He went and squatted beside Faheem and the other men on the road, a few metres away from the police station. The women too sat around, idle. Without their stoves or their utensils, they were free from the obligation to cook the next meal. A hawaldar walked past, carrying heavy plastic bags in both hands, and a danda under his armpit.
Basheer said, "Saab, what is the time?"
The hawaldar glared at him, unsure whether giving the time of the day would undermine his authority in any way, then muttered, "8.25" and walked on.
Basheer laughed, "Saala, he's taking Chinese for his saabs."
Lata, in a voice hoarse with screaming, said, "Basheer Bhai, this haraami was using his danda even against the women."
Basheer shrugged, "They are all like that."
Basheer's mouth felt dry and smelly with thirst. The sharp smell of the Chinese food in the hawaldar's bags had made him hungry. He asked Faheem, "Shall we go to the hotal and eat?"
Faheem refused, "Azra won't have eaten."
Basheer said, "We'll pack her something."
Lata shrieked, "Those haraamis won't allow us to take food inside unless we give them something."
Sawant grumbled, "If it was 500-600 we could have got it, but the b*nc**ds want 3000 for all of them."
The children forgotten by their preoccupied parents had played by the roadside through the evening. But as the headlights from the cars became fewer, the road darker, they came one by one, and huddled against their mothers.
Jayu and Pakya started whining, "We are hungry."
Their mother, Shaku said, "I'll go look for my stove and some rice. Lata, are you coming?"
Lata said, "The fire brigade drowned everything. The grain must all be spoilt."
Shaku said, "Let's go and look at least."
A few other women joined the two, and they drifted back towards the rubble, hoping to slip through the policemen keeping watch over the dying embers of the basti, hoping to scrounge together something for a meal.
Basheer said, "Was there a fire?"
Sawant said, "Lata says some municipaalty guy started it deliberately."
Faheem says, "Who knows? I don't think they would do that, would they? Gopal was saying someone's stove overturned when the bulldozers were working."
Sawant said, "We are going to the municipaalty with an arji tomorrow. Who will come?"
Faheem said, "Don't take the women to the municipaalty office. Let them go to the neta with all our ration cards."
Gopal said, "I have to go to the factory."
Sawant said, "As if your foreman will give you a place to stay in the factory!"
Gopal grimaced. As if. In the fifty odd years that the basti had been built, asbestos, tin, plastic, cardboard, sometimes a few bricks, it had been pulled down at least fifty odd times. In all that time, only one old woman, Yellamma had been given a home by her employer. Her story was told and heard like a fable again and again, amongst the people of the basti. But they were all clear in their minds that it was only a fable and held out no hope for them.
An old, old lady, Parvati piped up, "Yellamma was my friend, you know. She was from my village. We came here together."
Basheer grinned, "That is why you too should now be thinking of moving on, Kaki. Are you planning to take your taalpatri to the pyre?"
Sawant said, "Yes, we'll wrap you in it if you like."
Parvati grabbed some pebbles from the road and flung them across.
She cursed, "Saale dogs, I'll see both of you to the pyre before I go."
Basheer laughed, "That you will, Kaki."
Parvati grumbled, "Now we have to go buy new taalpatris. Each time those m**d**c**ds come and take away everything. As if we came here on our own. Those municipaalty-walas brought us from our villages when they needed to make the roads. Now the roads are made, the buildings are made, they don't want us."
Basheer's back was aching now, and he slid down to lie on the road. The tar was still warm, scorched by sun, fire and anger. Slowly, the others began to slide down too. Faheem remained sitting, keeping a vigil for his wife.
When Basheer woke up, the women were already at the water tap, with their pots and buckets. The few men who had regular jobs were washing up. Sawant, dressed and combed, a big file in his hands, was waiting for some supporters to go to the municipal corporation office with him.
He said, "Basheer Bhai, are you coming?"
Basheer shook his head, "I can't. I am finishing off a big job."
Sawant turned away resentful. Basheer would never miss a day's work.
Faheem knew it was useless to expect his uncle to sit around the whole day. Basheer always behaved as if his work was important, as if he was anything but a daily wage laborer like the rest of them? Yet, the sparkle in his eyes made it difficult for Faheem to hold a grudge against him.
Basheer said, "Faheem, why don't you go get Azra out of the station?"
Faheem said, "They'll leave them soon enough."
Basheer said, "Yes, they will. But if we give them some money, they won't make them wait around at the police station until noon."
Faheem said, "You know how she is, Chacha. She won't come out unless all the others are released too."
Basheer took out a 100-rupee note from his pocket. "Anyway, keep this. Both of you eat at the hotal. Don't make her cook as soon as she comes out."
As the bus rolled into the fishing village, Basheer took long deep breaths of the fishy stink, and felt as if, at last, he was breathing clean air. He got off at the bus stop near the bungalow and sunk his feet into the sand. The demolition of his basti was forgotten and he felt happy. He had been working here for almost six months, and the place felt like ‘almost home’. The gate of the bungalow was open, but the watchman Tiwari was probably at the back, washing up, still having his morning tea.
Basheer liked to be early here, and wander around the house before everyone else came in. As he entered, he bent down to bang gently with his fist, the marble slab under his feet. It sounded solid. Perhaps today, his kadiya boss, Bhuvan would say they must start polishing the floor. Basheer loved it when they did that; the white marble emerged shining, gleaming, under all the dust. How he longed to move with the stone grinder on the floor, but Bhuvan would not let him do anything but clean the floor after him.
Tiwari came in through the back door and said, "Want to have some tea?"
But before Basheer could say 'yes', they heard a car come into the gate.
The watchman said, "Saab has come", and ran towards the gate.
Prabhu, the contractor walked in with the couple that owned the bungalow. Basheer keeping a respectful distance followed the 3 important people around the house as they inspected it. He was hoping to impress Prabhu a little with his punctuality because he wanted to ask something of him later. Prabhu too hoped that this early bird appearance by Basheer would impress his clients and convince them that he was giving their work top priority.
The couple however, was determined not to be impressed. The job had been dragging on for months now, and so many things were not yet done, or not done to their satisfaction. The woman shifted her toe in the dust, and said petulantly, “ All the joints between the marble slabs are black. Is that how it’s going to look?”
The man scowled, "Prabhu, your work has no finish."
Prabhu turned to Basheer and scolded, “Ai Basheera, what about these joints? You haven’t cleaned them properly?”
Basheer knew that Prabhu was only scolding him to please his clients, so he did not feel bad about it. He looked at the man, and said patiently, “Saab, it’s looking dusty now, because we haven’t finished yet. When all the work is done, I promise the joints will be as clean as the marble.”
The woman noticed Basheer for the first time, and giving him an irritated look said to the contractor, “Prabhuji, you must ask these people not to use our toilets. There is a servant’s toilet outside.”
Prabhu too looked at Basheer with irritation.
Basheer wanted to say that in the 22 years he had worked as a laborer in the city, he had not once been tempted to use the English-style toilets to go. He was a man used to squatting on the roads. But yes, sometimes, he did run the hot and cold water from the shining taps, and wash his hair before he went home.
However, he did not answer the contractor. For a brief, very brief moment, he looked at the woman, then dropped his eyes again, and said, “Sorry, Memsaab”. She catching his bright smiling eyes in that brief glance, felt a bit ashamed of her complaints, and mumbled, “Oh don’t worry, it’s OK.”
Saab and Memsaab wandered off, talking about what still needed to be done. The man told the contractor, “This is our first holiday home. We want it to be perfect.”
Prabhu nodded, "It will be, Saab, but these things take time. If you want to do them perfectly." Saab groaned knowing Prabhu had adroitly bought more time for himself.
Basheer had wanted to take advantage of Bhuvan's absence and show Prabhu that he could use the stone grinder. But today perhaps was not the day.
One of these days he would talk to Prabhu and say, "I can be more than a cleaner." Now he slunk away, craving a cup of tea. He suddenly remembered that he had not had anything to eat since yesterday.
The watchman had a cup ready for him. Basheer said, "Tiwari, if Bhuvan-boss does the polishing today, we'll be late."
Tiwari said, "Then I'll go buy some chicken from the village."
Basheer said, "This time, I'll cook it."
A couple of months ago, Bhuvan and Basheer and the other workers had slept over at the house, and it had been lovely - the smell of the chicken cooking on Tiwari's kerosene stove, the smell of the sea, the smell of dust, cement, turpentine, wood-shavings and stone around them. The wind came sharp and cold from the open doors and they lay on the floor making lewd remarks about each other until the quiet of the house took over.
Basheer wanted so much to stay here, in the cool, big house, today and maybe for a couple more days. Then, when he went back to the basti, the ashes and rubble would have been cleared up, and the asbestos, tin, plastic, cardboard sheets would have come up again, and Azra would be back at her stove, with her sharp tongue and her hot food, and her smile as unpredictable as the municipaalty bulldozers.
**basti - habitation
hawaldar - constable
danda - stick
Saala - wife's brother, a term of mild abuse
Bhai - brother
haraami - bastard
arji - petition
neta - political leader
taalpatri - tarpaulin sheet
Kaki - Aunt
Chacha - Uncle, father's brother
kadiya - stonemason
Batul Mukhtiar, Oct 2009