This Man- a short story
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This Man- a short story

There is a stench in the air as if something is putrefying

This Man- a short story

The following story has been witten by Vivek Sachdeva. Vivek is a professor at the University School of Humanities and Social Sciences, GGSIP University, New Delhi. He is also the author of Fiction to Film: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's The Householder and Heat and Dust. 

“It has been more than two hours. I have been sitting here. I have taken three cups of coffee and spilled one. I should get out of this place. This place is not so exciting. After all, how many cups of coffee can I…? This place is so suffocating. After all, how much time can one spend here?”

With these thoughts, this man gets up giving money to the man at the counter. He is not very elegantly dressed. The middle-aged man has a rough beard. His dark blue shirt is not properly tucked in. The leather belt around his waist is loosely buckled. When he walks his trousers tend to slip down, which makes him look clumsy. Taking unsure steps, he leaves the café.

This man climbs down the stairs. On the walls of the stairs, there are red stains of pan juice spit by people who preferred to use corners, stairs and walls as spittoons, announcing to the world that they were here. Taking haggard steps he climbs down the stairs. The staircase is not so well-lit, nor is it wide enough to accommodate more than two people at a time. This man walks down slowly using the wall to get the required support. As he steps out of the staircase, he walks through a narrow lane and enters the main market area where he encounters a crowd of people. Markets in Dwarka, a sub-city of Delhi, are designed like that.

Each market in this area is two-storeyed or three-storeyed, with a box on the top of another box. There are narrow staircases or lifts to join the ground floor with the shops on the first floor and the second floor. Corridors in front of the shop are generally crowded. This man struggles hard not to bump into anybody. 

“This is so stifling! It is difficult to breathe here comfortably. What kind of hell is this place! Water is brackish. Air is polluted. There is a stench in the air as if something is putrefying. And people...the lesser said the better. Look at the way they behave. Arrogant! Proud! Men with bloating egos. 

“They don’t think before they spend. Most of them are either entering showrooms of apparels or they are entering restaurants. In this entire block of market, there is not even a single shop of books, or music or anything else of recreational interest. Buy clothes, look fancy, eat at a good restaurants, and feel good. That’s what you can do here. People are happy doing this. They all are so happy.”

This man walks down the market for some time and stops. He looks up at shops and then he looks at himself.

 “What would people be thinking of me? I don’t think I leave a good impression on them. They must be thinking I am an old  man, given to drinking. But I don’t drink. Why should they think like that? Do I look a drunkard? But I don’t drink? Do they know that? But they will think that I am a drunkard. I do leave such an impression on people, I think. They must be finding me weird or jerk…Maybe, they are not wrong. Perhaps I am a bit weird. Look at the way I dress up. I do not have anything great, no fancy clothes to wear, no good car to drive. I don’t wear a perfume to suppress the stench around us. There is a stench. Yes, there is. Everybody knows. Everybody knows there is a stench in the air. People wear nice perfumes to smother it. But I don’t. Something rots. What’s it? I don’t know, but something is wrong somewhere.”

People around him are walking.  This man is standing there alone. This man looks around and tries to read people’s expressions on their faces. 

“Look at them. They look so happy. Everybody looks so happy. It seems everybody knows what they are doing…where they are going…which shop or which showroom to enter. They know what to buy. They know what to eat and where to eat. They have such tremendous clarity. Look at that couple. So confidently they have entered the showroom. No doubt in their minds. No hesitation in their steps. 

“Oh, no. I shouldn’t be looking at people. It is rude. They say it is considered rude these days. It is called intrusion into people’s private space. Intrusion! Right to privacy! We all have our rights these days. A right to every small thing, but…”

A dog barks – bow…wow. This man gets scared and moves a little further. The dog is persistent. It continues to bark at him. This man moves a little further and then starts walking a little faster. The dog follows him for some time and then decides to leave him alone. This man feels that his heart is pounding a little faster. This man gathers himself. He has hardly taken a few steps.

A car honks. 

This man is once again shaken from within. This man startles and looks at the car running fast. He is almost on the edge of the road.

“How come people drive so fast? They have no respect for rules. Nobody follows rules these days. These people driving big flashy cars… they think they are the lords of the roads. Yes, they are no less than lords. Feudal lords of modern times!
“Feudal lords! Yes, that’s what people are. Look at my boss. A highly educated man, but he behaves like a feudal lord. He treats his subordinates like dirt. He is heading a very busy branch of a famous bank; but the way he behaves. My goodness! He treats his staff like his slaves. No respect for anybody. No respect for human beings. He frequently shouts at them. He swears often while talking to them. The F word is his favourite word while talking to his colleagues, even women. 

“The other day he was using the F word while talking to a female colleague. He used it more than five times in a minute. When she objected to it, he said, ‘What are complaining you about? You keep your fucking mouth shut and do your fucking job.’ Everything is fucking these days. What a fuck! Everything is fucked up. That’s what it is like. The office, the boss, the market…everything is fucked up.”

This man stumbles. It is getting dark. The traffic lights glow from a distance. Traffic lights get refracted due to the fog. The crossing changes its colours like a discotheque. Red. Green. Yellow. Red. Honking adds the sound effect to it. He is unable to decide which vehicle makes more noise. It is so loud that he cannot differentiate the sound of one vehicle from the other. The sound is getting louder and louder. He is terrified. He is so terrified that he is not able to take the next step. This man stops. He wants to catch his breath. There is stench in the air.

A hefty man jostles him. Without offering a word of apology, as social courtesy would have demanded, he keeps on walking. This man looks at the man who has almost elbowed him away, without saying sorry to him.

“No courtesies. No manners. Rudeness is the new normal these days. People don’t believe in showing courtesies these days. What times are we living in? No one shows respect to anybody. It is the powerful, strong people that rule every walk of life. Bastard! They are the filth of this society. I wish I could correct them. I…I…But can I? Am I capable of doing anything? Am I capable of changing this world…this system or these people? I don’t think so. I am not able to change a couple of my colleagues and my boss in the office. I can’t even stop a dog barking at me. How can I? What am I capable of? Nothing. I adjust. I adjust everywhere. That’s what I do. I adjust. I go to a café. I don’t get a seat of my choice. I adjust. I place an order. I am told that my favourite coffee is not available today. I adjust. I am not happy with the boss at my office. My colleagues tell me to adjust. I am a bank officer, but I work like clerks. I am advised to adjust. I can’t even ask my peon to do his job properly. I adjust. How could I ask that man to offer to me an apology? Where is he? Where has he gone?”

This man looks for him in the crowd.

“Does it make any difference now? He is gone. He was so arrogant, and brazen, and brash. I could not even ask him to offer me an apology for having pushed me like that. That big brawny man! He is gone. Uncouth! Rascal!”
Standing there on the footpath, this man mumbles for some time, throwing cuss words in a low voice at the man who has just elbowed him. As this man is mumbling, his rough beard moves up and down a bit. It looks more inept than before. Though nobody pays him any attention. This man thinks he is giving that ruffian a just treatment. This man stands there for some time as if his feet were frozen. He can’t gather enough strength to move his feet. He stands there for some more time. People around this man are walking.

“Everybody is walking with such impeccable precision. They get out of their cars, take quick paces and enter a shop. Wearing smart dresses, nice shoes and fashionable glasses, they look so sure of themselves. Look at that man. He must be in his early fifties. He looks so fit. Look at the way he walks. I can guess his accent and his voice – a mixture of guttural and adenoidal. Accent! His accent! A show-off! He is an artificial man, I am sure. Does he stutter? No, I don’t think so. He won’t. Why should he? He looks smart. Look at the pace in his steps. He will enter that big apparel showroom and buy an expensive pair of trousers for himself. He won’t think twice before throwing away money. He doesn’t have to. The way he walks, I don’t think he worries about money. He doesn’t have to bother how much he spends tonight. After buying a pair of trousers, he will enter another showroom. 

“Nothing is right. Things are not where they are supposed to be. People are not where they are supposed to be. Nothing seems to be at its place. These people. These shopkeepers. These street vendors. Even I. Where am I? Am I at the right place? Am I where I am supposed to be? What’s wrong with the world? Or is it I ….The way I spilled coffee up there in the café, I don’t know whether I was holding the cup the wrong way or its design was a bit odd. It just slipped. It was difficult to hold the cup straight. I remember the way the café manager looked at me. I looked stupid. Ludicrous. A stupid jerk.
“Yeah! That’s what she thought of me when she dumped me. A stupid jerk! Why? Because I didn’t buy her flowers when she was expecting me to; or I didn’t make love to her when she wanted me to. I didn’t because…I didn’t want to. I can’t force myself to do it. She didn’t try to understand my viewpoint. She just left me, calling me frigid, frosty and a stupid jerk. I am not…I am not frosty. I am not icy cold. I am ….I am…ummm…ummm…Am I? Am I really…? Why didn’t I stop her? I couldn’t. Do I miss her, or not? Do I feel, or not? 

“Nothing is right with the city. Nothing. The garbage mound outside the city is growing. There are plastic bags, empty cans in the rubbish. Empty cans of branded juices, bear, chips packets, plastic garbage bags – everything is decaying. It is increasing in size. The garbage mound is growing up! The garbage mound is growing up! It is a bad ugly place. Full of stench. Why don’t they do anything about it? Everything is rotting. Its stench is getting stronger. I can smell the stench from here. They should do something about it. There is stench in the air. I can feel it on my skin. I am getting dirty. It is disgusting. So disgusting!”
This man moves his head a little. This man realizes that he hasn’t moved a bit. He lifts his foot up a bit and puts it down trying to push himself forward. The other foot listens to the command of the first foot and reluctantly moves from there. This man walks taking shaky unsteady steps. This man is trying to give a direction to his feet. His feet seem to be protesting against walking. This man takes a couple of more uncertain steps. He is placing his foot flat on the ground to ensure not to stumble. Taking tentative steps, this man begins to walk without knowing where to go. 

This man looks at the traffic light. Green, Red, Yellow, Red. Changing colours almost dazzle him. This man is not able to decide which light to respond to – Red, Yellow or Green. This man is not able to decide which road to take to go home. 

Home! 
Where is home? Does this man know?

This man turns around. He is standing in front of the Parliament House. As he moves towards the Parliament House, it folds inward from the middle and moves back. As he moves forward, the Parliament House moves backwards. He tries to touch it. The more he tries to touch it, the more it moves away from him. He looks at the building. It looks fine, but he cannot touch it. He cannot enter. 

“How come I am not able to touch it? How come I am not able to enter? What’s wrong with it?” This man wonders.

There is a strong stench here as well. He can’t bear the smell. Dark clouds are engulfing the Parliament House. It is moving away from him. He takes another step to enter. The Parliament House turns into the Supreme Court. He tries to enter. Its both sides start vibrating. This man is scared. As he walks through the building. He can see the court is in session. The speaker of the Lower House is asking members to behave themselves. ‘Order! Order!,’ says the Judge. He tries to speak, but nobody listens to him. He tries to touch one of the politicians. When he extends his hand, it runs through his body. He is perplexed. This man is doing his best to get attention. He wants to be heard. 

“Sir, listen. Listen to me, please. It stinks. Things out there…There is a stench everywhere.”

Nobody listens to him.

“Bhai Sahib! Sir! Please listen to me. There are things I want to tell you. Please listen to me.”
Nobody responds. 

He turns around. The Judge of the Supreme Court is saying, ‘Order! Order!!’ 

“Where is the Speaker of the House?” this man wonders.

 This man is baffled. There is complete chaos in the House. Nobody is listening to anybody. The stench is getting stronger. It is difficult to breathe in there. He feels suffocated. He runs out of the House like a mad man. He comes out from the other side of the Supreme Court. The stench is very strong here as well. He runs fast from there and bumps into an electricity pole. 

‘Vroom!’ 

A motorbike goes past him. 

This man is taken aback.

“Where has the Parliament House gone? What happened to the Supreme Court? How come I am back in the market? Why couldn’t I touch anything there? Why didn’t anybody listen to me? Why was it moving behind as I was trying to touch it? But….but…….Where…? Was the Supreme Court here? No, it is not…What is happening? I can’t comprehend.”

Confused, this man tries to walk. He is not sure where to go.
Another dog barks at him.

“Parliament House…Parli…a…ment House….Yes, house. Where is my house?”

Puzzled, this man looks around in all directions. He is not clear where to go. Traffic lights are constantly changing. Red, Green, Yellow and Red. Their colour is getting refracted because of the fog at night. He is standing there on the edge of the road. He has no idea where to go. Nobody pays him attention. Nobody sees this ordinary man standing there. There is strong stench in the air. 

 

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