(Fiction. 897 words. First published in 2006)
The demolition squad took three hours to raze the settlement.
When the bulldozer was reaching for the wall with his Shah Rukh Khan poster, Nelo made to rush for it but was held back by his mother. His tiny fingers hadn’t been able to rescue it glued to the bare brick. They tore it down with one push.
It had cost him all of ten rupees, a full six months’ picking through the lanes and saving the returns from them. It had to be hidden behind the broken wicker trunk under the bed for two days till his father sobered from a generous hooch spree. It wasn’t the best idea to catch him in one of those moods.
After sleeping it off, father woke jolly and helped him fix it, fetching a rupee’s worth of boiled gum from the binder’s man.
His mother’s calendar pictures of goddesses were gone too. It had been the first wall to be taken down. She had collected them, over time, like bits of spangle in the loot she scavenged. She drew her children close to her, the youngest snuggled inside her belly, it was still some months before its coming, some pots and randomly lifted clothes around their feet, all that could be saved of their handful possessions. Nelo did not know but his mother had been in two evictions before. She looked with unconscious calm as the giant caterpillar gobbled up their home.
He couldn’t understand how it happened. His father had told him it was just lies. They had voted for the ruling party. They could settle anywhere they liked, on the canal if the government would not provide them another space. Nelo knew his father had a voter card, they were free citizens and such like. He had often heard his father say, sitting among his card cronies with a biri stuck to his lips, the canal dredging business was a ruse to distract.
‘Just some hogwash to account for public money,’ he mumbled, concentrating on the hand of teen patti, then adding in half jest, ‘We poor people are the only they can toy around.’
Seven days ago when the notice was served them and a horde of television channels descended on them like flies on carrion, he had said as much in front of the cameras. They had all gathered at the door of Monikaku’s hovel to watch Nelo’s father on the 7 o’clock news.
But the machines came and the police in van loads before noon, kicking on their makeshift shutters, knocking about water tubs and throwing bodily whatever they could lift outside before the people, coming to their senses about the real danger, scrambled to preserve as much of their belongings as they could. The cameras came but Nelo’s father was nowhere to be seen, busy retrieving as much he was allowed to before being pushed aside, and then slouching behind everyone observing in apparent insouciance. He itched for a smoke but didn’t dare light up in front of the police. God knows why a harmless roll of leaves should evince disrespect.
The neighbours clustered, silent and watchful, some cursing anathemas in undertone but most simply waiting for the men to leave.
By three everything was over. The droning stopped. The giants reluctantly rolled away, lumbrous after the day’s feast. The vans filled and drove off. There were clouds of dust where shacks had stood when Nelo went to sleep last night, even as he woke, drooped to the outback for the morning pee, queued at the corporation tap when it spluttered to life. He had managed to pocket six marbles today, feeling exceptionally lucky and secure in his father’s sense of calm.
‘Isn’t an election coming?’ he had said knowingly. ‘Don’t they need our votes to win?’
He had flashed his I-card on the TV screen. Nelo hoped they saw it, those in the government father kept mentioning.
Buri, his sister, started to cry, clutching a bald, armless creature called Doll to her heart. The two year old boy began to bawl at this. The fetid rot reached out of the upturned ground, of gutters spewed open and stale urine relieved in the sly behind someone’s wall.
In ones and twos people rummaged in the heaps, pulling out fragments of corrugated tin, unmolested bricks, tile, dressings for another civilization someplace. Little groups broke off on a new departure, a curious procession of men, women and children undone from the roots, trusses of future stacked on their heads and shoulders, hanging from their arms.
Across the rail tracks was a wasted land. A few more years of their lives could be passed till someone worked out a plan to put the stretch to use. Come to think of it, one wouldn’t have to run far to defecate any longer, the tracks being almost next door. It had been lousy in the winter mist, and after a night’s revelry, when sleep refused to stop hugging the lids, to journey so far out in rain or when the stomach gripped to be released.
‘Come,’ said the father, when he had had enough of staring at the dismantled fabric, lifting the bundle from his feet and following the line that walked away. He didn’t look back to see if his young family was following, knowing they would, muttering to no one in particular, ‘Let’s go.’