Bikaner – Ankit Sethi

I tap my pen against the desk, waiting for the bell. My answer sheet was already turned over, ready for collection, only need that goddamn bell now. The candidates scribble furiously, bent on driving their pens through the OMR. Bad move, I always write my answers along with the paper. You get all sorts of mistakes trying to fill up those holes at the end. The clock above the blackboard ticks slowly to 3. The invigilators are ugly, brown and boring. I don’t understand why they put a male and female in the same room, can’t there be two ladies or two guys. Whenever there’s a female invigilator, who looks better than the male invigilator’s low standards, you can hear the awkwardness over the ticking clocks.

Often they are bloated gangrenous creatures, the two specimens here today are on their way to fulfill this destiny. The cow with glasses will probably get hitched to a creepy schmuck like the one standing five feet away. They’ll pop out a bunch of brats, shitting, spitting, vomiting creatures brought into existence for no other purpose except taking care of their old, overweight parents, weak in the knees, loose in the bowels, losing their minds and sense of humor.

Sometimes, the schmuck looks over to her, wanting to talk, face lit in anticipation, struggling with lust and shame as the kids scribble ink into empty circles. My exam was over, for better or worse. I always deal with them like taking a shit, get it all out as quickly as possible. Use the bidet, shower that crinkly butthole until the scum lodged in has no option but to fall off. I don’t even recheck my answers.

“Two minutes remaining.” The cow bleats.

“Please check your name and roll number at the top of the OMR.” The schmuck echoes for the tenth time. I stand up, trying to catch their attention, waving my sheet in the air.

“Remain seated until the bell.” The cow moos, even though she’s walking in my direction, ready to collect from the head of my row. Why can’t she just take the damn thing, I can see kids walking in the corridor, tucking question papers down their pockets or bags. The rest of them seem to have no choice but to open it and discuss aloud as they shuffle along the hallway. I’d murder any kid who holds up the paper in my face after an exam. My pockets are sorted, pen tucked in, question paper rolled over, ID and wallet in my back pocket. I crouch over the desk, digging my boots in the wooden frame under the bench.

The bell dings, and the invigilators start moaning about putting our pens away, the schmuck brays, “Stop Writing” as he collects sheets from girls drawing Aztec diagrams. The cow starts to collect in our row as well. A chick two benches ahead of me refuses to give her sheet up. The cow warns and moans, but stands there shifting her weight from foot to foot. I can’t wait any longer, I get up and hand her my sheet, shuffling past the schmuck as he gives me the stink eye for the last time.

The corridor’s crowded but Nitin told me to meet up outside the building. No point in fumbling around the hall, the crowd’s surging through classroom doors, I have to escape through the exit at a brisk pace. I check my wallet again, putting it in the front pocket lest it get stolen. Not that the students would do a thing like that but you have to be careful with your money around unemployed youth. The noticeboards are filled with preachy drawings, shitty charts made by fifth graders with bullet points about the need to recycle and reuse. What a feeble attempt by our education system to inculcate good values in us. Who came up with these places? We’ve been in them all our lives, but still we turned out to be mindless rats slavering for slaughter.

The sun burns in its fiendish heat, the entrance looks like an Al-Qaeda training facility. Girls put their scarves on their heads and faces, wrapping God’s beautiful gifts in soft fabric, so important to these dickless associates, it determines their status. The rest of us squint, seeing the burning mirages on the highway for the first time in this day. Nitin is waiting near a Juice cart, his old Pep scooty almost invisible behind his burly frame.

“Man, when are you getting Pep Plus?” I walk over to him, “I thought you sold this long ago.”

“I share it with my sister.” He says, “How did it go?”

“Not bad,” I fling the paper in the grill basket under the ignition, “where’s yours?”

“Locked it under the seat” Nitin says, “If I keep seeing it I’ll throw it away. Best that you put it there as well.”

“We can use mine for crushing and rolling. Did you get it?”

“Nah, let’s go.” He starts the scooty, I hop on and we skip onto the Jodhpur Bypass, milling in the trucks and jeeps. The sun burns the oil on the back of my head, I should have had a glass of juice back there. We turn onto the northward street, bound for the Old Market area. I have never scored here before, Nitin knows the way around though, I hope.

“Have you scored here before?” I ask.

“Of course dude, this is my fucking city.” Nitin says, “but we’re gonna try a new place today. My cousin told me about it, miles better than the ratkill we usually score.”

“That’s all we have back home. The rats must be tripping balls.” We’re waiting at a railway crossing, people get off their bikes and skip under the horizontal bar. They scuttle over to the tracks, before carrying out the perfunctory survey of approaching trains. We follow suit, that’s one thing I give Pep credit for, being light as a cycle. You could chuck it over the bar if you wanted to. We’re lucky to get to the other side quickly, a freight train appears on the horizon, halting some bikers while speeding the others.

“That shit gives me headaches.” Nitin says, taking Pep under the bar on the other side, “Fucking peddlers spray anything to hook us to that cow dung, I don’t wanna fuck up my neurons before 30.”

“You can buy all the fucking pish you want out here,” I say, “The government doesn’t give a flying fuck about the proletariat. They want us to buy overpriced alcohol, so they can fill their tax coffers. No one pays otherwise.”

“Yeah, or you have to gamble with poisons,” Nitin flicks his head towards a desi daaru theka, a bunch of dhoti-clad men with burly mustaches sit and haggle over small dark bottles. We cruise by empty lots which initially pop sublets along the road but later morph into rows of shops and homes in the streets on either side. We stop at a Paan Shop and buy the papers and matches. We debate about buying a bottle of water or Slice, ended up taking both.

The market gets denser as we enter the older part of the town, the sun doesn’t waver here until 6. The crowds do emerge, they can tolerate the yellowing rays, more will crawl out of their nests when the sun goes down. Nitin knows his way around as well as anyone, but we still get bogged down with the occasional cow and bull gifted by our government, blocking the street. Sometimes they’re mating, sometimes fighting, others smelling each other’s backsides. We always had them, but now our society has realized their importance as a national animal. Fuck Tigers, there are only a thousand left, it’s cows and bulls we should be worrying about. We used to be barbarians, sent these poor creatures on the back of trucks to southern states where those cannibals ate and commodified our sacred animals. Not anymore. But we can’t keep all of them in Gau-Shalas, even though they receive better donations than ever before. Most of the sterile and useless beasts are left to roam the streets, fend for themselves, adhere to a diet of polythene bags and contaminated sewage water. We never had trees in the desert, but we cut the few we had to build pavements and encroach upon streets, narrowing them into a maze until old streets are gobbled up and new ones have to be made. The bulls have it worst, they don’t get sympathy like a few lucky cows, they’re unwelcome in most neighborhoods and markets. But now they have asserted a quiet dominance on the society and traffic flow, fucking, fighting, chewing the cud, spitting, standing along desert coolers sticking out of houses. They can’t find shadows, except the fringes of the street where a resident parks his bike and keeps an external cooler on an empty drum outside his window. In afternoons like this, they kick off all these coolers. Then the residents sit and pray that the electric board doesn’t elect to slap us with a power-cut. In the street, a bull notices the humming machine oozing water, walks over slowly and licks the edges, feeling the damp, cold surface buzz along his tongue. Then it goes and slaps its body against the metal frame, trying to undo some of the heat that has permeated his hide. Of course they don’t know about electric currents, we might need Rutherford to explain it to them.

Nitin seems confused, he turns into a colony but gets lost trying to find the street. We arrive at the end of our road, not recognizing the territory ahead. Turning around, we tour the street again, scrutinizing the houses and empty plots.

“You sure it’s here?” I ask.

“That’s where he told me.” Nitin pulls out his phone and checks Google Maps, holding it up for me to see, “It’s supposed to be behind this temple. But there’s no direct road, this must be the street.”

We stop near an intersection and peer around the bend, scanning for anyone who looks shady enough to talk to. A woman sits on her doorstep, peeling oranges, a small child playing nearby. She eyes us suspiciously, we turn around and pretend to start the scooty. We stride down the street again, rubbernecking to find the spot Nitin was told about. A few bikes come and go, but otherwise the place seems deserted. We turn around and tour the street in first gear. We stop at the intersection and look around the bend. The women isn’t there, the kid is still playing though. We deliberate about going in that direction when someone surprises us from behind.

“What are you looking for?” it’s the woman, narrowing her eyebrows, holding a basket of oranges.

“We were just…….” Nitin begins but trails off, I chirp in, “looking for a shop.”

“What shop?” she enquires and we looks at each other, blinking over the right term. She asks, “Do you want pudiya?”

“Yes” I mutter quickly, “How much is it?”

“Come to the house,” she starts walking, “Not in the street.”

We follow her, dragging Pep along. The woman steps around the kid and goes inside, leaving us to wave hello to the gurgling man. It chews onto something, probably some part of a dead orange. We check our wallets and take out a 50 each.

The woman returns empty handed, though I initially thought her fists were clenched with the packets. She stops and bends over to pick the kid, plucking the garbage it’s chewing out of the mouth. She says, “120 for one.”

‘We don’t need much” I say, “Can you give us for 60?”

“Sure” she nods and we hand over the money. She turns back and goes in the house, we wait a little more. She comes back with a plastic pouch, we pocket it and wheel Pep out of there.

                                                                           ***

 

We mingle with the westbound crowd on the Jaisalmer highway. Driving over the Gajner rd flyover, we pray for the sun to ease up, the drugs will be intolerable in this heat. We have enough water and chips, but Nitin says it’ll be cooler in the outskirts. There’s all this latent heat in the markets, maybe that’s why shopkeepers sprinkle water at their portion of the road, it evaporates instantly, wetting the ground for a few minutes at most.

We pass a few petrol pumps, the city starts to thin out along the road, more automobile showrooms line this last stretch before the city officially ends. The colonies behind these shops are half-baked, zigzagging out of the main highway in dark alleys. The school boards and admission ad hoardings have replaced trees. Most of these schools dot the outbound highways of the city like parasitic scum, leeching the residents in name of education. We pass a university, another permutation the words ganga, maharaj and uni. The light has begun to yellow, the sun is visible hanging above the road, descending towards that horizon over the sand dunes. There are still a few shops every now and then along the road, usually adjacent to an auto repair shop. We stop at one of the petrol pumps, refueling Pep for the return trip.

“How far along is it?” I ask Nitin, who’s buying cigarettes, even though we don’t need to.

“About ten minutes on bike.” Nitin says.

“So fifteen you mean.” I scan the horizon, irregular shapes appearing over the dunes, though they might as well be mirages. A few clouds have appeared on the horizon, blocking the sun out after a long time, dropping the temperatures, as evening begins to settle in. We hop back on Pep and drive westwards, avoiding flocks of goats out for grazing. The shops thin out onto an abandoned colony, which used to be government quarters some time ago. Initially there was only two or three buildings, made in the kings’ time for his knights. The rest of the place sprang up over time, only to be left neglected. We take one of the roads cutting inward from the highway, entering an old square with a solitary defunct lamp-post. The buildings are dilapidated, windows boarded, grills rusted, stairs damaged. The old yellow paint peels off and exposes the dirty bricks underneath. The dais around trees are broken beyond repair. We circle around a big ruined office, its wooden windows hang from single hinges, bent at an angle to the wall.

Near a deep ditch, we find an old cemetery. It has both English and Urdu on its ruined nameplate. The metal archway has rusted to a brown shit color, there are no walls or doors remaining.  A few of the slab stones remain upright, rest have either broke off and mixed with the dirt or got rounded down to a tiny mound. The area is cordoned off by a few trees which surround a central banyan just between the cemetery and the ditch. Its dais is relatively intact compared to others, might have been enough to hold a small meeting or a game of cards back in the old days. We stop Pep, get off and put it to stand. I look around, this is a pretty good spot. Its blocked from most of the colony, let alone the highway. The tree sprawls over almost a kid’s cricket field, its dry branches droop and cling to its trunk, barely any leaves left, but still alive after all this time.

Nitin brings up my paper, and places it on the dais, keeping the pouch and matches on top.

“Wait, I might need it.” I pick up the pouch.

“For what?” Nitin scoffs, “you said we could use it for crushing.”

“Well, now I’ve change my mind.” I say, “I might need it at home. Cannot be too careful around the old man.”

“Come on.” Nitin flailed his arms, “I had to look at that ugly cover all this time, at least make some good use of it.”

“Do you have any other paper?” I check my wallet, dumping old tickets and restaurant bills on the ground.

“Nah” he does a perfunctory check of the pockets, then sits down and rips off a page.

“What the…” I begin, but he snaps, “Calm down, it’s just the rough page.”

I sit down and note that there are more doodles than calculations on the page. No bother, I start sorting the stuff, undoing the buds, scraping off seeds. Nitin brings the matchbox, emptying it out on the dais, tucking the bottom half back in pocket. The top portion has a black raven on a yellow background, with the word ‘kaala’ spelt out on top. Nitin cuts open an edge, tears off the side-flaps, then shears the flat card into half. Either of the two layers make a fine roach, Nitin begins folding one and pockets the other one.

The clumps have a ton of seeds, hopefully it’s not sprayed with horse tranquilizer. The leaves have dried too much, they break open like brittle pebbles onto my drawings of tits and ice-cream. Evening has settled upon us, the yellow sunlight filters through the branches, reaching us in spotty patches.

“Here” Nitin hands over the cigarettes and begins crushing instead.

“You want tobacco in the joint?” I ask.

“Yeah, that’s why I bought two” he produces the other one from his pocket, “one to smoke later. Just mix a third of the cigarette, I can’t inhale that alone without coughing.”

“Alright” I tear off from the end, and unwrap the paper, dropping the green leaves among the brown ones, “I don’t like too much tobacco, suffocates me.”

Nitin places the roach at the end of the paper and reviews the mix for a final time, picking a husk or two, then dropping the rest in a straight line on the ocb paper. He leaves the rest and starts tucking the paper in. But he’s looking up at someone in the distance.

“What is it?” I can’t see backwards, I’d have to bend around the tree. I’m collecting the stuff left on dais in the center of the paper, pinching some and filling the joint up to the top.

“Some guy” Nitin says, “he’s looking towards us.”

“Where?” I try to peek around the trunk, “Near the gate?”

“Get up, get up” Nitin hands me the joint and stands up, “he’s coming here.”

I hastily pack the rest of the stuff on top, twist off the cap and throw the rough paper away. Nitin is standing and peering around the trunk, I can hear someone muttering in a low voice. I pocket the joint and step around the dais to hear clearly.

“Do you have a cigarette?” it’s some schmuck, hands behind his back, a sly smile plays on his lips. How the fuck did he find us? I glare at Nitin, so much for the supposed privacy. Nitin looks back in a blank stare, he holds the other cigarette in his half-raised arm. For a moment, we all gawp at it, no way can we say no now. Nitin nods and picks a few matches from the dais. He fishes out one of the side-flaps, striking the match against that amputated limb.

“Here”, the schmuck flicks out a lighter, a sissy pink Chinese abomination with the MRP of 3.4 rupee but sold for ten. Nitin hands over the cigarette, and the schmuck lights it. He does the customary mouth fag then hands it back, doesn’t seem inclined or skilled enough to smoke it.

“What are you guys doing here?” the schmuck scrutinizes our faces, Nitin conveniently covers his mouth with the cigarette, leaving me to answer. What does this guy want? He’s older than us, not much, not enough to be considered one of the scary adults, yet.

“We’re enjoying ourselves.” I imply the ‘were’ rather than ‘are’ to make him feel his intrusion.

“Yeah, people often come here to enjoy”, the schmuck looks back towards the gate, checking the spot where he was standing a few minutes ago.

“Are you waiting for someone?” Nitin asks, but the schmuck’s already nodding. He keeps scanning our faces, shifting his eyes back and forth incessantly, while words form and dissolve under his ratty mustache.

“You know it’s not easy meeting anyone in India. Out there, like America, they don’t care what you do after you’re 18”, the schmuck begins, but I can’t imagine a girl would agree to accompany him on a provisional tour of C-grade town heritage. He’s probably one of those creepy callers who ask underage girls to meet them in bus stop toilets for third degree handjobs. Until they hand their phone over to their father or brother, who threaten in loud, uncalled manner in face of solicitation and sodomy.

Nitin just shrugs and hands him back the cigarette, which he tokes once half-hearted and hands it towards me. I hand the cig back to Nitin, my chest feels tight already. My body is ready for that hit, the joint’s in my pocket, I have an urge to take it out and light anyway. Surely, this schmuck doesn’t know the difference, probably would think that it’s a special cigarette. He coughs once, twice, covers his mouth as he goes into a coughing fit.

“You alright there, brother?” Nitin asks, stubbing out the cigarette on the dais. The schmuck sits down on the dais, patting himself on the chest, his eyes have watered a little. I hand him the bottle of water out of courtesy, he gulps down a fair portion.

“Thanks” he mutters, and we stand around in uncomfortable silence for a while, won’t be too long before he catches his breath and start yapping away. I glare at Nitin, he’s thinking the same thing, we should get the hell out of here. It was a bad choice to come here, we have to leave this spot to the schmuck.

“Only recently, we’ve begun to accept western values”, the schmuck murmurs, more to himself than to us.

“Isn’t that bad though?” Nitin asks, “Their families are all fucked up.”

“Like they aren’t here.” I say, “Show me a family without toxic relatives.”

“It’s not just family”, the schmuck says, “you see their movies and it’s all casual, you know. The kids wander off and do whatever they want in high school itself. We still have to ask our parents when going out, only after marriage they leave you somewhat alone.”

“You’re not married?” Nitin jests, but the schmuck takes him seriously.

“No man,” he begins, “Mom said that Panditji predicted that I’d get married next year. But any girls’ parents don’t even want to talk if you’re not employed.”

“What’re you preparing for?” I ask, even though I can guess the answer.

“Bank exams”, the schmuck almost laments, “I was very close to reaching interviews last time.”

“And what would you really like to do?” Nitin asks, taking me by surprise as well. The schmuck scrunches up his face, then scratches his weak stubbly chin, assessing the mockery in Nitin’s tone.

“I don’t know” he answers, before adding, “I’d like to go to Bombay someday, you know, in movie business.”

“Do you act?” I take the bait, though I have to cough to hide my giggle.

“Nah, I don’t look like a hero”, the schmuck admits, “But it seems like a cool city. I’d do anything, there’s tons of things to do on movie sets. It’s a lot more open place.”

“It’s much harder to survive down there.” Nitin says, “people like us become background dancers in music videos.”

“Yeah, you’re right”, the schmuck chuckles, “but even that is miles better than here.”

“When are you leaving then?” I probe him a little more, though he does seem to take some affront to this question.

“Someday.” He says, “If nothing else works out, I’d hop on the train to Bombay.”

“It takes more than two days to get there.” Nitin says, “can’t go without reservations.”

“Once that day comes, then reservations won’t matter.”, the schmuck says, “Until then we have to manage.”

“Is it really that better over there?” I wonder.

“At least they accept guys like us.”, the schmuck says, “Like that Andy from Big Boss. Ten years ago you can’t imagine him being on TV.”

What the fuck is he talking about? Whoever watches Big Boss anyway, I look over to Nitin who looks repulsed. Maybe he knows which Andy this schmuck’s talking about.

“No really”, the schmuck reads Nitin’s repulsion as intrigue, “We didn’t know about this stuff before Dostana was released. They showed it and made it look cool.”

I knew it, no way would a chick would drag herself out at dawning dusk to meet this schmuck. Nitin has moved a feet away without us noticing, he fingers out Pep’s keys from his pockets and starts twirling it. The lights are fading on our faces.

“It’s better to keep meeting girls as well”, the schmuck explains, “Better to do both things. I mean the taboo isn’t that much anymore when you do both. I meet the girls my parents set me up with, two or three still call me.”

“Or three?” Nitin scorns.

“Yeah, you know,” the schmuck says, “some chicks aren’t sure of anything. One day they’ll die for you, some other day they’d kill you as well.”

Nitin is slowly stepping away. He’s twirling his key to catch my attention, even the schmuck notices it. Thankfully, his phone rings up, the schmuck gets up and goes behind the tree to pick up the call. We can hear him murmur and mutter, Nitin glares at me. The schmuck’s voice lowers, I peek around the trunk to see if he’s gone.

“He’s gone” I mutter, Nitin peers around, the schmuck’s waving us goodbye. Then he turns back and walks out of the cemetery, avoiding rocks in falling dark.

“Thank fuck” Nitin heaves, “that guy creeped me out. Let’s get out of here.”

“Wait” I say, “What about this joint? Let’s smoke before leaving.”

“Are you Chutiya?” Nitin asks, “If that fucker brings another dude back here. I’m not saying they’d do it, but fiends out here are known to fuck whatever hole they can find.”

“You’re paranoid.” I pull out the joint, the Chinese lighter is still on the dais. I pick it up and light the damn thing.

“What’re you doing?” Nitin steps forward, drawn like a moth to the light.

“Chill out,” I breath in the smoke, I don’t declare its worth so early, but it must be damn good, coz the events of the day feel irrelevant as the smoke permeates my lungs. I take a couple more puffs, then hand it to Nitin, who accepts it like Oliver Twist. We pass it back and forth a few more times, intending to finish it quickly before we get on the highway. I can’t drive inebriated, but Nitin has a lot of experience. The light has almost faded from the environment, the moon shines brighter beyond that ditch, a gentle night breeze rolls in. Nitin’s eyes are turning red, which means that mine must be red already.

“Dude, your eyes.” Nitin makes his usual observation, “you’re gone.”

“Put that out” My face is loosened in a smile, I get up from the dais, “We can smoke it later.”

Nitin tries to get up but has to force the dais a few times to get the reaction. The joint has rounded down to a stub but still some left for a semi-session. Nitin places it carefully with the rest of the dope. We walk around the tree and find Pep slanting, its stand looks feeble enough to cease any moment. Nitin lifts the seat and places the dope above his paper. I remember mine and scurry back to the spot, fumbling with phone flashlight.

“What’s wrong?” Nitin calls, he must have sat down already on Pep. Fortunately, the paper is still on the dais, though some water and ash have spilled on the back page. Ah well, guess I’ll tear off that too. I walk back to Pep and Nitin groans about having to stand up to put it under the seat.

“Just put it in the basket.” Nitin says.

“I thought you hated seeing it there.” I say.

“I don’t care, I’m stoned now.” Nitin replies.

“What if falls on the highway” I suggest, “we won’t be able to see it in the night?”

“It didn’t fall when we came here,” Nitin turns the ignition on and groans.

“But now the wind’s blowing,” I say.

“What’s so important about it anyway?” Nitin says and we argue for a while. Finally, he stands up, and I place it over the dope before locking it away. Nitin sits back down but I tell him to stop.

“What is it now?” he’s getting pissed.

“Dude, listen.” I signal him to shut up, “Turn off the ignition.”

“Why?”

“I think there are two ignitions running.” I suggest.

“That’s why we need to get out of here.” Nitin says, “you’re getting paranoid.”

I step forward and turn Pep’s key off. It shuts up and I listen, Nitin notices it as well. We look towards the gate, or where we thought the door without walls was, it’s difficult to see anything clearly. But there is a bike standing there. We shut up and wait, blinking the headlight a couple of times to draw attention.

Someone gets off and starts walking towards us, avoiding the cobblestones and grass. It seems taller now than it did in the day. A proper beast can hide in grass this long at night. We scrunch our faces, squinting into the darkness even though we know who it is.

“Hey, fellas” the schmuck waves towards us, a backloop of the reel he showed before. Maybe he’s onto something, should be in movie business rather than pestering us here.

We nod and he stands there, probably squinting, though I can barely tell.

“What’re you guys doing?” the schmuck implies the ‘were’ this time.

“Nothing much,” I say, “just smoking ganja. You want a puff?”

“Ganja?” the schmuck echoes but has no further questions. I try to discern if he’s saying anything, maybe under breath, maybe smiling, the schmuck edges away.

“Fucking fiends.” He mutters loud enough for us to hear before disappearing in the darkness. I look at Nitin, who’s probably convincing himself that it’s just a paranoid delusion. We hear the bike start up, the flashlights come up near the gate, I can see the schmuck getting back on. They turn around and disappear. Nitin and I stare into the darkness for a minute. When we’re convinced that they’ve left, we leave.

                                                                    ***