AUTHOR : NAVAL LANGA
Nothing can be achieved without enduring a bitter fight: this is written on foreheads of Indian men and women. My short story The Handicapped is a story of struggle, a struggle that catches a person’s throat and suppresses voices. In the present short story I have tried to narrate that how a man, along with his lover, struggles for becoming an entrepreneur. He has to wrestle for acquiring a licence for setting up a small business—the regular odds from establishment. However a the persistent efforts pay, and it always pay. — Naval Langa
THE TRAFFIC LIGHTS stopped, a python like line of the city vehicles turned immobile, humming like the groan of an injured leopard. The passage for walking blinked a green light. He turned cautious; girded his loins. On any count it was not easy, for him, to cross the distance between two roads within the stipulated time, thirty seconds. The seconds started reducing. He gathered all the pieces of courage he had and went on almost galloping, in his style. But the people coming from his behind did not wait. They found it urgent to push him aside, making their way through. He could not make it. He fell down in the middle, on a white slash of the zebra crossing itself. Bag in hand smashed. Stampede.
Before he could collect himself and touch the other side, not a safer one but other side, the traffic signal had opened. He was caught in between. Within a few seconds the entire current of vehicles got disturbed. Horns shouting. He lost the sense of time and space. Survival. The survival of life became paramount. Until a policeman approached him, helping, he had experienced the nearest contact with fear. In addition he had known half of the dictionary of abusive words, too. From the vehicle drivers’ mouths.
“O… why don’t people like you sit at home?” Another policemen shouted from a safe distance and proved that he was on duty and awake. However the man managed crossing the road, but not without bruising on his left hand. The legs were safe. The policeman who shouted earlier was still throwing his preferred syllables. Incessantly. He did not heed. Because only he knew how difficult it was to cross the road, for a person having one polio-affected leg. Handicapped.
He did not thank God. He should have. Because he was in the midst of losing something important: a leg, a hand, or even an eye. But he was happy that a copy of the file he had in his cloth bag was in tact, unspoilt. He had painted a picture of his life to come in this file.
THE OFFICER-IN-CHANGE, on seeing him perhaps, took out his file. A breath of relief for him. After a few moments, with unusual zeal, she, the officer involved, picked up receiver, dialled with her well-polished nails, and engaged her authoritative lips in telephone. The file waited.
He looked around, for a change, for reducing the heat of his growing impatience. There was a red rose in front of him, in the lady’s table-vase. Smelling. Roses were rare commodities in a government office; he should know that. Beyond the rose-lady, there opened a balcony. Narrow: as narrow as any other ways leading outside of the government offices. In balcony, one earthen pot stood with a big cactus. Waiting. The woman tele-talk lasted for a time during which a waiting man, a politely waiting man would lose his passion, turn mentally deformed, and start shouting in directions. Snatching hair, including one’s own, was banned in government offices; the shouting was not.
But he kept waiting. Politely. He had another work to attend, too, mending of his trouser that still had dust of the road on it. When there was nothing left to mend, he devoted his eyes to the lady’s face. Round, fanned by her hair arranged in the widest possible manner, so it looked photogenic one. He was becoming progressively hopeful, on looking at her. Beauty has cooling, encouraging effects, he realised. At last the talk ended. She smiled; not at him, but at the photograph of him attached with his application.
“Mr. Sunil Desai?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hope was oozing in his heart.
“What do you want?” The question he had answered several times.
“Permission, ma’am. A licence to set up a PCO, a Public Call Office, just a booth of two telephones, ma’am.” Standing in front, he answered once more. The officer had not offered him a seat, even after seeing that he was unable to stand for long.
She scrolled her eyes on the pages of his application, the file. First thing: she tick-marked the area of shop. As per rule. Then came the certificate from a doctor, orthopaedic, he being handicapped. In order. One should be a certified handicapped; it was a government office. Finally her enquiring eyes tumbled on a photograph of proposed cabin, the small cubical cabin for public to talk in private. Still he was watching everything through the glasses of expectation.
“Colour of the cabin is not as per requirement.”
“I will just change it, ma’am.”
“Get it changed first.” The verdict. She threw the file on left side of her table, with the flair of regular indifference. There were several other files, one upon another, looking like a heap of torn woollen shawls. His file had become one more shawl.
It was over. It would take another week. He had lost the day.
DRAWN BACK, he returned. Home. Here he was within facilities. No troubles, for him. Father would not scold him, even if he did come late at night. However the old man had not reserved such facility for his younger son. For other children he was as fatherly as other fathers, the pension drawing and stick holding fathers, would have been: hawkish, spitting instructions, and firmly believing that the children were mere extensions of their parents’ bodies.
His mother lived on a different slot. She had built a safe hut under the shadow of her husband’s line of instructions, by following it dot-by-dot. “Why don’t you do some less sewing?’ his father would ask her. She would not hear much. She had her easy tears and small pieces of cloth, which she would convert into garments through an old showing machine. She, however, never insisted for Sunil’s contribution to the family’s kitchen expenses.
He was a lone child when he entered this house by birth. Then came his younger brother. And the last entrant in this law roofed house of two rooms and a kitchen was his little sister. His younger, a footballer and college student, and the sister, a high school girl who kept her hair untied, would not mind the extra facilities exclusively set aside for Sunil.
Sunil disliked these facilities.
He knew, it was all due to one thing: his being a handicapped, his left leg two inches shorter and visibly thinner than the right. Had he not been so handicapped, he would have been a good candidate for becoming a wrestler; he had such a stout build. Polio. The polio that visited him at the age of seven spoilt the game.
People in the street greeted him, unfailingly. On seeing him the girls of his college would wink among themselves, but would certainly smile at him. There he saw hate, the hate turned upside down, the hate walking on its hands instead of feet. There were institutions, the herds of do-gooders, waiting eagerly to help him.
“What I dislike to see is the show of pity on me, the show of barren compassion,” he had replied to a letter from an institution set up for helping the handicapped persons.
Only the music teacher, living in a rented house, third from his house, was an exception. She was fair and genuine to him; and he, too, respected her as a young man of twenty-one would respect a lady in her mid-thirties. While out of home she put on decent clothes, mostly ironed, with strong buttons and traditional embroidery. On belief side she had a sermon, close to her chest: help yourselves first, if you want to help others. At her home, sitting on a handmade cane chair, put under her musical shelf, he felt the presence of peace. On weekends, they would walk on beach; drink coconuts; and he would tell her about every stone thrown at him. Zena, that was her name.
“Why don’t you try at some influential man’s door?” she would ask him, sitting on her swing, coming near and going far. She knew all about his mapping, the running for the PCO and et cetera.
“It’s all because I refuse to play the card my destiny has served to me.”
The die was cast: he would play his own cards.
Since the day he had vowed to stand upon his feet, disappointments were in his close contact, regularly pouring in. Why should he do only the tasks reserved for disabled persons? The question roamed in his mind. Making cane chairs, packing things in packets, or to have a typists’ chair before a government office: these were the works he did not dislike. But these things bored him. He had fire in his heart to be an entrepreneur, to start a small venture of his own.
Owning a PCO, a telephone booth, was a worthy first step.
He was not on a fancy tour. Otherwise he would not have gone so far on actualisation of the project. He had a good habit, a childhood habit; while in school, he never went without doing homework.
Space: his father had no regret in sparing half of his bedroom as proposed shop. Partition done. Infrastructure: in the beginning, a chair, a small table, one half-glass and half-wooden cabin, and two sets of the telephone instruments would be enough stock. Finance: Fardeen, the grocery trader living at the corner of his street, would not mind lending him money. Otherwise, why would he waste hours in helping him to keep his shop accounts in order? But the trader would part with money only on the day of delivery of the instruments from department. That was precondition.
AFTER A WEEK, the story was different. A qualitative change. Though he reached there in neat and unruffled clothes, without falling at any of the traffic signals, the inner scene of the office was materially altered. It looked tidy, and the harsh and hygienic smell of phenyl used in floor washing had replaced the smell of the rose. Window curtains changed, from hard grey to soft brown. The lady in central position was transferred. And the person holding reign over the floor, now tidy, the staff, and the heaps of files was an unknown concept. There sat an aged, pot-bellied man, clearing the files.
He walked ahead, stood at the hinged door, looked blankly.
“Are you Mr. Sunil? Oh, have a seat. Please.” The replaced officer kick started the notion of humanity, the device that had been lying dormant in the office.
The balding figurehead of humanity, the new officer, rechecked all the details involved. To Sunil’s eyes, the man looked uncontaminated from the virus of red-tapism. Hope swelled. On seeing the manner in which the man was nodding his head, while reading the application, Sunil could not help imaging that he was sitting in his PCO chamber and outside it was a long queue of customers, waiting to talk.
“You know Mr. Desai, we are here to help you, especially handicapped people like you. Take it granted. Unfortunately we are in short supply of the instruments this month.”
“Sir, I am here since six months.”
“Oh. But why don’t you wait for one month more? Otherwise, it will be more expensive for you, if you buy these instruments from open market.”
The past revisited. The trend confirmed. Nothing was changed, perhaps. Futile were the efforts to say that the instruments available in market were cheaper and better than the government office would provide. Had there been no procedure of pleasing the officers, by purchasing the government-supplied instruments, he would have bought the entire set from the market. So he desisted from speaking out the reality. Anger. A long breath. He walked down the steps, almost feeling defeated.
The traffic signal, the metro train, and finally the steps leading to the terrace: that was his route.
“I knew a politician, a member of civic body.” Zena put a cup of coffee before him, keeping one for her. “If he can be useful.” She seemed showing enthusiasm, burying her scepticism under the hopeful words.
“No Zena. It’s a rule. Every locality should have one PCO. And they take full payments. I don’t pray for any concession, my being handicapped and all that. They why this… I…I can’t think more.” In small pauses he opened himself.
Zena did not stretch the subject further. Instead she talked about how he was doing in his occasional library work, and his final year’s study, and other items on their conventional list. Literature being prime. He liked reading literature, and he had taken it as main subject for his bachelor’s degree.
She would not mind talking with him till midnight. On terrace. The terrace of her house was without tiles, but it was helpful to buy an escape from the whole world and for putting openhearted talks on the plate. Since the day he was running behind his project, he needed the plate on daily basis.
NEXT month did not come easily. But it came. And the man was climbing steps of the office. Half defeated: half hopeful. It was too early. No one had come yet. Only a peon puffed his bidi, sending smoke in every corner. One hour passed. All other persons were on their seats. The pot-bellied officer had not arrived.
“Mr. Pande is on long leave.” One assistant officer replied on his agitated query.
“There must be someone in his charge.”
“I don’t know. Better you come next week.” The officer in question answered uninterestedly. He had his betel nut to chew.
“Then what the hell you people are doing if one man is on long leave?” Sunil’s voice caught an unusual height. “Answer me... Or I will contact the ministry. Just now... And that too from your telephone.” The words were gushing out like a flow of lava. The hope in his heart had been torn into pieces; and the names of the pieces were despair, anger, and protest. It was his outcry against those who tried to make people feel themselves as dwarf before them.
All the staff members rushed in. Shocked, they made a semicircle before him. No one except a lady clerk, looking a senior one, dared to talk.
“Mr. Sunil, have passion. Please. Come tomorrow. We’ll do something for you. Okay? Please.”
Handing over of a glass of cold water to him that he swallowed. Tea offered. His denial. Eventually the woman’s seniority succeeded in easing the tense atmosphere. The man, though agitated out of bounds, now touched by his own sanity, walked out of the office.
Blank minded was he; the sea beach was nearby. He wandered on the beach. Empty beach. No boats visible up to the horizon. Only the mass of water rose and fell against the burning sun, making the beach muddier. With some dry berries in hand, he sat on a conical stone; wetting feet in the water, not listening to the ticks of his watch. Whole day. He could sanitize his mind only at the fall of evening. Again, the traffic signal, the metro train, and finally the steps leading to the terrace: that was only route he would take while in distress. He took it. Mechanically.
Until the break of midnight, he could not disconnect his lips. Repentance, too, carry some weight, he realised, the repentance for his unruly behaviour. Dumb was Zena; silent were the sandwiches they chewed. When the midnight bell struck, she came closure. She kept her hand in his hair and fondled until he put his head on her breast. With a sob of an undefined length, he pressed Zena in embrace. As tight as possible.
It was his first desirous touch; she was the first woman to be so near to him, chest-to-chest, breath-to-breath. She knew it, too. Zena a woman in her mid-thirties was not uneducated in the subject that would follow. She had bruises of a failed love on her body, on her soul. In her youth, she was chased, allured, and cheated. In the process she had lost her virginity in daylight, on uncut grass, under the shadow of a big garden bench.
The woman unbuttoned her stiff blouse; the man brushed his nose at the foot of the hot, heaving hills. He felt speaking something unintelligible, unfathomable, like calling someone standing on the other side of the river. The river was in her full swing, making every thing standing on the bank to succumb to the force of the flow. His nostrils smelt a new life under bosom of the woman. But blind was he on the land of love. She helped his virgin desire. Moments passed. The notion of time disappeared; the feeling of space vanished. They were not two. It was a union; it was the neat absence of two-ness.
The moonless night slipped into protective darkness, making it easier for the humble stars to mark their identities in full.
FOR SUNIL, the morning came late. One hour later than usual. Still on the terrace. A surprising, soft, pillow comforted his head; a protective silken shawl guarded his body from the cold. For a few moments, his eyelids shifted positions, opened and shut, as the sunrays were so intruding, illuminating, and surprisingly fresh.
Zena, he assumed, was engaged in tuning one of her musical instruments, the violin, at downstairs. Coming down the steps, he just waved a hand at her. She smiled. And he went straight to his home.
He had weight in mind; weight of the deed they had performed last night. He had pleasure in his heart; the pleasure of being educated that how easily a partner-in-life could reduce the stress. The coal dark and star-studded night, the newly acquired education, and the reduced stress: these were the aspects, which were enough to revive his faith. He felt someone had fine-tuned the strings of life; someone had injected music in his veins. The music teacher. He pressed his lips, not in pain, but with secret pleasure.
For outside world he felt that the shapes of his house and Zena’s house, though standing at a distance of three plots of land, were merging into one another. The disappearing walls. Melting distances.
Other views were static, time-centric: at a far corner, Fardeen opening stock of trade; Ehsan, the washer man still fighting with his donkey; and Kanu, the barber was yawning as usual. But for Sunil, they collectively posed a scene of hope.
At home, the story was confusing one. Every member of his family was part of a ring; sitting around a man packed in khaki uniform. When he identified the man in question, the man with a slanted cap as postman, he felt relieved. The uniform was waiting for his signature. A registered letter addressed to Mr. Sunil Desai: that was the man’s sole purpose. There must be something from his college, he thought.
Of late the principal of his college had cultivated a generous habit, the habit of sending him cheques of smaller amounts. Sometimes for scholarship and sometimes for the hours Sunil assisted the college librarian.
But the letter was not from the college.
It was from the telephone authority. Apprehensively, he opened it,
Blah blah blah
Your application for setting up a Public Call Office (PCO) is sanctioned. You are requested to collect the necessary instruments within a week. You can make the required payment in cash, too. It’s optional for you to purchase the instruments from the department.
We hope for your success in the business.
“Zena…” That was a cry, the cry of utter joy. The loud happiness crossed the door; crossed the street; and knocked at the door of the third house. Zena came in running. Still in her nightgown, but looking decent. Forgetting all the public manners, the man embraced the woman, Zena. She, too, did not ask the reason for his being so delighted, trembling with pleasure. The waving of the letter at her was sufficient cause for them to rush in embrace.The tears they released were not of grief.