I walk alone;
The midnight street
Spins itself from under my feet;
When my eyes shut
These dreaming houses all snuff out;
Through a whim of mine
Over gables the moon’s celestial onion
—‘Soliloquy of the Solipsist’, Sylvia Plath, 1956
‘I do not know which of us has written this page.’
—Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings
The street is reluctantly rousing itself after a long night. It got little sleep, what with the baraat ghar playing ‘chitiyan kaliyan’ on the loop till 1 pm, then the dogs of Madhu Vihar and Balco Market getting into a territorial battle over who has rights upon the interstitial Sai Chowk, the racing motorcyclists, the menacing wailing of the ambulances and police vans, and the crows who chose to have a conference at two in the night. She wants to go for a quick second sleep, even as the dawn-chorus is getting louder, before the newspaperwallas arrive to do their sorting in front of the shuttered shops. When she wakes up, it’s with a start. It was just a bad dream…that it was being cut up yet again for the laying of fibre optic cables. She checks her bruises from the beer bottles flung at her the previous night, but is more worried that the pups who like lolling over her don’t hurt themselves. The ice cream wrappers, chips packets, groundnut shells, cigarette stubs, leaves and polythene packets dance slo-mo to the rhythm of the early morning breeze. The street wonders if the municipality has paid the long-due salaries of the striking sanitation workers. She will have to wait for the chatter at the morning chai ka thela to get an update.
Tired from the long fight against the surprise attack from the Balco dogs, Baatsun is fast asleep in his usual jagah in the street—a patch of broken road right in front of the gates of Koi Apartments. The cars leaving the apartment block don’t bother honking because they know he won’t budge. Even as the office-goers curse him for being dheet, they manoeuver their cars around Baatsun. He dreams that he is chasing the pigeons, fat and lazy from the corn and millet dropped for them by the morning walkers, at the traffic island down the street. How he would love to sink his teeth into one of those juicy pigeons, but the memory of the thrashing he had got from the old lady selling pigeon feed is still raw even in his dream. A familiar smell wafts towards him…of lavender oil, glucose biscuits, warm milk and sadness. He knows it is his two-legged friend from the apartment, but he pretends to be sleeping. ‘I know you are awake, you sleepy bum,’ she says coming close to him, bending down to ruffle his neck. The pigeons no longer matter. Just then.
Zooo walks down the street towards the Safal booth, turning back to see if Baatsun is following. He isn’t. Does she miss him trailing her or just shouting at him to go back? The heady fragrance of the devil’s trees, which tastes like sickly sweet masala chai and hopeless love, make her quicken her pace even as the memories of twenty-two winters in the city clamour for her attention and try to hold her back, much like the city which makes her want to escape and stay on. And then there is the smell that isn’t. A cool, musty smell of naphthalene balls and dust mites and well-worn razais mingling with the earthy, smoky smell of burning wood and warm moongfalis—a lost memory in search of someone to take it home. As Zooo turns right at the street corner, it is empty of the smells that were with her two steps behind, eerily empty like the 15 ft pavement she has to walk to reach the concrete square where the Safal booth is located. Outside the booth, under the lanky tree suffocating in the concrete and yet defiant is Munna with his shop comprising one plastic carton with bread packets and a crate of eggs. He looks as crumpled as the tree behind him. Zooo buys a packet of bread and six eggs. Munna gets the total wrong as always and she tells him, ‘Aap ne kam lagaya hai,’ handing over the right amount. She reminds herself for the umpteenth time that she needs to give him the calculator lying unused at home. She will forget.
Munna is lost in his thoughts, calculating his debts over and over again, his eyes fixated on the spot diagonally across him, where he once had a much bigger shop, spread across a thela laden with biscuits, bakery cookies, rusk, noodles, candies and what not, downwards to cartons of bread, pau and buns, and upwards on the wall behind to a collage of chips, Kurkure, Chocos and Little Hearts. It was all over in a flash when the local police arrived two months back and removed his shop along with the three neighbouring ones—the old woman’s cot with a similar set of wares as Munna, the peanut seller’s square patch of tarpaulin sheet spread on the ground and the chaiwalla’s tapri incrementally built with pavers and pieces of concrete slabs collected from street repair debris. Munna quietly curses the burra time, as he can’t make sense of why the police did what they did. According to one rumour, a vendor further down the street had an altercation with a thulla and the latter took revenge by removing all the vendors on the pavement. Munna does not miss his neighbours who have now moved to a tiny cramped stretch next to the public urinal around the corner. He cannot make that compromise and move away from the view of the Safal booth. He depends on the cashier at the booth to keep an eye on his shop when he takes a break. Munna knows too well that time slows down when you have to start all over again on the street. But he tells himself to be patient, keeping his eyes focused on the spot that used to be his. ‘For now, I have to make sure no one occupies it, and someday, it will be mine again,’ he whispers to the tree behind him.
Time watches over the creatures of the street, inhabiting them, as also every bit of the street, every corner, every crevice, every surface, every sparkle, ruin and demise. Invisible yet omnipresent, the creatures of the street feel him walking past, always unpredictably, sometimes slowly and sometimes swiftly, and sometimes ominously standing still and refusing to budge, like Baatsun from his favourite spot. He is always judged, accha, burra or theek thak, but also always as something on the move—chal raha hai. ‘It isn’t me that is good or bad,’ he has often tried to tell the creatures, but they can’t hear him. So he plays along, humbly accepting Munna’s curses yet quietly helping him plot his comeback; letting Zooo believe that she is the one making him move faster as she gives in to the distractions in the bazaar; allowing Baatsun to think he can stretch the afternoon by dreaming of longer afternoons spent chasing flies; and making the street pine for peaceful nights of sleep. Time plays along and keeps walking, for his chalna is what keeps the possibility of hope alive on the street.
The writer is tired from all the writing not done and steps out to have a nariyal pani. And, of course, the friend who does not want to be left out of out of any street jaunt calls her just then. ‘I also want nariyal pani! Maine kya galti kar li? Tell me where you are.’ The writer tries her best to give directions about her location on the street, ‘Arre, that thela at the crossroads, the one next to the chai shop, no, no, not on the left, on the right, my right of course! Abe, that corner from where I ate chow mein and got sick! Uff, why are you so daft ya, is the kacchde ka dher on your left or right? Left, ok good, keep walking straight, then take a left from Aggarwal Sweets, look out for the first mochi on the right after you cross the pee puddle, just cross the road from the mochi’s and I am right there! No, Whatsapping my location will not help, it will get you to this gate on the back, which remains locked, and you won’t be able to cross over. Can you just follow my directions? Or just ask for the Paytmwalla Nariyalwalla—everyone knows him. Ok, bye!’
Yes, the nariyal pani was an excuse! The writer had to take a break from not writing, from being cooped up at home, from feeling ajeeb. She needed a dose of the bahar, a bit of air and sun, of people she didn’t have to talk to if she didn’t want to.
And the directionally challenged friend does manage to reach the nariyal pani thela, merrily singing,
‘Maybe it’s the feelin’
Or maybe it’s the freedom
Maybe it’s that shady spot’
There’s something about the street.
All photographs © Samprati Pani.
 From the song ‘Take a Back Road’ by Rodney Atkins.