Local by Rahul Soni

It was a bad start to the year by any standard. My girlfriend of three years dumped me, and then I lost my job. Or maybe it happened the other way round. Not that it matters. But it's only been about six months, and already I cannot remember what happened first, and whether the latter was somehow precipitated by the former.


Not that it matters.


I had some money saved – enough to tide me over a few months – and so I just sat home and vegetated. Not that I particularly wanted to, but just because I could. And anything else would have required effort. In fact, it got irritatingly boring after the first few weeks – wanking, weed and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will only take you so far. Kailash (aka Laash) suggested going out of town, but I'd only have ended up vegging out in a hotel and run out of money quicker, so that proposal was quickly shot down. As were other proposals from other friends, except the ones that began ‘What do you say, I drop by? I've managed to lay my hands on…’ (And here, they’d mention some exotic intoxicant. After which, I'd proceed to hog the aforementioned intoxicant and pick fights.)


And so, I emerged five months later with only two friends remaining, a three-digit bank balance, and a desperate need for a job. Laash and Lip (the two friends) were therefore asked to keep their eyes and ears open and put in a good word for yours truly if they came across something – I was desperate, but not motivated enough (yet) to start looking myself. They even managed to land me a few interviews and, much to their exasperation, I didn't go.


That day was different though. (And this is where the story begins.)




‘Suit up,’ Lip had said, ‘and the job is yours. I have a say in these things around here.’ (A touch of smugness in his voice.) ‘But they like their employees dressy.’ This only served to drive home how out of touch we’d been since his fancy MBA – he should’ve known I didn’t wear suits. Hell, I didn’t even have any. Nevertheless, the job was attractive. I had to sit around mostly, check the accounts once a week, write a report to HQ once a month, and organise ‘company get-togethers’ twice a year. The sit-around-mostly bit sold me.


So I dressed as well as my limited wardrobe would allow – my best shirt, my plainest jeans, and a pair of ancient leather shoes that were rather tight. Then I combed my hair back, slick and mafiaesque. For a moment I even considered buying a tie on my way, but better sense prevailed. Thus, I stepped out of my apartment – for the first time in months, with the aim of actually going somewhere.




My shoes squeaked on the polished floor of Lip’s Churchgate office as I waited my turn, pacing. I must’ve been irritating a lot of people. I sure was irritating myself. Which is why I kept at it, I guess. Finally I stopped by the window to what sounded like a collective sigh of relief. A minute or two later, the fat secretary got up and clip-clopped over to me, coughed, touched me on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me? You are not dressed!’


Instinctively, my left hand felt up the buttons of my shirt and my right hand descended to check my belt and fly. All was well. I spun around, and in my best Marcel Marceau impression, shouted, ‘What the fuck do you mean not dressed?’


‘Whoa!’ she Marceaued back at me. Then she spoke again. ‘They will not hire you if you go in wearing that.’ Pause. ‘For the interview.’ Pause. ‘You are here for the interview, no?’


‘No,’ I said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. I don’t know why I said it though, it just slipped out. This sort of thing happens to me a lot, by the way. I end up reflexively saying the opposite of what I really want to – and then, standing by it.


‘No,’ I repeated. This is exactly the kind of thing that got me into countless fights with my girlfriend, not to mention issues at my last job and a run-in with the police a few years before. And now this.


‘I’m here to see Lip. I mean, Dilip. Is he in?’


‘Mr. Dilip Jain is not in at the moment,’ she lapsed into answering-machine mode. ‘May I know your name please?’


‘When will he be back?’


‘I cannot say for sure. Maybe half an hour.’


‘Okay, I’ll wait.’


I waited for an hour and then got out of the damned place. I walked around and smoked and wondered what I would do now. I think I passed by the Sassoon Library about a dozen times before I realised I was walking in circles. Then it started drizzling and I ran to the Strand before it began to pour. Inside, I ogled at all the books I wouldn’t be able to buy, running my hand across them, opening them and smelling the pages, reading a page or two and keeping them back. I settled upon the floor, in a corner, with Volume One of The Man Without Qualities.


Two hours later, and a mere 200 pages into the book, I noticed it had stopped raining and made my exit, somewhat sheepishly. It was dark, the road was glistening, the lights and colors sharp. I drank a few piss-warm lagers at a hole-in-the-wall and then headed to Churchgate to catch the 10.55 Virar train.


(And this is where the story begins.)




The train was unusually empty. Some two dozen passengers to begin with and, what with the getting on and off at various stops, by Andheri the number was down to eight. At Jogeshwari, a swaggering group of five got on. Something about them radiated danger. The rest of us instinctively grouped together in one corner and started talking – all except an old man sleeping far from us.


He was woken up unceremoniously and after some loud-voiced cursing, they began to beat him up. We did nothing, just stared determinedly out of the windows and hoped they wouldn’t kill him. When they were done, they got off calmly at the next station and disappeared. We went up to look. The man was now a mass of red pulp. But he was still alive. We carried him to the gate and left him on the platform of the next station. Someone would take him to a hospital, we assumed.


Standing at the gate as the train pulled out of Borivali, I noticed that my shirt was soaked with the old man’s blood. A wave of revulsion and nausea swept over me. I took it off and rolled it into a ball.


(And this is where the story really begins.)




I took my shirt off, rolled it into a ball and tossed it out of the train. As soon as it left my hand, it disappeared. Literally. Vanished into thin air. Poof! Gone.


‘Did you see that?’ I turned to ask the others but nobody was looking, nobody answered. I leaned out of the train and looked back, not that I would’ve been able to see anything in the darkness. I reached into my jeans and pulled out a handkerchief, crumpled it up and threw it out. I saw it fly out of my hand, stay in the air for a while and fall down in the distance. Maybe I’d just imagined it, maybe it was a trick of light or something.


By the time I got home, I’d almost managed to convince myself that nothing strange had happened. I undressed and lay down on my bed. I closed my eyes. Almost instantly, I opened them again and sat up with a start. The shirt had disappeared. I don’t know why I was so certain now, but I was. Certain.


I stayed up all night, smoking joint after joint, and obsessing over it. All of the next day, I spent in the local, shuttling back and forth between Borivali and Dahisar throwing random junk out of the train, testing, trying to find the exact spot.




Needless to say, I did find the spot, and yes, things did disappear – and no, I’m not telling you where it is so pipe down. Now that I knew, what I had to do next seemed a matter of course:


I jumped.




I am in a room that’s about 20 feet by 20. There are no windows, there are no doors. The four walls rise up for what seems like hundreds of feet before ending in a white light that never dies. The room is filled with trash: cigarette stubs, bits of newspaper, polythene bags, dried chewing-gum, betel-juice stains, gravel, a blood-stained shirt (mine), used condoms, a large bone that could be a human femur, some broken teeth, marbles, bird-shit, random pieces of paper torn into little bits, a wallet, a slipper, half-eaten scraps of food, a map of Bombay, two pens (both blue), empty plastic bottles, smashed bottles and shards of glass, a woman’s compact, a handkerchief (not mine), a pile of little diaries that I threw off the train for testing, et cetera, et cetera. Every now and then something else drops in and I have to duck for cover. Sometimes the rain comes in. That’s bad. The rest of the time I have nothing to do but stare at my kingdom of garbage. That’s worse.


I think I’m beginning to regret jumping.




Rahul Soni: writer, editor, translator based in New Delhi. Founder and editor of Pratilipi, a literary journal, and Pratilipi Books, an independent publishing imprint. Chief Editor with Writer’s Side, a literary agency and professional manuscript assessment service. Work has appeared or is forthcoming in Almost Island, Asymptote, Biblio, Dhauli Review, Hindi, Indian Literature, Pratilipi, Tehelka etc. Awarded the Charles Wallace Visiting Fellowship in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia (2010), and the Sangam House Fellowship (2012). Currently translating Geetanjali Shree’s novel Tirohit for Harper Collins India, Dharamvir Bharati’s novel Suraj ka Saatvan Ghoda, Shrikant Verma’s Magadh and Dhoomil’s poetry. Other works in progress include a documentary, a novel, and a non-fiction book.