None of this happened in English. It couldn’t have. English is not the language in which life runs for most people in this country. It all happened in a mix of Hindi and Marathi and kisses and fucking and knife threats and tummy punches and glass-breaking. Add to all that a monsoon of madarchods and bhenchods.

That it is all here in some sort of English is definitely not because of me, for I can neither speak the language nor understand much of its written word. Credit for this – and a tiny bit of discredit too, for occasionally letting a Hindi word remain, I’m told, or for adding a fancy English word where a simpler one might have done the job – must go to my journalist friend Ali, who does his reporting in English but likes to call himself a patrakaar over beers. He’s the one who’s written this.

Ali and I became friends five years ago. He was doing his second year on the crime beat then; the job given him on compassionate grounds after his father’s death from cancer of the balls (his mother had died when he was seven). I was new to the city, all wide eyes and dirty skin and hungry drool, still stunned from having escaped the prospect of being burnt alive in my village (we may not have time for that story here). I was living under a lean-to made of stolen tarpaulin and making just about enough to eat.

A grisly incident had led to our first meeting. A man was murdered – stabbed twenty-three times – inside a high-rise in Khar.

It was a building that I visited often as a food-delivery boy for a nearby joint. There was a police and media hubbub around the building’s wide gate right after the discovery of the body. Ali later told me that the crowd had some film writers from Versova, too. Apparently, there hadn’t been a decent murder movie in years.

Call it naiveté or whatever, but Ali wanted to solve the crime. He was looking around, searching for a face that could reveal something. And he spotted mine, probably because mine was the only inexpressive face in the antsy crowd outside the main gate.

I had no room for curiosity in those days. Packets of naan and butter chicken hung limply on the handle of my bicycle. Ali sidled close to me and signalled towards the paan shop across the road. I walked over to it, dragging my bicycle with me. Ali bought two fifteen-rupee cigarettes there, lit them both together, and passed one to me. It was only after the third puff that he asked me what I knew.

It turned out that I didn’t know much; nothing more than the kind of orders the residents on that floor used to make or how frequently they made them. I hadn’t delivered anything to the murdered man in the last four-five days. But around a week back, there was a ‘drinks’ party at the man’s flat. He’d ordered kebabs, three packets of cigarettes (all of different kinds) and one packet of Rizla. There was a loud argument going on inside the flat when I made the delivery.

Ali treated this information as important, or so it seemed to me. He eventually asked me for my number. I told him that I only had the phone with me while I was working and that it was taken back by the seth when the shift ended, which was around midnight. Same with the cycle, I added. I gave him the name of the street where I lived, instead, and described the approximate location of my spot on the footpath.

On a windless night a few days later, as I was trying to light a curving piece of kachua chaap that a kind neighbour had given me, I heard my name whispered loudly. It was Ali. I stood up on the footpath and waved to him. He told me that he’d come on his motorcycle, which was parked around the corner, and that he wanted to have a late-night snack, preferably with some company. In those days, there was no way I would have said no to food.

Half an hour later we were in Worli, each having a plate of hot bhurji pav. It started out fine: Ali telling me how the police were bungling up the investigation, me wondering if I could go for another plate. Then, in a silent moment, his fingers touched the back of my palm. Minutes later, as I was washing my hands using a mug of water from a plastic bucket, Ali came up behind me and touched my neck. His fingers lingered at the skin.

I turned around and told him that I’d nothing against him wanting what he wanted, only that I couldn’t give it to him.

My words broke a spell, it seemed, for Ali’s expression changed immediately, to something that neared shame and not a small amount of self-loathing. He apologised – many times, in fact – and added that he had been feeling a bit too lonely and that’s probably what made him assume things. I understood him, I really did; it’s tougher living in this world with that kind of want. I told him to forget about it. We talked about Mumbai then, all the shit and piss in it.

The murder that started our friendship is still unresolved. I’ve often told Ali that if the policemen had as much energy and curiosity as him, they would have solved it ages ago. We now talk once or twice a month, in person or on the phone, on audio or video calls. Ali is always helpful when I need him to be, and he is always hungry for the stories of my life, a life that he thinks of as eventful. How could that not be true? I tell him.

In this country, if you’re starting from below, finding your way through thousands of years of wrong, your life is fucking eventful. Your next meal is someone else’s refuse, your woman is someone else’s plaything, your pay cheque is the pocket change they don’t bother about. Destiny spits on you and you’re so thirsty you lick the thing. Ali never stops me when I start speaking like this. He says I’m singing songs, angry songs; says these are the only kind of songs this country deserves.

Let me tell you a tiny bit about myself then: my name is Sewaram. It’s a name that begins to hint at information that most people care for: caste. Doesn’t even need a surname. My father Gadharam thought of it as a major improvement on his own name, and who could blame him for that. Poor man died in the village while digging a hole for the government. Collapsed on his fawda. The government filled the hole the next year. Our surname, Manjhi, removes nearly all doubt about who we are. Life’s
an easy summary for people like us: it was tough, it is tough, it is going to be tough.

But I like being tough back.

I like spitting back.

Excerpted with permission from Manjhi’s Mayhem, Tanuj Solanki, Penguin.