Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A Visit to the Fish Market

A simple, square room, open at one end. Two sides have raised platforms. Fish scales scrunch underfoot. A couple of dim bulbs hang from the ceiling and invest the room with a surreal, golden glow. Sharp knives, shaped like inverted ships' prows, stick out of the platforms at intervals. Skin and scales and blood and bone fragments and pieces of flesh form a pyramid near each. An aluminum vessel filled with bloody water, a swing-weight (with blood-stained weights) and blood-stained money complete the picture. There are two men to each shop. One deals with the customers, one prepares the fish. Which one has the easier job, I wonder. 

The fish lie in parallel rows on newspaper sheets on the platform. Their sightless eyes touch the paper. They are beautiful: their silvery scales glint mysteriously in the dim yellow light. Ice surrounds them. Their tails drip water onto the narrow drain lining the platforms. There are all kinds of them: big, small; long, wide, narrow; silvery, pink, blue. Unnamed and unknowable, yet they attract some deep sympathy in me. They will soon be fed to those sharp knives: their skin will be ripped off, scale by glinting scale; their blood will anoint the paper underneath; their flesh will be cut into minute, carefully proportioned pieces. 

"Ayla! Matthi! Choora! Nemmeen! Karimeen! Chemmeen!" the man yells on seeing us. What good does it do him, I wonder, to know the Malayalam words for the fish? Are his customers mostly Malalyalees? Do many people know of this remote corner of Sarojini Nagar - this place that makes me feel as if I've stepped back in time, that makes me start in amazement when I look down and see my Levi's jeans and my New Balance shoes, because, surely, I should be bare-foot and clad in the black and white clothes of yesteryear movies? 

As the man prepares the large fish that we have ordered, a small boy - no more than six or seven - comes in out of the dark. He is wearing nothing more than a pair of trousers and a cotton shirt. He slips off his sandals, climbs on the platform, washes his hands in the aluminum vessel filled with blood-stained water and sits down next to (apparently) his father. The regular customers, waiting for their fish, exchange banter with him. He responds expertly, keeping up his side of the teasing while deftly handling the weighing of the fish and the exchange of money. He is quick and nimble with the blood-stained weights: he obviously has a lot of practice. 

Suddenly, everyone is disturbed by the arrival of a Mercedes. A pair of high heels, topped by a lady in black, steps out. The lady proprietedly holds the hand of a four-year-old boy. The boy is well-protected from the cold: his leather jacket shines in the golden light, he holds up his jeans carefully to avoid the dirty floor. The couple walks up to one of the shops. The lady indicates the fish she wants. How many do you want, she asks her son fondly. FOUR!, the boy replies, showing four fingers to the shopkeeper. He smilingly takes four of the fish and gives them to the other man for preparation. 

I notice that the other boy is now a bit distracted. The weights slip out of his now-bloody fingers. He makes a mistake with the calculations. His father scolds him. 

The boy in the leather jacket stares wide-eyed at the other boy. His mother calls him. He trots off, with one last look back. 

The Mercedes drives off into the night. The boy continues his work, albeit silently now.
• • •

Sunday, December 19, 2004

An Accident and a Kidnap Attempt

Time: About ten past eight, the seventeenth of December, 2004. 
Scene: University Special Bus. 


A babble of voices jolts me out of my reverie. 

"Why's the bus stopping?" 
"What's up?" 
"Have we reached already?" 

"Hey, I think we've had an accident!" 
"COOL, yaar!" 
"There goes my nine o'clock class!" 

Heads are craning to see through the grimy back-window of the bus. They swivel around to follow a white Maruti car as it glides past the bus to stop in front. The car's hood is oddly bent and rises up in two corners. 

Our Sardarji driver ducks under the bar separating the driver's seat from the rest of the bus. He steps out of the bus in a slow, deliberate way. We watch as a uniformed driver - the sole occupant of the Maruti - steps out and surveys his master's newly mangled car. Then, he steals a glance at our Sardarji. 

The scene has an odd quality to it. About fifty students watch, breathless and strangely silent, heads craning out of the windows and doors of the bus, as the two seasoned gladiators square up for the fight. 

They clash. Their querulous voices rise up into the misty morning air. Their arms wave about, pointing, in turn, at the bus, the car, the hood, the road, each other. The Sardarji points to the driver's head in the well-known symbol for madness. The driver responds in kind. All the time, their voices, like those of two quarrelling crows, shatter the air repeatedly. 

By this time, they have an audience. The bus-conductor stands behind the Sardarji as his self-styled second-in-command. Most of the male students have trooped out of the bus and form a silent, supportive, half-circle behind them. A few homeless people, previously huddled into blankets in front of a small fire, have roused themselves and now cluster around in speculative interest. 

Still, they fight on. Their training and the long years they've spent driving on Delhi roads have made them seasoned fighters. They thrust and parry, move forward and backward. At times, they circle each other warily; at other times, they get at it like two cocks in a cockfight. 

But the students are getting restless. Being no connoisseurs of this noble art, and goaded by the fact that each passing minute makes them more late for their classes, they interrupt the two. 

"Police ko bulate hain, chalo.
"Bhaiya, hume classes hain.
"Police ko bulake ise under daal dete hain.

The Sardarji knows what they don't know: that the police will side with the driver of the smaller vehicle. He tries to dissuade them. 

But no. With all the rashness of youth, one of them has already dialled 100. 

Hearing this, the two lead actors in the drama retire from the stage in order to create their own versions of the accident. The magic word 'police' makes the homeless people vanish in an instant. The students troop back into the bus, satisfied with themselves, sure that the Maruti driver will get his comeuppance and that they will be able to get to their respective colleges on time. The stage lies empty, waiting for the actors to come back. 


The wail of the police siren gets the buzzing students on their feet again. Once again, shoulders crane out of windows and heads swivel to watch the white Gypsy pass the bus and stop diagonally in front of the Maruti. But this time, wild applause, wolf whistles and cheering accompany the swivelling heads. For most of the students, this is the first encounter with the police and they cheer wildly for the knights in shining armour. 

Two khaki figures step out of the vehicle. Their faces are adorned by sheepish grins: they are conscious of their dramatic entrance. One totes a long gun chained to his body, the other a notepad and a pen. 

The two drivers step up, the one with his sidekick, the other with an injured expression. One of the policemen takes notes. By this time, the bus is almost empty, the students having stepped out to view the proceedings and take a closer look at the artefacts on display - the gun, the car's hood, the policeman's notepad. 

Soon, the new filters through to the outer edges: the bus isn't about to go anywhere. Find your own way to college. Rumours fly: the Sardarji's licence has been revoked! The U-Special won't be coming on Monday! The Sardarji has to pay for the car's hood! And so on. 

Everybody rushes inside for their bags and books. They cluster around in groups. 

"Auto or bus?" 
"How much money will it take?" 
Even a "Where are we, exactly?" 

"Does any Univerity-bound bus go through this place?" 
"Yes. The 100 number." 
"Look, here comes a bus." 
"What number is it?" 
"The 100! Look, people, the 100!" 

The driver and the conductor of this bus peer out of the windows at the milling crowd. One can see the greed in their eyes. About fifty odd students. Fifty multiplied by seven - their brains sizzle at the product. 

The bus stops. "Chalo, chalo. Jaldi chad lo," the conductor encourages us. We climb in. About half the students have got on when a cry goes up. "DTC! DTC! DTC 100!" 

[Now, here I must insert a small note about the buses that run in Delhi. There are two kinds - the privately run ones and the government run Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) ones. There are huge differances between the two. DTC buses are faster, larger and therefore less crowded, cleaner and - and this is the crucial differance for us students - they are free for DTC pass-holders. These passes usually cost about Rs. 450 a month, but students (and other disadvantaged species such as journalists) get them for fifteen rupees a month. (The rate is so low because it hasn't been changed in something like fifty years.)] 

Now, in this case, the first bus is a private bus. And the second bus, a DTC one. Hearing the cry, the driver of the bus we are on immediately starts the bus. The guys who had managed to get on jump off, leaving about fifteen girls in the bus. Four of us - me, M, K and J - yell to the driver to stop. 

"Bhaiya! Roko!
"Rok lo, Bhaiya!
"Hame utharna hain!

"Madam, mein rok nahi saktha," the driver replies belligerantly. 
The conductor, too, tries to get us to sit calmly in our seats. The DTC bus, meanwhile, has stopped to let the students get on. Our bus is careening away as fast as it can go. Apart from us, none of the girls are even standing up. They show no signs of even wanting to get off. They would rather pay seven rupees than actually get on another bus. 

"Bhaiya, rok lo. Nahi tho hum police se complaint karenge.
The driver and the conductor snort. 
M, incensed, says, "Bhaiya! This is not done!" 
Yes, M, brilliant idea. Appeal to the driver's nonexistent sense of morality in a language he doesn't understand. 

But now, the bus has turned off its route. It takes a U-turn so that we watch helplessly from the other side of the road as the DTC trundles off happily with its new load. We are in a bit of a panic. We don't know what the driver plans to do now. He has abandoned his usual route. Suppose he tries to kidnap us? 

But no sooner has this thought passed through our minds than the bus takes another U-turn. We are back where we started. Except there is no DTC. It has left us behind. 

"Abhi aap ko is bus mein jaana hi padega," the conductor grins evilly at us. 
"Nahi, bhaiya. Aapke gande bus mein hame nahin jaana.

Well, we would have said that (and a good deal more), if any of us had been fluent enough in Hindi. We would have cursed them well. Unfortunately, we are two mallus, a tamilian and a marathi. So, we content ourselves with glaring at the two morons and walking off the bus. The other girls, too, get off. I don't know why, since they never bothered to protest when the buswallah 'kidnapped' us. The conductor glares resentfully at the four of us for having lost him a lot of money.  

We stand for ten minutes at the bus stop and laugh hysterically over our kidnapping and M's "Bhaiya, this is not done!" Then we catch the next DTC and reach college. We agree that it was a whole lot of fun. And that we should do it again.
• • •