After three hours of sleep, Baba woke up with a jolt, now sitting bolt upright, as if right after a nightmare. From his quickened breathing and sweating face, I could tell it was the same dream again. I’d heard him tell Ma about it once.
He’d said that he finds himself standing atop a sand-walled void, an enormous emptiness that whirls and whistles like a tornado. He tries to hold on to the breeze, but the very air pushes him into the blank. His body then jerks him awake, saving him from dissolving into that infinite hole.
Fright grips his bones thereafter, and the void continues to dance before his open eyes. Like a wanderer, he keeps peeking into the golden-walled, dark vacuum. Minutes pass before his heart stops with its furious thumping, his pulse slower, and his mind, once again, is able to separate the real from phantasms.
Ma told Baba to inform her when the nightmare revisited, and after a few months, our resident psychoanalyst had a diagnosis: “You twitch yourself awake when you’re stressed or afraid,” deduced Ma. “It happened when your father started losing his vision to cataracts, and we did not have the money to fix his eyes. It happened when Happy fractured his leg after that crazy goat in Balhaar knocked him down. It kept happening when I wasn’t able to find work in our initial days here, and it stopped after your boss employed me as a cook.”
The nightmare had not tormented Baba in a long time, but lately, the abyss had started stirring his dreams again. This evening, however, he did not bother with its aftermath nor waited for his heart to stop quivering. He patted his eyes and pushed the vacuity aside. Paying no heed to the swollen bruises on his spine, he jumped to his feet, wore his shirt, and left home. About an hour later, he returned with Proton Uncle and his family.
Side note: Proton Uncle is Baba’s childhood friend from Balhaar, and the two moved to the city together.While his parents named him Jairaj, I call him Proton Uncle because, like protons, the positively charged particles found in atoms, he is too optimistic all the time.
Like when Happy slipped and fell face-first on a pile of fresh camel poop. The little boy emerged disgruntled, struggling to get rid of the dung in his mouth. Proton Uncle slapped his back in commendation, saying that camel crap brought luck. I was furious, ma’am, so tempted to make him taste some of that fortune too.
While Proton Uncle is this utopian nut, his wife, Bindiya Aunty, is his antonym. A non-stop moaner, she whines and bleats wherever she goes, finding faults in everything, including babies, flowers and freedom. She, hence, is Electron Aunty. Their son, Sameer, meanwhile, is as old as I am, scores the same grades as me, but thinks he’s much smarter than me. He’s Neutron Sameer. He has no electric charge and is capable of nothing.
“We must leave for Balhaar,” Baba announced upon returning, with Uncle nodding in agreement – brisk nods, urgent.
“Why do you keep disappearing without a word?” Ma was annoyed.
“I was figuring a few things out,” he answered. “Now start packing.”
“It’s not just us, Bela,” said Baba, calling Ma by her name, as opposed to the usual “Happy ki amma” (Happy’s mother). The address was to accentuate the gravity of his words. “Four out of five people in this slum haven’t received their March wages. Our boss has not answered his phone in ten days. I’m sure he does not intend to pay us, and with these lockdowns, I do not know when we’ll start working again. Meanwhile, we’re losing five grand on rent every month.”
“But we’d worked during the first three weeks of March. He should clear those dues,” said Ma.
“He won’t. They announced the lockdown in the last week of March, at a four-hour notice. Many of these employers have gotten away without paying their staff for that month.”
Soon after the state announced the first national lockdown, Baba called the bar owner, who informed that the establishment, too, would remain shut. He promised to pay our parents once the tavern reopened. My father, like tens of thousands of workers in Dharavi, was hoping to resume work after the restrictions eased. The lockdown, however, stretched, turning into the void in Father’s nightmares – bleak, boundless and ominous.
“I spoke to our landlord,” said Proton Uncle. “He promised to return our refundable deposits of five thousand rupees if we leave tomorrow. He’ll deduct half the amount towards the rent for this month, but we’ll still have twenty-five hundred per family.”
“Excellent,” Baba exclaimed. “Get the deposit from him first thing tomorrow, and I’ll see if I can find our boss’s home.”
He then turned to our mother. “Have you cached any cash?”
Baba knew that Ma, an illicit hoarder, would have some notes tucked away somewhere. Back in 2016, a few months after we moved to Mumbai, the government announced demonetisation, suddenly retiring currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000, issuing new ones. The motive was to take counterfeit notes off the Indian bazaars and neutralise the country’s shadow economy, but the greatest triumph of the intervention was observed in our home.
That morning, Ma had been badgering Baba for not handing her enough cash to run the household, how she always fell short when buying essentials. Come evening, after the epoch-making announcement, Mother dug into a few pillowcases and returned with three Rs 500 notes.
“Get these exchanged for new ones,” she told Baba. “And don’t ask questions.”
Father laughed. He knew she wasn’t the only one. As reported in the news, the government’s move had busted the underground economies of many Indian homes, compelling homemakers to divulge their black money – the cash they secretly set aside from their monthly household budgets. I do not know if demonetisation fixed our economy, ma’am, but it did expose Ma and her criminal liquidity.
“Are you sure this is all?” Baba asked Ma after she handed him Rs 900 in cash. “We have to go all the way to Balhaar. If you’re hoarding any more cash, my blossom, please surrender.”
“Okay,” Ma gave in, and returned with a few more notes, taking her tainted wealth–count to Rs 1300.
Proton Uncle made the same enquiry with Electron Aunty, and was happy to learn that she, too, had swindled “around eleven hundred, give or take”. The men made their calculations and announced their final numbers: Rs 6400 with Baba, Rs 6900 with Proton Uncle, including our refundable deposits of Rs 2500 each.
“Now, we can either use this money to stay in Mumbai for another month, or we can use it to go back home,” said Baba. “If we stay, we face four threats – we’ll soon run out of cash as we have no income, and we’ll be thrown to the street when we miss rent. We’ll die starving on that street, and if life still remains in us, the virus will devour it. That’s unemployment, homelessness, starvation and death. Balhaar, meanwhile, poses only one danger for now: loss of work.”
“And even if we manage cash by borrowing it from lenders, we cannot leave home to buy essentials,” said Proton Uncle. “The cops have been reckless with the lathi lately, especially with the mounting infections in Dharavi. One lawmaker also suggested that officers must ‘shoot the traitors’ who violate the lockdown. A cash reward for every bullet.”
“How much cash?” asked Sameer, the simpleton.
“How does that matter?” I answered.
“Fifty-one hundred rupees per bullet,” said Baba. “But that’s not the point here. The point is that borrowing money isn’t an option either. I asked already. With so many people in need, the lenders have tripled the interest rates. A bloody debt-trap.”
“What about the children’s school?” asked Ma, voicing my greatest worry. “Meher and Sameer have to appear for their geography exam soon. They’ve written all their Class Ten papers, only one remains.”
“Yes, please, this is the most important year of my academic life,” I pleaded with my father. “They’ve postponed our geography paper because of the pandemic, but they will conduct the examination soon, and I must be here to appear for it. If not, the past ten years of my life will turn to waste.”
As you might know, ma’am, these state-level examinations determine the course of all student careers in our country, whether they empty into the gutter, or join forces with the sea, become the ocean. These Class Ten examinations were a privilege I’d earned through our passage to Mumbai.
Back in Balhaar, my school was a semi-concrete structure with seven rooms for seven grades. The government-run school in Mumbai, meanwhile, is a four-storey building. Its classrooms have desks, benches and walls enlivened with charts and diagrams. Of course, the building is ancient, and rainwater seeps into our classrooms through its cracked ceilings. It also floods the playground. However, unlike Balhaar, this school is cattle-free, there are as many girls in my class as boys, and teachers show up every day.
When we moved to Mumbai, I knew that schooling was the greatest boon of our shift to this city, one that established me as the most educated person at home. I wanted to write my last paper, go to college and become the first graduate in my family. I wanted to be the first one to learn English and computers, and the first to triumph over this intergenerational legacy of rancid scarcity.
“Education can wait, Meher,” said Baba, addressing me by my official name instead of the usual Gudiya or doll. The same purpose, accentuating the gravity of our patriarch’s words. “We do not know when schools will reopen. Meanwhile, many, many people here are dying from the new disease. Staying in Dharavi would be like seeking shelter in a lion’s den, drinking from the oasis in a mirage.”
“But Balhaar has no schooling beyond Grade Seven and the nearest college is several hours away,” I persisted. “Leaving Mumbai would mean quitting education.”
“It won’t,” Baba asserted with a finality, avoiding my gaze.
“Plus, our parents are back home,” Proton Uncle bolstered my father’s madness. “The virus hasn’t reached Balhaar yet. When it does, we must be there to take care of them.”
Excerpted with permission from Homebound, Puja Changoiwala, HarperCollins India.