STORIES

These stories are inspired by our interactions with people belonging to different backgrounds within Shahpur Jat and their everyday lives.

Written by Shreya Garg &
Illustrated by Madhu Priyanka Kannabiran

urban

01

The Mannequin

Shambhu rushed to his house, his heavy oversized school bag slowing him down with each step. The closer he reached to his house, streets became darker, narrower and more cramped. He wanted to get home soon so that he could go to the market with his father, to sell vegetables. It was better than being in school.

“You are a grown up now” his father would tell him. Ever since he was a little child, he assisted his father in carrying vegetables. Most of the times he just hung around the vegetable cart talking to other children on the way or listening to his father talk to other elders.

But these days, Shambhu was more concerned with how his father negotiated for money and was quickly becoming adept in money matters. He knew how much the vegetables cost and how to calculate the total bill amount. He would do the math in his mind and verify it with his father’s calculations every time his father made a sale. He rewarded himself with a rupee he was going to earn in the future when his calculations were correct and punished himself by reducing one when it was wrong. By the end of the day, he would have given himself at least Rs 30 in his mind. One day he was going to be very rich. He knew he was going to quit school soon. He had already started taking a lot of leaves because his father seemed sick these days and would need his help. His right eye looked like a stone and he would drop things very often. He would also smell bad most of the days. But this didn’t deter Shambhu, for he only became more eager to help him and perform better calculations every day.

They moved through the same lanes every day, selling vegetables to familiar faces, ending their trip at the corner spot near the famous wall with a cat painted on it. One day, his calculations did not match his father’s. Shambhu asked him, “Why did you give him for Rs 50 less father?”

“He is the landlord Shambhu. One man like him is born after people like us have committed a hundred sins, to punish us. God has his own ways. I must have done horrible crimes in my previous birth. You need to be careful of them too. Never pick a fight with them. Never. Do as they say” he replied.

Cringing at his father’s response, he looked away, staring at the ground in front of him. Shambhu disliked him, and his father too, for being so meek. Someday I am going to take all my father’s money back from that man in the white shirt.

He did not want to be timid like him. He wanted to be strong and never sell his vegetables for a rupee less to anybody. He was going to be a rich man. Like the men in the white shirt. He would own a big house, sky high. He did not like living in that pigeonhole of a room they have. He would have the best vegetables in the whole village and ample food for his children and wife. They would eat the best mangoes, best jalebis, best pakoras. He would get white shirts stitched for all his sons so that they never have to bend in front of any other man. He would walk down the street with his shoulders taut like a king. This would be his kingdom. He crossed the store, where his bride to be was waiting for him, right behind the glass wall. She never moved, she was always there waiting for him, an incarnation of goddess Parvati herself. Mesmerised by her beauty he would stand and stare at her every time he passed by that glass window. Her slender arms by her side, eyes lowered down, like a perfect bride. She looked beautiful in her red skirt. Standing there, so still, as if waiting for him to free her. His touch would bring her back to life. “I will marry you when I have enough money”, he said to the mannequin, his eyes gleaming with pride. He winked at her, where she stood still like a doll under the yellow lights of the fashion store.

“Shambhu” his father shouted, who had moved ahead, completely unaware of his delusion. “Hold this!”, he handed him a basket of mangoes. “3 kgs is three times 80 which is equal to Rs 240”, Shambhu quickly calculates.


urban

02

The Factory Worker

It has been dark for over a week now, the sun hidden behind the grey of the sky. It is always dark in these narrow lanes of the village where Irfan lives. Only a few rays permeate the canopy of concrete to touch the grounds, but over the last week, it has been unusually dark. Monsoon was here. It was as if somebody was pouring buckets of water from the top floor, in some sort of a twisted revenge scheme. What else could it be? Irfan hadn’t seen the sky in a long time now. His work never ended. Who had the time for such frivolities? He had begun to loose a sense of time, with day and nights muddled up. There was no difference between them after all.

Rain water flooded the inner streets, knocking at the doorsteps of the houses on the ground floor, with no place else to go. Oddly, it smells of fish. Bou mach? or Pholi? or Bamuch? Smell and taste of home lingered on his tongue, long enough to make it water.

“Brother! give me half a kg of rice and some salt.” he says to Aftab, who runs a grocery shop opposite to his house. He is the first person Irfan greets and talks to, after waking up from his sleep every day.
“When do you think this rain will stop?” He asks Aftab who was measuring the grains of rice.
“When Allah demands!”
“What will happen if it never stops?”
“Have you gone crazy early morning? Why are you saying such things? If rain never stops, then we will all have to move out and go somewhere else”
“Ah! won’t that be such a good thing! Who wants to live in this pig’s sty?”
“You can pack your bags and leave today brother, your work is too good anyway. Too good for this kind of vulgarity. You have been here for too long now. You should go to Mumbai. My brother works there with a very big designer. He also gets paid double of what you do. I have told you this many times.”
Irfan laughs it off. “Not today! Only after I take my salary. Today is the 7th, remember? Be prepared for the night”. “Oh yes! How can I forget 7th? The rain is making me dizzy these days.”
“Don’t worry brother! You will be absolutely fine after tonight.”
“It’s the salary day. You must not be late, now off you go.”

Irfan sprinted through the narrow lanes to reach the garment factory. Used to the darkness, he could navigate with closed eyes to the small room filled with the smell of human sweat mixed with the smell of machine oil, wet clothes, dyes, gutka, and rotten fish. He took off his wet clothes, hanging them on a wire, and tied a thin blue cotton cloth around his waist.
“Here, make it for everyone.”

He handed over the rice to Malik, another craftsman. He was bending down on a bowl filled with boiling water on the stove, placed in a corner of the room. Malik swinged to catch the rice packet. He put three glasses of rice in the boiling water, adding salt on top. Irfan climbed on his stool to start the radio, tuning it to the live audio of sermons from Mecca, loud and clear. The purpose of life is acceptance, acceptance of our soul by Allah.

He went to his machine, took off his white skull cap and placed it on a hook on the wall. As the machine whirred, Irfan’s arms and legs moved mechanically, unclear whether he was guiding the sewing machine or was being guided by the machine. They were one unit, working in unison. His hands flowing around the wheel and the needle, spinning beautiful flowers and birds on a pink cloth, as soft as the skin of a beautiful bride.

Once everybody took their places on the machine, the room acquired an air of hypnosis. Hidden from the outside world, the labourers entered a trance like state induced by the prayers, mixed with the bullet like periodic sounds of the machine, and the voices of the workers humming in sync with the sermons.

He was a small boy when his uncle brought him from the village. For the first few months, he roamed around in the streets with his uncle, lost in the memories of his village, the touch of his mother, the fields, the Sun! His uncle had told his mother that he would be going to a school here. He did not know what school was until one day his uncle handed him over to an old tailor in the village. He was going to learn his craft under him. So this is what school is, he thought. Without questioning or complaining, he went wherever his uncle took him, holding him by his little finger. He learned hand embroidery following which he shifted to a mechanical foot paddle machine, riding a motorised machine now. He stitched clothes as elaborate and beautiful as the melody of a nightingale at dawn.

“He has an eye for detail”, his uncle used to say while selling him to boutique owners in need for tailors. You are only as good as your eyes and arms in this trade and both do not last for a very long time. The young ones with smaller hands and sharper eyes fetch more money than the elderly whose eyes have been consumed by the darkness in lanes of the village. After his uncle’s eyes aged, he took Irfan around in boutiques, exhibiting the gift of his small hands, showing him the world that was going to be his. Faceless in the crowd, he worked round the clock with many other craftsmen cramped into small rooms, each one tied to a machine. Becoming a machine. But what held Irfan back to the factory was his uncle, the only family he has known for sixteen years of his life till now. His sole responsibility. The purpose of life is acceptance, acceptance of our soul by Allah.


urban

03

The Telecom Shop

“Have you seen this?” Suresh opened the folder containing his latest collection of racy Hollywood movies downloaded from the internet, and turned the screen of his computer slightly towards the customer for a better look. He squinted his eye to scan the movie list, looking at their posters to identify if he had seen them before. Most of the movies in this collection seemed new. He scanned the whole list and asked him to show glimpses from two movies. Only if he could read their names. One had a poster with two scantily dressed woman posing like a snake in a forest and the other one had two muscular men and one lady in a red dress looking at herself in the mirror. He wanted both. They played the first movie which began with a group of friends going to the forest for a camping trip, skipping to the end where two women had turned into snakes crawling on the forest floor in their bare flesh. He definitely wanted to see this. The Second movie was about a woman in a beautiful red dress racing two men in her car. For what? He was going to find out tonight. He handsed over his phone to the Suresh,

“Give me these two movies in my phone.”
“HD?”
“Yes! HD”
“That will be Rs 20.”
“Eh, I can give only 15. See if you want to give, or forget it. I will take it from someone else.”
“You won’t find them anywhere else. Haha! only for you brother.”
“Okay okay hurry up, I have to go back to the factory. Also can you add a balance of Rs 20 in this?” He could barely wait for the night.

Suresh took his phone’s memory card and copied the movie files on it, put it back in his phone and played it. He quickly took his phone and went to the neighbouring shop to buy a packet of gutka. One last stop. He went to Rahim’s shop to ask him to save some chicken for that night.

Suresh got another customer, to whom he suggested the same movies. By afternoon, he had given out thirty copies of ‘The Snake Woman’. He was watching it himself, when a brilliant idea struck him.

He got up and put the screen of his computer on the table facing the street. He placed he monitor partially facing the street and partially facing him, playing the movie for people passing by on loud volume. The movie, dubbed in Hindi, worked like magic on the street. Every now and then a group of men would stop near the screen and watch a small part, promising Suresh to come back to buy the full movie. Shopkeepers from neighbouring shops, seduced by the movie, bent their backs to get a glimpse of the screen. The song where the snake women were dancing under a waterfall in the forest attracted people like bees to honey. For him, it meant a lot of money. He was seduced by the lady as much as he was by the money that was flowing in.
“This is good stuff brother. Where did you get this from?”
“You can have it for yourself, do you want it in your phone?”
“I’ll come by in the evening to get it. I also want to get my phone repaired.”
By night, Suresh had made more money than he had in the whole week and made many new customers for his rumoured best movie and songs collection in the village. Fair skin colour, western clothes, big cars, action, violence- he knew what would sell in that market.

Over the years, Suresh had gained significant working knowledge of a computer and the village streets. Now people went to him for all technical needs, from buying a new phone, to phone repair, booking train tickets, phone recharge or downloading new movies and songs.

“Some movies work like a charm! God bless the Snake woman”, he said, satisfied with the day’s work while closing the shutter of his shop at night.


urban

04

Queen of Diamonds

I had the queen of diamonds. I was the winner the moment the cards were distributed. Why did Ajeet have to miss the game today? I want him to be here and witness my victory over the whole panchayat. Luck was on my side these days. I looked around for Ajeet. I want him to be here for the celebration. He had never been late for a game before.

I don’t remember what time it was. The sun had set. Ajeet always brought the best ganja to the park. “Ah! what was the point of a victory without him?” I thought. After the game was over, I stood up. My head was throbbing with pain. Ajeet was there for the morning game. Where could he possibly have gone now?

Other panchayat members along with me and we all headed towards the Chaupal. I decided to stop at his house to find out where he was. He better have a good reason to skip the game.

“You heard Mahesh complained to the police? That bastard!” Vinay said to the others.
“That is why we put gates in our lane. To prevent these workers from entering. What purpose do they have in there? They do not belong to these lanes.”
“How dare he complain in the media. I’ll ask him to empty the house immediately and leave the village. I will ask my son to look after him. They have to face consequences if they disobey us like this.”

Why would the fool do that? He called for trouble himself. What business can he probably have in that Lane? We were almost near his house, when I heard Ajeet shouting. Sheh! it was his wife again. It is a husband wife matter. I’ll leave them alone, I thought. I don’t understand what do women create so much noise for? Poor Ajeet! That domesticated animal. He should be strong like me and behave like a man. I won the game today.
“Umesh, you have been winning the game for over a week. Laxmi is on your side. Now that Ajeet is not coming, you must treat us. What special do you have for us today?”
“I won yesterday too?”
“As long as I am alive, you never have to worry about it. I have enough maal for everybody.”
I barely have memories from the rest of the night. I remember walking back home. It was a long walk. The village looked the most beautiful at night, breathing in the air of its past in its silent empty lanes. All these big fashion stores used to be fields where I worked with my grandfather when I was a small child. Long gone are those days of hard work. Work is meant only for the lower life now.

When I reached home, Sunita was waiting for me by the side of the door. That ungrateful wretch. I woke up from the noise my sons made in the house. I knew what they were here for. I gave them twenty thousand. They won’t bug me for another week. I need Ajeet. Where did that bastard go with my money. I hope he brings the ganja today.


urban

05

Singer Machine

In the evening, Kiran sat on the floor of her house one leg folded and the other around her singer machine, bending down to put the thread through the needle hole. Having seen her mother work on it during her childhood days, she was very proficient in handling the machine and always repaired clothes of her family on her own. Given to her as a part of her dowry, it has remained with her for eighteen years of her life now, a companion in her solitude. These evenings when she is alone in the house, with no one around to be served, she sits with her singer machine stitching patterns on her veil, with songs playing on the mobile phone kept near her, humming the familiar tunes. The only times she can listen to music and can exercise some form of choice.

Engrossed in her work, fiddling with the reel box, she hardly notices when her eldest son Amar walks in. It was 5 pm, he must be getting ready to go to the park. Amar said to her in a tone of indifference, “Maa, father is here. He is going around in the village telling everyone that you are a prostitute. I heard it at Suresh’s shop.”

Shocked at hearing those words, tears roll down her eyes, falling on the machine. Her vision was getting blurred. She was still trying to put the thread in the needle. When she was younger, she could do it with closed eyes.

Filled with rage, she gets up and goes into her room. He was here. She wanted to be happy, she wanted this part of her life to not be real, she wanted her marriage to work out, she wanted him to live with her. She wanted him. She faintly remembered how he looked before their marriage. The image of him. The image that she fell in love with, the image of a perfect man. The image that lied, the image of a monster.

“Prostitute?” She couldn’t breathe, panting as if trying to swallow the word. She couldn’t. She tried to hold it in, something inside her was breaking. She put her hand on her mouth, it had to come out. She bursted into a loud wail as if mourning her own death. “He must be on his way back” she thought. “He will come home anytime now. I must not cry. I must not annoy him.”

She hurried into the small courtyard, where her phone was and stopped the music. She kept the phone back under her pillow, went to the kitchen, washed her face in the sink, drank a glass of water, covered her head with her veil, and sat near the door on the floor, to hear faintest sounds of footsteps. Waiting. Her mind was already running outside the house searching for him, finding him. “Where could he be? Only if I could go out. Once. How was it outside? Would anyone recognise me?”, she thought.

She had mapped every inch of the house, setting up her entire world inside the four walls. It had everything she brought from her home after her marriage. Eighteen years! Seemed like forever. Thoughts of her childhood, fields, school and mother flood her mind. The times when she used to run in the wheat fields with her friends and play under the sun all day. The image of him before marriage flashes her mind again, momentarily taking her back in time when she was a little girl. I am never going to give birth to a girl.

She hears creaking sounds of the door followed by footsteps climbing the stairs. Only a few minutes now. She could tell which floor he had reached. He was limping, bending on one side, maybe drunk. Her heart sunk at his sight. He could not stand properly, eyes red. Stink in the air around him, he was drunk. She knew what would happen now. Her body knew. This is what has remained. This is her only clear memory of her husband now. They were all going to hear it again. The song of her sorrow.


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06

The Phone Call

Inspecting construction of a new mobile phone shop on the ground floor of his complex, Vivek stood next to his father, shouting instructions at the mason. “Why are you piling cement bags here you fool, you will block the way for others to go. The whole street will be jammed and they (pointing at the boutique shops on the outer road) will blame me”. He went to the door to check the number of cement sacks that had just arrived when he saw her pass by.

She was wearing a deep neck blouse, her hair tied in a loose bun, and a skirt a little above her ankle. Slender, tall, wheatish, beautiful. She had a notebook in her hand and a pen held in between her lips. She glanced at him momentarily and walked by going further ahead down the road in the village. Maybe another fashion designer, he thought. But he had never seen her before. Maybe she was new. He wished to see her again.

In his rough loud voice, he shouts at the mason who was also looking at the girl, “Why don’t you sit here, like a prince and I will do all the work”. The mason bent down to pick up the sacks, cursing his bad fortune. She came back an hour later, keenly observing the construction work. Recognising him from his looks and the unmistakable white shirt, she asked him, “Are you the owner of this place?”
He couldn’t believe his luck today. She was talking to him. She was the one to start a conversation, it took him a while to respond.
“Yes I am. Tell me what can I do?”
“Where do you live?”
“On the top floor.”
She looked up at the building. From where she was standing she could not count the number of floors. Taking a step back, she looked up. Seven floors. His attention was fixed on her neck.
Standing on the stairs of the building that open up on the street, a no man’s land, everybody around on the street had their eyes on them, which he was very well aware of. Women do not talk to the village men on the streets. It was an unspoken, unsaid but a well-understood rule. She was definitely new.
“I am an architect and we are working on a cafe construction behind this building on the ground floor. Can I ask you a few questions?”
He became slightly uncomfortable. She had caught his father’s attention by now. Who is she? There was no fear in her eyes. This intimidated him as much as it made him conscious of his own self, his poor English and lack of education. What if I say something wrong?

“Not right now, but you can call me after one hour and I will be happy to talk to you or we can meet tomorrow.” I will prepare myself for it by tomorrow, he thought. His father was walking towards them to listen to what was happening, curious about the presence of a girl at the construction site.
“Okay sure, I will call you then.”
“With you, I can talk any number of times.” he told her.
She was getting suspicious of his behaviour by now and regretted giving away her phone number. Let’s see. What can possibly go wrong? I only wanted to talk, she thought while walking away from the construction site.
After a while, looking at the screen of his phone, anxious and impatient about the call, he dials her number. Three rings and he was still staring at the screen like she would come out from it. What would say? What would I talk about? He breathes loudly, stressed and panicking. Having no answer, he cut the call and checked her display picture on WhatsApp. Her image filled his screen. Oh God! Could this be real?
Half an hour went by, unable to bear the wait, he called her again.
“Hello, do you remember me? I am Vivek. You met me sometime back.”
“Yes, of course. I am busy right now, let me call you back in some time.”
“Will you be free then? I will call in half an hour. ”
He went back to his house, in his room, sat there for a while, moved around in the house finding a safe spot to talk on the phone. With his parents always around in the house, he hardly got any privacy. His brother was sitting on his bed, with his phone in his hand, and father was smoking in the baithak, and his mother was not visible. He goes to the store room to talk, away from the eyes and ears of the world. His phone rang loud, breaking the pin drop silence of the room. He picked it up immediately,

“Hello, Vivek?”
“You free now?”
“Yes, I am sorry I got caught up in some work. Can we talk now?”
“Yes yes, very much”
“What is the new construction work in the building for?”
“I am building a new mobile shop on the ground floor. It will be ready by next month for rent.” He said excitedly. “Oh, you look too young. Don’t you go to college? You take care of the other shops too?”
“No, I’ve done my 12th. I am not married yet. My brother takes care of the first floor and I take care of the ground floor.”
“Oh, okay. All of you live here?”
“Yes, we live on the top floor. What about you? What do you do?”
“I am an architect. There is a project I am doing behind your building. So wanted to ask a few things about that.” “I really like talking to you. I want to talk more. Will you talk to me every day? Can I meet you somewhere to talk to you.” he blurted out in an unusually soft voice.
She knew she was in big trouble. “Oh no no. I only wanted to ask some questions about the village. I am sorry I have to go.”
“But wait! Can I call you again? Maybe after some time? Is this your number?”
“No no this is my brother’s number. I have three elder brothers. I have to go, bye.” and she hangs up the phone.
He couldn’t bear the embarrassment. He called her every hour, till the night crawled up in his bed and he fell asleep. 10 missed calls. 46 missed calls the next day. “I have invested my time in her”, he thought. She better pick up the call. If not, I’ll go to her cafe tomorrow. Where will she go then?


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07

The Maze

Knocking the ground with his cricket bat held firmly between his palms, Rahul squints his eyes to get a better look at the ball. It was the last ball of the over and he wanted to hit it at least this one time. One proper look at the ball was all he needed. Overpowered by shame for not having touched the ball even once, he was desperate to score. The ball bounced right at his leg, Rahul swung his bat hard, making a loud swoosh noise. The ball passed away inches from his bat, teasing it. Zero runs. What a shame. However hard he tried, he could not see the ball until it had reached an arm’s length from him. By then it was too late. Curse this darkness. It was easier to become a good bowler than a good batsman, he consoled himself.

“Again no runs. At least do good fielding. Go behind the wicket, it’s my turn to bat now” said Rahim.

Disappointed with himself, Rahul handed over the bat to Rahim and went behind the stumps, crouching, ready for the ball, again. He was looking at the ball even more intently now, almost praying to it. Praying for it to become invisible; invisible to everyone but him. Rahim must not score any runs. If I didn’t then he also must not. His eyes were focussed on the ball. Everything else around him became a blur. Ready to catch it as it came. Crouching, his fingers open in a flower like form, he did not realise that he had missed the ball until Rahim shouted, “Are you sleeping Shambhu?”

He shook hearing his voice, falling down from his perfect pose. Unbelievable! how could I have missed it again? It was almost impossible to keep track of the ball in this darkness. He got up searching for the ball, walking along the corners of the lane, bending close to the ground to get a better look.

“Check at the end of the street, blind man” shouted Rahim.

Shambhu had wandered far off. He could only hear a soft echo of Rahim’s voice now. He was scanning the street carefully. The one who finds the ball first is generally entitled to an extra round of batting. It could be me, he thought, one more chance to hold the bat.

After a while, he stood up to straighten his back, his gaze falling on one of the reflectors. Reflectors are shiny surfaces planted in the village at spots where a few rays of sunlight had found their way down to the lower levels. These mirrors scattered frail rays of the sun into the surrounding darkness to give an illusion of day, the only natural light people on lower floors could claim on.

But there was something unusual about that mirror. It took him a few seconds to adjust his eyes that were tearing up from the sudden exposure to light. He spotted the ball in it. He felt dizzy from the plunge of pleasure in his body at the sight of the ball. It should be somewhere near. He frantically began searching on the ground. “Finally”, he said to himself, looking back up in the mirror, to confirm his find. It was gone by now, visible in the next mirror. He ran to it. It was definitely somewhere around, close. The ball moved from second to the third mirror quickly but it could not escape him now. It was trapped. The mirrors would reveal it’s every move. From one mirror to the next he ran in circles on the street, dipping himself in the surreal light, with his face up, the warmth of the light drying up the tears falling from his blinded eyes.


DISCLAIMER — All names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.