~ Murali Kamma
On the day Neel returned to his apartment, he discovered that Sai had stopped talking—and eating. Moreover, having retreated to the little shed behind the apartment building, Sai was refusing to leave what had been his home for several months. Summer hadn’t arrived, so it probably wasn’t sweltering in the tin-roofed shed; still, as Neel remembered from his only look inside, it was a dingy, barely furnished room that felt like a prison cell. Apart from the weak glow of a single bare bulb, the only illumination in the cramped space came from the sunlight trickling in through a small barred window. Sai was the day watchman, hired after a couple of burglaries nearby had rattled the building’s residents. Since there was already a night watchman for the neighborhood, Sai’s job was to stay vigilant during the day and be a handyman who could run errands.
Neel had just returned from a trip to the country he’d migrated to with his family as a teenager. Now, odd though it seemed, he was an expat in the land of his birth. While waiting to catch his connecting flight, he’d texted Murti to inform him that Sai could resume delivering the newspaper and milk to his apartment. “Sai fried will do,” read Murti’s response, baffling Neel momentarily. Then, boarding the plane, he wondered why Sai had been fired. But instead of texting again, Neel switched off his phone, letting the thought hang in the air. Not unlike an airport announcement that sounds garbled initially, the text’s meaning would become clear in due course.
It was early morning, the city still unburdened by heavy traffic or pollution, when a cab deposited Neel at the front gate of the apartment building. The tawny sky was just beginning to brighten when Neel got out and saw that the gate was already unlocked. The man from the dairy would have brought the milk packets by now. Neel paid the driver and started rolling his suitcase on the gravelly lane, setting off a grating sound. A stray dog skulking by the compound wall approached cautiously and barked in displeasure, though the protest seemed half-hearted more than threatening. Earlier, such encounters used to unsettle him—but he’d realized that the best way to deal with it was to look away and keep walking nonchalantly.
Neel’s attitude of disregarding anything upsetting, he discovered, had the curious effect of making him indifferent to his surroundings. “Desensitized” was the word in vogue. In this sprawling metropolis, you became desensitized after a while.
Neel recalled how, on his first visit to the area where his apartment was located, it had been jarring to see a long row of flimsy, primitive-looking tents crowded together near a busy intersection, barely a stone’s throw from a swanky mall. These makeshift tents were homes for construction workers, whose scruffy children played on the abutting road while their mothers cooked on the sidewalks. The building craze had converted what used to be uninhabited land into a bustling township, pockmarked by big ditches that sent up clouds of dust. Many high-rises had sprung up, seemingly overnight, to house the hordes of technology workers drawn like moths to the many new jobs in the gleaming Info Tech City close by. And the boom had also attracted migrant laborers from the countryside.
The words ‘Sixten Tower’ appeared on the gate. A typo, he’d thought at first, but it actually stood for 610, the number of the building, which was five stories high and had ten apartments. Going up in the small elevator, Neel heard sounds—running water, voices, footsteps—that announced the start of another day. Stepping out on the fourth floor, he was cheered by the sight of a milk packet near his apartment door. Yes, he could make coffee now! In the kitchen, Neel took a few refreshing sips of his hot brew and walked up to the window for a look at the little shed in the back.
Earlier, just as the cab was about to turn onto the street leading to Sixten Tower, Neel saw the night watchman waiting at a bus stop on the main road. Asking the driver to pull over for a minute, Neel rolled down the window and said, “Going home after the night shift?”
Looking up in surprise, the watchman, a Gurkha immigrant, smiled when he recognized Neel. “Yes,” he said. “A lot happened while you were gone. I’m not covering Sixten anymore. They don’t want me to enter the compound.”
“Because of Sai. He’s on a hunger strike and is refusing to talk or leave the shed. He had a fight—”
A horn blared, startling them, and when Neel turned around, he saw a bus approaching the stop. As the cab driver quickly pulled away, the watchman waved and said, “I’m sure you’ll find out more soon.”
Holding his coffee mug, Neel gazed at the shed and wondered if he’d be able to see Sai. But the door was closed and the light didn’t appear to be on. Surrounded by weeds and overgrown grass, the ramshackle shed looked abandoned. He found it hard to believe that the usually voluble and cheerful Sai was in there, observing a silent fast and refusing to move out. But why had he been fired? People liked him, as far as Neel could tell, and he seemed capable. Sure, he had a few quirks—such as his tendency to ask for ‘phoren’ T-shirts, or bang rather than knock on the door—but then again, who wasn’t quirky? To Sai’s credit, he’d been eager to be helpful around the building.
The doorbell rang, surprising Neel. It was early for visitors. When he opened the door, Murti greeted him but didn’t smile. “May I speak to you?”
“Of course. Please come in, Murti. Would you like some coffee?”
Short and slender, his thinning hair generously streaked with grey, and wearing glasses that were a little big for his face, the middle-aged visitor appeared mild-mannered—but Neel knew that Murti, as the resident manager, controlled Sixten Tower’s affairs with an iron fist. Declining Neel’s offer, he sat upright on the sofa and, adjusting his checked bush shirt, said, “I just wanted to update you on what happened.”
“Appreciate it. I was surprised by the turn of events, because I thought Sai was a good worker and well liked by people in the building. Is he fasting to protest?”
Murti pursed his lips, looking peeved. He didn’t look at Neel. “I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, but he’s a troublemaker. He’s like an illegal migrant who’s crossed the border and refuses to leave. The shed is not his territory.”
Neel thought he was being unnecessarily dramatic, and the analogy didn’t make sense—but there was no point in arguing and riling him up even more. Better to keep the tone neutral. “So what happened, Murti?” he said casually.
“What happened was he thought he was a big shot. Instead of being grateful, he became bold and arrogant. He began plotting against me. The shed was a temporary place for him to stay until he found his own accommodation. When I found out that he was making improvements, I told him to move out. He refused, so I fired him. And now we have a problem on our hands. You know how these people are—you give them an inch, they take a mile!”
Neel shifted uncomfortably, crossing and uncrossing his legs. He didn’t like Murti’s tone and the direction in which this was going, dragging him into an unpleasant swamp. Neel was about to speak, but he didn’t get a chance.
“Think he can blackmail us?” Murti said, his voice rising. “Rascal! It’s outrageous. Tomorrow I’m having a meeting for everybody in the building. I’d like for us to find a way to get rid of him.”
Murti appeared so agitated by now, with a trembling hand and flushed face, that Neel thought it best to end the visit. Saying that he’d be glad to attend the meeting and help in any way he could, Neel quickly ushered him out. Walking back to the kitchen, Neel looked down again at the ground extending to the compound wall. A lone guava tree, bent and swaying gently in the breeze, stood like a weathered old sentinel next to the shed. A couple of trees on the property had been knocked down in recent months, and Neel wondered if this remaining guava tree—which had no fruit, as if it had already given up hope—was next.
Was it true, then, that Murti & Co. were planning to erect another building? Would there really be enough space, even after tearing down the shed and perhaps the compound wall, to build anything here, adding to the congestion and putting a further strain on the water supply, which was running low and being rationed? What if the rains failed again? That wasn’t going to stop them, according to Rahman, Neel’s neighbor in the building. They’d be willing to dig deeper to reach the aquifer, just as they’d be willing to encroach on the neighboring land to accommodate their building. “They’ll do anything to get their way,” Rahman had said. “It’s all about the money, my friend. Greed is great, not God.”
That seemed the most likely explanation for why Sai was being forced out. A jet-lagged Neel sat up for a long time that night, reading. Feeling restless, he rose from the sofa a few times and walked up to the kitchen window. No light came on in the shed even after darkness fell, and it was hard to believe that Sai was in there. How did he manage? Maybe Neel should have tried to contact him. But what about the others—why hadn’t anybody else been able to reach out to Sai? He should have made inquiries earlier.
Rahman hadn’t been in when he got back from his trip, and now everybody in the building except Neel was asleep. Perhaps Sai was sleeping, too, despite his fast. Well, Neel would have to wait till the next day. Something was bound to happen soon. The meeting, he hoped, would end the impasse. How long had it been going on, anyway?
Around three or four o’clock, he fell into a deep slumber and had a dream. A stray dog began barking loudly. It was joined by another dog, then two more, and soon the noise reached a crescendo. Neel wasn’t scared because, though he was standing nearby, the dogs were not threatening him. Instead, they were barking—on and on—at the little shed, as if a burglar lurked inside. But the door remained closed and there was no response even after the dogs began scratching on it furiously.
When Neel opened his eyes, sunlight poured in through the window, warming his face, and he found himself slouching in the sofa, his book still resting on his chest. He had barely fifteen minutes for the meeting on the terrace. Getting ready quickly and swallowing his coffee, he took a quick peek at the shed. It still looked unoccupied, but in the daylight he noticed a few covered bowls—had he missed them yesterday?—near the door. Food, perhaps? They seemed untouched. And then, with a shock, he noticed a lock on the door. How could that be? Tearing himself away from the window, he hurried to the meeting, with questions swirling in his mind.
For a Saturday morning, the building was strangely quiet—which meant that all the residents were on the terrace, waiting for the meeting to start. The canvas-covered section of the terrace, carpeted and sparely furnished with metal chairs, acted as the building’s gathering place for events. Almost everybody was there. Neel found an unoccupied chair next to Rahman, who greeted him brightly. The meeting proved to be short.
Clearing his throat, Murti said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have an unexpected announcement.” He appeared uncharacteristically nervous and was perspiring, although it was pleasant at this hour. “Sai is not in the shed,” he continued. “It’s empty…I don’t know when he left. As far as I’m concerned, this is over and we can move on.”
There was a stunned silence, followed by a flurry of questions. Any idea where he went? Did he leave a note or contact anybody? Is he okay? What happened?
Murti’s terse answers were “No” or “I don’t know.” There were no immediate plans to build another building, he added, but the shed would be demolished soon. When the meeting moved on to other matters involving the residents, Neel and Rahman drifted away, as did a few others.
“So what do you think?” Rahman said when they reached their floor.
“Puzzling. I don’t know what to make of it.”
“Fishy is what I’d say.” Opening his door, Rahman invited Neel in for a cup of tea.
Widowed and solitary, Rahman was always friendly, often giving him news about his children and grandchildren, who had settled abroad and didn’t visit him much.
“What do you mean?” Neel said, entering the modestly furnished living room. “I’ll be back,” Rahman replied mysteriously, heading to the kitchen, while Neel sat on a chair by the window and looked around. A small, ancient-looking television set was perched on a cardboard box, and Neel wondered if it still worked.
Emerging from the kitchen, Rahman handed him a steaming cup. “Didn’t you hear the dogs barking last night?” he said. “They were loud, and it didn’t stop for a while. Unusual…don’t you think?”
Neel’s heart began racing, as if a treadmill he was walking on had skipped to a higher speed. Taking a sip to calm himself, he said, “The dogs around here bark, don’t they?”
“Yes, but not like this, especially at night. Nobody investigated because it was not their problem and they didn’t want to be bothered. Look, I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but how did the lock appear on the door? I didn’t see it before. Let’s just say that force can be used to get rid of unwanted people. It happens, I’ve heard, more often than we realize.”
His face flushing as he swallowed some hot tea, Neel tried to absorb all this. “What can we do about it?” he said.
“Nothing much, I’m afraid,” Rahman said. “But I’m going to call a reporter I know at the local Daily News & Views. Whether he’s interested or not, we should let him know.”
“Good idea. You know, I still cannot figure out what happened, why Sai was fired. He was pleasant and a good worker, available at all hours. Wasn’t he entitled to sleep on the property? Murti’s reasoning was ridiculous. So what if Sai was making some minor improvements? The shed is dilapidated—”
“Indeed. Unfortunately, people like Sai don’t have many options in the city. You see, his community is involved in the tanning business. Not wanting to do that kind of work, he left his hometown and came here.”
A clatter outside Rahman’s apartment stopped their conversation. The meeting having ended, some people were coming down the stairs instead of waiting for the building’s only elevator, which could be temperamental.
Neel soon got busy at work with a new project. Later that week, returning late to his apartment, he saw that the shed was no longer there. Murti hadn’t wasted any time in tearing it down. Neel didn’t speak to Rahman that night, and the following morning he left fairly early to catch a flight—although this time he was making a domestic trip to see his client. Work kept him away, and it was another week before he saw Rahman again. Neel was opening his door, after a trip to the local supermarket for groceries, when he appeared next to him, smiling.
“Hello, Neel, I see that you were gone for a few days,” he said. “Well, I have some news.” Although nobody else was around, Rahman seemed skittish. Dropping his voice, he added: “I called the reporter. He said something interesting. They’re investigating the building.”
“Because of Sai?”
“No, not because of him. There wasn’t enough information, he said. There have been other such cases, with people vanishing or leaving abruptly. But unless there’s solid evidence, it’s hard to prove anything. He said that we should file a ‘Missing Person’ report with the police if we suspected anything. I said that we didn’t have anything solid.”
“Then why is the building being investigated?”
“Aha.” There was a gleam in Rahman’s eyes, and Neel could see that he was enjoying the drama, the telling of the story. “There’s a corruption scandal involving properties in this area,” Rahman continued. “It’s the Wild West, my friend. Bribes were paid to acquire land and illegal boundaries were drawn to increase the size of plots.”
“Shocking! So, perhaps, the shed was built on somebody else’s property? How ironic—because it was Sai who was accused of being an illegal occupant.”
“Exactly, Neel. Maybe that’s why I haven’t seen Murti lately. He’s hunkering down, I’m sure, and busy talking to his lawyers. I can’t wait to see how all this unfolds.”
“Indeed, Rahman. It’ll be very interesting. Would you like some tea?”
Shutting the door once Rahman entered the apartment, Neel began to tell him what he’d seen on his last trip to the airport. He hadn’t stopped thinking about it. Neel was in a cab, approaching a shantytown crowded with the kind of tents he’d noticed on his first visit, when there was a sudden diversion in the traffic. People holding placards were protesting loudly, but Neel couldn’t get a closer look because the cab had to take a detour. He asked the driver what was going on.
“Agitation, sir,” the driver said, as the cab slowed and took a sharp turn. “Labor people asking for better living conditions.”
Craning his neck, Neel looked past the policemen at the demonstrators behind the barricade—and turned around only when they were out of sight. For a moment, though it was a long moment, one protester looked like Sai. He was shouting and waving a sign. Then the moment passed, and Neel wondered if he’d just imagined it. Maybe he wanted him to be Sai. Getting off to check wasn’t an option. Besides, he had a plane to catch.
Murali Kamma is the managing editor of Khabar, a monthly magazine. His debut collection of short fiction, Not Native: Immigrant Stories of an In-between World, will be published in 2019 by Atlanta-based Wising Up Press. Most of these stories first appeared in various journals, including The Apple Valley Review, Rosebud and South Asian Review. He has interviewed Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, William Dalrymple, Amitav Ghosh and Pico Iyer, among other authors.