raising a new hell. Now the nearby garage has installed a fifth repair unit. Now the neighborhood transport agency has begun parking trucks on the street. Now the seventh floor man has extended his balcony by seven feet, reclaiming thin air with wooden planks. Shh. One keeps quiet. One grills one’s windows. One installs three locks on the main door. That is life. That is what living has boiled down to: one big shush. Why start talking? Don’t start talking. There will be too much to protest. Too many things are going wrong.
I am in a bus. From where I am sitting, at a window seat in the left row, I can see, hear, smell, and intuit things, both inside and outside the bus, that make me want to yell my head off like a mad man. Instead: Shh.
Right? Shh. Where else can we go? Where else will we stay alive? Suburbs like these are full of people like me: too poor to live in the city, too weak to go hardcore rural. And so we compromise with these fragile, fragile lives in buildings and complexes that have been built with little respect for housing norms or architectural aesthetics.
Click-click-click. The bus-conductor approaches my seat. I wave my ten rupee note. “Sanpada Junction,” I say. He walks past me, ignoring my money. Tell me you bastard! Why won’t you give me a ticket! Am I invisible? Do you not like my shirt? Am I not fair enough or hefty enough to command your respect? “Oh master!” I implore. Click-click. “No change,” he says. Click-click-click. “No change.”
It was different in the ghetto. Or was it? We were as quiet in the ghetto. As comfortable with our non-existent rights as we are, or should be, in the suburbs. No, it was worse in the ghetto. But it felt familiar. The thugs were our thugs, the thugs were directionless men I had played cricket with as a boy. The stench from the overflowing gutter, the ugliness of 80-year-old buildings and mosques, the lack of space, lack of silence, to escape all that my father brought us to the suburbs. We abandoned old, solid lives to live these – these tinny, temporary lives, as shiny and substance-less as our AIWO and SOANY walk-mans, as glossy and uncomfortable as our Terry-cot shirts.
The bus halts at a stop. The man in front of me spits out the window. The men in the opposite row spit out their windows. I push the lower half of my face under the aluminum bar and spit as well. Since boarding the bus three stops ago I have been spitting at every halt. And till I get off two stops later, I shall continue to spit out the window. I don’t chew tobacco and there is no build-up of phlegm in my nasal passages. I am spitting out pure, bubbly-white saliva, denying my stomach of essential lubrication and taxing my glands dangerously. Tell me, how else should I express my disgust?
Ting-ting. The conductor twangs the overhead chord. The driver accelerates, abandoning a bunch of passengers at the stop. There is a woman with a child among those left behind. They yell. The men bang the side of the bus. But the bus pulls away. No single ting is forthcoming from the conductor. I scan the aisle.
There is space enough for a field-full of passengers. Arrey, is the conductor... Shh. Why does one keep forgetting? Who does one think one is? Shh.