Better Days – Kalyan Nadiminti

          There was nothing for him to do today. His neighbor had suggested waiting at the entrance of the parking garage to see if something came up. Of course, he would have to help her at the newspaper stall in the evening, but until then, he was his own master.

            He sat down on his haunches on a block of stone that had once been painted a rough approximation of neon yellow. On another day, it would have performed the work of a traffic cone. But it occupied an isolated space, far from its designated spot as an early warning for the hairpin bend leading into the dark interior of the garage.

            He decided, as he did with these things, that it was the perfect spot for vigilance and contemplation. The guards ignored him, dozing lightly in their cool toll booths. He dug his buttocks into its groove to make himself comfortable and contemplated growing his hair, long and flowing like Sanjay Dutt. Since the first time he had seen Khalnayak, he had envied men with leonine hair. He hummed the tune of the title track under his breath, shaking out an imaginary mane in the hot afternoon wind.

            A slim black car and a white government-issued jeep careened around the corner in a perfect semi-circle, narrowly missing him and the block he was perched on. He saw that neither driver stopped to retrieve their parking tickets, waving a hand backwards at a bulky car trailing the entourage. The jeep was wearing a red light on its roof, slightly askew as if it were balancing a jaunty hat. The sides had the words “POLICE” emblazoned in fading red letters. The sleepy mall guards sprang to life like the puppet pantomimes he put on for the street fair.

            He thought about going back to drawing maps of India on the corner sidewalk. Until recently, his corner sidewalk. A piece of land spanning twelve medium-sized concrete slabs, a sliver of the municipality that he had claimed for himself. As he drew the maps, still shining like a lamp from history textbooks, he would pause for passersby and say with performed solemnity, “Before Partition.” One well-dressed man with a white conical cap had methodically spit on his map of South Asia four times.  Now it’s good, the man had said, thumping him on the back.

            But there was little point dreaming about it. His beloved corner had been colonised by a pack of stray dogs. One of them was missing an ear, with only a bright red protuberance that haunted Sanju in his sleep. He complained at the municipal office several times, and they assured him that the problem would be solved. But the pack was much too cunning for the dogcatchers, and, since no one else had complained, the municipal office stopped paying attention. He would never be rid of them.

            As he waited outside the parking structure, opening and closing his jaw to dispel an oncoming headache, he tried to think of something good. It was all over television and radio. Something good was coming. He composed slogans for a new patch of sidewalk: Together Today, Developing Tomorrow; Tomorrow’s Future Starts Today; Clean India, Pure India; Protect the Cow, Protect Your Soul. But they were all too close to the Minister’s campaign, so he filed them away for improvement.

            A woman with a blind dog distracted him, or maybe she was the blind one and the dog was fine. They were walking with a bag of fresh shopping, drumsticks and long carrots sticking out of its jute top. He wanted to offer them a delivery service—after all, the poor woman was blind—but they disappeared without a trace. The woman had been reading something as she walked, her head moving rhythmically from side to side, like he did when reading a magazine at the barbershop while waiting for his haircut.

            It irked him that the barbers refused to shave his beard. Not even Jaikishan who had once worked at the circus and told him kindly that lions never needed a shave. The others collapsed into peals of laughter, while Jaikishan fetched him a ThumsUp. They all called him Sanju Baba, and paraded him in front of new clients. Look at his wonderful hairstyle, they would say. He gets a special massage from us every day. Then, one of them would drum his hands on Sanju’s head, and he would comply with a song, like a dutiful jukebox. “I saw in her eyes for the first time / Love for me and my kind.” They would all holler at him to stop singing, and sit him back down with a Bollywood gossip magazine.

            Sanju would sit on his designated bench, as a pedestal fan rotated back and forth, back and forth, looking for his idol. He collected clippings for his ongoing project when no one was watching, folding them carefully and then slipping them into his cheek. He felt like a thieving monkey at the Sitaladevi temple and promptly cut his palate. Just retribution; a balancing of scales.

            He kept vigil outside the parking structure for another hour. More cars passed into its cavernous interior, some carrying neat little families, father and mother in front, gawking children at the back. It was a familiar pattern. There never seemed to be much conversation between any of them. Occasionally, he heard barking orders from either parent to not stick their heads out the window. Despite his boredom, Sanju was fascinated with these compact families in their large cars. When they emerged from their chariots, they marched like they were in the Republic Day parade.

            He made his way to his neighbor Ironing Woman for help. Since it was festival season, he knew that business would be booming. This meant that both Ironing Woman and her husband Washerman would unfurl their largesse towards him in exchange for his delivery services. He carried huge bundles of laundry the rest of the afternoon, receiving three gunnysacks that had been dyed a bright red, a deep blue, and a peculiar mauve. The bright red was discomfiting and the deep blue almost too somber. The mauve was perfect. He put in another hour of work for a dyed yellow gunnysack, which he broke into strips using discarded shards of a tube light. It would be perfect for his wall.

            It was not a wall in a building and made for hard work. In fact, it was hardly a wall. It was a gaping room that offered up a partial brick edifice, like a ghostly remainder in a weathered photograph. It had once been a secret drinking hole in the prohibition years, followed by a part-time brothel, before morphing into one of several infamous underground markets for stolen cellphones. Now, the strange room was a blank canvas, waiting for its next assignment.

            The outer face of the room was plastered with election posters, many of which had been distributed for household use. Sanju was told by a man clad in crimson that he was to place the poster in his home and pray to it every day. Why? Sanju asked. It had nothing but party insignia on it; nobody seemed to know who was running. He received a swift blow to the temple. Sanju said, Oh yes yes yes, and took the offering with folded hands. He rolled up the poster and stuffed it under his mattress, since he was too scared to dispose of it.

            But at the room, he was gripped by a new fearlessness. He began clearing space by separating the posters from the wall, peeling paint in the process and exposing the brick underneath. When some of the posters resisted his eviction, he began drawing shapes around them, shapes that retraced the party’s rose-petals into creatures with wings, fangs, gizzards.

            After he ran out of space on the outer wall, he moved to the inner sanctum, accruing something nameless in the process. It defied all logic, but it gave him an unforeseen pleasure. The more he built, the easier he breathed. During breaks, he sipped a borrowed ThumsUp or two, envisioning a towering structure. He couldn’t see it clearly but he felt it move through him like a distillation, a chimera of wonder that radiated from his soul. It would be a testament. To something.

            And then two weeks later, when he was sipping a ThumsUp with a bright red straw, Jaikishan sat down and draped an arm over him. His right arm, because the other was slung carefully in a cast that began at his wrist and covered his hand. Jaikishan had returned from his hometown in Gujarat under mysterious circumstances—he refused to talk about it, only saying that it was a chapter of his life that was now closed. Sanju noticed that the hand would bend into strange shapes when he wasn’t looking at it directly; he was always aware of it, out of the corner of his eye.

            Jaikishan asked him if he was listening. Sanju nodded in response, concentrating on the beads of dark liquid in the straw.

            Jaikishan cleared his throat, and said, Have you heard? Sanju baba is in jail now.

            The beads stopped.

            Yes, yes, yes, Jaikishan said. He went off the straight and narrow path that time just after the riots.

            The head barber Bharadwaj stopped shearing a customer’s head, and waved an electric razor in their general direction.

            But Jaikishan continued: Yes, Sanju. You have to become a real man. You are already thirty-seven years old. Do something about it. Nobody wants to deal with a man who has an empty flat for a head.

            Sanju burrowed into the newspaper as a mark of solemnity.

            Jaikishan swatted his back and said, Get to work.  He paused for effect and added, if you keep coming back here, you see this hand of mine? I’ll make your face look worse than this. And I’ll only need my right hand to do it.

            Jaikishan laughed genially, shaking him by the neck as if he were a kitten.

            It was a threat made in a moment of afternoon boredom, but it made Sanju quiver. It set him thinking about a straight and narrow path, the kind of path that he knew nothing about. Besides, if Sanju Baba was indeed involved in the murder of thousands, then he was going to stay far away. He needed a new role model, new purpose, and that was when his eyes settled on the Minister.

            The Minister had descended upon Sanju’s idle mind like a heavenly answer, not unlike the mythological films in the barbershop. Bharadwaj occasionally played old films of NTR on the small fifteen-inch television set. They usually ran a steady stream of stock market analysis for their clientele, but Saturdays and Sundays called for a change of pace. None of them spoke a word of the film’s language—for the longest time, they didn’t even know the difference between Telugu and Tamil—but they liked the score with its cymbals and flutes. It went well with the sounds of the snipping, like a well-oiled wedding band.

            Much like the Minister, NTR had a blank and stentorian gaze that puzzled Sanju. They seemed to have something that Sanju did not; they exuded purposeful strength and indomitable self-assurance.

            He ripped some newly issued ministerial images into a carefully orchestrated collage, anxious to elevate his project into something meaningful. And yet, he found that the possible reconfigurations of the Minister’s party images were surprisingly limited—the trim was too gaudy and the flowers too austere, the photo shopped backgrounds were all terribly boring. So, he walked around appraising the overflowing garbage bins for potential finds, before the rag pickers found them. Bottle caps were hard to come by, because the promise of a free prize lurked on the underside of their shiny crowns. But empty bottles were an abundant commodity as were lonely slippers. Shoelaces were always disappointingly blackened, so he left those well alone. Abandoned refrigerators were often sitting around, with their faces half open to the world, like a leery smile. He avoided those too.

            Lately, he had been encountering a variety of modernized Ganesh idols for sale on the sidewalk, none of them radiating the uniform good humor that he cherished about the god. He remembered that, as a child, the house elders always chose the annual representative figurine for Ganesh Chaturthi. They often based their decisions not only on the cost of the idol but also the caste of the maker. It was always necessary to know how high or otherwise the maker’s caste-mark went.

            He noticed that these new idols were manufactured for an entirely different demographic.  He made a mental list of the elephant-men: Doctor Ganesh, Civil Service Ganesh, Business Ganesh, Engineer Ganesh. Doctor Ganesh sported a stern elephant god riding a mouse in a lab coat with a stethoscope. Civil Servant Ganesh and Business Ganesh were nearly identical, both featuring the pachyderm riding a mouse clutching a briefcase and a cellphone, except the Civil Servant god had a tiny white jeep with a red light. The Engineer God’s mouse wore spectacles and carried something that looked like a protractor. Ganesh stayed the same in each diorama, unsmiling and round. It baffled Sanju that the god had no real attributes of his own: he only oversaw the activities of his vehicular mouse. It seemed almost blasphemous to think it, but Sanju was perturbed. Why did Ganesh never participate in any of the work? Why was he always sitting there, stone-faced, while the mouse toiled under him?

            But he knew that such questions, any questions, were dangerous. So, he turned his attention to a soothing catalogue of objects: old Pearlpet bottles, bright hangers, television sets with ruptured cathode tubes. Sometimes, he had to forsake oversized material on the wayside, like an old trunk that was unusually heavy. He tried breaking the lock, but a police van was parked nearby. He sat on the trunk and waited for it to leave. He would rather not chance it with the pandus. Sanju knew better than to test their unpredictable investigative skills. The van stood there through the afternoon, and pedestrians looked through it as they approached, as if the van were merely a figment of their collective imagination. Sanju was convinced the police were waiting for him behind the dark-tinted windows. He walked away like everybody else. The trunk was lost forever.

            Despite these unexpected roadblocks, the shrine gathered a steady following. The neighborhood had absorbed his creation and it had become part of the area’s imaginative infrastructure. The thing meant something to them, and so they attributed some displaced feeling to it. But for Sanju, that two-way street of meaning was a distraction. It certainly helped his morale that he was not the only visitor. The few who came did so out of curiosity—children of nearby building workers, carpenters looking for innovative solutions that would save on material costs, a few neighborhood hijras who liked taking their smoke breaks by watching Sanju toil hard at nothing. None of them bothered him, and he beamed at them all wordlessly. Then, the slow trickle turned into a steady following when a few children spotted a godly form lurking in his labor, arguing over the specifics of the form as if they were debating patterns in a cloud. Sanju had no objection that they were finding god in the Minister’s persona. He was now nothing more than a minor actor in Sanju’s schema.

            His collection of junk attracted other kinds of material and the shrine became a planetary being drawing weekly offerings into its orbit—dry coconut shells, broken lamps, bits of tattered orange cloth.  When no one was around, Sanju helped himself to the offerings, pleased that he no longer had to go looking for material.

            But he could never resist the siren stench of the garbage trucks, heavy breathing dragons that carried the odorous secret of ages. If you breathed deeply enough, you could smell the heady scent of putrefaction.

            He had once heard from Jaikishan that bodies were casually tossed into those dump trucks. Most trucks, of any shape or size, carried the remains of pesky children or women shipped for prostitution or inconvenient men. Jaikishan said that an IPS officer was once “disappeared” because he had begun asking too many questions about these trucks.

            Sanju asked if the cement mixers dotting the neighborhood also had bodies in them. Jaikishan hushed him and looked out the window carefully. Listen, he said, I’ve told you all I can, now don’t go around talking about these things. Or else. He made a quick sideways motion with the shaving blade.

            Sanju nodded and handed his half-full ThumsUp bottle back to him. I’ll be going now, he said.

            The others stopped shaving their dozing customers, and began laughing uproariously. Poor fellow, look how you’ve scared him. He’s changed complexion entirely.

            Bharadwaj walked up and put an arm around him. Listen man, you have this big beard. You have to figure out a way to tell the truths from the untruths, the real from the fictional. Kishanbhai was only joking, okay?

            And yet, the daily disappearances from the nearby slums had more meaning now. Sanju had heard of a few young girls, presumably on their way back from school, who were never heard from again. No one filed a police complaint, fearing for the girls’ honor. Inquiries were made whether any of the girls had been seeing anyone, whether they had started a new life elsewhere. The mother would wail about her missing girl, praying for a month that the child had gone on to a better life. The father felt secretly relieved that he had one less mouth to feed and one less dowry to pay.

            So it goes, was the motto of this slum. And so it was colloquially named Tathastupur.

            Sanju felt like he had been handcuffed to the secret dealings of Tathasthupur. It sickened him and think of the ugliest colours for his project.

            When he made his way back to the shrine, he found three sapodillas placed on a steel plate. Nobody had tried to steal them. Sanju did not tempt fate by asking too many questions. He ate the fruit, enjoying the sweetness trapped inside. He balled its dark brown skin into an oblong shape and placed it back on the plate. He put the seeds away in a matchbox for safekeeping and studied the mound of fruit skin. He reshaped it to resemble the bald, gleaming head of the Minister.

            The afternoon’s exertions had tired him out, so he went back to his corrugated tin home. He fell asleep, dreaming of sapodilla orchards and milkshakes.

            When he went back to the shrine the next evening, a long line of devotees was waiting for a viewing. Sanju tried to get past them but an elderly woman shoved him aside. She glared at him, pointing to the line. He joined it and asked the family in front of him what the fuss was about. They told him that the shrine had experienced a minor miracle.

            A plate of food had been mysteriously eaten, and all that was left behind was a shape of the Minister. The man who had brought the original offering swore that it had happened in front of him. He had placed the four sapodillas in front of the idol, and had bowed his head in humble contemplation of “Good Days To Come.” When he had opened his eyes, the fruit had been eaten.

            A young woman started spinning just outside the shrine; she was having a karmic experience. The orderly line broke into a gleeful mass of spectators, each showering their ready-at-hand offerings on the ecstatic girl. She was dressed in her finery, and a news crew was already filming from an expertly mounted dolly. Sanju watched with awe, scratching his beard and smoothening his hair. He was uncomfortable with so many people around him, most of them spontaneously chanting, Jai Ho! Jai Ho!

            Unable to get through the crowd, the news crew was sourcing reactions from members on the periphery. Some were claiming that another miracle had happened—the woman was speaking in an ancient, undecipherable Prakrit language. They were sure that it was ancient because of its formal intonations.

            Sanju found that the camera’s eye was swiveling towards him. He backed away, but a follower accosted him. “This is Him!” he yelled towards the camera. “He built the shrine!”

            Sanju was too terrified to speak. He stared at the camera without hearing a single question lobbed at him. What is your name?, the reporter asked him repeatedly, finally thrusting the large microphone covered in red velvet into his face.  The follower responded for him, booming into the microphone. “We just call him Sanju, with love. We don’t care who he is. He built this shrine from ordinary things. Because you see, he is an ordinary man who believes in the Minister! And now, the Minister believes in him!”

            The reporter raised her eyebrows and asked Sanju if that was indeed the case. Did he ardently believe? Another camera had now positioned itself across from them, to capture the entire scene. Sanju mumbled a response that was lost in the din.

            The reporter turned to the two cameras, and said “There you have it! Amazing scenes here in Mumbai, where a local man by the name of Sanju built a shrine for his Leader. And how the Leader has responded! We are reaching out to the Minister for comment, but we will keep covering the story. Back to you in the studio.”

            The camera was lowered. The reporter turned to Sanju and asked him what his real story was. She asked him to tell it quickly, if he wanted the world to hear it. “We don’t have all day,” she said. Sanju’s voice lurched and croaked a response. He thought about walking away, but the follower’s arm had locked him in place.

            The follower pulled Sanju back, and said “No, madam. I will tell.” He switched into Hindi for Sanju’s benefit, “He used to be college-educated, did M.A. also, but he studied so hard that he lost his mind. He now does small jobs here and there, lives in those kutcha houses near the station. I have sometimes given him work also.”

            The reporter laughed. “Lost his mind from studying too much, eh? What did you study, Sanju?” She motioned for the man to stay quiet.

            Sanju still said nothing. The noise was beginning to hurt. He squirmed and let out a low, involuntary hiss.

            The reporter’s eyes shone. “You were studying for I.A.S.?” But Sanju wouldn’t answer, and the reporter decided this was quite enough. She motioned to the cameraman to start filming again. She put a firm and compassionate hand around Sanju, steadying his wriggling form and telling India about one man’s struggle with serving the nation. Reduced to mindlessness from studying for the tough civil services exam, but still instilled with a level of civic duty. The miracle of the shrine was an indication that perhaps better days were indeed to come.

            Sanju avoided the barbershop for the next few days, on the off chance that they had seen him on television. He relinquished the shrine altogether in case the government decided to investigate him. His zeal for the Minister was now a morbid fear—what if they found out he had no license for the space? But worse, what if they found out that there was no miracle? That it was he who had eaten the holy fruit, had fed it to hungry dogs, and even a wandering piglet? They would thrash him for blasphemy. Besides, what if he had interrupted a real miracle? What if the fruit were the real miracle, and he, its heedless consumer and distributor, a divine interloper?

            He returned to sidewalk chalk drawings in his free time. The colony strays were out hunting for new territories, leaving his former corner free for the pursuit of art. He had forgotten that there was a peepul tree above, and it made him wonder whether he was the king or the vampire in this fable. By lunchtime, he created an elaborate tapestry of red, blue, and purple. He developed a private mythology of symbols: a golden chalice, some tireless oxen, and a large, bald bespectacled figure overseeing everything. He had tried very hard to draw something else, but his fingers would not comply. It was an unseeable form. He sat on the face with splayed limbs all day, eventually falling asleep with his forehead pressed into the sidewalk.

Kalyan Nadiminti is a writer and academic based in Philadelphia. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. His poetry is forthcoming in The Margins.