ON that wet day, the cold had not entered and curdled in my chest, rising to skin as fever. On that day, I stood in the rain and looked across the road at several men, sitting on the pavement under two umbrellas. They huddled together, perhaps seeking the warmth of each other’s bodies more than a cover from the icy downpour.
They usually talk, these men, of whatever it is that occupies their mind: Money, the next meal, debt and disease — one could safely surmise. That day, they were quiet and intent on staying warm. And shelter from the rain under the inadequate cover of the two umbrellas.
Now, as pain stabs my lungs, and fever breaks my bones, I wonder what they — and their families — do when these men catch the plague.
On that day I stood on the other side of the road and wondered what they were thinking.
To not take life personally, to rage meekly, weakly, at its indignities, all the way to death for the promise: The meek shall inherit the earth.
To not take all the days, nights, weeks and years as the pain of your aching organs, your failing viscera, your fading face. Teeth falling, cheeks sinking. Ribs, when not broken from falling from one, protruding like the rungs of a ladder.
Aurangzaib Khan in Peshawar
To not turn the back, the displaced discs of a bent spine, to the burden and debilitating blows of survival, every single day. While the world that gives hard labour its illusion of dignity watches indifferently. Expecting you to face the grind, to walk through it tall, chin-up.
What are you thinking, the world wants to know.
To not bow the head in shame of the indignities life heaps over that back; to ignore the iron nail of pain rising up the spine from sitting on the cold pavement on a rainy day; to let the wind buffet through the sieve of your bird-like chest, your rattling coughing lungs; on a freezing day when the body doesn’t shiver as one but the tendons and sinews of it dart like tadpoles under the brave, placid surface of your dignified form, every time a cold drop of rain falls over your grim, settled features.
The wind is a wasp. It stings.
To sit there quiet while it crawls over your shivering flesh. To wait and watch the world go by.
And strength in the face of adversity, like this plague. But what does it mean to be strong when poverty is an immuno-compromising condition? What does it mean to be strong when one limps from polio contracted in slums, pees yellow from hepatitis, sweats and shivers from malaria. Typhoid, diarrhoea, pneumonia? When all of it, the pre-existing conditions, come as companions to poverty, to a body weakened by labour, to unemployment, to this day wasted on the pavement, patiently staring at the cars that hiss by on the wet road like insects with metal exoskeletons, impervious to cold and rain? To sit and wonder if the day’s labour will be lost again because no one stops, no one comes to hire help for a leaky faucet, a choked sewer, to move house or lift furniture?
Try telling these men, huddled under the meagre cover of two umbrellas on this cold wet morning, about the need for social distancing. Try telling it to the man with the ashen face, as if he has a chronic kidney disease from lifting weight he is not capable of; to someone just a brick-load or a cement bag away from spitting blood. But that’s not an immediate concern: Putting food on the mat for his family, repairing the leaky roof, paying rent, electricity bill and treatment of that nagging pain in the back is.
Try telling him that and he would tell you poverty and its underlying conditions are just as lethal as the plague.
And now, just now, the fact that this hoe, that hammer, the saw, the pickaxe and the spade is unemployed, arranged in some kind of abstract sculpture at your feet like emblem to unite the workers of the world, now that the red sickle-and-hammer flag is no more.
A sculpture of bleached wood handles and rusted iron, idle tools for masonry arranged in a new symbol for the labour rendered unemployed by the plague. Not the “working class”, not its lies and illusions of dignity, but the “labourer” who loses his “labour” and “daily wage” as the pandemic rages.
The world, that wraps the toil of labour in lofty notions of dignity and rights for workers, stands on the other side of the road and watches. It wants to know what it is you are thinking.
If only it would pay you that penny for all your troubling thoughts.
We may as well tell the world that we are here to toil so we could inherit the earth beyond the grave — once the sly, sinister collusion of blind faith, with its hope of prayers, and big money, with its greed for grandeur and power, kills us. We will rise again and own the earth eternally, we have been promised.
But here comes help, hope on wheels. And we all rush, leaving the sculpture, the dignity it should represent, on the pavement. We are clamouring now, tearing through the wall of bodies to snatch the morsel from the mouths of our own kind.
It angers the man in the car that stopped; it makes him rush away in disgust, rolling up the window, when we turn into a lynch mob. Competing, always competing against our friends and companions for work or alms, attacking those who stop to deliver it with snatching hands.
But doesn’t he know that help, the noble intent of empathy in Ehsaas (government programme), is never enough? That someone among us will go hungry at the end of the day always, without work or wages?
Here comes another. He has three hundred rupees for the twelve of us. With our sculptures and our two umbrellas. He wants us to divide it equally among us. That’s Rs25 for each man. We are grateful. Some days, we go without even that, no one stopping to leave rice in plastic bags to eat from.
The world stands on the other side of the road. It wants to know what are we thinking.
Here we sit, reduced from “dignified” labourers and workers or whatever it is that defines toil and hard labour, to beggars. From workers to beggars, it bears repetition. With our hollow eyes and our hunger pangs, we sit thinking whether the car turning the street or coming up the road will stop.
As for the world, it could lie in a warm bed, quarantined with its chicken soup that tastes like sawdust to its plague-stricken senses, complain about the cold curdling in its chest, the fever rising to its skin. We are not here to compete for its insufficient ventilators or pricey vaccine — if it ever comes to us here on this pavement, with all its cracks.
Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2020