Claustropolis: 1984

s
t
o
r
i
e
s

“Claustropolis: 1984” is excerpted from a forthcoming novel.

In Bhopal, I could lie low. In Bhopal, there would be instructions for me.

Because I had been told not to take the express, I traveled on a local, in an unreserved bogie. The whiskey was Director’s Special, a parting gift from Gupta’s people. I didn’t even wait till nightfall before pulling out the bottle. In Bhopal, the night train chattered. It rattled like an iron cage holding senile ogres left over from some forgotten campaign of extermination.

The bogie was dark, except for the passing glow of laltains from small stations. The faces of the cunts around me moved between darkness and light like ghosts. I squeezed the neck of the whiskey bottle and wanted to caress the pistol in my bag. I mouthed shlokas in the darkness and thought of the Sikhs I had slaughtered for the motherland.

The air was cleaner in Bhopal. Firecrackers lit up the night. I bathed using Ganges water I had bought off a priest in the Hanuman temple, questioning him long and hard on his genealogy. If the priest was curious about me, he kept his thoughts to himself. He rolled out his family tree for me to look at, his fingers skimming across the centuries. I looked at the intricate network of lines, the proliferating branches, the occasional dead ends. I thought of lists, classification, taxonomy. What is higher, what is lower. The Brahmin high, the shudra low. The lund high, the chut low. Who wins. Who loses. Who survives.

After I had bathed in the hotel and scrubbed my teeth with Monkey Brand tooth powder, I visited the New Market. Wandering around the lanes, past the Top N’ Town ice cream shop and Jai Hind Proteins, I went to Alankar Dresses and bought Wrangler jeans and a red T-shirt with a little green crocodile on it. A barber shaved off the moustache I had worn all the way from Delhi.

A new man, I stalked the quarters of the Old City, the Muslim city, making my way through neighborhoods named after days and nights of the week. Jumerati, Itwara, Mangalwara, Budhwara, I went, laughing to myself, fingering the spot where my moustache had been. Fine people, these Bhopalis hanging around the squares at all hours. My sweet tooth liked the wares in their bazaars. I found the place soothing, the big lakes dividing the Old City from the New City, where my patron’s intermediary had an office. The sun dazzled in the clear November sky. Delhi, that rotting capital, with its smoldering bodies, seemed very far away.

Slums smell of shit. This Bhopal slum was no different. A dwarf of a man stopped me as I made my way through Chandbarh to the railway station. I swatted him away, but he came at me again, unshaven, disheveled, skeletal, hands pressed together in servile greeting. He asked me to step inside and bless his incense factory. “Guruji,” he said, sensing my life force. “Guruji,” he repeated, timidly gesturing at his factory.

The factory was a shack cut into the earth, one of a row of mud huts set around a yard. On the other side, from a building that looked like it was about to collapse, came the sound of schoolchildren singing their daily lessons. I had no interest in the singing children, I didn’t care at all for the incense factory and its owner. But I liked his daughter, a firm young thing with ripe, willful breasts. Her husband was dead. The incense factory man whispered the details to me as she made tea. He had been a truck driver, a fool who had abducted a local woman somewhere between Gauhati and Shillong and who was captured, stripped, and beaten to death with the very iron rods he had been transporting.

In the evening, after I had roamed around the Old City and eaten my fill of biryani, I went back to the slum in Chandbarh. I was wearing the T-shirt with the crocodile, the new Wrangler jeans, and a military green jacket I had bought in Paona Bazaar in Imphal after a particularly successful assignment. Brut aftershave caressed my face as I picked my way past sewage drains and black, hairy pigs.

This time, the incense man stared at me. I stared back. “Guruji?” he said. His earlier tone of reverence was missing. He fell silent and lowered his eyes. I assessed his daughter, taking her by the chin. I liked her curves, the big eyes, the breasts with a mind of their own. I thought of Rekha, the Bombay actress. “Go,” I said to the incense man.

The life force of those like me is not to be trifled with by such as these fallen. The incense man backed out of his hut slowly. The smell of incense blended with the smell of shit as the door opened and closed.

I thought of lists, classification, taxonomy. What is higher, what is lower. The Brahmin high, the shudra low. The lund high, the chut low. Who wins. Who loses.

My patron had sent me instructions through his intermediary, along with keys to a grey Bajaj scooter parked behind the hotel. His orders were for me to follow a man, an operator at a chemical factory.

I could hear my patron’s whispers in my head. His precise directions, his complex understanding. Follow. Do nothing else. Simply follow. Become his shadow. Understand your target better than he understands himself, until you are three steps ahead of him. Then the moment will come. He will be busy. You will not. He will be in a hurry. You will be still. You will simply be waiting for him, like his reflection in a bathroom mirror. He will walk towards you, offer you his throat. His throat will do its duty, your knife will do its duty. You will simply watch. You will only be a conduit for what is already written into the ledger of his fate. Do nothing else yet. Just follow.

Yes, I followed him, this man, this operator. I followed him so well that I barely had time for the incense man’s daughter. Follow under the November sky. Follow across the blue lakes. Follow through the filthy, winding lanes of the J.P. Nagar slums. Follow to trade union meetings near the Railway Coach factory. Follow to the park across from the Ladies’ Hospital where the operator joined iron ore and textile mill workers from Chattisgarh at their union rallies.

Drifting in the operator’s wake. Becoming his shadow. His double. His doosra. Sitting at a table across from his when he went to meet journalists at the India Coffee House run by the Indian Coffee Workers’ Cooperative Society. The chatter of men, the clicking of cigarette lighters, the clatter of coffee cups. Around me revolved the cooperative coffee waiters in white, their turbans flashing red and gold, green and gold, like the plumes of well-fed roosters. Sometimes I thought I was back in Calcutta, at the India Coffee House on College Street. I almost expected to see the black, bearded faces of Naxals everywhere, expected to see the reed-thin bodies of women Naxals, all busy discussing their revolutions, not knowing that I had been tasked with following Naxals fomenting revolutions.

I became the silent other of this talkative, over-excited man, this operator from the Kali Parade grounds. Follow in the evening, this man, an operator on his own at an ahata opposite the GTB complex in the New City. On the ground floor the Vilayati Madira ki Dukan, from where he bought a half of Director’s Special whiskey and trudged upstairs to the ahata. On one side, a sitting charge of one rupee, on the other side, slightly cleaner, a sitting charge of two rupees. Lurking on the one-rupee side, I watched him, following with my eyes, as he drank his Indian-Made-Foreign-Liquor whiskey in the two-rupee section, munching on peanuts mixed with onions and green chilies.

You will simply watch. You will only be a conduit for what is already written into the ledger of his fate.

Follow on other days to the Savage Bar in the Old City where this operator went when he didn’t drink at the ahata. Follow with my ears, listening carefully. The clink of soda bottles, the sizzle of kebabs, the whoosh of matches being lit for cigarettes. I listened and followed as he sang, late into the night, in a warbling voice, “Ae mere zohra-jabeen.” Then I followed him through the winding streets of the Old City. I lurked outside his house in the night like a ghost, following the cries of his wife as he beat her.

It is not an easy thing, to dedicate your life to order, to give yourself to dharma. My patron understands this. There has never been a time when he has not shown concern for my well-being, a profound awareness of how deeply I have sacrificed myself for the cause. But he was unavailable when I happened to be in Delhi, just back from a job in Punjab, when I was sitting in Gupta’s farmhouse, wondering how everyone could have failed so badly as to allow this assassination of the mother of our motherland.

Men coming and men going in Gupta’s farmhouse.

Gupta himself wanting me to join in.

From the red telephone in Gupta’s upstairs office, I called my patron. Never had I been asked to take part in mob work before. That was not my dharma, not my training. But the secretary who answered did not understand my urgency and did not seem to know the C code. My patron was unavailable, the secretary said. My patron was busy in meetings. My patron was making decisions on what to do as the country burned. In such times of adversity, every one of us should help out if we are called upon to serve. At such moments, we should not stand on ceremony or pause to look at account books.

The arrogance of that voice startled me.

I put the phone down and stared out at the men clustered below on the lawn. Beyond them, in the gardens to the side, I could see an empty swing suspended from the branch of a eucalyptus tree. The blue glitter of a swimming pool where Bombay starlets were invited to display their soft flesh.

The sword of the righteous, my patron called me. The erect lund of Bharat, he described me, ready to fuck every enemy on behalf of the nation. I came out of the office and made my way to the lawn. Around me the vans were getting ready, the men primed on drugs and alcohol. There were shouts over the diesel exhaust, someone saying that the Delhi Police would look the other way, that they would help out when needed. Has there ever been a time in my life when I have not been serving?

I did not care that the Sikhs were being taught a lesson, but why should I have to take part in mob work? I thought of all the jobs I had carried out for my patron. The followings. The extraction of information. The outright assassinations. The ones that had to look like suicides, the noose tightened over the strangle marks, the wrist sliced with a razor blade as another man held the target down, waiting, it seemed like forever, for the blood to pool out, for the pulse to stop. The killings posed as accidents, the truck rammed into a jeep in a head-on collision. Those that had to resemble heart attacks, the injection needle inserted in the right place. A fine, subtle weapon, my patron had called me. And now an unknown secretary told me to be selfless and to serve.

Should one unsheathe a sword to butcher a goat? Does one shoot a bazaar whore with a Beretta Model 92?

“Go fuck them for us,” Gupta shouted at his men. Cigar fumes trailed from the pashmina shawl draped around him. “Go fuck them so they remember this for generations to come. Go answer the five shots from Beant Singh’s revolver, the twenty-five from Satwant Singh’s carbine.”

I went. I answered. I did what had to be done. I did it with sword and with pistol. I did it with hand and with prick. I did it with kerosene, with phosphorus, with car tires. For days afterwards, I smelt of burnt meat.

Follow and perform a parikrama around the factory grounds at Kali Parade. Round and round the walls on the Bajaj scooter that coughs like an old man when I start it. Factory grounds on left, slums on right. Factory grounds on left, farmland on right. Factory grounds on left, wasteland for slum dwellers to shit in on right. Factory grounds on left, railway line to Indore on right.

Reservoirs, wells, ponds, and waterways should be constructed at the intersection of boundaries, as should temples of gods. The factory watchtowers at the intersections like temples to the factory gods.

A full week has now passed since my arrival in Bhopal. Follow the men who come and go through the main gates. Follow their name tags. This one Pimpalkar. That one Sahasrabudhe. That one Thomas. That one Shakeel. This one Jadhav. That one Biswas. This one my target, Kanwar the operator. Men in smart tunics. Time cards being punched in. The long blast of sirens. A factory run like a military machine. A factory owned by Americans, by white men from a faraway land. What do they make in this factory? What do they make in their white factories, that have crossed the black waters?

One morning, I slipped in through the gates behind this operator at an American chemical factory on the Kali Parade grounds. The towers pointed up like rockets. The chemical tanks looked like locomotive engines. The electric lines overhead sliced up the sky. I drifted, through control room and compression chamber and loading dock.

As I lurked outside the formulation shed, a Sikh in a pink turban came out of an open doorway and tried to drag me into the shadows. His beard streamed like fire, his fingers were like ice. But I am a ghost among ghosts. “I am the erect lund of Bharat,” I said. “I fuck your ghost sister,” I said. I shaped my right hand into a pistol and shot him. Dhishoom! Da Chau! Dow, Dow!

The incense man’s daughter wanted to see Bhopal. In her slum quarters, sitting amid incense and shit, she had heard rumors of a great city. I will show it to you, I said. I will spread its legs for you, this city snatched from a rightful Hindu queen by a marauding Pathan invader. The lakes, the railway station, the hills, you can look at it all.

The driver of the auto-rickshaw I hired was sharp as a razor. He sensed my mad, aashiqui spirit. He knew I wouldn’t haggle over the fare and went wild in his freedom, taking us where he wanted. No sneaking along tight slum lanes, past shacks rubbing against each other like testicles swollen in the summer heat. We roared across the New City instead, along roads wide and open and inviting.

At the lake, I asked the boatman to remain on the shore. He was long and thin, this boatman, almost a man of two dimensions. I took off my military green jacket. My biceps rippled under my crocodile shirt. The boatman’s face was so expressionless as to suggest that he had no face at all.

I sat and pulled at the oars. Out into the blue water, out under the blue November sky, out to the place where I let the boat drift and held her against my chest. The sun struck brightly on our faces, bounced off my gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses. I took them off and put them on her face. I thought of Rajesh Khanna, of Sharmila Tagore in a blue sari, of a boat rocking under the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta. I even heard the song, Chingari Koi Bhadke, in Kishore Kumar’s voice as we sat up and looked into the clear water.

“I can’t see the bottom,” she whispered.

“Woman,” I said, “when you’re with me, you don’t worry about what’s down there. You look up, you look at the sky.”

Up, up, the auto-rickshaw roared, up to the hills past the All India Radio station, up past the palatial bungalows of politicians and industrialists to where the hills thrust themselves into the sky. I stroked her curves, this incense maker’s daughter, this one I wanted to name Sharmila. Up the auto-rickshaw ran, coming to a stop outside a ticket booth and a sign. It would be quiet inside, even in the middle of the day, the driver said.

“The National Collection of Man,” I read on the sign. I paid the man at the ticket booth who wore thick, dark, blind man’s glasses. I didn’t understand what that sign meant. Who was collecting Man? Why were they collecting Man? Around us, the hills rose, dirt paths twisting through trees and bushes. There were eyes among the trees. Statues were scattered everywhere, statues of people and animals. Statues with faces and limbs and eyes. My hands itched. Tribal statues, I thought, remembering my trips to Manipur and to NEFA, among frontier people who did not belong to India in any way except in territory.

It is not an easy thing, to dedicate your life to order, to give yourself to dharma. My patron understands this.

Sharmila stopped in front of a statue, bigger than any of the others. If I looked at a part of it, the thing in its center, that was recognizable enough. It was a snake, and not just any snake, but a sinuous, twisting king cobra, patterned ridges cut into its body. Wings sprouted from the side, chicken feet stuck out from the wings and the tail flowered in a tuft that could have belonged to a lion. The parts made sense, the whole did not. Not a bird-man but a snake-bird. A snake-chicken-lion-bird.

“A sanpharki,” Sharmila said. “They say it’s bad luck for its shadow to fall on you.”

“What happens? Does your lund wither away and fall off?” I said.

She began giggling.

“I have never heard of such a thing,” I said, putting an arm around her waist. “Bird-men, snake-birds. What else can you expect jungle-dwellers to come up with? Why do they need to bring this stuff here? How is this a collection of Man?”

She began to say something in response, but I covered her mouth with mine. I dragged her deeper and huts rose around us, with horns on their roofs and totems at their doors. Inside an empty hut of the savages, there were masks and drums and claws and feathers and unrecognizable things. There was a large object that I looked at for a long time before I realized that it was a single breast.

“I will show you Man,” I said and backed her into the wall.

Follow this operator at an American chemical factory on the Kali Parade grounds. His name is Kanwar, his home a nameless village on the banks of the Narmada river. His education tenth standard fail in school, diploma fail in a Bhopal polytechnic. His work, after receiving on-the-job training at the factory, is as an operator monitoring production.

Follow Kanwar past posters on the walls of the American factory. Posters that weren’t there even a few days ago, when I last did my parikrama, but that look like they have been there for months. Colors faded in the sun, edges curled by heat, cold, rain.

“Before the return of Rama’s Kingdom, first the Rat King! Will you survive the plague? Contact Maharishi and Maharaj!”

The sword of the righteous, my patron called me. The erect lund of Bharat, he described me, ready to fuck every enemy on behalf of the nation.

“Uproot this death factory now! Massive Demonstration!”

“Who is it whose evil eye follows you everywhere? Who is the man behind the mask? Ask Maharishi and Maharaj!”

“We demand the release of the West Virginia safety inspection report! Massive Demonstration!”

“What is the karma of your past lives? What does the future hold for you? Consult Maharishi and Maharaj!”

“Why is a chemical factory located in a crowded locality? Do the lives of the poor have no value? Massive Demonstration!”

My mouth tasted of ashes as I got off the auto-rickshaw. I needed to buy toothpaste before I returned to my hotel room. Scraps of paper, burnt phosphorus, blackened wicks lay on the ground. Had the world been celebrating Diwali all night while I lay with the woman in the slum? What was her name? And what was all this around me? I looked at the remnants of firecrackers.

My head hurt. My tongue was dry and heavy, lying in my mouth like a limp cock. In the alley to my left, I could make out a charred corpse, its burnt limbs something between flesh and coal. Blackened stumps. Pink, exposed flesh. I went the other way, coming out on to a small maidan. My body tensed. So early in the morning, and already a loose ring of men surrounding a victim! I thought of Delhi, of circles of men, of yellow wax and kerosene and burning car tires. I thought of locks of hair chopped off, of heads severed from torsos, of women opened up any which way.

But these were not those men. These were simply the defeated. Bad postures, broken faces, insect bodies. I shoved them aside to see what smooth-talking fortune-teller, what disperser of root-and-herb home remedies, what fly-by-night seller of aphrodisiacs with dried lizards in glass bottles had their attention.

The morning light reflected brightly off a large, white bull. Garlands and beads decorated his horns. A bell dangled from his soft white neck. His back was covered by a red cloth fringed with gold, the letter “Om” picked out in gold. Incense sticks smoldered from a censer behind his hump. His eyes were dark, clear, luminous. I felt a touch of the sacred.

Then I saw the man accompanying the bull. Slight and bare-chested, he had long hair and a beard. His saffron dhoti was fading in color. The string of rudraksha beads on his neck were cracked all over. He did not seem equal to the magnificence of the bull, merely an unfortunate taken under the creature’s regal protection. Yet the insects were listening to him with rapt attention.

“Have you ever been aware of things in the future?” the man said. “Are you aware of the significance of your past?”

There was a murmur.

“Today, you can. Today, my companion, the one and only sacred bull in Bhopal, Maharaj, can look into your past and your future. Today, he can tell you how to break out of the jail cell of your time.”

Maharaj the bull nodded his head. The bell on his bull neck jingled. The insects grew quiet, shuffling their feet like goats being prepared for mass slaughter. Bull People! Insect People! Goat People! My head throbbed with pain.

“Ours is an age of darkness,” the man said. “A time when a king can be shaken off his throne by assassins.”

“Kill the Sikhs,” someone shouted from the back.

“Ours is a time of fear and impurity,” the man replied. “Blood in the cities. Hunger in the villages. Who can say, at such a time, that he does not need the help of Maharaj?”

“Kill the Muslims,” another man shouted.

“Ours is a time of much suffering,” the man said. His voice had dropped low. When he addressed the bull, it was as if he, too, were one of the crowd, just another tired supplicant, another beaten man desperate for hope. “Tell us, Maharaj, please tell us, who here has suffered recently from much grief?”

“Kill—” someone said and abruptly stopped.

The bull began to walk. He moved like a dancer, his hooves graceful as they struck the concrete of the square. His neck bell jingled in the quiet of the early morning as he shook his head in time to the beat of his hooves. From the slums behind, smoke rose from morning fires as if a hundred sacrificial havans were being prepared in service to Maharaj. I felt transported out of time, to the glory of ancient Hastinapur.

The bull came to a sudden stop. In front of him stood a thin, shabby man with bloodshot eyes. He swayed on his feet and looked as if he would fall. Around him, the swelling crowd chattered in approval. No one doubted the swaying man’s grief.

“How long has he been suffering, Maharaj?” the man said.

A series of loud reports rang out. I started and reached for the pistol. It was only the bull stamping his foot.

“Five stamps for five days! For five days, our friend has been caught in unending misery and desperately prayed for deliverance. Is this true, sir?”

The man with the bloodshot eyes nodded faintly. Then he began to crumple, but the Insect People held him up. He was part of the show now, whether he wanted to be or not.

“Who among us is so heartless as to not feel the sorrow of our brother? Who here can say he has not felt pain without end, days without hope?”

The Insect People listened in silence and thought of their endless pain. The Goat People contemplated their hopeless days and wondered when they would be slaughtered.

“But even pain has an end if you can see the future,” the man said. “Maharaj, tell us how long will it take for the planets and stars to realign. How long will it be before the gentleman’s unbearable grief disappears in the face of incredible fortune?”

The bull looked up slowly, gazing into the distance, away from the crowd and square. Was he calculating the distance from this square of hopelessness to the railway station of fortune? Or was it that in his mind, a pair of wings had sprouted from his side, and he was flying?

He was flying away from the city of Bhopal, from factories and operators and fortune-tellers and assassins. He was flying to Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, flying so high that he could be touched by nothing. No nine-millimeter bullet could bring him down from up there, no AK-47 find him as a target. Not even a surface-to-air missile could reach him. He was flying away from our century, flying out of our time.

I felt a shiver of premonition, the bite of remembrance. There was a jingling of bells.

“Seventeen jingles, my friends,” the man shouted. “An auspicious number. Seventeen jingles for seventeen days. Then the world will be turned upside down and this gentleman will receive his happiness. From all pain will he be released on the third of December.”

I did what had to be done. I did it with sword and with pistol. I did it with hand and with prick. I did it with kerosene, with phosphorus, with car tires.

A vast sigh of relief ran through the Insect People like a cool breeze on a blazing afternoon. The man with the bloodshot eyes blinked again. He held out a scrap of paper, something that looked like a medical prescription, with the name Ladies’ Hospital written on it. “Wife,” I think I heard him say. “Baby,” I believe I heard him say. The Insect People dropped coins and crumpled rupee notes into a white bag held out by the man with the bull who could only be the Maharishi of the faded posters.

There were no babies or wives here. All men, young, middle-aged, elderly. A country of men, a country of defeated men. Clerks and servants, shopkeepers and laborers. Insect People filled with insect worries and insect grief. Insect People foolishly chasing after insect hope. Who was worried about not getting back money loaned to a friend? Who was leaving soon on an uncertain journey? Who had an employment letter in his pocket? Who here was haunted by ghosts?

The jingles became louder before they died away entirely. I felt a nudge. The scent of incense drifted into my nostrils. I looked into the bull’s eyes. Was he embarrassed to be exposing me like this, in front of the gutter-rubbish, Insect People of Bhopal, or was he enjoying singling me out? I have served, I wanted to scream. Bull People, Goat People, Insect People, I wanted to shout, I have been serving forever! I am the sword of righteousness! I am the erect lund of Bharat!

My hands itched as the man approached.

“Tell us how many ghosts follow this gentleman, Maharaj,” he said. “Then tell us how the gentleman may be delivered from his ghosts.”

I pushed my way past the Insect People staring at me. The stomp of the bull’s foot went on and on as if a squad of Bull People were coming after me. I ran through the alleys and I ran through the chowks, pushing my way past the Goat People. I ran past the shops and I ran past the morning traffic, not looking at the Insect People. As I ran, I saw an albino man staring at me from behind a shop counter. I saw a dwarf Muslim woman, all in black, a beige folder in her hand, stopping to look at me. Then I spotted the Sikh in a pink turban waiting for me near the bridge. I turned and I turned again. Only when none of my enemies were visible and I had a clear field of fire, only then did I slow down and make my way back to my hotel room.

Siddhartha Deb is the author of two novels and The Beautiful and the Damned, a book of narrative nonfiction that was a finalist for the Orwell Prize for political writing in the UK, and the winner of the PEN Open award in the United States. The book was published in India without its first chapter because of a lawsuit. His journalism, essays, and reviews have appeared in the Guardian, the New York TimesThe Nationn+1, and Caravan magazine. He teaches creative writing at the New School.

You Might Also Enjoy

Fulcrum

Jana Prikryl

1. Across the river her voice sends shreds
torn from something gelid, all acute
angles though the surface of each. . .

poems

The Promised Hostel

Mary South

Carl is a bipolar orthopedic podiatrist, and he’s fussy at the nipple. He’s been on a nursing strike for the past several days,. . .

stories

Re-Make/Re-Model

Peter Gizzi

The old language says the apple is the old apple and spoke in categories, it gave her the dance floor she needed, all those vocabularies. . .

poems

Further Reading

Heads Up: We recently updated our privacy policy to clarify how and why we collect personal data. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand this policy.