I know that you probably won’t believe me, I wouldn’t blame you. No one in their right mind would believe a guy who hangs out with a bunch of drug-addicts and losers and does nothing all day.
You'd probably laugh it off, shoo me away like you would wave off a beggar child with dried snot sticking out of his nose, the smirk on your face that might as well have said "your brain's gotten soft druggie boy. You imagined the whole thing."
Maybe you might give me a lecture on how bad drugs are. How even ganja is not okay, even though it comes from plants.
But here's the thing, even though all my buddies are high most of the time from ganja, cheap home-brewed alcohol, and that stuff they inject into themselves - I am clean.
Well sure, I have tried the desi booze a couple of times, and when in the mood I do smoke a bidi or two, but that's it...Never did any of the hard stuff myself - no weed, no heroin, no nothing. Probably even cleaner than you privileged chutiyas.
But reputation matters, you are probably the office going kind, have a family, maybe even own a house; and if you say that I am full of shit, then everyone would believe you.
It's okay, that's how things are, I can't change any of that, all I can do is put my story out there, and leave it to you, if you want to believe it or not.
Now Vishram society lane is fine by the day, school kids wandering about, fleets of autos lined up to refuse people, vegetable vendors with their carts, housewives in nightgowns arguing with the said vegetable vendors over onion prices.
And of course, us.
Sitting right by Chaurasia Paan House, you would find me and the gang, doing absolutely nothing.
And since you have smelled the strong smell of weed or country liquor as you walked by us, you must have assumed that along with Vishnu, Chhote and Iqbal, I too must have been high.
Can't really blame you there.
And of course had you cared to find out, the 4 of us did stay at the same chawl, so why should I be any different?
The difference was I actually made an honest living. Well more honest than those other three anyway.
See, when the clock strikes 12 in the night and your neighbourhood stores pull down their shutters, it’s then that I walked out to your rescue, with my trusty cycle and metal canister, selling tea, cigarettes, chocolate drinks, and if you asked the right questions, maybe even some of the hard stuff.
You probably have bought things from me, stopping your car long enough to buy your goods, never noticing my face or the surroundings, you drive in a car after all, you zoom past buildings and trees and other things, keeping your eyes on the road.
But if you were in my place, standing beside a rickety cycle on Vishram Society Lane daily from 12 in the night to 4 in the morning, you would probably start respecting me and my kind. At least a little.
Now I have been in this business for five years now, and I am still not used to it.
Let me elaborate.
Till 1.30am, there are enough cars and people on the road, folks returning to their homes, respectable people like you, drunkards, rag pickers, call centre fellows, and girls you wouldn’t introduce to your mother.
After that though, mostly nothing.
You know how they say that this city never sleeps? It’s true. But you can barely tell that it’s awake.
The cars and people gradually vanish, but not entirely. There are still cars that pass the street, but it’s rare, there are still people walking by, but only an odd one or two.
And that’s when the surroundings get to you. That’s when you start feeling colder than usual.
You start to note the little things, like how the street lights, in spite of their brightness, leave so many things in the dark. How it’s not exactly as quiet as it should be, how rats make so much noise by rummaging through the garbage and piles of leaves that are collected on the sides of the roads and still manage to be unseen.
And you wonder......are those really rats?
You look up at the buildings, their lights all turned off, and then you spot a window from which the glow of a solitary bulb shines through. This is comforting to you until you spot another window from which someone seems to have been watching you, the figure disappears as soon as you catch its sight, in panic you look back at the window which had brought you relief, but the light is off now.
Sometimes you get the feeling that someone or something is standing behind you, but when you look, of course, there’s nothing.
On other days, you are convinced that there’s someone behind you and on those days you don’t turn back to look. Too afraid of what you would end up seeing.
The dogs growl at things you can’t see, and then they whimper and run away, their tails tucked between their legs.
And there’s that other thing.
I hear footsteps from around the corner of the street. The click-clack of shoes or pitter-patter of chappals gradually become louder and just as I hope to see a potential customer emerging – it stops. There’s no one there.
It is terrifying; everything about the night and my work is terrifying. And I haven’t gotten used to it over time, and never will.
If this hadn’t been the easiest way for me to make money, I would have done something else, long back.... but it’s only at these ungodly hours that you can sell a 15 rupee cigarette for 18 rupees, a cup of chai that otherwise costs 5 bucks during the day, you can get away with selling for 10 bucks and no one would even care.
And so I carried on.
Till 22nd April, 2017.
I don’t even know when my birthday is, but I don’t think I will ever forget the 22nd of April.
The night was almost over and I shook my canister to check how much milk was left; estimating that I could still sell three or four cups, I decided to wait a while longer. My phone told me it was 3:15.
One of my regulars showed up – he frequented mostly on weekends, I knew he stayed nearby because he walked to my place, he was in his mid-20s and looked like the office going sort.
“Cigarette pila do yaar Mohan bhaiya.”
"Milds na, Aman sir?" I asked him, he nodded with a smile, “aaj pura din sutta nahin maara”, his eyes returned to his phone, and then he added “Coffee bhi dena” as an afterthought.
I stepped back to get the coffee when I heard the roar of a car’s engines and almost instantly saw it – a car swerving down the street at an alarming speed, the windows were up but the muffled music could still be heard over the engine.
I knew it was trouble the second I saw it, but it was one of the things that you can’t look or step away from. You have to see it even when you know that it might not end well. From the corner of my eye, I could see that Aman was looking at the car too.
The driver lost control as the car climbed the footpath, and even though it probably couldn’t have taken more than a couple of seconds, I recall the scene in excruciating detail.
The car missed the cycle narrowly and crashed into my customer. It happened so quickly that he didn’t even have the time to scream.
I heard the crunching of bones momentarily and then the sound blended into other sounds as the car crashed into a tree barely 10 feet away, pinning Aman to its trunk.
The hood of the car had given away and the windshield was completely shattered. The head of the driver poked out, shards of glass stuck all over it. His fancy golden yellow shirt was rapidly turning crimson, and of course, he wasn’t moving.
I couldn’t tell if there were anyone else in the car, and frankly, wasn’t thinking about it either.
A mass of flesh resembling a human body was what was left of Aman.
Yo yo honeyyy singhhhhhhhhhhh.
Now that everything else had gone quiet, the music from the car’s speakers was the only sound in the vicinity.
And then came the smell - the overpowering and nauseating smell of blood. I had seen accidents before but never from this close, and my legs almost gave away, I could have fainted then and there but I somehow managed to collect everything and cycled away as fast as I could. It was a lesson I had learnt soon after I had come to this city and it had served me well many times - anything goes wrong, don’t be the hero, run like your life depended on it.
And so I cycled to my chawl, woke the others and told them everything, they laughed when they saw how I was shaking and when they realised what I had been through they told me that I had done the right thing and offered me a bidi.
I had the bidi and then smoked a couple of my own cigarettes.
It’s simple, Chhote told me, just don’t sell your things at that spot for a week, if the cops come to ask you questions tell them that you weren’t there because you had a fever.
Then they went to sleep again.
The incident did make its way to page 6 of an English newspaper after two days, no pictures though, the man inside the car was alone, so just two casualties. I also found out that Aman sir had lied to me about being from Delhi, like me he was a Bihari.
I stayed indoors like my friends advised, reliving the incident again and again.
On the third day, the police showed up, it’s amazing how good the police can be when they want to. They asked me a few questions, I told them about my fever, maybe they took pity on me because even though I didn’t appear convincing with my alibi, they figured that there was no use in pestering me.
Now here’s where you say that while the incident may have traumatized me, it wasn’t an unusual story. Bade bade shehro mein aisi chhote chhote baatein hote rehta hai.
Yes, the incident had shaken me up, and I couldn’t help but think of Aman, he was no friend, but he had been buying cigarettes from me for years...I knew the man.
But I was in the city to make money.
And so, in spite of everything, in ten days I was back to my business like nothing had happened, the bruised tree trunk apart there were no other signs of the accident. It was as if the city had lifted a rug and brushed two human beings underneath it. Their lives weren’t important enough to matter.
But, bade bade shehro mein aisi chhote chhote baatein hote rehta hai. And I all but forgot the accident in a couple of more weeks.
Of course the place was creepy, but it had always been like that.
22nd May, 2017.
As Sunday turned into Monday, I recalled that it had been one month. And for a moment I even felt sad for Aman, and angry at the other man, whose name was mentioned in the newspaper, but I had forgotten.
Just another night.
I had all but dozed off when a familiar voice got me out of my slumber...with a jolt.
“Cigarette peela do, Mohan bhaiya...”
It was him. Wearing the same blue shirt, the same glasses, the same smile and the same slightly crooked teeth.
I gasped for air and felt that I was going to lose my consciousness.
It would have probably been better if I had.
He stepped closer, the light from the streetlight confirmed that it was Aman.
“Bahut dino se peeya nahin hu” he said and licked his lips. He looked sad.
And then with some hesitation, he said, “Aur haan, coffee bhi dena....do”, he showed two fingers.
And that’s when I saw it.
Aman hadn't come alone.
Standing right beside me was another man, and while I couldn’t recognise him by face, I knew I had seen that shirt before, and I knew where I had seen it before.
Trembling, I left my cycle, my canister of milk, I left everything and ran, refusing to look back.
So that was it. I don't care if you believe it or not. All I ask is for a piece of advice. Be honest. Do you think it's safe for me to continue selling my things from that spot? You see, there's no other place nearby.
Image from....my phone's camera.