winner-open-road-review-short-story-prize-2016-in-partnership-with-nhp-centreKumar sat on a wooden bench outside a shack at the end of the street on which he lived. In the meagre light of a small bulb, he gazed at an empty bottle of Old Monk on the table before him. The chirping of crickets hung heavy in the air, close enough that he kept swatting at the region around his ears like they were haunting him. When he managed every now and then to tear his eyes away from the bottle of rum, he saw Rohit grinning at him.

‘It is easy money,’ He was saying. ‘They need the people, machha. Otherwise they look bad. I said okay. Didn’t want to look too eager, you know. Just okay, I said. Then I told them that I would get my friend along. I told them that Kumar is super at this.’

Kumar knew that this was a prompt for him to say something, thank Rohit for praising him, for helping him earn some money, but his tongue was too swollen to get the words out.

‘So we have to be at the Town Hall by nine in the morning. It will be over by lunchtime. Half a day’s work and five hundred rupees in the pocket. What do you say?’

Rohit gave the table top a sharp rap. The sound was loud enough to wrench Kumar out of his drunken haze to burp, expelling a gust of rum soaked air from his body. Rohit’s generous chin wobbled as he guffawed, slapping the table some more.

‘Goobe! Just be at the Town Hall by nine in the morning tomorrow if you want to earn some money.’

‘Okay. Nine,’ Kumar mumbled, his words sliding over each other, ‘I will. Be there.’

*

He woke up with the worst headache he had ever had. When he sat up on the thin mattress in the backyard where he slept, he felt the world around him swim like it wasn’t real. Every smell was oppressive, the sunlight falling into the yard was too bright and his ears kept popping over and over. He felt a hand on his shoulder and yelped like a dog kicked. He turned around to face his sister.

‘Akka. Is it very late?’

He saw Akka’s face become darker at his slurred words, deep shadows latching on like they did on the masks worn by the dancers in the theatre troupe that passed through their village every year when they were children.

‘Late-ah? What’s late to you? You are still drunk. Just look at you!’

He shook his head to reassure her that he was not drunk. This simple gesture left him reeling as the contents of his head rattled around in his skull. He closed his eyes to stop the world from spinning around him.

‘Akka, please. My head is hurting. What time is it?’

Her voice, when he heard it, was even more infuriated, a shrill edge creeping into it that hacked away at his delicate ears.

‘A headache-ah? What else do you get when you are up all night drinking?’

‘I wasn’t.’

She continued talking past his lie as he raised a hand to his head to hold it steady.

‘All you do is sit around with that Rohit and drink your life away. He is not a nice man. People say that he goes to those houses where the women are.’

He opened his eyes and saw her shudder. He took in her sunken face, the drooping shoulders wrapped in a drab saree, the hem of which she was using to wipe her hands.

‘I have to go for work. I have work today.’

She did not look impressed, crossing her arms in front of her and sniffing.

‘Work-ah? What work do you have? More protesting?’

He gave a sheepish nod.

‘Why don’t you get a proper job? Even if it is a small one. This protesting and this Rohit are not good.’

‘It is money, Akka. Five hundred, he said. What time is it?’

‘It’s a little after eight. I don’t have any breakfast for you. I didn’t know when you would wake up so I thought you would only eat lunch.’

He was going to be late. He got up to his feet and felt around in his pocket, extracting a solitary note that had seen better days.

‘It’s okay, Akka. I will eat later. I need to leave now.’

Tears welled in her eyes as she sniffed even harder. She looked ill. There were dark circles under her eyes, her hair an untidy mess of black and white, her skin like scratched wood. She looked much older than him, not the six years that had separated them at birth.

‘Wait-ah. Let me give you some money. Get a vada at the tea stall.’

He started protesting, saying he didn’t need any money. When she waved a hand to make him stop, he did, knowing that he would take the money offered.

‘Just take it, Kumar. You need to eat. And you need money for the bus.’

*

Still half-asleep, he walked with quick little steps, both hands running through his wild hair in a feeble attempt to make himself look more presentable. He kept patting the pocket of his crumpled shirt, sensing the phantom presence of money there that he no longer had. How much money had he spent the previous night? How much money had Rohit made him spend once he was inebriated? As he reached the end of the street, he looked at the shack. By daylight, it operated as a tea stall and managed to look respectable even when it was held together by a corrugated tin roof and had an abundance of flies hovering over every exposed surface.

‘Kumar!’

The voice, which he recognised, came from deep within the bowels of the tea stall. Knowing he had no option but to heed the call, he walked in. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw Manjesh sprawled in a chair with a steaming cup of tea in front of him.

‘Bhava! What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in office?’

Manjesh chuckled and beckoned him forward like one would a small child.

‘I just dropped in for some tea. That liquid your sister feeds me in the morning is not fit to be called tea. It’s just hot water.’

He slapped the table top in a way that seemed familiar to Kumar though he didn’t know why.

‘Sit,’ He commanded, gesturing to the chair opposite him.

‘I need to be going to the Town Hall, Bhava. I’m already a little late.’

Manjesh’s eyes lit up in the darkness. He leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms over his head. He was a short man with thinning hair and long arms that made it look like he was swinging them a lot when he walked. He worked as an accountant in a small departmental store, jotting down numbers for most of the day while being cooped up in a windowless room. The lack of sunlight had bleached his skin of all colour, making him look like a wraith in the shadows.

‘Town hall, huh? Yaake?’

‘I have a job, Bhava.’

‘A job? You?’

Kumar nodded, ignoring the note of derision, telling himself that he had to be on his way soon.

‘So we should be celebrating alva? This tea is on you. Wait, we must also smoke to celebrate. Rama, get us two cigarettes here. Chintu here has a job today.’

‘Bhava, no. I haven’t been paid yet. Can we please do this later when I get the money?’

Manjesh snorted, not looking at him as he accepted the two cigarettes proffered by the proprietor, a man with thick glasses and dirty fingernails.

‘You would have spent all that money on rum if we wait till later. I’m sure you have enough money in your pocket right now for a cup of tea and two cigarettes. Didn’t my wife give you any money in the morning?’

Kumar blushed at this. Manjesh looked like an animal which had cornered its prey.

‘She did, no? It’s not like you to save money, is it? And where do you think she gets that money from? That money is mine.’

He jabbed a finger at his own chest to emphasise his point. Kumar bowed his head and stared at the ridges in the table tap where grime had collected.

‘You stay under my roof. Mr roof! Still you act so cheap when I ask you to pay for a cup of tea and some cigarettes. I never see you being grateful for all that I do for you. Do you earn any money yourself? Do you?’

The question loitered between them as Manjesh paused to catch his breath, putting one of the cigarettes between his spittle stained lips and lighting it with a matchstick he prised out of a tiny yellow box that he carried around.

‘I’m sorry, Bhava,’ Kumar murmured, wondering even as he said the words if a quick apology would excuse him.

‘Sorry?’ Manjesh sucked on his cigarette and blew the acrid smoke across the table, ‘That’s the best you can say for yourself? Sorry?’

Manjesh pushed forward in his chair, his scalp shining through his hair, smoke escaping from his nose like the steam from the cup of tea before him. Kumar fought the urge to lean back in his own chair.

‘People ask me why I keep you in the house. Do you know what I say? I say that you only stay in my house because your sister begs me to keep you. She begs every single day. She will do anything for you, you know.’

Manjesh’s sneer widened.

‘When her begging gets to me, I slap her. One tight slap across the face and she shuts up. So difficult for a man to get some peace in his own home these days. The things I have to put up with.’

Kumar felt the throbbing in his head get worse. He was being goaded to do something inexcusable. As he fought to remain calm, his thoughts went digging into the past to find more fuel for his righteous anger. He remembered the tattered suitcase with the dowry that he had carried when they had come to the city after Akka’s marriage. They had been in a bus, a jittery contraption that seemed like it would fall apart at any time. He remembered laughing with Akka, who had looked resplendent in the garb of a newly-wed, her face young and unlined. He remembered Manjesh sitting beside her, his eyes on the suitcase. He had snatched it from Kumar as soon as they reached the city. What had happened to all that money that his poor parents had scrapped together? What had happened to the jewellery that his sister had been wearing that day? Why did his sister look like her life was half-spent?

As the anger in his stomach threatened to boil over, he clenched his hands into fists to stop them from shaking. Before he could think of the words to say, he saw that the smirk on Manjesh’s face was even wider, stretching from ear to ear. He had been wrong. He was not being goaded, he was being toyed with. He stood up, empty as a shell, the anger leaking out of him. He did the only thing he knew he could, which was to remove most of the money from his pocket and place it on the table like an offering.

‘Here’s the money, Bhava. I will be late.’

*

He stood in front of the Town Hall, gawking at the crowd of people who were sitting on the stone steps. All of them were decked in black. From where he stood, the faces of the people on the steps were indistinguishable from each other, as if the colour of their clothing seeped into the features of their faces, leaving a homogenous mass of humanity writhing around in the warm morning.

One figure peeled itself away from the crowd and made its way towards him. When it got closer, he saw that it was a woman wearing a black sweatshirt and dark jeans. Her hair was tied in a tight bun at the top of her head and a nose ring the colour of burnished bronze gleamed from her hawkish nose.

‘Only protesters are allowed beyond that cordon. Please stand behind it, sir. One of our associates will talk to you if you want to know more about our protest.’

He looked in the direction that she was pointing at and saw that he had managed to sneak past a cordon created out of white masking tape. He also spotted a few more people in black walking up and down in front of the boundary, gesturing and talking to people in front of them.

‘Kumar!’

Kumar and the woman turned at the same time to catch sight of Rohit running down the steps in a black shirt, a wide grin on his face that was at complete odds with the solemn expressions of the people around him. He came to a stop before them, clutching his stomach and panting hard.

‘You came. I thought you wouldn’t come. Ma’am,’ he addressed the woman, who was frowning at him, ‘This is my friend. He’s here to protest as well.’

Her frown shifted to Kumar upon hearing this. Her gaze was intimidating to him and he felt an urge to leap behind Rohit and use his sizable girth to shield himself.

‘He’s late. And he’s not wearing black.’

Rohit only seemed to notice this when it was pointed out to him. He slapped his forehead in an exaggerated gesture of exasperation that did nothing to soften the frown on the woman’s face.

‘I’m so sorry about that, Ma’am. He must have forgotten about it. Please don’t turn him away. He lives a long distance away and has a big family to feed. He’s very experienced at this. I can assure you of that.’

The woman raised eyebrows as sharp as her nose.

‘Experienced? He doesn’t need to do anything. Just sit there and make up the numbers.’

‘I know, I know. He will do that very well. Look at him. He’s a big man. He will be worth two people up there on the steps.’

‘If he’s up there on the steps, he will stand out for what he is wearing.’

The woman’s voice had an edge to it, like she was running out of patience and might walk away from them soon. Rohit sensed this, for his hand wringing became more fervent and he turned his head from one side to another like a dazed animal. Then Kumar saw his face freeze and knew that he had just been struck with an idea.

‘We could use one of those black garbage bags to cover him, Ma’am. They will fit him perfectly.’

He was pointing at a small pile of garbage bags that were deposited at the base of the steps along with some paint bottles, square pieces of cardboard and a half-used roll of masking tape. For the first time, Kumar saw the woman’s expression become a little less severe.

‘Those are for cleaning up after. We told the police that we won’t leave a mess here after we’re done.’

‘Just one bag, Ma’am. Just one. There are so many there. He has come from really far. Please don’t turn him away.’

The earnestness with which Rohit pleaded made Kumar uncomfortable.

‘Please, Ma’am. Just the one bag.’

The woman finally tore her eyes away and looked beyond the cordon, where a news van had pulled up, and from which was emerging a serious looking man in a button down shirt with a microphone in his hand.

‘Okay, okay. Grab one bag then. But make sure he’s on the sides. Not in the middle. And hurry up.’

As Rohit ran off to retrieve a bag, the woman’s attention returned to Kumar.

‘Just sit there and don’t do anything.’

The absurdity of these instructions finally made him speak, words tumbling out of his mouth like had no control over them.

‘Not do anything?’

‘Yes. Do you have a problem with that?’

‘I thought we were protesting.’

‘We are.’

‘Without doing anything?’

The woman smiled then and the effect was startling. She looked years younger, the wrinkles made by her frown disappearing, replaced by smooth skin like that of a baby’s.

‘Yes. That’s the beauty of it. A silent protest will have a bigger impact than a noisy one. People will definitely notice us. And if they notice us, they will notice what we are protesting about.’

It didn’t make any sense to him. All the protests he had been a part of had been boisterous affairs, walking from one point in the city to another, holding up a placard which he could not read, shouting words that made no sense to him. How was not doing anything a protest? Before he could voice this thought, Rohit was by his side, thrusting a garbage bag in his face.

‘Here! Rip one end off and wear it over your shirt like a sweater.’

*

He sat on the warm stone steps of the Town Hall with his stomach grumbling with hunger and his head hanging down like it weighed a ton. The garbage bag was uncomfortable to wear. It made him sweat, little rivulets erupting on every exposed portion of his body. His shirt, underneath the bag, was soaked. While he fidgeted, the people around him sat still, which only made his own twitching seem like an aberration. He wondered what they were protesting against. Had Rohit mentioned what the protest was about the previous night? Even if he had, Kumar no longer remembered.

As the minutes passed by and the sweat continued to pour out of his body, he found himself drifting into a stupor, one that was punctuated by hazy images of him standing like a benign god in front of everyone he knew, his stoic countenance making them weep and apologise for wronging him. He would say nothing.

*

He was roughly shaken awake from his sleep by Rohit, who was kneeling beside him. Kumar looked around and saw that the protest was done and most of the black-clad people had already disappeared. The stragglers were gathered in small groups at the base of the steps, talking in low voices and smoking.

‘You were supposed to be protesting. Not sleeping away, you goobe.’

‘You didn’t tell me it was like this.’

Rohit shrugged, getting to his feet and stretching his arms.

‘I didn’t know it myself. They only told me when I got here.’

‘And you didn’t tell me to wear black.’

Rohit did a double take of mock outrage, shaking his head.

‘I did tell you! Who told you to drink so much last night, huh? You always do this. Get drunk and oversleep and not care about work. I still managed to convince that woman, didn’t I? While you were standing around like a donkey.’

Kumar scrambled to his own feet, teetering a little. Rohit smiled and clapped him on the back.

‘Relax machha. Here’s your four hundred.’

Kumar looked at the notes being offered.

‘You said five hundred last night.’

‘That was before you came late. Before I had to grovel and beg for them to take you on. To give you some work. That’s my commission.’

Kumar grimaced, still keeping his hands to himself.

‘Are you going to take the money or not? I don’t have all day.’

He felt his stomach churning again but he was no longer sure if it was anger or just hunger. The uncertainty of it broke his remaining resolve. He took the money, rubbing the notes between his fingers.

‘There machha. Good. I’m heading off now, okay? Got some other things to do. Rum on me tonight. What do you say?’

He walked away without waiting for a reply, leaving Kumar standing on the stone step, still wrapped in his black garbage bag of silent protest.

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