Mischief In Neta Nagar by Altaf Tyrewala

They say this is a democracy. Full freedom. Do what you want. Live, piss, eat, sleep wherever you wish.


It is 9:30 am. If I were a regular sort of guy, I’d be leaving for work. Instead, I am at home, in the loft of my twenty-by-twenty shack on the outskirts of the world's largest slum in the world's soon-to-be most populous city. I am watching TV. Below the loft, in the room that serves as a living room for me, my wife, and our five children, my family is eating breakfast. I am in no mood to descend from the loft. I am in bed. I have been watching a cricket match since four in the morning. India vs Pakistan. The second inning is on. Pakistan is batting. The Indian team scored okay. The Pakistanis seem set to win. I want this match to never end. I don't care who wins. India. Pakistan. I don't care. Till the match lasts, I don’t have to think about anything else.


Our slum gets free electricity. In exchange we have to vote en masse for a politician. Thanks to this slum, that politician has had a seat in the Legislative Assembly for ten years in a row. Our slum also gets free water and free phone connections and none of us have to pay rent ever. To feed and clothe my family, I borrow money on zero interest from a bank owned by the aforementioned politician. We call this Neta Nagar. The Politician's Settlement. Neat, ya?


A Pakistani cricketer has just become out. Clean bowled. One half of the crowd at Sydney is ecstatic. I am the calm sort. As I said, I don't really care who wins. Three more wickets left. Fifty-five runs to be made in sixty balls. Pakistan will win.


My fourth born, a son, seven years old, comes up to the loft with a slice of fried bread and a cup of tea. He places the tray at the foot of the bed on which my wife and I sleep, and where we have spawned all five of our litter. The loft is a bed, that's all it is; there is no room to stand around. The boy sits on the edge of the bed and starts to watch the TV set that I have placed near my feet. ‘Tanvir!’ his mother calls out from below. My son hurries down. Tanvir, yes, that's his name. Sultana, Jumaina, Nadia, Tanvir, and Bashir. There will probably be two-three more of them. The politician will never be short of votes as long as I can help it.


Seven runs. Three balls. The commentators are insisting this is a nail-biting end to an exciting match. All I'm worried about is how to spend the rest of the day once this game is over. In my part of the city, this is a constant worry. Having sold our suffrage, we are left to suffer the spoils. If I didn’t have television, the idleness would drive me nuts. Sick thoughts come to mind if I sit around doing nothing. I imagine murdering men and women, shooting animals, spying on my neighbour's wife as she bathes…


A boundary. Four runs. Pakistan wins. India loses. Half the crowd cheers. I wash down the slice of oily bread with lukewarm tea. I turn off the television. I crawl to the foot of the bed, wrap my lungi around my waist, and climb down from the loft.


The family watches my descent. My wife resents me. Which wife doesn't resent her husband? Mine grudges my lack of ambition, my non-existent drive. She would like me to work somewhere, like a handful of other men in this slum, to supplement the freebies from the politician, so we can save the extra cash for the time when the politician no longer cares for us. Do I intend to live in this slum all my life, my wife demands to know.


‘I'm outside,’ I say. I put on my slippers and come out of our shack. Where should I work? What should I do? And more importantly, why?


I sit on a chair outside our door. I am being alternately roasted by the morning sun and fanned by the cool breeze. I bring out my packet of beedis, light one, and breathe the acrid fumes. When I close my eyes, snatches from the cricket match are invoked in my mind. India lost. As usual. Try as I might, I cannot find it in me to say ‘we lost’. To belong to the community, to the land or to the nation, a man must first be in possession of himself. In this slum, each and every one of us is owned. Don't think I am complaining. May the politician live a long life.


Mischief. I am in the mood for mischief.


‘Aye!’ I shout into my house. ‘Aye!’


One of my daughters emerges. She scowls like her mother.


‘Bring me the crackers we brought for Eid,’ I say.


‘They are over,’ my daughter informs me with an offensive finality.


I threaten to strike her. She runs into the house.


Her mother emerges. ‘What do you want now?’ she asks.


‘The crackers I brought for Eid.’


‘What do you want to do with crackers!’ my wife asks.


‘Just shut your trap and bring them!’


She goes in. I titter in anticipation at what I am going to do.


My wife emerges five minutes later. ‘Take.’ She throws a loom of crackers in my lap. The cheek!


I grab her wrist. She tries to free herself. I pull her back. ‘Come here, you bloody! Come here!’


‘What do you want?’


I hold up the loom of crackers. ‘Light them,’ I say.


‘Ya Allah, what kind of man…’


‘Shut up!’ I shout. I thrust the crackers and matchbox in her hands. ‘Go on, light them!’


My wife shakes her head in disgust. ‘I hope you die!’ she says. She jerks my hand off. She walks about fifteen feet away from where I am sitting. She throws the crackers on the ground. She crouches, lights a match, sets the loom on fire, and runs for her life.


I sit up in my seat. I am smiling. The white gun-powdered paper smokes for a second or so. And then it starts sparking.


I get up and slip into my shack and shut the door. My wife and kids look up in confusion.


I watch through a slit in my window. The sparks get closer to the crackers. And then, one by one, the crackers begin to go off.


Phataak! Boom! Phaat! Phataak! Boom!


I start giggling. In a country still mourning its loss of face in a far-off land, these will be the only explosions of celebration, and they will not go unpunished. I wonder where the retribution will come from. The neighbouring Shiv Sena branch? Or the adjoining Dalit-ridden Mangal Nagar? Our patron politician will have to bend backwards to save his Neta Nagar from turning into a battle ground.


Worried faces poke out of next door shacks. I continue to smoke my beedi while contemplating the scene from the slit in my window.


India lost. Pakistan won.


Democracy, no?


Phataak! Boom! 



Altaf Tyrewala is the author of No God In Sight and the editor of Mumbai Noir, a forthcoming crime fiction anthology. He has been awarded the 2011 DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Literature Grant.