The Living Dead
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
Up until the moment I died I’d never
imagined they were actually going to kill me.
Oh, I’d known I was in
trouble, yes. But no one, ever, not even a suicide, believes in the actuality
of imminent death. There is always the hope, the belief if you will, that
something will intervene, that somehow the way will open to safety beyond, or
that somehow the clock will turn itself back. No one, actually, in the
depth of his inmost self, believes himself about to die.
That morning I had woken in
my little – and highly overpriced – hotel room. The television set I had made
no attempt to turn on stood on its table along with the equally redundant
ashtray. The jug of water and glass I had not touched stood on the side table
as usual. It was not yet dawn.
I had arrived in the city on
the previous night, on another business trip. After years of roaming the
country on these trips, I despised them now. It was difficult for me to believe
that I had actually taken this job, not just for the salary, but for the travel
it offered. At least I had never been to this state, let alone this city,
before, so there had been something to look forward to. Not that it had meant
much. A brief acquaintance with the streets showed it to be the same as any
other urban sprawl. They seem to turn them out on a factory floor.
That day I had an early
meeting – and then another, directly across town, and after lunch a couple
more. By the time I was through with the lot it would probably be late in the
evening. I would get back to the hotel and take the early morning flight out
Such, it amuses me to relate,
were my plans.
So, I shaved my cheeks, I
trimmed the corners of my goatee, I bathed, I applied aftershave. One could not
turn up for these meetings without dressing for the part. I went to the trouble
of knotting a tie, though the heat of the streets prohibited a coat. I put on a
silver tie pin on the dark blue tie. I had a light breakfast and then washed my
mouth with Listerine. I was ready.
Although the hotel had cars
for the guests to rent, I as always ignored them. These cars were always
atrociously expensive and for most of the day, while I was locked up in
meetings, they would be lying unused – and I would still have to pay for them.
Expense accounts could be padded, of course, but economy earned more brownie
points where my boss was concerned. A taxi when necessary was a far better mode
The first meeting went off
all right. The man I was to meet was fat and tried to cover his bald patch by
combing over hair from one side of his head to the other, but he had acumen. He
was not one of those who enjoyed listening to the sound of his own voice and he
did not need to be told something more than once, in one way. Such people are
rare enough for it to be a pleasure dealing with them.
On my way to the second
meeting, the taxi turned down a side street. It surprised me, because I had
thought the office lay on the road I was on, though still several kilometres
away. Probably the driver was trying to run up the meter – a common enough
trick where newcomers to any Indian city were concerned. I leaned over the
backrest of the driver’s seat and asked him where he thought he was going.
"Suna hai ke aage koi
danga ho raha hai, saab," he said. "There’s a riot going on somewhere
ahead, I’m told. We have to go the long way around."
Riot? I hadn’t heard
anything. Nor had I, of course, heard or read the news. I had not had the time.
I did not think it would be a serious affair, anyway. Had it been, surely they
would at least have shut off traffic?
We were wending our way
through a maze of incredibly narrow, congested lanes, with old brick buildings
on either side, the plaster on their sides tinged with green moss and peeling
posters advertising the services of quacks specialising in the treatment of
"secret diseases". People were everywhere, thronging the streets, in numbers I
had seldom seen before. The car found the going tough amid the sea of
pushcarts, rickshaws, and bicycles busy going nowhere in particular. I glanced
at my watch. There was still an hour left, but we were going so slowly I
doubted if we could make it. I considered calling the man on his mobile and
telling him I might be late; but I abandoned the idea. I’d call him if it
became necessary, not before. I still had time.
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