I’d have never stepped out without a Plan B. Not in a manic city like Aukatabad.
But who is listening? We had stopped listening to each other long before it came to this. Long before there were angry slugs buzzing above our heads.
Still, bullets flying in smog are better than bullets flying in clear light. That way, we get a chance on our side. So do you. That’s the way we try to get rid of one another. This last time.
Won’t be easy though. Not for you. Not for us. Me, him and the one-legged man. The smog has blinded us all. The smog has blinded the city…as it has blinded the world – driving us to nowhere land.
The bodyguard, the buck-toothed butcher, appears just when we think we have luck on our side. Comrade LJ on his crutch, swift like a cheetah, lunging for the attack but then…the spray of bullets. In the oily haze, only sprays count. Nothing to shoot at. Fiery metal-nipping sunflowers waking up to the day. Whizzing projectiles from ten directions and death gasps. Pensioners with their walkers kissing silty loam as hot lead packs their gizzards.
More shots. Crackers exploding on Diwali. That’s the day Lord Rama returns to reclaim his kingdom after the forest exile – after fighting the ten-headed demon. This bodyguard’s a maniac. He should be in Tihar. He should be in San Quentin. We won’t give up so easily!
Kid’s pram torn to shreds, flying into the lily pond. Big splash. More cries, followed by an abrupt silence. Silence of quiet death. La petite mort, hushed orgasmic ends.
“Down, down!” screams a voice.
Answering shot from our side, or what seems to be our side anyway. It sounds different, the whistle of the Makarov bullet. I think I catch a glimpse of the one-legged LJ, the muzzle flash of a gun briefly lighting him up. The petroleum darkness of the smog closes in again, exposing no one. Particulates, nitrogen oxides, benzene vapours, smoke from farm fires, swirling. No mercy. No taking sides. Only a bleak, filtering dawn light.
Muezzin’s sonorous call to prayer. Volley of shots as I duck for cover behind the public urinal. Is LJ dead? How much longer can I survive this? Sirens in the distance coming closer. Screeching tyres.
A cat snarls near my feet.
Blood fountains dance.
Who can save you? No one can. I cannot be saved from you.
Men rushing in this direction.
But first things first.
My name is Chanchal Mitra.
I am from Anantanagar. The city of the East. Anyone from these parts would know that we, the Mitras, are from a respectable tribe. In fact, there are whole streets and neighbourhoods of this city named after us, our kin. Sweet shops, bakeries, twin-chair saloons.
Yes, we are honourable folk; you can even call us the old aristocrats. Old and mighty, we used to be. But never the upstart rich. Not a whit of a link with you who sleep now. Never! We are not parvenus tearing it all up. Keep this in mind, and we can be friends.
Now that I am feeling a little better, we can talk.
See the sun rising.
The sun rising, the maids arriving in every house on Four Horse Street in their synthetic saris; the mongrels on the street fighting as people troop out for work. My office begins late, perks of the profession. I watch through the window and wait for the onionskin papers to arrive. Later, I walk down the street to the bus stop to catch the 12:45 to the newspaper office and every step is slippery here. Every face, that of a demon or an angel, and they’re all laying traps just as a wind picks up. The wind blows hard through those streets.
Slashing open the glass roof of the bus stop, it cuts through the window slats of crumbling houses that stand like rotting corpses of soldiers refusing to lie down. The wind roars through the dark alleys – smelling of fish curry – and howls along the avenues, reeking of diesel death, screaming through every broken door it can find. Buffeting people with its heavy hands, it commands them in its thundering voice to cower in fear or sing its praise. That voice calling for sacrifice. That’s how a storm speaks. The wind will blow hard again very soon.
Evenings empty like gutted animals. Shadows creeping out of pools of darkness congealed around the sodium lights of Anantanagar. The world caving in and consuming us.
The wind piercing my eardrums. The maw of mother Earth wide open. Gaia’s hungry flames flickering with animal heat. Shipwrecks galore. Plunging into a dominion under the thrall of an endless night.
In this darkness, there’s only the tick-tocking of time.
They’re all still here, one-eyed monsters with the ashen faces of grave diggers, bored looks of body snatchers, bleary-eyed like morgue attendants – ticking away the wretched moments.
They’re everywhere in the house. “Get to know them as you grow up,” father had said gravely one day. Ancient grandfathers, stately and self-important, hoary timepieces with rotten teeth in their ivory casings – ticking for a century or more, and watches from a more familiar past. Our house, a museum of time. A museum of living time, hungry time with a scratchy, rasping breath, time frothing with bile juices and bubbling with sulphuric acid. Time dripping aqua regia.
But museums house the dead. The clocks knew. So they were preparing. Deep in their murky mechanical bowels, coded in the chatter of their well-greased gear trains, they were planning it out.
How could I know what was on their minds? From the days of the water clocks in Egypt onto the metronomic rhythm of atomic time, somewhere in between, the keepers of the hours had developed sense organs. A taste for rust-salt, red-brown, IV lines. Metallic black in the dark, metal taste, metal flash.
The Goth. Tallest of the seven grandfathers towering over us in the rooms and passages of our old house. I never asked father why it was named after a Germanic tribe. After mom left, back in my school days, the clocks crept in and filled up all corners of Mitra House, where the sunbeams didn’t dare. Father, my military engineer dad, collected them from the British auction houses with intimidating names – meant to throw off scum like us – loaned some from friends, and scoured the old bazaar with its warren of alleys at the end of which sat dreadful beings twisting time in their gnarled hands, so pale they looked like dead maidens. Near the police headquarters, it still stands, the biggest clock market in our world where he bargained assiduously with dead shop owners, still sprawled over the cobwebs of four dimensions; often, they took him along…and he remained unseen for days in his horological quests.
Excerpted with permission from Spellcasters, Rajat Chaudhuri, Olive Turtle/Niyogi Books.