Introduction- The sequence
There are three steps to breaking a man.
The first is introduce desire. Make him want something so hard his insides turn with the prospect of having it. Make him yearn for it, live for it, be ready to die for it. Make it the only thing he can think of – The lullaby to which he falls asleep, the dream he has when his eyes close, and he first thing in his mind when he awakens.
The second is to give it to him. Let him fulfill his every fantasy with the having of that which he desires. Living the dream he was born with, his heart contended. Let him hold it in his arms and croon to it, sing to it stories of all the times he was without it, nursing its existence with eyes constantly darting to and from it to make sure it’s still there. Teach him to fear it ever being taken away. Let him have it long enough that he no longer knows how to live without it.
The last step is to take it from him.
‘Lurched Like a stray
To the arms that were open
No shortage of Sordid
No protest from me.’
Crawford Market Streets comprise of 4 components– Heat, dust, and more heat, with throngs of people filling in the gaps. It is said that this dust mostly comprises of human skin, flakes upon flakes of it, a thousand times thousand humans feeding the dust of his place till it grows to the grotesque power that it is today. The Mumbai heat is catalyst to the chaos, and ant-people scuttle about their business with the efficiency only the middle class in search of a bargain can harness. Every foot is travelling; walking, scuttling, getting stepped on, and shuffling. There is always somewhere better to be.
In the midst of the crowd of ant-people, there are those that carve a home here. Streets which a thousand footprints hit during the day, at night, become the resting place of the city’s most unwanted – a legion of homeless that find a roof beneath large Bollywood hoardings,or grovel beneath the sprawling JJ flyover on dirty ragged sheets and corners even sunshine thinks thrice before touching. Among them is the boy.
A 15 year old sells china-made toys to nine year old boys that come with snot in their noses and sheets of green paper in their parent’s wallet. There is no point in naming him yet. Names are for identities, for people. He is not people. He is background, backdrop, a prop for curious photographers wanting to capture the ‘essence’ of the city. He is a machine in search for where his next meal will come from. Such creatures do not need names. Names are for people to remember you by, for people to call out to you using, for people to want you by. Not him.
His days comprised of a battle with the scorching sun, standing in the midst of the square just opposite the commissioner’s office, trying not to faint. Sometimes people bargained for prices, sometimes tired mothers had no energy to. The children were all the same, though. Big, empty eyes and a boundless, annoying energy.
He hated them.
There is a shop down Abdul Rehman Street that doesn’t have a name either. This is not a matter of circumstance, it is a matter of choosing. If you walk down past Bombay Stationery, way past the starry avenue of shops that sell electric lighting and past the oily musk of the vada paav waalas – If you walk till you don’t know who you are or where you are anymore , past the side alley of no name and just left of Morning, straight ahead from Noon and take a right at Second Thoughts, you will find it sandwiched between grey buildings.
It’s a little shop, sometimes there and sometimes not. There is no adorning, no nameplate, no distinguishing marks. Nothing for sale except a single black parrot that hangs in a magnificent golden cage just inside the door, in the center of the room. The darkest color known to man is part of its down and lines the edge of its wings. There is no furniture.
There is a plate that adorns the bottom of the cage. A Price tag. It only reads “More than you should pay.”
On the way out, a sign mentions – “Prices not negotiable.”
‘Ego is the fountainhead of Progress’
Night had fallen. The last footsteps had faded with the light, and the only sounds heard in front of the promenade of Crawford Market were the ramblings of drunkards. The Boy lugged his bag filled with the remnants from the sale of the day towards Miyaa-bhai, who was his supplier.
70-30, that was the deal. Miyaa gets 70, he gets thirty.
It’s a good deal, he often told himself. That was only on the days he could feed himself.
Today wasn’t one of those.
There is nothing greater than Mumbai lights for a boy of 15 years. At 7pm sharp they lit up and surrounded the city with a halo of stars unlike anything a person has ever seen before, a tornado of white and gold folding up the dark and packing it away. Thousands and thousands of twinkling lights with power enough to mute even the stars, thus, if the Mumbai sky was devoid of stars, its streets were surely not.
He was looking at these lights as he walked past the Bata store with its red logo and Baadshah’s falooda smells from the meals of the day wafted through the closed doors of its building. Under the JJ Flyover, just past Abdul Rehman Street was where he sheltered for the night. Some days it was peaceful, but all it took was one drunken father to start a brawl in the hungry and life-weary congregation of oddballs, and chaos would descend.
A child was playing with wires and newspapers as the boy nears the fork in the street. A faded yellow t shirt, squatting on the ground with only dust for companionship, the child was like every other kid on the street. The wires could be useful to him later, though, so he approached the child.
He looked down to see what the child was making, but there was no child anymore. In a fleeting moment of an eye he’d vanished. Gone.
Confused, Shaking his head, the boy carried on. Perhaps his hunger was giving him halluccinations.
But before he could take another step, the boy heard the rustle of newspapers and the clang of thin metal wires. The child. He looked around and spotted him – there. Towards the left, squatting on the ground with his makeshift toys, looking up and smiling at him, holding what seemed to be – no !
Shocked, his hand flew to his waist and he looked down at his pockets and realized- His purse was gone. That was 600 rupees, all of his savings. He looks back up and the child was running, running away into the depths of the street, disappearing into the darkness.
Cursing, the boy took off after him. 6 months of savings, he was hoping to be able to buy a radio with that much. The lights down the street had been shut down for some reason, and he was guided only by the faint moonlight and his memory. He heard the child’s footsteps in front of him, fast disappearing. Egging himself further, he increased his speed. He can’t be caught in the dark on a night like this. One look at him and anybody looking would know there was nobody who’d miss him, and these streets were never safe even in the company of others, especially not for 15 year old boys who were alone.
As his feet hit the road, The child’s laughter reached his ears from ahead. It was unlike anything he had ever heard. Discordant and alien, as if a hundred people were laughing at the same time, in the same tone. It wasn’t something from this world.
He stopped in his tracks. 600 rupees wasn’t worth this. He had stumbled into something he barely even understood. Backing away, before he even had time to turn back and leave, the footsteps in front of him stopped as well, as if it were the footsteps were following him, not the other way round. As if their intention was not to get away, but to bring him in..
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The footsteps were behind him now. Suddenly, the laughter started all over again. The same discordant sounds pierced his skull and brought him to his knees. His legs no longer obeyed him. What gripped him now was worse than the hunger he had felt 3 years ago when he’d survived on a sip of water a day for 6 days. This was pure, unadultered terror. It was in every fiber of his being, worsened by every pump of blood his heart sent out. It was numbing and devastating.
The footsteps came closer and he was finally able to move again. He jumped to his feet and started running, running as far from the footsteps and the laughter as he could. Suddenly, he was not the pursuer, he was the pursued.
He lost track of how long or far he ran, but the adrenaline in his bloodstream gave him more strength and stamina than he’d ever had in his life. He looked around for help, but every building he passed had its lights shut off, as if the entire street was somehow absent at this time. Every shadow seemed more ominous than it really was, every sound more horrifying.
After running until he felt like he no longer could, he finally saw a light.
A small shack of a shop sandwiched between crumbling skyscrapers of the build, as out of place in the area as the light it gave out was in the darkness. The boy managed to stumble to the door and fumbled with the lock, and the door swung open as if it had been waiting for him to enter ever since he was born. In he stumbled and he bashed the door closed behind him. The footsteps stopped. He was alone again.
He looked around the room and came face-to-face with the most magnificent bird he had ever seen – a matte black parrot, perched on a magnificent throne in a golden cage suspended in the center of the room. It sight that look incredibly beautiful and yet woefully wrong amidst the dirt and grime of the setting. The parrot was looking right at him, his head tilted to the side as if he couldn’t quite figure the boy out.
Mesmerized, our boy was immediately overtaken by the intense desire to open the little door of the cage and let the bird out. he couldn’t explain it, but suddenly was taking a step forward, and then another step. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the eyes of the bird, now relaxed and regarding him with an expression almost anticipatory, as if it knew exactly what he was about to do. Maybe if he just-
“And who might you be ?”
Across the room sat an emaciated figure in a green Kurta and khaki pants. Hunched over the floor with a book in hand, he regarded the boy with an amused expression. With a flick of his wrist he shut the book, threw it out of the window, and stood up. He towered over the boy, looking across the room at him with piercing eyes.
“I see you’ve met Sultan.” He looked pointedly at the bird as he said this, walking towards the boy in slow, deliberate steps.
“He’s a naughty one, in his desire to get out of that cage.”
All the boy knew at this point was that he didn’t like talking to the man. It set in action a deep, primordial fear in him, and he at once got the feeling that something was very, very wrong, and this was definitely not a place where he wanted to be. But his legs refused to obey him anymore.
“Sit.” Said the man, and for some reason he obeyed immediately – once crossed his legs and sat.
“Sultan and I tend to get lonely, in here. Nobody visits anymore. The last person to visit.. who was it, my friend ? Aah, yes. The Mongol. Ghengiz. When this place wasn’t in a dump like this. We had a palace, mind you, and they came from all over to seek an audience with us. Then the Mongol, the trickster, the most wicked of them all lied to us, and escaped, I was hoping-“Suddenly, halfway through the sentence, his entire demeanor change. From bored and lethargic, he became sprightly and excited. He let out yelps and screamed, rattling the bars on the windows as he did so. He circled the room four times, all the while jumping and celebrating. He came up to the boy and looked right into his eyes.
The madness stared right into him.
“Tell me, what is it you desire most in this world ?” An eerie smiled crept up on the man’s face as he said this. “There is nothing that Sultan and I couldn’t give you. Is it riches ? We will give you more wealth than all the countries in the world. Is it women ? You will have a harem of ten thousand women from the most exotic places in this world, and the worlds beyond. Is it immortality ? You will live beyond time, beyond a place known to the inhabitants of this world, beyond anything this world has to offer. Ghengiz asked for it all, and all of it he received, remained unpaid for.
Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, the man was behind him.
“Anything you will ever want.” He whispered into the boy’s ears, and rested his hand on his shoulder. With a shudder, the boy saw that he was missing all of his fingers on that hand. Where the fingers should be the man only had ragged bloody stumps smelling of rotting meat, sloppily bandaged.
He tore his gaze away from the man and looked at the bird again.
Right into it’s shocking turqoise eyes.
Suddenly, everything changed. His eyes rolled back in his head and it was as if something entered his mind.
He saw things. He saw himself sitting on a golden throne, servants beside him. He saw riches, gold, silver, money – Everything he had ever wanted. Everything flashing through his mind, vision upon vision. It did nothing but unnerve him even more, until he saw it.
He saw himself tearing down the Crawford Street. Brick by brick, every building fell. The Mochi showroom, which regularly drove him off, reduced to a rubble. His home, the place that was a constant reminder of who he was, brought to its knees in front of him. Miya-Bhaai’s rotting corpse, underneath the rubble, with a single hand sticking out of his tombstones.
His vision eventually cleared, and he was left gasping for breath, his clothes drenched in sweat.
“I want it.” He said, catching his breath.
“I want it all. Everything.”
“Excellent !” The man walked over to the cage and carefully opened the door.
“Come Sultan. It is time for you to feed and it is time for our customer to pay.”
Before he knew it, Sultan pounced upon his hand, and ripped his index finger out. As his hand bled out onto the floor, the boy screamed and screamed until his cries were drowned out in the coming dawn, and the pain of sultan ripping out every nail in his hand one by one and eating his fingers was too much.. too much..too..muc..h..
When the sun was out, he woke to find the man sitting across the room, scribbling profusely in a notebook. He remembered the events of the night before and raised his hands only to see ragged stumps where his fingers once were. He whimpered from the pain.
The man looked up.
“Good. You are awake. You will leave now, immediately. Your name will now be Ishit, One who desires to rule, and one whose destiny is the throne. That is the name I give you. Leave. You shall receive what you have asked for.”
The last thing Ishit saw before he left was the bird, back in its cage, now having lost all interest in him, pruning its feathers with calm, unnerving patience.
‘Scream in the name
Of a foreigner’s God
The Purest Expression of grief’
The wound on his hand didn’t heal for the rest of his life.
Silence and the gravestone. Everything was black.
All the land every man ever needs – a space of one metre by two, the grave where he will rest.
The Final resting place,
The world was at his feet when Ishit passed away in his sleep. He had everything, and everything was indebted to him, and yet after he died he had nothing, and he was finally at peace.
The funeral service lasted ten days with the world with its eyes peeled and watching. It was broadcasted everywhere, and everybody saw the body of the one who owned it all. The greatest one to have ever lived.
He was buried in a Palace; a testament to his glory, with all his riches.
His tomb was pure marble, his coffin made from the finest wood.
He had padded cushioning even in death.
He was, after all, Ishit.
Seven days he lay in his coffin, and on the eighth he was woken.
His body had grown thin, he had lost all will to live, and yet he was dead, and still not dead.
7 days in the coffin, eighth day awake.
He pushed the lid open and woke up to the sight of a beautiful golden cage, the likes of which he had seen only once in his life, that all his riches and all his money could never have created. In it perched a majestic black bird with feathers the color of night.
Just past the cage lay the skeleton of a man he once knew, that he had met only once in his life. A man he had feared ever since he first learnt what fear means. Shrouded in a threadbare green Kurta and Khaki pants, the skeleton lay as if in a position of final relief. All the fingers on both his hands were missing.
Trembling, Ishit looked down– His subjects had him buried in a Kurta that was green as an emerald.
He looked upon the bird and screamed into the night, the same scream he had not scream for 70 long years, the scream that had last left his throat when his fingers were nibbled away by a monster in the guise of a bird.
The same scream that was lost to night once more, as it had once been before.