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Monday, June 13, 2011

The Penal Colony



It is an absolutely ordinary day.

I am on the road I take every day to work. Everything is familiar, becoming more so with every passage, pot holes, dangerous road turns, hoardings selling everything from reality to dreams. I am in the backseat reading a novel and listening to potpourri of rock, alternative and ghazal when we approach the back lane of Amity University strewn with swanky cars and restless rich kids. There is a perfunctory police barricade less for upholding the law more for extortion brinking on begging. The road is lined with sand transported by the wheels of trucks ceaselessly raping the Yamuna. The makeshift hutments of laborers that work the mushrooming construction sites is in sight offering chilled beer, vegetables, haircut, porn dubbed in Hindi, chowmein, used clothes and breakfast. Just before the outbreak of the roadside bazaar, a dirt road climbs the raised eastern bank of Yamuna and loses itself to the road that runs alongside the river bank from the Kalindi Bridge to the numerous villages awaiting annihilation by the advancing civilization. The road is mostly lonely save for the assault of the trucks ferrying sand from the riverbed. Occasionally, the panorama is dotted with villagers, goats, cattle and cars, perhaps bought with the money from selling family land to the mafia.

I barely register the vista when my driver says, “Sir, it might rain today. There, see those dark clouds over the riverside.” The clouds are menacing, rain, a hard, hard rain imminent. I tell the driver to shut the air conditioner off and roll the windows down. The breeze is cool and damp with promise. It is going to be a different day after all, at least weather-wise. It is beautiful, enticing some action that would justify its beauty. I struggle with myself to hold back the urge to do something but finally give in. My heart wins over my mind, perhaps seeking deliverance from monotony of listless day-to-day existence. I decide to walk the rest of the way to my office. I tell the driver to stop the car and let me out. He is perplexed. He takes one look at the ever darkening sky and another at me and pleads, “Sir, it might rain any time and you will get wet. “ I get out of the car amidst his protestation and climb onto the pavement. I tell him to move on. “Today, I am in a different mood. Let me be. You drive off to the office and tell no one that I am walking to the office.” He hesitates. I tell him not to worry and I will be fine and he can call me in half an hour to check on me if he wants to. He smiles and drives off leaving me buffeted by the cool, intoxicating monsoon-like breeze. He does not know that I have left my mobile phone in the car. Good riddance to bad shit.

Standing all alone on the pavement, I am little apprehensive. Deciding to follow your heart is one thing, executing its wish quite another. I must hurry lest any colleague on his way to the office spots me and offers a ride and invite all the explaining. I start to walk and decide to take the riverside road to avoid any embarrassment.

I am barely halfway up the dirt road when rain starts to come down in plus sized drops. Sand curls upon itself and gobbles up the raindrops. Raindrops hit my body with a certain impact. They vanish on my white shirt but cannot hide themselves on the grey trousers that change color to black when wet. The sweet smell of the earth is everywhere. The divine symphony has begun and so must I. I climb onto the riverbank road. White sheet of rain is swaying and falling onto the riverbed. I know there is no river left. The meandering dark grey hose pipe visible in the distance is only a frothing toxic cesspool. I am horrified at man’s devilish ability to short-change Nature. Compare this poison to the clear greenish blue waters at the Yamuna Bridge below Mussoorie. But, the sight is still pretty to the eye. The vast expanse of the once-mighty river, the Kalindi bridge and the long straight wet grey road, all enveloped by the torrential downpour. I am happy to be here. The world can wait while I saunter down the road to the Penal Colony.

The road itself is uneventful. The trucks have stopped plying because wet sand is too heavy to carry on retreaded tyres. The tokens of civilization are few and far between. A blue Maruti car drives past playing Bollywood music. Goats and cattle stand still like a movie paused. Eucalyptus trees sway to the gusts of wind but the bushes only shudder. It is hard to be theatrical when you do not have deep roots. A goatherd gives me a curious look but does not dare speak to a Sardar, well-dressed and somewhat loony. I walk on, deliberately avoiding looking eastwards towards Noida and its crappy skyline. It would be so unromantic and moment-killer.

I am now wet and cold to the bone. My shirt clings to my body outlining the contours of the undershirt. My trouser has turned shiny black. The skin has burst into a million goose bumps. My hands have aged a hundred years and become furrowed like resins. Rain is creating channels over my body for an orderly exit to the Earth. It is a clean getaway. It does not bother to wash my sins and shames. I am just a physical obstruction in the sky to earth journey of the rain. There is so much to do. The toxins must be washed down and crap pushed downstream to create a semblance of the infinite capacity of Mother Nature to bear with human follies. It must destroy itself first to start all over again with perhaps a wiser tenant. I shiver with hunger and cold when I meet God.

If there is a river, there is God. Even when the river has vanished, there is God. This one in pink and yellow temple is Lord Balaji. It has been incarcerated and made to stay put on the barren riverside because a lot of human investment has gone into the temple. See those cars parked outside and the discreet dark chambers inside. The human purposes require God’s protection. Raindrops taste bitter at the thought of yet another spectacular human excess: religion. Only Lord Shiva seems to have got it right. Religion lies still between a man’s legs in a state of permanent arousal. Worshipers’ envy, priests’ pride. Gods have long escaped the dark and sweaty confines of temples leaving behind the mumbo jumbo of religion and puerile believers. I am sure I won’t ever find Lord Balaji anywhere near this filthy river and inside this pink and yellow fortress but I bow my head in reverence to Him, wherever He might be. Temples serve as good reminders of God and where not to find Him.

I meet a school boy, may be a truant, who has taken shelter under a tree. He says, “Uncle, you are all wet. Where are you going?” I tell him that I am going to the Penal Colony where I work for a living. He gives me an understanding smile as I ruffle his short hair and walk on. “Bye Uncle” he says and resumes his idleness. Up ahead, construction workers in colorful jackets are huddled around a makeshift tea stall. The orange conduits are waiting with gaping mouths. There is a temporary pause in the great march of civilization. It’s in giving that we receive. The poor Rajasthani laborers will surely receive from the HCLs, the Logix Techno Parks and the 3C’s of the world. Lord Balaji sees but waits.

Rain is now subsiding. The raindrops are lighter and fewer. Clouds are breaking up after the soiree. I have been walking for about an hour now and I must be somewhere close to my destination. I look eastwards at the glass and steel sprawl of the Penal Colony. The outhouse is lined with shanties. Smoke is rising from some of the dhabas I know well. May be some of my fellow convicts are already on their way to one of these lusting for gossip over tea, samosas and parathas. About one hour into work, it is also about time for the first tea break of the day. I feel like knocking the concrete boxes over with a Hulk like swipe of my hand and see the convicts rushing out like they do in cartoons. Or, I want to lift the boxes clean in the air leaving behind bewildered convicts still strapped to their torture machines.

I descend the dirt road leading to the broad road skirting the Penal Colony. The stink and litter signals that I am approaching civilization. I turn left towards Tiwari’s dhaba, already smelling of frying samosas. Small wonder that I immediately see a band of the usual suspects from my yard already stationed there smoking and drinking tea. Seeing me approach, they exclaim variously.
“Arrey Sir, where were you? We have been looking for you?”
“Is everything alright? You are all wet”
“Looks like you have been having fun in the rain, haven’t you?”

I give them my crazy story of the walk on the river bank. I am embarrassed because I suspect I am validating their belief that I am a nut case. I try to play it down and divert their attention from my wet clothes and squelching shoes. I shout to Tiwariji for a samosa and tea and indulge in small talk. But the smart asses are restless and ask me, “But, why did you come back to the Colony, you could have gone to CP or somewhere for a beer and called us too?”

I wanted to say, “Buddy, that’s not an option for the convicts who are sent to the Penal Colony. We must come back to the Colony after our brief bouts of disillusionment.”

1 comment:

  1. Great MP... Brings back old memories.. Tiwariji and of course his ustaad - dirty, smelling, stinking, dripping sweat out of his trunk.. and that 4-litre Berger Paint Can in which he would make the dough for Bread - Pakoda...

    Those were indeed one of the best days of life ...