By Jyoti Singh
A small big-city window lights up at an ungodly hour. Part-drunk, part-bronchitic Mohan turns on a bulb in his one-room flat, illuminating mine. Separated by a fifteen-foot kitchen-smoke-filled alley our metropolitan windows open into each other. On some nights, his 3 am schedule draws the ire of the windows surrounding mine and I lie clinging on to sleep until the morning alarm.
The 60-watt nuisance hanging at his window refracts through the doubly curtained glass panes, and his nostalgic radio pierces their urgent lives. The wrath of one whose sleeping pills won’t work knows no mercy. The cacophony of foul-mouthed elites keeps me up on such chosen nights. Just some of the countless joys of living in a house too good for me!
Everybody at work and on Facebook knows. They mock me as honorary senior management. My wilfully oblivious parents bask in the glory deigned on me. Wrongly upgraded by the computer, I needed three human signatures to justly downgrade myself to my level of housing. Caught between a bad marriage of corporate bureaucracy and digital slavery, the task could take weeks, I am told.
As a lowly management trainee, my expected default was eternal thankfulness. Instead, I paraded to the HR every Monday morning. My plea against this serendipity rubbed them the wrong way—what torture it must be, they say, to live in a real-estate heaven! I have stopped complaining. It’s a fishbone caught in my throat, but public sympathy is with the bone.
A good part of my first salary went towards the upkeep of the flat, enough for me to realise I was in its service, not the other way around. The high of starting at the salary my father retired at soon dissipated. I could not afford the simple pleasures that newly employed men look forward to after years of student drudgery. Blue collars at the building look upon me with scorn. I have taken up their jobs to support the lifestyle of the place, lest I go bankrupt in the process. Albeit different ranks, in a stark corporate way, we are the same pay grade.
Aware of my cheapness, I use little from the house, and never dare allow any secondhand furniture to darken its posh doorstep. Expecting relocation, I have been living out of an old suitcase and barely occupy the corner panel of the massive wall cupboard in the bedroom. Management saw through my domestic austerity and issued a list of Dos and Don’ts to house train me further. The Dos mostly read as commands, and the Don’ts are rephrased Dos.
I had more or less resigned myself to my fate, except a light bulb challenged me every week. One of the rudest realisations of my youth was that screw-in bulbs cost five times more than the average twist locks. Weekly shopping of snooty light bulbs was an expensive affair. Unsure if I was qualified to complain about the faulty current, I gave up and learnt to live in the dark. I started spending lesser time at the flat. I left early and came back late. Soon, I was relying on Mohan’s bulb to deliver me from darkness.
One night, I had just returned from my boss’s promotion party, sore from five hours of standing straight and smiling spastically. My boss had become somebody else’s boss, and to show my enthusiasm I tended the bar for him. It was Mohan’s night off, and I knew I had to fend for myself. A faint sound of the radio meant he was in, perhaps asleep. I was cursing him under my breath, fumbling in the cupboard with one hand, holding my phone in the other.
Suddenly, I heard a loud banging on a door somewhere. Mohan’s bulb came on. I stood there, surprised at the odd timing. His nephew had come in charging and hurling abuses at him in his throaty voice, saving people in my building some breath. Mohan was now on the floor, being thrashed. When he got up, he was drenched in water. The nephew meant business.
Old Mohan had once again forgotten to turn off the kitchen tap, and water had quietly made its way to the lobby, from where it had entered the lift shaft. The lift had to be stopped for several hours. This had earned him the ten to fifteen slaps I counted, after which he promptly got back to the routine. He unclogged the kitchen sink, went to the end of the lobby, came back and drained the water from the cloth into the bucket at his doorstep. As always, half an hour later when the bucket had almost brimmed, I knew he was done. It was the same orange bucket and half-an-inch-shy water. After another inspection and a second thrashing for the sloppy job, the nephew, on his way out, took the main electric fuse with him, leaving Mohan in darkness. I heard windows surrounding mine congratulating one another. Tonight, Mohan couldn’t blind them with his 60 watts.
All quiet, I saw his faint figure around the rickety aluminium chest, his single piece of furniture, which packs in everything else he owns apart from the pile of an eclectic collection of white clothes dumped on the yellow rope that ties his abode from one end to the other. For a while he came to the window, wearing his usual blank face, which I always suspect is a mask for something else. Mohan looks like a man who was born alone. His complexion borrows the grey from his uniform.
I had come to learn that the gate he guards stands on a plot he once owned—now property of his adopted son, the nephew. Children call him the coughing madman. When he blows into the whistle, it leaves him panting for a whole minute. Designated punching bag of the neighbourhood, every time he is slapped out of sleep on duty, he gives out a funny grunt, which tickles the joy out of people. He has, though, now learnt a trick, a bargain. With a little alertness he saves himself the beatings by grunting even before he is slapped, entertaining the boys around the corner.
For the first time his darkness had coincided with mine, but I could not return the favour. His oblivion to my powerlessness saved me from shame, but not from guilt. Tonight, he won’t dye his hair, sew his shirt, count his money, or collect the pigeon feathers sprayed all over his room—the chores of being Mohan. I couldn’t tell my pants from my shirt and went to bed naked. We lay in complete darkness. His panting slowly turned into snoring. I was still awake and tired.
The next morning, I woke up to Mohan’s incessant spitting. I looked at him and he looked at me with a smile. He stood at his window and spat away in our compound. Something he thinks of as a sport. I am proud of Mohan. His zest for life is mulish. His punishments and his revenges are ritualistic. He inspires me like no one else.
That night I bought a long cable with a bulb on one end and plugged it all the way from the living room. I hung it in my window and waited. At 3:05 am, I turned it on as Mohan entered the flat, Mohan the gatekeeper and an erstwhile owner of lands. I slept in light.
I resigned from my job the next morning. Now I spend my weekends looking for a house for my future secondhand furniture.