by Mandira Pattnaik
The crowded lane leading to the Basava landfill site, where migrants like Aluva lived on the margins, was sagging with its own weight. Dumpers, brimming with the city’s wastes, made their way, flanked by tiny dwellings in bare tarpaulin coverings huddled in ignominy, and onwards to the mounds of trash threatening to crash onto the barely-alive humans.
That Wednesday morning, Aluva was counting and recounting coins, hoping they’d last until wage day. Finally, he slid them back into his drawstring pouch, thinking nothing in particular. His mind these days resembled the nothingness of the parched earth from where he had escaped.
Aluva edged past handcarts lined end to end, stopping now and then to nurse his bloated knee, pus oozing out of it, towards a chai stall. As he neared the Eduljee Junction, the rhythmic sound of marching boots, alternately lyrical and menacing, closed in. A motley crowd of passersby gathered on the boulevard, jeering and clapping; spellbound men and women shouted as the Army of Gods descended on the freshly tar-coated road, their stark-white uniforms mirrored on their shiny boots. Defenseless people latched onto the mirage of an identity; chants in appreciation rendered the air; soldiers basked in the galvanized crowds’ reverence.
Aluva clapped too. Baffled and mesmerized in equal parts by the grandeur on display—a power that terrorized the innocent and protected the guilty. The white cavalcade was blindingly brilliant in the midst of the filth and beggary around. Aluva nodded and chanted in approval of, and in reaction to, this strange reflection of glory, in spite of his penury and pus-oozing infection. His hungry belly relented from its spasms; aching limbs became amnesic to pain and his swirling emotions of dejection and loss were, for once, numb.
The idea of the rulers of this country, who had named themselves the Assembly of Gods, rested on the three pillars of gods, goats and guns. And this idea was succeeding.
When the parade had passed by, the nowhere people stood motionless, as if the air they breathed in had been sucked out, their lives hung by a thread. Sluggishly, the magic rubbed off, and in twos and threes the crowd scattered, and went back onto their drudgery.
Aluva forgot his tea and limped back to the site where several head-loads of trash waited for him. It was a life like the dead carcasses he sometimes carried in his wicker basket. Only his carcass breathed.
Joan’s father herded goats. The rickety goats moved in a hyphenated line, uphill over the irregular mud mounds and beyond into the confused pasturelands of the Niyamgiri Hills—confused because they were yellow and brown with little tufts of morose green. The prospect of returning home only marginally fed in the evening writ large on their gait, far too apparent for Joan’s father to miss.
Leaving them to rear, he found himself a lone repentant Khejri tree which wanted to find itself anywhere but in this drought, its small leaves barely shading him from the relentlessly pursuing sun. The days of that punishing summer had repeated themselves end to end, until, ashamed of itself, it had rained one day—just enough to emanate the earthy smell of parched soil. Before Joan’s father had taken in a lungful of moist air, the sun had peeped out of the sparse clouds.
Joan’s father knew that most of his goats wouldn’t survive the summer. In the pasturelands, on the way home, in their sheds, they began to breathe their last in quick succession.
Exasperated, Joan’s father took half a dozen of them to the local Mandi on Thursday morning; the weekly market a final gasp for both man and animal; even a distress sale would suffice the family, and the goats, one square meal for a couple of days.
Sun spanned the sky but not one buyer approached him. The Assembly had decreed that goats are god’s own creatures. If a goat was found to have been killed, the butcher was to be stoned to death at the village square; so it serves as an ultimate deterrent to anyone who intended to consume the meat. Death to the killer of goats, the government had proclaimed, adding, activists who say that peasants are dying because nobody is willing to buy their livestock for fear of the State are animals, and they’d be the ones who’d be sent to the gallows.
Evening encroached upon crimson skies. One goat was already heaving, refusing to stand up and make the trek back home. Joan’s father left it alone and goaded the rest to follow him.
Joan couldn’t sleep that night, tossing and turning in bed, tormented by the suppressed cries of her ailing mother. She had visions of times when there was god above and peasants below, un-hedged by the cast-iron-jacket rules of the Assembly; a time when men had not proclaimed themselves gods; when they, poor herdsmen, were not asked to, or made, sacrifices in the name of gods. A quagmire of death and devastation, with its moral rot complete! Marginal people like her had been thrown on the fringes of scalar seclusions by the centrifugation of the majoritarian churn; from nothingness they were being pushed ff the precipice by monumental absurdity.
For Friday prayers, the Assembly had converged on the flats, bounded on two sides by the hills, and commoners on the other two. Luxury of god is bestowed on a blessed few. People like Aluva do not matter in the scheme, and therefore, went about their fatiguing chores. Unfortunately for Aluva, Colonel Pamba had assigned him the cleaning work of the Mandi that morning. With a sore knee, Aluva strongly suspected that it was the fallout of a direct contempt he had displayed for Pamba the previous evening.
Aluva’s work was a last chance at survival—he could hardly complain. He picked up the dead goat Joan’s father had left behind from the morass of the Mandi, carried it on his shoulders through the rubble of the ruined school blocks ordered to be razed by the Assembly, and towards the landfill.
Colonel Pamba, a thug-chieftain, lorded over the area around the blocks—a mining ground of spoils from all the illicit trade in these parts. The blocks themselves stood like monolithic reminders to the transition to an autocracy in the garb of the Assembly.
At the crossing of Ezra Street, where four boys were playing gully cricket, someone from the dosa stall, marked out Aluva. After what appeared to Aluva as only nanoseconds, he had raised the alarm,
“The killer of the goat goes by! Death to the butcher—hit—him!”
Before the minute hand had turned a circle, a crowd had gathered, baying for Aluva’s blood.
He dropped the dead animal and fled for his life, but the mob gave a spirited chase. He tripped and fell on the cobbled street, rising again and running, until his disobliging limb gave away.
“To death!” screamed the men. “Throw him to the dogs!”
Those were the last words Aluva had heard coherently as the blows rained on him.
Then, darkness of the dungeons—starsdarkness again. Blood streamed from his head. He sat staring at his mangled right hand, hanging loosely. Someone pulled at his hair clotted with blood and he collapsed in a heap.
A slide beyond the horizon…
When Colonel Pamba heard of the tragedy, he hung his head on his chest and sat contemplating—this was an utterly disagreeable state of affairs. It was a pity that he had to die. In spite of their disagreement, he kind of liked the ‘nowhere entity’. Aluva was barely intelligent! An innocent victim of rage, a byproduct of the great churn the Assembly had promised! We are nearing the rule of the people, the consolidation of rights and democracy, he thought. If the minority has to pay a price, so be it.
On the third day after the goat, and Aluva had died of fanaticism, Joan, unable to suppress her hunger and anger, climbed up the Karkatoa, the highest point of the Niyamgiri Hills, and shouted her lungs out. None heard her shrieks. Thwarted from the hill faces, they drummed back into her ears. The loudest shrieks are always those that nobody hears.
Far below, a motorcade of the Assembly was snaking through the valley towards Karkatoa. For one moment, Joan was possessed—she thought of rolling down the huge rock ahead of her, over the motorcade; next moment, she felt numb, even remorseful. She climbed down what could have become her pulpit of exhortation and was homeward bound.
The sea was calm, almost benign. Above, the skies showed no mercy; scattering instead, in an array of glittering diamonds on the water. The gently rocking boat was serenading the group to an undesirable somnolence.
Joan was awake and flash alert. Last night her mother had died in her sleep. Tonight, she might too. She glanced at her father, resting his tired head on a freckled hand. He had aged more than his years over the past week.
Beyond them lay the seamless, stateless seas.
It was the beginning of their transition to nowhere entities.
Born in India, Mandira Pattnaik is an Economics graduate. She is humbled to have work published or forthcoming in The Times of India, Passages North, Citron Review, Bending Genres, Splonk, Bombay Literary Magazine, Gasher Journal and Amsterdam Quarterly, among other places. Juggernaut Books is currently listing her work under the Editor’s Picks. Her short fiction has been nominated for BOTN 2020.