It must have been around 5. The sun wasn't up yet. The street lights flooded in through the broken windows and lit up the wall beside me. I moved my hand in an attempt to sit up. I saw a few house lizards scurry away on the wall. The ache in my chest shot up. I couldn't bear it. I let myself fall back on the floor, on the newspapers.
This was my bed. A couple of old newspapers spread out on the floor.
The pain made me breath faster, but with every breath I felt as though I was dying. It was as if my lungs were dry and with every breath they were being torn apart.
I lied down for a few minutes. Staring at the cracked ceiling. Trying to slow down my breathing as much as possible.
The sun had risen, and now, instead of the street light, it was the sun that was coming in through the window. I have to get up. I have to get to the shop before “they” pass.
As gently as possible, I get up on my feet. I look at my face through a broken piece of mirror that I found on the side of the road the other day. My face was eclipsed by my humungous beard and moustache, not to mention the overly grown hair. I dont remember the last time I was at the baber's. I dont remember the last time I bought myself a new pair of clothes. The brown shirt I wore was actually grey in color. Now it was covered in mud and shoe polish.
Taking tiny steps, I go out to the water tap outside. My old plastic bucket under it was still dry, as was it the day before. I guess there wont be water today too.
I started walking to my shop. My felt my beard itching very bad today. I got the feeling that something was running through it. Those damn ants!!
Guess I was kind of late today. The street was already busy with people hurrying on their way to work, school, or whereever they were heading.
After about 10 minutes of my sickeningly slow pace of walking, I reached the shop. My shop is actually a small wooden box. It was donated to me by a social service group. They took me out of the streets from begging and taught me how to polish and repair shoes. Then they put this tall narrow wooden box at a corner of the road and disappeared.
I opened the door and sat inside. I opened the polish box and placed the brush next to it. I tried not to move. Very shallow breaths. Even a slight moment of my head would cause pain in my chest.
My first customer was the man who never talks. As usual, I started polishing his shoes. Every movement of my hand caused a horrible pain in my chest.
It was almost as if someone was holding a spear against me and I was poking myself on it.
But I had to do this. I had become kind of used to the pain. It started as a mild ache and a funny feeling in my chest. It slowly progressed to what it is today. A debilitating, horrible pain.
The man who never talks threw a plastic bag next to me, and he did something that he had never done to me before. He talked.
“Polish this one too. I will pay you for both.”
He handed me a 20-ruppee note. Trying as much as possible not to overly twist my body, I take it.
By noon, the sun had started to target me. The heat and the dust from the street was something I could barely stand. Normally, I would have gone on a walk, but not today, not with the pain.
Other than an occasional customer, I was pretty much free. I would just sit there starting straight at the road. Trying to breathe as less as possible.
The pair of shoes that the man who doesn't speak gave was still lying there. By 4, I had decided that may be it was time that I finally got down to polishing it.
Just when I was about to reach for it, I heard the voice of a girl. She stood with a broken sandal in her hand. She had a very irritated look on her face. I took a look at her slipper and told her that it will cost her 20 rs. But I said it using as less a breath as possible. The last thing I want to do is to exhert myself even slightly.
“What?” she says turning her right ear to me.
This time I put in a bit more effort and tell her.
Before she can answer, this young man shows up. He drops a huge handbag in front of me. I can see at least 10 pairs of shoes in them.
“I want them to look as good as new!” he orders.
I counted 12 pairs. Normally, I would be happy and consider this a lucky day, but not today. This today was torture. All I wanted to do was to sleep all day long and hope this thing in my chest goes away. But I wasn't going to lose business. I asked him when he wants them back. He says he would come in tomorrow to pick them up. Then with a flirtive look at the girl, he disappeared.
The girl then said that she is fine with the 20 rs and told me she will collect it later. Then, barefooted, she caught an auto and disappeared.
It was turning out to be a very good day business-wise.
As I sat there, my beard itched. It felt heavy. The mud from the street that was thrown up everytime a vehicle passed by seemed to end up in my beard.
I have had my beard for so long, I dont even remember how my face looked like without them.
Sometimes I would feel something crawling somewhere deep in them, but you know, you can imagine all kind of things. I tried to get myself a shave a few times, but the barber guys always chased me away. They dont want to get anywhere near me. And they dont want me anywhere inside their shop. Its not their fault. I look like a mad man. With all the dirt in my hair and the stink. To be frank, the stink doesn't bother me at all. It has been weeks since I even tried sniffing anything. I wish I could just stop breathing altogether just so that my chest would stop hurting.
I spent the evening repairing the girl's sandals, and then got started on the shoes. But by then, the sun had started to set, and I decided to go home.
My home was actually just an abandoned old room. There was no electricity. I had a candle and a matchbox just in case I needed to use them at night. I relied on the public tap at the street for water.
In my room, you can see my only other possession other than my shop. A small rag bundle. Inside is a dirty pair of clothes. I am waiting for the next time there is water supply so that I can wash them. It has been 4 days since there was water here. I looked at the bottle of water at the corner of the room which I have for drinking, and it was almost empty.
It was night. The street light flooded in through the broken window. In the dim light, I felt the newspapers with my hands and made sure they were arranged well and then I lied down on them. And waited to fall asleep.
The pain in my chest had been getting worser over the weeks. It had come to a point where I would wake up in the middle of the night grabbing my chest, crying.
I heard some dogs barking in the streets. I waited for them to quiet down so that I could try going to sleep. Normally, I would get up and chase the dogs away, but not today. Because that would mean I will have to exert myself. I had surrendered to the pain. I would do anything to avoid the pain.
I must have fallen asleep sometime soon. When I woke up, I was gagging for breath. Something was stuck in my nose. That something was in my right nostril, and it was not just “some”thing, it was something alive. Something wriggling. Something trying to get into my nose.
I panicked. I tried to feel near my nose and pull out whatever it was, but all I could get my hands on were hair. My overgrown moustache. My beard. I clawed through my moustache.
To someone who didn't understand what was happening, I must have looked like a mad man.
Suddenly, my fingers caught something and I pulled it out and threw it on the floor. It fell on the floor with a slap. At first, I couldn't make out what it was. Then under the dim street light, I could make out what it was. A house lizard. It just sat there with its head turned towards me. Then it started to chew.
I moved closer to it. A scowl on my face. It was chewing on what looked like an ant. I stared at it. After a few moments, it scurried away and climbed up a wall. Then disappeared into the darkness.
Why were they in my nose?
Then it suddenly hit me. The ants, they were in my lungs.
I must be crazy to even think about this, but as soon as I realized this, I could feel them. They were moving inside my lungs. Almost as if one of them hurried down and told the rest about the lizard, about how they were in danger, and they all started to panic.
I placed my hand on my chest and tried taking a deep breath. A horrible pain shot through my chest. Almost as if my chest was being sawed off. Were they biting into me? Were they eating me alive?
Suddenly, I felt something move in my beard. It must be one of those ants. Crawling through my beard. Coming out only at night to gather food. Then back into their home, my lungs.
I provided them with warmth. I provided them with safety.
I started to panic. My heart was pounding, and every time it did that, my chest was pulsating with pain. I had to go to one of those doctors. Its been more than a decade that I have been to one.
I felt around my trousers and pulled out all the wealth I had in the world. A 10 ruppee note.
A consultation with a general physician would cost me at least 30 Rs. At first, I was dissapointed, but then I remembered about all the shoes I had at the shop. I was going to get good business done the next day. I promised myself that I would visit the doctor the next day.
I was too afraid to go back to sleep. I just sat there staring out at the night sky through the window.
In the morning, the tap was still dry. I emptied the bottle of its last drop of water and started my walk to my shop.
The man who never talked came by and took his shoes.
I finished polishing all the 12 pairs of shoes and sat waiting for the customer to collect them and pay me.
Thats when this guy came on a bike. He wore a white shirt with a blue tie and black formal trousers. And he wore this dusty black shoe.
I started polishing them, but my chest had started to hurt really bad. Almost as if the ants knew I was planning to get rid of them. Throw them out of their home. Throw them out of my lungs. I tried to breath as less as possible.
Then, this guy bent down and picked up one of the 12 pairs of shoes and started looking at them.
To be frank, I never approved of this. This wasn't a shoe shop. Those shoes belonged to someone else. But I didn't tell him anything. I was in too much pain.
He picked up another shoe, then stared at it and said,
“Where did you get these???”
I wanted to tell him that it was none of his bussiness. But when I opened my mouth, I couldn't talk. All I could make was a grunting noise. It was almost as if the ants had eaten the insides of my lungs, and now the lungs were too weak to even help me with talking.
The guy stared at me. Then he took out one of those cellphones and started talking into it,
“Uncle, I found your shoes! Its with this cobbler guy at the end of the street!”
I have no idea what was going on.
This guy starts pacing right in front of my shop. He never let me finish polishing his shoe.
From time to time, he would stop his pacing and scowl at me for a few seconds as if I am some little brat who is supposed to feel sorry for whatever I did.
I just sat there without the faintest of idea of what was happening. I didn't want to get up or ask what was happening because I already felt like I was dying. I just sat there, staring at the street, breathing as shallow as possible.
To someone who didn't understand what was happening to me, I must look like a dumb old man.
To be frank, I dont know how old I really am. I am sure I am over 50 for sure.
Suddenly, this huge vehicle stopped in front of my shop. These tough-looking guys got out of it. They all looked pretty angry to me.
This one guy, a bald, chubby guy, walked over to me. He looked at the shoes and then started shouting at me asking where I got them.
May be I should have answered him, but I had given up trying. He shouted at me a few more times. I just sat there looking at him. Then this other guy who came with him grabbed me by my shirt's collar and threw me out of the shop. I fell on the ground outside. He then kicked me by my side. The pain spread to my chest, and I jumped up and began to shuffle away from them.
As I continued to shuffle away in pain, I heard them shouting something among themselves. Once I had reached the other corner of the street, I stood behind a tree and looked back at my shop.
The men were still there. One of them picked up all the shoes and threw them into their vehicle. Then one of them started to push the shop, and after a minute's resistance, it had toppled over. A few of them joined together and started kicking it and breaking its sides.
Within minutes, as I watched helplessly, my shop was reduced to a few wooden planks.
I went back home. After the breakfast I had in the morning, I was left with nothing. I can very well forget about the consultation. Not to forget that with the shop now gone, I was left with no livelihood. And I dont think anybody would readily hire a stinking, dirty madman.
It was evening. The sun had begun to set. The pain seemed to have spread to my back.
What were they up to? Are they going to eat me alive? May be when I die, there will be nothing left of me. Just a hollow dead body.
I arranged the newspapers on the floor and lied down on it. I saw one of the lizards come out of the darkness. It was on the wall right above me. I stood there, waiting, looking at me, almost as if we were competing at who would stare the longest.
As I kept staring at it, my eyelids began to get heavy. May be I was sleepy. Or may be I was just so weak that my body couldn't handle staying awake much longer.
Every time I blinked my heavy eyes, the lizard appeared to have taken a few steps towards me. It kept getting closer and closer.
- Rejo John