Humans of poverty
This piece is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
“Hello, I have this page, where I take pictures of people and share something about them, a thought, a quote, an opinion, an anecdote, whatever you are willing to offer.”
“So can I take a picture and ask you a question?”
“Sure, go ahead, but make it quick.”
“Cool… hmm… so I was wondering, what is your saddest memory?”
“Haha, I see you are pretty clever for your age. You know which will sell more – and a eunuch’s saddest memory will definitely have more depth to it than any happy moments, which I have experienced. They are more regular, more every day, shallow.”
“Haha, don’t worry we will talk about them too.”
“Hmm, I was abducted at an early age, castrated and sold into beggary; nothing different from how others are kidnapped and then blinded or amputated. People with defects or shortcomings just seem to touch that right, sympathetic, feel-good nerve. We can cleanse consciences and reassure others of how humane they are. As if their lousy twenty rupee note can reverse all the ills they have inflicted upon each other and us.
I have had my money snatched by policemen, you know these badmash tullas are the biggest leeches of all and I have been sexually harassed too, even molested, as a child. But you can call that an occupational hazard – rites of passage. You are not a prostitute but one of those tick tock, high end, actress-sort escorts, if you haven’t been raped. Welcome to our world.
I even had my business stolen by these immigrant wannabe hijras, who dress up as us just to make a quick buck. How impotent and cowardly. The point of all this is, I have seen some serious lows, I have hit rock bottom and then I have been stomped upon and pushed further down. But nothing breaks my soul the way a child’s reaction to my presence does. I see them cry when I come near them. It makes me feel defective in a palpable way, not just defected as members of a society who are destined to earn either through beggary or prostitution but as an entity. As a person.
When a young child without any prejudices and biases, sees you as an anomaly, what do you do? You cannot say their thought processes have been adulterated; they are as natural as one can be. It makes you feel ugly and grotesque. Have you seen the skin of a young child, I am sure you have. Does it not feel like cling film; soft and vulnerable? Mine in contrast is sand paper. Touch it. Rough, coarse and scratchy. If I stand for all that is wrong with the society, they stand for all that could be right. But the way they see me, it just validates who I am and will always be. Wrong…”
Deep enough? Now can we get to the happy moments?”
“Sure, sure… please go ahead. What makes you happy?”
“When chikna boys like you, these days, come and ask for my photograph.”
And then she winked.
“Choti, come here, I will take your picture.”
“Okay sahib, should I get my younger brother? I will hold him up while you photograph us. We also have a dumpster in the street behind us; you can take our picture there.”
“Haha; no, I’ll take your picture while you talk.”
“What… but will you at least buy me an ice cream after this?”
“Sure. Okay, tell me, what is your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Haha, what makes you happy?”
“A lot of things.”
“I don’t know, ice cream makes me happy; when people give out food instead of money, it makes me happy. Momentarily happy, because I know, Ammi will later thrash me for not hitting the target for the day. I earn Rs200 per day and we have to pay daily to the uncles who let us work here. They only take money, never food. When people pay money to that birdman, over there, to free the birds, it makes me happy and when he lets me hold them in my palm, I can feel their heart thump in chest, they are very fragile. He only allows me near his birds, I am gentle with them and he says that he is gentle with me…
When I tap on windows and they are rolled down, while people hastily reach out for money, in their purses, I stick my head a little in their cars. I quickly breathe in the cold scented air of their car; sometimes I trap that air in my mouth and release it only after they have left, on my younger brother’s face or my hand. But it always comes out hot and smelly. Sometimes, while blowing on my brother’s face, I imagine about running away and slipping into a house, where there are no other kids, just him and I, and loads of cold scented air, then when we come out, we will always be surrounded with it too. Like those are, who travel in cars. It’s so hot; I want my ice cream now. It will fill my mouth with cold air.”
“Do you want to study?”
“I want to wear a uniform – a new one, clean, blue coloured with a white dupatta. I can even don the dupatta on my head and I want a bag too. I will keep my money in it, also coloured chalks. A baji once gave me coloured chalks to draw with, on the footpath, but that boy over there with the bucket, he took them and threw some in his bucket. I don’t know what he did with the rest. That baji was very nice; she bought me water and only smiled, even when I touched her hand. It was the prettiest hand. Cool and scented. I wish that she would take me home; I can do some kaam now. My elder sister also works in a house. She comes on Sundays, sometimes.”
“How old is she?”
“Which ice cream flavour do you want?”
As I reached for the money, I saw her sprint to the shop and excitedly examine the counter, where she wanted her ice cream from.
“What is your name, Sir?”
“Luqman, but people here call me Mani bhai. Why, is there a problem? Who are you looking for?”
“No no, I am just asking. Can I share a smoke with you?”
“If you are asking, just by the way, then sure.”
“I have this page on Facebook where I take pictures of people and narrate their stories. Would you mind if I ask you for your story?”
“What is this Facebook and who reads these stories? More importantly, who has time for stories and who are you?”
“I am a photographer, I read and there is this place on the internet, it’s like a dhabba or a baithak, where you have a million people talking to each other and there we post pictures…”
“Cut it, tell me, who reads them, the literates?”
“Yes, the computer literates.”
“Okay, you can have a story but this picture bit… no.”
“What about a picture of this cigarette in your hand?”
“So… what are you struggling with right now?”
“Why and for what?”
“Only the decision to light this cigarette is at my discretion, everything else is either burning away or is up in smoke… Look down there, you see balls? We have balls, but we aren’t men. Emasculated shells housing societal slaves, living like dead bodies, on a day to day basis. Can you guess who I am? I am a pimp. I was born to a prostitute and grew up in a brothel.
I used to do odd jobs for the other men, who were back then, bringing in customers for my mother. Mani, bring me a cup of chai. Mani, bring me an Urdu digest. Mani fix this; Mani do that. I don’t know who my father was and I grew up catering for so many women, I guess I see them as one big blob of a mother. I am not saying I am a saint who views women as some sacred entity. I am a sinner and I view them for what they can offer and, more importantly, who would be interested in their offers. Plus, I have always hated women.
Here, and this is probably the only part of the world, where a female child’s birth is an investment and a male child’s, chalo agaya chota, kothay ka kutta (the brothel’s pet) – something that is shrugged off. But even in this world of hairy men and hairy drains, Urdu digests and cups of tea, Naseebo Lal’s new release and this cigarette, I found a reason to be happy. I found her. I stepped up and even tied the knot when she was being threatened and visited daily by policemen.
What else could bring a beauty like her and a pimp like me, together, if not a threat? So now, I am not just a pimp, I am a pimp who puts his wife on sale. Who sometimes stands outside, fearing violence and sometimes storms off, violent, as his wife gets ravaged inside, inside out. I cannot touch her, I have all this money these bastards leave and I cannot even use that money to buy her. All I can buy is this cigarette, a shitty worthless impotent piece of a cigarette. Go away, we are done. Run. Go!”
As I quickly walked away, I saw him light another one.
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