Prose | Nilanjan Bhowmick

Barbed Wire

Credits : https://pixabay.com

We don’t hear the traffic passing by.
It is evening. We are crossing a street. We are walking fast, like busy men. We keep in step. His shoes are brown. Mine are black. Both are dusty. His shirtsleeves are rolled up. Mine slide down to the wrists. His trousers are crumpled. Mine are losing their ironing in stages. We are both sweating. It is hot and uncomfortable. I think we want to sit under a cool shade. But I know he is feeling heady. He is not in his right mind. I know his mind is taking a walk.
The crowds are everywhere. Offices are closing. Men and women are rushing around like headless ants.
The silence between us is uncomfortable. I don’t want it to break.  But I want to hear his voice.  I want to feel that he is still there with me.
What do you want to do? I venture, timidly inside me, but the words emerge with some confidence. I swallow my false tone like poison. I want to apologize immediately. I want to grasp his hand and say “I am sorry.”
He turns to me, surprised.
What is there to do, his eyes say.
I do not know what he reads in my expression and I don’t know what my expression is. But he turns and walks on.
After a while, the sun taking a dip behind a cloud, the buildings low and silent around us, we see Oriental Café.
He stops. I look at him.
Without a word, to my relief, he heads over to the Café and we take our seats. I don’t think we have ever been here before. The chairs and tables are plastic green. The walls are moist. The crowd is unhealthy, tired, unwashed.
He looks away and blankly stares at the menu, as if reading it.
I order coffee. I want to ask him but I decide against.
But he cuts in. Tea, he says.
I am delighted. I nearly smile. So does he.  But our expressions settle back into their usual corners.
I want to say Tea too. That is not necessary. I could drink from his cup today.   But I say Coffee. I regret it. I wish I could apologize again. But I know he will hate me to say Tea. So I say Coffee, knowing well I won’t take a sip.
He has a week’s beard. It is sharp. His spectacles are smudged.
I don’t want to start the conversation. But I do.
What will you do?
What a question to ask! What am I doing? I want to kick myself.
He laughs all of a sudden. He shakes his head.
The silent one does all the talking now, he says. Good question, though. Indeed what am I to do? Or maybe, what more can I do? Or more to the point, how do I sleep today?
Why do you say that?
We live to sleep from day to day.
True, I say.  As always.
Out of work again, he says, as if he did not hear me. Out-of-work. Work-out-of. Of-out-work. I wish there were other combinations. Sleep-wake, wake-sleep.
Of-work-out, I say helpfully, pleased I can add something meaningful.
Thanks. That will do, he says, his voice turning kind.
We both laugh.
I haven’t seen you in a while, I say.
Yeah, he says indifferently. You have learnt to say pretty things.
Well, isn’t it true – that we haven’t seen each other in a while, I say, rising to my defense.
I see you everyday.
How, I almost say, and realize what he means and keep my mouth shut.
Didn’t you see me, he asks, almost expressing incredulity.
I can’t say everyday. But it is not as if I had forgotten you. There are things to occupy one’s mind. Life is not a bed of roses.
I never said it wasn’t, he says, with some irritation.
Our coffee and tea arrive. The waiter wipes the table before setting the tray down. I ask for cookies.
When did this happen? I say, stirring my already stirred coffee, groping to settle his mind, and to calm my own.
Last week, he says. It is nothing new. I have lost five jobs before. But this was sudden. I didn’t know how to take it, he says.
No one does, I say.
He shakes his head. I did, he says. At one time.
We are growing old, I say.
He sips his tea.
Indra had called me from a public telephone booth. He said he got my number from my wife. I had not recognized his voice. It had been more than seven years, after all. When I finally did, I felt strange talking to him through a piece of plastic and metal. He explained the situation, said he wanted to talk to me, and told me to meet him near the LIC building.
We are quiet for a while.
I did not know whom to talk to, he said, finally. I had your number in my pocket. But I didn’t really wish to call. But I did want to see you. Just like that. I didn’t want to walk in the streets aimlessly. I didn’t want to feel tired again. One can’t lose like this.
I kept quiet. As I always did. I was the silent one. He was the one who did the talking, the thinking. I absorbed or corrected. I met Indra in the last year of school. He came from another school and was immediately unwelcome in our class. He was outspoken and loud and boorish but intelligent. Needless to say, he gravitated towards his natural fate of being an outcaste. I was the only one he could speak to in class. I sat at the back of the class and he sat at the front. During recess, we would move awkwardly towards each other like ships on mid sea trying to avoid a collision. We ate our lunch, cold and unwelcome as it was, wrapped in newspaper in steel lunch boxes, with relish. I can’t remember what he used to talk about but he did talk. Of world politics, nuclear physics, of Israel and Palestine, of books, fiction, poetry. I had to keep nodding all the time. He talked fast, almost choking at his food at times. After recess we would go back to our respective seats in class and sheepishly say goodbye at the end of the day.
I had not realized how close I had grown to him till the day he fell on a barbed wire and shred his arm. Indra was big and clumsy and not as nimble footed as I was. We were crossing a ditch next to a field and he slipped and fell over, his head hitting a bamboo pole and his arms stuck and flailing on a number of jutting metal barbs. I felt a rush of pain in myself. His arm was a criss-cross of blood and flesh. I was frantic and didn’t know what to do. I kept hopping about him. Indra calmed me down with some difficulty and he made me take him home. I went to his home regularly as he recovered. To my surprise I found his parents to be quiet and measured and totally unlike him. Indra was the only person who read books in his home. He had an elder sister who had been married off. Indra’s father worked in a post office and his mother was a housewife. They struggled with the inflation and Indra had to eke out a living off scholarships.
We went to college together. We would catch a crowded bus that lurched through the streets to our institution of learning. There we sat in the same class –me in the back, Indra in the front – and gave the same exams and got radically different results – Indra always topping and I would be in the middle of the class – and we had the same worries and the same ambitions and the same hopes and the same desires. Indra cared for me but he would never show it and I cared for him and showed it in abundance. Indra was an outcaste in college too. He knew too much and didn’t care for any authority.
I remember the last day of college. It was hot and windy and Indra was smoking on top of that. He had picked up this habit from some of his other friends. Our results were out. Indra had come second, something rare in his life. We were sipping tea in a canteen. My heart was in my mouth. Our days of carefree abundance were over. I felt a strange pull for him, as if I wanted to etch this scene in memory. I felt a sense of loss, of ruin. Indra was talking with abandon about the political situation in South Africa. I wanted him to shut his mouth and realize the importance of the moment. When were we going to meet again? How was our friendship going to go on? Didn’t he think about all this? Indra didn’t seem to care less. He just talked, his voice booming and rising and falling, depending upon the nature of the topic he was holding forth on. I felt twisted and wasted inside, appalled at his indifference, wishing to remind him of the reality facing us.
Indra’s parents moved from their place, much farther away, to the outskirts of the city, and so did Indra.
We met once or twice again, but briefly. I have fleeting memories. Indra would be in a hurry and would ask, as if I had been a passing acquaintance, how I was and what I was upto. I knew what he was feeling and kept my counsel. We were both applying for jobs, typing out applications, making shabby CVs, lying to ourselves of our own abilities, standing in lines, waiting for buses, reading the Employment News regularly, the summer grinding us down all the time.
After we would found work, we didn’t meet again. It was impossible to imagine what we would talk about. We didn’t tell each other when we married. It was like an embarrassing social need, fulfilled and forgotten. We had been slotted into our places in society and we didn’t wish to believe that.
I thought this job was in my pocket, he said. Would last ten years or so. Real Insurance of sorts. Nothing to worry about. You know the feeling. Plus I kept my big mouth shut. I was getting along really well. And then this lay off. Out of the blue.
I have faced it myself. Don’t worry, things will be fine. I have changed three jobs by now. One was a lay off. It’s just like that.
It doesn’t look like things are working out anymore. There are more unemployed now. More ready to work for less wages.
It is not good to remember the truth on such occasions, I say.
Ah…true, true.
Better to be blind and think that all will be well, I added.
But the situation looks bleak. I just felt helpless. So I stepped in to that damned public booth and called. Talking to you will refresh my mind, I thought.
I hope it did.
We both laughed.
We should have met more often, he said.
Have you applied to some other companies, I said, trying to keep sentiment away for a moment.
He shrugged. No.
Why not?
Don’t know. Can I smoke here?
I think you can.
He lit a cigarette. He took three drags at it.
I will, he began again. I mean, I will apply. I lose jobs as quickly as I gain them. At times I lose heart.
Is everything ok at home?
Yeah. Father’s sick. Ma is fine but I don’t tell her about all my worries. She still thinks I work for Ajanta Clocks, a job I had five years ago. My wife is equally ignorant. You haven’t seen my kid. He is quite a boy. He takes after me. Already beginning to read well and all that. I live one life outside and another inside.
I haven’t got a kid, I admitted.
All the same, really.
How long can you last like this?
Not long really. There is the school fees and all that.
He laughed all of a sudden.
What on earth are we talking about? He said. Tell me how you have been.
You can see for yourself.
You are pretty much the same. A little dragged down like all of us. But the same as ever.
Do you read?
Yeah, mags mostly. Sometimes a book or two. Work is hard at times. What about you?
Well, not really. Maybe ten books a year.
You keep a count! Yeah, you always did. I forgot.
You have some white hair.
You have more, he retorted.
My wife does not think so.
She is lying to you.
Does your wife comment on your white hair?
No, not really. She is like you, keeps silent.
The evening’s a bit cooler now, he said. We can walk out.
He had finished his tea. I had barely touched my coffee. He didn’t care about that. There was an awkward moment when I had to say I would pay and he looked at me sternly. But he let me pay.
Electric traffic lit the streets. The sky was fighting to retain some color before blackout. He walked with his head bent and his eyebrows narrowed. I can feel the turmoil in his mind. The stab of thoughts coursing around in his head.
I do not know what he will do. I think he will do something. I feel the bruises he has on him, afresh, the ripped flesh, and the cut of the barbed wire. I feel the pain and wince myself.
I see Indra’s head hit the bamboo pole. I see the metal barbs. I see him writhing with pain.
He will recover again, I think. I will go to him and sit down by his side everyday. I will finish office early and go to his home. We will start again and see where things go from there. Indra the big partner, me the small partner. We will talk to our hearts’ content. There is much I have to say. Of how the years went by and what I learnt - in my own creeping fashion – and what I enjoyed and what I wept over. Indra will talk too. He will smoke and talk and this time I won’t mind his smoking. I am overcome with joy at this thought and feel helpless like a child again.
Then I leap into reality with a start.
Indra is shouting into my ear.
My bus is here. My bus is here. I have got to go.
Are you all right, he asks, with some concern.
I want to say No, but I say Yes.
He leaps on to the bus. The bus has low lights in it to hide the crowd inside.
Typical of him, he does not say goodbye.

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