Friday, January 23, 2004

short short story

I woke up at the crack of dawn; with that now familiar sense of expectancy that something would have miraculously changed by the intervening night and like always, my hopes were dashed by the familiar chaos around me. Still, there was a vague comfort in knowing that we had not lost our position on the road. I gently shook my wife, who was sleeping slumped on my back, and she came awake with a start- she had never gotten used to sleeping on a scooter like I had. All round us people were gradually stirring, and as the sun rose in the sky, I could make out the entire highway packed with vehicles. I greeted my neighbours with a smile and a nod, and set about trying to attract the attention of the vendors. Every morning the vendors plied their trade, winding their way nimbly among the vehicles, equipped with no more than a bag or a tray. I finally managed to catch the eye of one chap, who was walking with a small canteen of coffee. He hopped across the vehicles and came up to me. I bought two cups, and he moved on, zigzagging neatly through the crowd, yelling in neat, rhythmic shouts. Ahead of me, the highway stretched forever, a long band of grey dotted with vehicles, but I knew that soon we would reach the turning where, by all accounts, the going would get easier. Surely not many people were headed the same way we were. I hoped not. It was already close to two months that we’d been on the same stretch.

The newspaper guys came next but I decided not to buy anything, my radio gave me all the news I wanted and besides, there was no telling when a space would open up in front of me and I was unwilling to take the chance. Just yesterday we lost a neighbour. He had been talking on his cellphone, arguing vehemently, and he somehow did not realise that the Wave was getting closer. By the time he figured out that he should have moved, he had two fractures, and his motorbike was damaged beyond salvage. The medics took him away, and we had a brand new neighbour- a dour faced chap who did not feel any remorse for his good luck: he did not show any emotion as he stepped up next to us. A Wave happened only 4-5 times a day, but those few feet you gained meant all the difference, especially if you were near an exit. Usually one could detect a Wave quite easily- a steady oscillating increase in the noise of vehicles revving up and honking - but the problem was that there were so many false starts that one had to be quite alert to make out the difference between the real thing and just another fake one. It was lucky for us that nothing happened in the night, or I don’t know how we would have hung in here for all these days. The authorities usually cut off the roads at night, but it was not always like this- in the beginning they used to allow movement at night, but then the medics couldn't handle the stress, and so they decided to block movement at night.

My wife started to come awake properly, and she set about preparing breakfast. I have forgotten what a normal hot cooked meal tastes like, but my wife always managed to make something edible out of the odds and ends that we were able to buy from the vendors. There was always a fear that we would run out of money soon, especially to fill up gas from the roving petrol sellers, but I knew that we would manage to reach the exit before then. After all, I had sold every single thing we had owned to make this last trip, and all of it was carefully hidden among our belongings as well as the scooter. Even if we got robbed, it was unlikely that we would be left without some money to fend for ourselves.

My wife turned to me and said:
-Any news?
-Nothing new. I didn’t buy the newspaper, but the radio says that there were three deaths in the night.
-Three deaths. Well maybe it’s coming down
(Last week there had been a spate of accidents)
-Hope so.
-Did you see what happened to Mr. G (our ex-neighbour)?
-The medics took him to the side, but unless the helicopter comes, he won’t make it.
-Helicopter! Huh! When was the last time you saw one come for a regular motorist?
-Not very likely, I agree.
-Too bad.
-Yes, he was a good man.
There was a pause, but I knew what she was going to ask.
-So how far are we from the exit?
-Same as last night, I replied touchily, you know we haven’t moved in the night.
-How far?
-Around 5 km, I think. (But I thought to myself-another month or so, if we’re lucky)

At this point conversation usually dropped and we sat in silence watching our neighbours, who watched us in return. Thus the day passed. It was a good day; all said and done; we had only 27 false starts and 5 real ones. I could almost see the exit from here.