One night, a man named Baz Sura heard the sound of the rubbish men driving by his street. It was late; it’s common for them to do that during the night. They used to do it earlier, at 11 or so pm, but he had just realised that they had been doing it much later for months now.
This prompted him to forget about the book he was trying to write, and indulge in some idle revelry.
He dreamed, fantasised even, of wandering the streets late at night when all was so rarely quiet, with no people or cars to disturb neither him, nor the still of the tender, silent, sleepless night.
What was odd about these imaginings was the presence of the rubbish men. Their faintly heard presence was still perceivable as they passed by; their discordant banging had still not yet slipped away from the subconscious theatre of silence, and the solitary scene that was being dramatised upon a stage within the memory muscle of his cerebral cortex.
He watched them with his mind’s eye as he followed them, from a distance mind you, to avoid the sight, sound and especially the smell of the rubbish-filled lorry.
He thought to himself, as he was always alone, that he might go after them, but he decided it was too late now; they had already been and gone; or bin and gone, rather. Well, he would never track them down now anyway. So instead, he decided to wait until the following night, and be ready for them. He knew not for what purpose exactly; to see where they go, out of idle curiosity. It’s hard to say. Sometimes one must fulfil a dream and uncover the nightmare first, before one can move on from it, and get over it.
He was pleased that something like this had come up, just to take his mind off things, to take a break, and not have to think about his writing for a while. The writing wasn’t the problem; well not the biggest one anyway. He never experienced writer’s block, quite the opposite in fact; he wanted to know how to block the writing runs when it poured down upon him like an English hailstorm, or a Maharashtra monsoon. He sometimes considered ways of constipating his compositions, and wondered what kind of literary laxative he had consumed to enable prose to pour forth so fruitfully and futilely from his plastic pens. More than this, the literary thorn in his side was the unenviable and unedifying endeavour that is editing. Trying desperately to meld together all manner of miscellaneous fragments, from many different places, that don’t really belong together, until they are buried into the pages of a book and stored.
He carried on struggling with his editing ennui while looking forward, excitedly anticipating the night to come, as if he were a boy again at Christmas time, when the myth of Father Christmas was still enchanting, instead of delusory and disappointing.
On that sour note of unmelodious memory, he decided that he’d had enough. He mentally clocked out and turned in for the night, after a long session of banging and pounding his fingers upon the keys.
When he awoke from his token nap, he felt like venturing outside. Just for a few moments, mind you; but even this was a rarity for him. He didn’t want his usual Spartan inmate breakfast, consisting of leftover stale bread and almost clean tap water. Today he wanted something he could taste, which was high in calories, a heavily sugared snack treat that might give him enough energy for the long night of moon walking ahead. However, not something so indulgent that he would have stomach problems later, as finding a clean public toilet during the day is hard enough. If you think the city by day is an open sewer, you can imagine that when night finally falls and spreads its blanket of darkness upon the snoring millions, the city becomes even more of a public toilet. Who is going to see, and what would that do about it anyway? Still, it is odd to find someone shitting in public. I only remember ever seeing it once at a train station in Mumbai; but it was a child, and they are always forgiven for everything. They haven’t been socialised yet; at the tender age of a toddler they haven’t even learned to be disgusted by faeces.
He went to a small supermarket nearby to see what he could find. He still fancied something sweet, chocolaty; maybe a mousse, like the Chambourcy hippopotamus mousse he used to like as a child. Or a double chocolate gateau, like the ones he annually ate surreptitiously at Christmas time, when the other family members were busy watching soap operas and extended Christmas specials.
He knew he’d regret it; but when he found such a gateaux, he couldn’t resist. No hippo mousse though, as he used to call it; they don’t make those here, he lamented.
After reluctantly paying at the checkout, he made his way back home, stored his purchase safely in the fridge for later, and went for another light nap before his big night out on the town.
Winter had just started, so by the time Baz woke up it was dark already.
The dark and damp night was being forced by the seasonal boss to work unpaid overtime. This pleased the night none too much. The temperature had already warmed up as far as it could reach. Besides, during its graveyard shift, one of the perks of the job for the working night was freezing people, giving them colds, watching people kill themselves from depressive seasonal affective disorders, or from jumping off of bridges onto brick thick ice, thinking the water would drown them, only to be killed on impact. Even successful suicide attempts can be as accidental, unintended and moronic as unsuccessful ones.
Even funnier than this, however, was observing OAP’s as they froze to death in their beds.
Baz quickly got ready, and waited for the rubbish men to come and stink up the neighbourhood, as they did every night.
When he heard them, he made his way down to watch for the direction they took, before following them slowly.
So few people traipsed the streets that the direction he was heading in seemed to make it obvious to other masochistic and/or misanthropic night strollers what he was following. A drunken man even shouted something at him. It sounded like he said:
“If you’re so keen on walking with the rubbish men, why don’t you become one, they’re not fussy, they might even hire you.”
After his initial response of bemusement blossomed into the blooming blues of comprehension, a fuming and furious feeling of being insulted followed, which stained his sensitive soul until he remembered a line from Seinfeld: the episode when Kramer remarked that bums were always walking the streets, so why not strap something on to them.
This cheered him up no end. After a few chuckles to himself, he finally realised why he was here: he wanted to see where the rubbish ended up.
He had some vague idea that it would go to some landfill site, somewhere out of town. He had learnt that much about the practicalities of the governmental policy from the environmental campaigning he had done as a younger man.
He realised that they would not drive as slowly when going there, as when collecting the city’s crap piles. This made his plan pointless.
Unless, that is, he plucked up the courage to ask them if he could tag along; just to see where it goes. He knew he might have to offer his services in return, not to mention being thought of as eccentric in the extreme; but this was no more than he was accustomed to anyway. He thought; what the hell!
He hadn’t been on a journey for years now. He was adventure starved; but sadly, this was the only scrap he could find in the bins that lined the streets with filth.
He had often dreamed of working like this; only aboard a ship, instead of a moving skip on wheels.
He wanted to work on a cruise liner, and sail the earth like his colonial forefathers did; even though he had once read some campaigning materials co-produced by War on Want and the ITF (the International Transport Workers' Federation). Amongst these included a report entitled Sweatships; the first chapter, of which, was called “Dream vs. Reality.” He knew which one he preferred. Like the tidal rhythms thrusting the vessel hither and thither, a myriad of musings ebbed and flowed in his mind. He dreamed of serving semi-naked octogenarian yuppie millionaires piña coladas upon a windswept upper deck. These sundrenched dames, drama queens, and cancer-kissed crinklys, sprawled over their sun bed royal thrones and wiggled their burnt, sweating bodies for him to feast his starving eyes upon their flamed grilled, sizzling and salivating juicy fleisch, like a snorting porker who’s just won the truffle “lotto!”. The presence of these perspiring, polygamous poly-Gammys, and sugar Playboy Gammys turns the term Sweatship into something of a double entendre.
Later, while serving them Ragout de Poulet a l’ail en vinaigrette chaude followed by biscuits aux amandes, the wily old women would whisper their room numbers in his ear while the bosses were taking their umpteenth power nap to shelter from the boiling and baking afternoon heat of the reflected ocean sun.
Such reality-checking reading material gave him the disillusioning impression that employees are treated little better than kidnapped Indian slave children, who are sent down to illegally mine minerals. Cruise workers were confined to the dark and insalubrious lower deck, cooped up like: an overweight school of sardines “Packt” in a shrinking “crushd tin box”; the NBA MVP annual award ceremony in a midget pensioner’s bungalow; the fat English wrestler Giant Haystacks slumming it in a bad poet’s bedsit; or Dharavians.
Such was his idle romanticism, not to mention his overactive use of simile. However, such oceanic, orgiastic and octogenarian obsessive dreams could only survive among his psyche’s fantasies because he had never tried it. If he did, his illusions would soon sink like an indolent sailor, when he discovered the over salty taste of a scurvy-suffering, sea sickening life on the ocean wave.
Instead, he preferred to get lost in his delusory desires as he dreamed of stopping off on tropical Polynesian Islands. Fuelled by the inspiration of Paul Gauguin’s pure, primitive paintings of the equally erotic and exotic Polynesians; he yearned to be castaway and washed up on distant shorelines, to be resuscitated by bronzed and brazened beauties before being rested, relaxed and reposed in their cosy wooden shacks.
But alas time was running out, and he could get to grips with their native tongue; so back to reality he came, as there were things to be done. Things he’d rather not do.
He romanticised about wandering the streets alone. Not having to beg smelly rubbish men if he could help them cover themselves head to toe in other people’s crap.
Nevertheless, that’s what he did. After much reluctance and procrastination, I should add, fatigue finally forced him to assert himself, and “assay the power” as Lucio rhetorically urged Isabella, in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
His request was initially met with suspicion and disbelief, swiftly followed by utter indifference.
There was room in the wagon, so they didn’t give two hoots about what ass perched on it.
This was the gist of their mannered response.
He felt he should talk to them, lest he felt rude, not because he wanted to. However, they seemed so eager to get on with their job and get to sleep, that they looked unapproachable; for which he was thankful, as he too was beginning to tire of this tawdry trip to the tip.
After holding his nose for over half an hour, he was anticipating a long awaited and welcome breather; but, to his despair, his nostril hairs only sensed and found was unfair, foul, “fog and filthy air.” As he hovered through, he could conclude only one thing: the smell was ghastly.
He regretted not bringing with him something more to cover his nose, as all he had with him was his scarf. However, what he needed was an oxygen mask, or a gas mask; like the one his grandparents used during the war. He saw two of them at their house and wanted them because they were Disney specials and had the faces of “Donald Duck und Mickey Mouse. We’re all living in America.”
Even during this moment of bourgeois selfishness, Baz was still able to spare a thought for all the Mumbaiker gandi basti children he had witnessed, both on television and in person. Viewed as animals by higher castes, these children are forced to navigate their way through nauseating haystacks hoping to find the illusive needle, thread or anything else of value, to recycle and sell, like those fictional furry, protruding nosed species The Wombles of Wimbledon common – the preferred children’s programme of Baz’s infantile years in Britain. These Indian children, who are frowned upon and looked down upon as mere beasts by their Brahmin supposed superiors, have to scavenge for anything edible, they are perceived as Palaeolithic savages, or Pigs and mongrel dogs routing for Italian perigord truffles in the Tuscan woods on a dewy, dawn of a summer morn. Crouching down on all fours these so-called Slumdogs crawled, amid the ruined, remains of old slagheaps, which had been mutated and moulded by modernity into kitchens and kiosks for the untouchable infant Dalits, who had to live on and off these foul and malodorous mountains of waste land, literally.
He was more than ready to head back now; but he saw how much rubbish they still had to empty from the muck machine.
For a second he feared that they may leave him there, resenting him for just covering his nose while they just got on with their dirty day job. So he rolled up his sleeves and decided to muck in. He grabbed hold of one bag at a time, and placed it where they were throwing theirs. He imagined they were mocking him, even if he spared no time on witnessing it. They suspected that he wanted to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, just as they did; rather than being foolish enough think that he was exerting himself purely as a token of his gratitude for this smelliest of nights out. They didn’t care. Any help with getting this shitty job over and done with quicker was always welcome.
He took a brief moment to scour the rubbish-strewn landscape. It seemed like a visual trick, in this less than velvet half-light. He couldn’t decide or make out what he saw.
Had the million different kinds of muck been turned into a golden order, or was it still just an endless collection of scrap waste? He looked, and then looked again, each time seeing the alternate view, never seeing the same one twice.
The smell was still there, he thought, even though he couldn’t smell it anymore. For a second he desired to stay there for just a little longer, to watch as the sunlight started to emerge from the clouds, and through the warm hot air steaming from this city-sized scrapheap.
However, his temporary colleagues unceremoniously reminded him that this wasn’t a guided tour, and that they all had wife-warmed beds to go back home to, and didn’t want to be farting around this shithole all day for nothing.
Their work was finally done, for another day anyway; while his labours would begin again, as soon as he returned home. He looked back once more, longingly, at the golden tide of trash shimmering in the sunlight. He dug his nails hard into his arm trying not to cry. He knew the rubbish men had more than enough material to satisfy their work weary whimsy. So he pulled his cap down as far has he could to cover his eyes, slowly trudged heavily footed towards their escape vehicle, flopped down on the seat and bowed his head down low.
They scrambled for their seats and drove back to the city. They would be back tomorrow. Fortunately, for all concerned, Baz Sura would never set his eyes upon this rubbish nor this suburban underworld for the underused ever again; and more importantly, it would be the last time that his averted nostrils would so quickly grow accustomed to the inhalation of this putrefying and un-poetic wasteland.