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    Volume 11 |Issue 32| August 10, 2012 |


 Inner Voices
 Eid Mubarak
 The Man who would  not Die
 The Cormorant's  Blood
 The Watchers
 Eid Mania
 Untitled Confessions
 If a Sea has Nowhere  to Go
 Ebri Mourning Visit
 Found Poem
 Big Brother

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Zafar Anjum


One evening in mid-August, Ben and Asif, having eaten their dinner, stand outside a restaurant in Little India. Ben lights up his Dunhill and they watch the traffic in the street. It's thronging with shoppers and tourists and Indian and Bangladeshi labourers. There is a screen of smoke between them and the evening air is slightly warm. It is around 7:30 and the sky is already pitch dark, as if the evening forgot to stretch itself a bit longer and hurriedly passed into the night.

In amusement, Asif thinks about the highlight of the dinner—a cockroach that was climbing up the wall behind Ben's chair. Not a very rare incident in restaurants in this neighbourhood. When Ben had spotted the roach, he had instinctively taken out his lighter and pointed the flame at the poor creature. It had scurried crazily over the wall. Some diners had stopped chewing their food. They looked at Ben's act with puzzlement. Others looked at him with disgust.

An old Chinese man manning the cash register saw what was going on (What was a Chinese man doing working in a Bangladeshi restaurant?). He had made a dash to their table with a paper napkin in hand and had picked up the terrified crawly and thrown it away into a dustbin. “Thanks,” the Chinese man had said nervously; he must have been feeling apologetic about the discovery of a roach in his establishment.

“Are you zoning out, Asif?” Ben asks him, taking a puff.
“I was thinking about the cockroach.”

“Ah ha ha.” They laugh like mindless teenagers. “I wanted to burn that motherfucker to death!” Ben giggles, gesticulating with his cigarette.

“You nearly succeeded, Uncle Bhakcu!” Asif tries to joke.

Uncle Bhakcu is a violent, wife-beating character out of V S Naipaul's Miguel Street. Ben likes that character a lot. Ben smiles at his joke and exhales a thick cloud of smoke. Then he cranes and cranks his neck from side to side. He does that to calm down his nervous jitters. He is on anti-depressants.

“You all right, Ben?”
“There is a pain in my neck and shoulders.”
“You need to take rest, man.”
“I guess so.”
“Have you been missing your exercise regimen?”
“Yeah, I've not been well for a week now. Missing my tai chi—I guess that adds to it.”
“You go home, curl in your bed with a book and fall asleep. Will you do that?”
“Yeah, I've been trying to do that. I read the first page from A House for Mr Biswas last night.”
“How was it? You haven't read it since college, have you?”

“It was great. Such fun! But I don't think I can go into it again. When I first read it, I was consumed by its images and characters for days!”

Asif nods and nods. He knows what Ben means. Naipaul has this effect on some people.

“You know what?” Asif says, “I recently read his Guerrillas and don't think I will be able to shake off its images for a long time—the scenes from a small country's airport, the unlucky English girl and her lover, the dirt roads, Thrashcross Grange, the kisses and the sex, and the final act of betrayal with a cutlass. It's great.”

“Yeah, I know.” Ben should know. Asif had borrowed his copy of Guerrillas.

The two friends fall silent for a while. Ben finishes his smoke and crushes the butt in an open rubbish bin. Then they start walking towards Ben's car.

“Don't you feel lonely ever?” Asif asks him. His wife and kid live away from him, in Canada. “How can one live alone without losing one's sanity?” Asif feels they are kindred spirits. He is looking for a word of assurance from his friend. His wife and daughter have been away in India for months now. I feel the two of us are the same, he thinks. If you put us together, side by side, and look long and hard upon us, you will see two empty cylinders filled with loneliness … and a lot of gas.

“You get used to it,” Ben says, getting into the car. Asif sits next to him. “An afternoon of loneliness is actually great after a five-day work week. I would even resent if someone planned something for a Saturday afternoon.”

“What about two or three lonely afternoons?”
“Well, that's bad,” he says, starting the engine.
“Yeah, I would think so too.”

“But it is good for you, isn't it?” He looks at Asif from the corner of his eyes. Then he glances in the rear-view mirror and starts backing up the car from the parking spot to get onto the street. The street is crowded with Indian and Bangladeshi foreign workers, so he is slow and careful in maneuvering the car.

“Why should it be good for me? I get damn bored sometimes. I miss my family.”

“But you can write your poems in solitude. Isn't that what you want to do?”

“Yes, I do want to write, but not all the time. I write maybe two to three hours everyday, usually early in the morning. The rest of the day is boring for me. How much can you read or how many films can you watch in your living room?”

How can I tell him how difficult it is to write sometimes? Asif ponders in silence. When I think of this, the image of the maid from the play 'Boeing Boeing' pops up in my mind's window. 'It's not easy'—that was her laugh line.

When I wake up in the morning and try to write, after driving off the remnants of sleep from my eyes, the process is slow to start—like a soggy or damp matchstick that refuses to light up. Sometimes it even snaps into two.

But when the writing flows, I am thankful to Allah. It's a beautiful feeling—like catching those beautiful butterflies when you were a child. When you have written well, it is the same feeling of joy that you get when you catch glimpse of an elusive rainbow that appears in the sky for a while and, by the time you call your friends to watch along, it begins to fade away. Sometimes it completely disappears. After a good day's writing, you feel light and powerful and there is a sense of time well-spent.

But then after having read Monsieur Orwell, it all turns into a heavy melancholy.

“Naipaul could. You can do the same now that you are alone.” A cover image of Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone flashes in Asif's mind.

“But Naipaul had talent,” he protests.
“But how do you know you don't have talent? Even Naipaul was not sure when he started, was he?”

“Well, isn't it obvious in my case? And Naipaul—I think he not only knew he had talent, but he made sure that everyone in his native place knew that he had talent.”

Ben chuckles and drives on. He changes lanes to gain on other speeding vehicles. “So where do you want to go?” he asks. They are now on Serangoon Road.

“Back to the lodgings. Where else?”
“Want to go Geylang?”

“What for?” Asif says, turning his face to him. “Someone was complaining of having a pain in the neck?”

“Screw the pain. It's the eve of National Day. There would be action there. You mind taking a look?”

“All right, Don Juan. Let's check it out as long as you can manage your pain.”

“I will manage,” he says and turns his car towards Geylang.

In a street corner hawker centre in one of Geylang's even-numbered lorongs, Ben and Asif choose a table to set up their perch. The table's surface is not glazed and it looks pallid and worn; actually, it's just a wooden board carved into a round shape and slapped over two pairs of iron legs.

The place is smelly and not well-lighted, but it is a location with a vantage point. They can see some action, some shooting—shooting of a different kind—from there.

The road is choked with parked cars and mini-trucks. Facing them, behind the line of automobiles, is a long line-up of Chinese hookers. Some stand in set positions while a few pound the pavement. They are dressed provocatively, keeping the body as bare as possible, not leaving too much to imagination. Under the dim light of the lamp posts, these girls try to entice and, if desperate, even pounce upon passers-by who leer at them. “Chee ma?” they purr, their lips opening softly. Sometimes they will just nod or wink at leery men or curve their lips in the manner of whistling. The bold ones will take a man's arm and sweet talk him into taking her to a hotel. “Massage, sir, massage,” she would say in a Chinese accent.

From their table across the road, they can see two petite Chinese prostitutes standing by an electric pole. Next to the Chinese girls, a very young chick in a Japanese schoolgirl uniform stands in the semi-darkness of a side alley. She must be about thirty metres away from their table, but still in good, clear sight.

Ben looks toward the girl in the alley. She is youngish, maybe around eighteen or so, and has a round, pale face and fringe-cut hair—they are not near enough to say for sure—but her rouged cheeks shine under a shaft of light. She stands there, fidgeting, trying to attract men who pass her by.

“Oh, look at her, look at her … oh mama!” Ben says, pointing at the girl, his eyebrows raised and his hungry mouth open. “She is in a sailor's uniform. I looove her, man!” he moans, his face dry like an autumn leaf, the reticulation on his pale yellow face strangely leeched of emotions.

Asif puts on a bemused smile, an idiocy-proof self-defence mechanism that gets activated when no meaningful response emanates from within him. The technique always works for him—perhaps others take it as a sign of comprehension and empathy, a cue saying, 'Yes mate, maybe I don't get you, or I have a different take on this matter, but I am sure with you.'

Unlike Ben, Asif has no idea about Japanese girls, or Japanese porn, or the sex toys from that mysterious country. He is a total novice in these matters.

Looking at the girls, his mind wanders off to a passage about a youngish, pale girl with a draggled, exhausted look in The Road to Wigan Pier. He had been reading George Orwell that weekend, so he sees everything with an Orwellian tint. Orwell's passage comes alive in his mind.

Orwell is on a train, moving through the outskirts of a town. At the back of a slum house, he sees a young woman kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste pipe, which was blocked. Orwell thinks about her and is hit by an epiphany: how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. She looks up at him as the train passes, and he sees her more closely: “She had a round, pale face, the usual exhausted face of a slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that 'It isn't the same for them as it would be for us,' and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her, understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

How different is this Chinese girl from the one Orwell saw in a different time and place? Asif thinks. From her face, it is difficult to tell if she knows well enough what is happening to her or what she is engaging in as a freelance sex worker in Geylang. Or maybe she does.

On the hawker centre's TV, there is news of heavy flooding in China—he sees the images of devastation on CCTV channel. Thousands have died. Does she come from one of those flood-ravaged provinces of China, he wonders. Has she lost someone there? Or is she thanking her stars that she is rather in bright and beautiful Singapore than in the land of the Great Wall, where there are more hookers than soldiers in the Liberation Army? What chance did she have in Beijing or Shanghai where scores of thousands of country girls like her descend on the streets or service the equally luckless construction workers in the lifeless barbershops of the city's hutongs? And like that girl in Wigan Pier, would she look forty when she turns twenty-five if she had stayed back in her own country? What would happen to her when she turns older? Wouldn't she be cast aside into the gutter like a used cigarette butt? Without a family, childless, poor and old, won't she be forced to work in a factory in China or clean the toilets in Shanghai's malls?

“She has got nice legs, man, hasn't she?” Ben says, his eyes lustful under his droopy eyelids.

Asif looks at the girl again. “Hmm …” A pause. “Why don't I feel anything like he does? Is something wrong with me?”

What constitutes a nice leg or a nice thigh, he wonders. Is there a standard? He doesn't know. He remembers a recent email from a friend who wrote to him after ten years. “You don't know how to appreciate women,” he had complained, based on his observations about him during their college days. But he could understand where this friend was coming from. In those days, he never thought much about women except when he had to touch himself. He was too worried about his future, about making a career for himself.

He looks at the crowd—a street charivari as a milling crowd of Indian and Bangladeshi construction workers, local students and old men gawk at the Chinese, Thai and Filipina hookers.

Ben puts his bum on a yellow plastic chair, a few inches from two huge rubbish bins, beside a bright red fire hydrant. Asif keeps standing nearby. He wants to get the drinks.

“What do you want to drink, Ben?”
“Anything…umm...” He thinks for a moment, looking away. “How about a hot Milo?”
“All right.”

Asif goes over to the drinks stall and orders drinks from the man at the counter. The man's skin is so loose, it seems flesh is hanging from his face. “Hot and cold drinks finish already,” says the old man, shaking his head. “Only have canned drinks,” he points out towards the glass-door refrigerator behind him. “Can?”

He looks toward Ben. “No hot Milo, man,” he shouts over the din. “They have only canned drinks. So how?”

“Then get me a 100 Plus,” Ben says after a thoughtful pause.

With two cans of isotonic drinks and straws, Asif returns to Ben and takes a seat. A faint stench emanates from the trash bins. They have no choice but to bear the miasma; theirs is the last available table in the café's smoking zone.

Ben takes a pack of Camels out of his shorts' pocket. They are Malaysian contraband. Two policemen in blue uniforms are on the beat. Placing the pack under the table, he cautiously takes a stick and passes the pack back in his pocket. He pulls the tabs on both the cans. “Thanks,” Asif says and watches Ben light up his cigarette. He takes a swig from the can and looks across the road.

He stares at the two girls right in front of them. They are short in height; one is dressed in green, the other one in red, catchy colours under the lamppost's bright lights. They have their hair cut short like school girls, and their dresses are so skimpy that much of their chest, back and thighs are exposed. When men pass them by, they try to engage them. Presently, the girl in red dress drinks water from a plastic bottle. The girl in green walks over to the pimp in tight pants sitting nearby on a chair. She says something into the man's ear; he thinks for a while and nods. Then he stands up from his seat, fiddles with his mobile phone and walks up and down the pavement.

“The girl in red is kind of cute,” Ben says, bellowing a plume of smoke. “She has a sweet face.”

“I guess so,” Asif says. The girls rather look like fisherwomen to me. They are baiting their charms to hook the next customer. The game is on; shooting has started.

“Yeah …”

The girl in green pulls a young Chinese man by his arm. They have a little chat and then she takes him away through the side alley. He sees her going down the alley. When will she be back? He tries to mentally time her movement. How long will she take?

“Don't you feel pity for them?” he asks Ben, sipping his drink.

“Yes, I do,” he says, craning his neck. His right thigh is crossed over his left. “Some customers treat them really badly.”

“Do they?”
“Yeah, sometimes they refuse to pay them. Remember the news a few months back? A man killed a hooker after she quarreled with him over payments.”

“Yes, I remember that. It was an Indian man who did that. He hid the dead body under the bed and called another hooker and had sex with her on the same bed.”

They shake their heads in disgust and exhale smoke.
“Compared to the Chinese girls, I don't see many Indian girls here. Why?” Asif stares at Ben.
“I don't know.”
“Maybe they are not that much in demand here.”
“Yeah, maybe.”
“Maybe their demand is in the Bollywood dance bars.”
“Could be. Yeah, quite possible.”

They have finished their drinks in silence, watching the scene unfolding in front of them. There's a drone of chatter from the nearby tables.

“All right,” Ben says. “Shall we go back now?”
“What do you mean? Don't you want to do something?”
“No, I can't.”
“You mean you won't?”
“I just can't. That's what I mean.”
“Then why did we come here?”
“To have a good time.”
“Did we have a good time?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Aren't you tempted?”

“No, thank God, no. I come here to check if I can hold back yet. Thank God I still can.”

When Ben drops Asif home, Asif thinks that their visit to Geylang that evening was somewhat Gandhian (Gandhi was once taken to a brothel where 'he stood dumb with shame' and 'came out just as I had gone in'). Then he thinks that if he ever, ever again goes near a prostitute, he would ask her, 'How do you feel? Do you feel like that girl in the Orwell book? Is it anything akin to prodding a stick up a blocked drain in the back alley of a slum?'

He kind of knows what her answer would be. He clucks his tongue and walks towards the elevator of his HDB block. He thinks about the flesh trade. He thinks it is a necessary evil of our times, like so many other things, including market capitalism. He presses the button of the elevator, and with a ding it opens and he gets inside its cage to go back to his loneliness.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2012