Percy Shroff woke up and wiped a thin layer of perspiration off his face. The ceiling fan above was silent, the bathroom light just as lifeless. Load shedding. He stumbled in to wash. The sputtering tap yielded up its treasure of cold, hard water – despite the rationing, a few hours of uninterrupted water supply prevailed in some parts of the city.
Half an hour later, dressed in a simple shirt and trousers, he locked up his flat and walked downstairs. The gated colony he lived in was one of the first private communities that had been nationalized and, not for the first time, he thanked the heavens that he had been back from his 4 years in the army just in time to be allotted a place. Many other former veterans – especially those that had been drafted into the army towards the end of the war – were returning to their homes to find that none of the benefits they were promised were actually available – the waiting lists were a mile and a half long.
As he walked out of the gate and down the street, he signed the register – all residents had to report in and out times, he was reminded by a misspelled sign at the gate – and noticed them again. For the third day in a row, the family sat on the pavement. A wretched girl, dirt covering the sores on her hands and face, a stone-faced mother and the burned father. His morbid curiosity pricked at him, as always. He wondered how those gruesome injuries were sustained, but he shrugged it off as he had the past three mornings. They showed no signs of having slept on the pavement, so they must have walked here to beg food and water from the residents. The guards ignored them; unless there was a complaint, it was unlikely there would be any reaction from those guardians of the peace.
Percy reached the abandoned Metro line with its proud, faded Public Works banner, announcing a finish date 9 years in the past. A constant source of amusement at the daily he worked for, the Metro provided some cheerful photographer with a front page item every year, on the anniversary of its much-vaunted pilot launch. A launch that had never happened and which probably never would, now.
It was already taken over by the homeless and the transients, the people in the waiting list for government housing, and those who could never hope to be on the list. The police and the reserves regularly tried to clear the clogged tracks and the hutments below the unfinished pylons but it was a halfhearted effort. Within a week, the maze of PVC and corrugated aluminum roofs would be visible from Percy’s balcony, and the sounds of humanity would resume their relentless cawing, like the crows that woke him each morning.
As he reached Andheri station, he swiped his Press card against the turnstile and walked in. There was a time when 7.45 am at Andheri meant a sweaty, jostling ride anywhere, as a 9-coach rake took a hundred thousand people from one end of the city to another. Now, there were about 50 people on the train and another 12 or 15 standing on the platform. Gone was the human noise and the bustle, replaced by a giant bank of flatscreens on each platform, blaring out the morning news. Each screen was tuned to one of the privately owned news channels, their airbrushed anchors frowning slightly as they read out the headlines.
The train arrived, an older model without the gleaming chrome-plated armored grills over the windows and Percy stood by the closed doors, alone in his compartment. He was a thin man, but had the ropy muscles that came with a hard diet of exercise and discipline. At Bandra, a couple got in and sat by the windows, but they soon joined him once the first gobs of refuse thrown from the slums on the tracks hit the girl, dirtying her blouse. She sobbed quiet tears while Percy looked on. The Doppler effect compressed the yells and hoots of the people outside, so they seemed like punctuation marks above the clacking of the rails, a sound Percy had grown up with, going to Wilson college at Charni road from his home in Dadar Parsi colony. He had been different then, he knew. Younger, more innocent. He would have helped the couple out a few years ago, he thought.
The short walk from Churchgate to Nariman Point was interrupted by the two checkposts which marked the Special Administrative Zone – a long line of pensioners stood by a window at the inner checkpoint – war veterans too old or infirm to work, collecting their ration points for the week. A short scuffle at the window broke out and the guards dispersed the impromptu mob as Percy’s pass was inspected. As always, his service card was tucked into the wallet across from the press pass, which ensured a speedy entry and a quick salute, which he had to fight not to return. Civvies now, he grinned inwardly.
At work, he lifted off the dustcover on his typewriter and tidied his desk. Thanks to the unreliable power, the city’s two remaining newspapers had switched back to setting type manually, without the benefit of computers or electronic presses. Strangely, most of the people who worked at the press preferred this, compared to the antiseptic process of computerized printing that was in place just a few years ago.
The slow fans droned overhead as Percy made his morning cup of coffee and sat down to finish the report he was working on; a bland retelling of a Bollywood party he’d attended the previous evening. It would make the afternoon edition, but without the little details, like the award winning actor who arrived with a stable of underage Asian girls in bikini tops and thongs, or the cocaine-fuelled spat between two producers over the digital distribution rights of the movie they had been making for the last 5 years – an epic drama about the war, it was mired in the red tape of government approvals from the Film Council for six months now, and with no end in sight. It took him about 15 minutes to get bored of the piece.
He went to the toilet and when he returned to his desk, he saw a photo on his desk from the party. Someone had obviously placed it there a few minutes ago. Mounted on Express backing paper, it showed himself, standing at the back of the room, smoking a cigarette and talking with one of the countless starlets who ended up at these things. The caption read, ‘Pampered Percy’s Private Pussy.’ He looked around and couldn’t see anyone. He put it into the trashcan under his desk. He was used to these petty pranks from most of the newsroom staff – they considered him privileged and spoilt, because he got to do cushy work and had access to the good life, while they did the real work of journalism – Percy couldn’t stand it. It’s not that the pranks are getting to me – it’s the fact that someone actually thinks they’ve got a hope in hell of doing some serious reporting around here! He resumed typing delicately, pecking at the keys, as the large newsroom filled up around him and he wondered who could be behind the picture and its silly caption.
“Did you hear about Sunil?” a voice said behind him. He turned to see Derek, the 58-year-old sports editor, behind him.
“Sunil? No… What happened?”
“Got caught in the curfew. He said he was on a story, but they dragged him off to Arthur road.”
“Was he what?”
“On a story”
“Fuck knows. He was probably on his way home from Lira’s house.”
“So now? Is Meenal going to do anything?”
“What do you think this is, the 90s? We’re sitting here with our gotas in our hands waiting for censor approval on your fluffy lifestyle pieces – what do you think a lowly editor can do these days, haan?”
Derek was warming up to his favorite topic and Percy needed a cigarette.
“Chal let’s go out for a sutta” he said.
“What about your deadline?”
“I have an hour; besides, nothing ever happens at these parties. I’ll use some of the copy from last time.”
From the narrow balcony outside the newsroom, Percy could see almost all of Marine Drive, right till the governor’s mansion, on the far end. The six-lane road was mostly empty, with traffic bunching up in front of police barricades that forced cars to go through in single file.
“I see our friends in khaki are at their job. It’s the end of the month already?” Derek observed, darkly, exhaling a long stream of smoke.
“You’re in such a good mood today.”
“I just look at this place and get mind fucked. These chutiyas have raped every good memory I have of this place. You know this is where I met Amrita?”
“Really? I thought you guys met in college?”
On the road, a small knot was forming at one of the barricades. One of the inspection teams had stopped a car. The men inside were made to get down and line up in front of a police van.
“We were both in Xavier’s, but we met here. I was on the cricket team; we used to practice at Wilson Gymkhana. You mercenary bastards would rent out your ground to anyone, so we used it and then trounced you every time. On the same field even!” The memory brought a short smile to Derek’s face.
As they looked on, one of the men in front of the police van tried to make a dash for the embankment, where the waves crashed below. Poor bastard. Even if he makes it over the edge, what’s he going to do once he’s in the sea? Swim to Dubai? Percy looked away at Derek, his smile missing now as they watched the man get clubbed over the head and dragged back to the van, senseless.
“So how did you meet her?”
“She was seeing the wicketkeeper, some Randolph or something. I forget. Bastard would drop anything you threw at him. He was showing her off to the team one day.”
“And then what? He dropped her also!” Derek laughed a short, dirty laugh, pleased with himself.
“That’s so sweet. Remind me never to introduce you to anyone I date.”
“Don’t worry, you have to first date someone!”
“Yeah whatever. Anyway tell me about Sunil.”
“What’s there to tell? I heard from Prakash, he took a call from some maaderchod at Central Processing in Arthur Road. He had called to tell Prakash to have Sunil’s Press pass picked up. Revoked until further notice.”
“Anyway, we’re doing a collection later for him. God knows how much this sorry lot of beggars can scrape together, though!” Derek laughed his short hiccupping laugh.
The police van roared off, but the barricades remained manned as the cops who dragged the fallen man into their vehicle took up their posts again. None of the other cars had moved; each waited their turn to pass. One of the dark figures behind the first barricade spat heavily onto the road and motioned for the next car to pass through.
“They’re doing their best…”
“Their best? Yes, I suppose they are, but try telling that to Sunil – ‘Here, here’s five thousand bucks, enjoy the rest of your life!’”
Percy looked at him and was surprised to see the extent of sadness and despair in his eyes.
“Derek, this is more than just about Sunil, what happened?”
“Everything ok at home? How is Amrita? And Brian?”
“Same, pretty much. Brian’s on painkillers all the time, we’re waiting for the next round of treatment…”
“What for? Did you send him to Delhi? Did you make him stand at those dirty little checkpoints and run Geiger counters over the refugees? Then why are you sorry?”
Percy was silent.
Derek continued. “Sometimes I get so screwed up with this nonsense I don’t think before I talk.”
“Listen, I’m going for this stupid embassy thing tonight. Come with me?”
“Of course!” Percy laughed.
They went back into the newsroom, the smoke from their cigarettes lingering in the air.
After Percy was done with his piece he placed it in his editor’s tray and went for a refill of coffee. At the machine, a small group of disheveled and noisy people stood. One of them spotted him. “Bawa! Come join us! Don’t forget us common people!” Satish Kulkarni worked the photo labs at the Express. He also had access to all the undeveloped negatives.
“I saw your little visiting card earlier,” Percy said.
“Arre, what saar, I just thought you would like a memento of the evening. Such a nice item, what wouldn’t we give to sit and chat with her, so sweet you two looked. Is she sweet everywhere?” The group roared with laughter as Percy smiled and fumed.
“Very funny, Satish! I’m going to the embassy party later tonight, if she’s there I’ll find out and tell you – that will probably be the closest you’d ever come to someone like her anyway!”
Suddenly the mood changed. “You’re lucky you’re editor madam’s chamcha – anyone who talks like that had better fucking have something to back it up with.”
Percy leaned in close and whispered to Satish, “Any time you want to find out, na, just ask. I’ll show you something new, I promise.”
Before he could reply, a voice rang out. “Percy bhaiiya, Meenal madam wants to see you.” Percy turned to the office boy who was suddenly nervous, having sensed the tension belatedly.
“Go, go, your madam is calling,” Satish taunted.
Percy turned without a word and walked off.