His second day back in Presidency, Saif told the prison barber to make him Salman Khan. This kid with a glass eye and a razor hidden under his tongue. A little comb for his little moustache.
He’d done time out there before, along with short-term bids out in Dum Dum, Barrackpore Correctional. Then another six months in Alipore Jail, drifting through cycles of black ganja, Carrom, and soft-core porn. All night you’d see him red eyed and vacant, listening to the slow grinding as he sharpened a fragment of tile against the cold concrete floor. When he was done he would run a finger along the edge of the ceramic, a blade light and curved like the bones of a small animal.
When the cops came for him, he didn’t even run. They’d been raiding houses out along the eastern fringe of Park Circus. If he wanted to, he could have gone into the backstreets, where they never would have found him. These were the same alleyways where he’d played as a child, barefoot and naked, tracing each gully, each by-lane, as though it were a line along his palm. One step backwards and he could have just disappeared. But he didn’t. He waited. Just stood by a roadside stall and finished his tea, the sirens fading in across his glass eye.
On the day of the hearing his mother brought the children and sat in court all afternoon, the only adult in his family to see him as he was led to trial. Saif’s daughter called for him from across the room. His one-and-a-half-year-old son Hassan, lying in his mother’s arms, just stared at him as he waved.
He neither confirmed nor denied the charges. They got him through the gates of Presidency and herded him into a room with 300 other men and a hole smeared with human feces. The first night he sat against the wall, waiting for his connections on the inside. There was yelling somewhere. A fight. Bodies brushing up against one another in the chemical heat. Saif found himself squatting over the hole with his jeans around his ankles, holding a cigarette. He smoked to kill the fumes of the vomit and piss and shit.
That afternoon he’d watched as one of the teenage inmates, an addict, broke into a seizure, collapsed in convulsions in front of him. Saif had known what to do—he moved with the others as one entity, slowly, silently coasting away from the boy. Beyond the crowd he could see men pushing through and running to cradle the kid by his neck. They were looking back and shouting for the guards, but the other inmates just stood there. The boy glared up at the lights, his body in tremors like an old clockwork doll. Saif quietly watched a little longer. Then he walked back to the corner of the room so he could stare at the ceiling and play with his dead skin. Someone was humming a song from an old cinema, somewhere.
Visitation day his mother brought him chocolates, tea leaves, and cards from the children. Her voice was low, almost a whisper. The name of God muttered under her breath.
Where’s Nadima? he said.
His mother shook her head. She’s with the kids today, but she said to tell you she’ll come down soon. Things are difficult now.
They sat there for what seemed a long time, not talking. When he asked about his children, she tried to smile.
And what about Hassan? What did the doctors say?
His mother couldn’t look at him, so he nodded, went on.
You tell them I’ll be home soon, he said. Tell them I’ll bring presents, that toy Soha wanted, the big dog. Tell her I remember. And Hassan—give him what he wants. Tell Nadima she doesn’t need to worry about the hospital bills, the money will come later, things will work out. But you give the kids what they want. Whatever they want. Just make sure she doesn’t bring them here, all right? I don’t care what they say. It doesn’t matter how much they cry.
Then the guard came and led him out.
Like the other Muslims, he’d been processed under the masjid files. He was assigned to C ward, where he’d gone in with some boys he’d done time with before. Afternoons he’d hang with them out in the courtyard, playing with prayer beads, a pack of Gold Flakes up his sleeve. Mornings he’d call home about Hassan, but sometimes there was no answer.
It better fucking rain soon, he said.
You could see him pacing, always pacing, biting down on the collar of his shirt. The day he came in, he cliqued up with a crew run by Kalua, who he’d worked for back in the neighborhood. The gangs had people across all the wards. They decided what you watched on television: reruns of Dabangg cutting to static, a glance of cleavage in a Parle-G ad. At dawn men in lungis gathered around to pull a Nokia out of the shit-stained toilet. Crews hustled in a market for Spasmo, people, and painkillers. There were rumors of a pale, slender boy trading sex for brown sugar down in the generator room.
Saif was always looking out for marks. After a while out there, you could discern the traffic, the passage of the debts and the hustles, the human livestock, the promises. There was a demand for other inmates. In the courtyard, he would look out for the new arrivals, setting their prices. Mornings he would follow Kalua and the other gang leaders as they negotiated over tea and hand-rolled cigarettes. The men joking as they exchanged biris, lit one another’s smokes. Their hands behind their backs as they paced the courtyard making deals. Saif knew which ones you could extort: you wanted the fat ones, the ones with good teeth and light skin. Their prices ran up to 900, 950, 1,000. Done. Twelve thousand for the boy from suburbia with full lips and soft clean hair.
His first day, he’d seen Kalua buy a good one, a former accountant in on murder. The new arrival had stared at his feet the entire time they negotiated his price. When they were done, Saif sat the man down in the back of the ward and recited the standardized script: Listen, this is very simple, very easy. This is how things are going to work. Three thousand, that’s everything you could want. Everything. We’ll have someone waiting on the outside, the money goes to him. Your people make that payment every week. Easy, right? You get it. You’ve been to school.
Saif followed the orders that came down through the hierarchy. To him, Presidency was not a prison but a ceremony. A commandment. All existence was pared down to codes of God and survival. Hide a blade, mark your corner. What you don’t smoke, you cut with shoe polish and push back out on the street. Whatever happens, have faith that God loves you, though he is silent, though he will destroy you. Learn to drink with a razor slipped under your tongue.
All afternoon Kalua had him out there selling, following the debts. When Hassan’s hospital bills came in, he asked for more work pushing product. He met up with two guards at the door of the ward and talked to them about cricket as he slipped them their cut. Years on and he’d developed an intimacy with the things he kept hidden, the razor blade, the untraceable SIM. In the darkness he was silent, almost meditative, staring ahead as he slipped them into his cavities, biting hard on his knuckle as he squirmed.
As he crossed the ward in the night, his shadow emerged along the walls, childlike and strange as he searched the cracks for his possessions. In the morning, when he was done, he cleaned himself and said a prayer for Hassan at the prison masjid. But the words never came out quite right.
He hadn’t told any of them what was happening to Hassan. Some of them didn’t even know he had children. They knew him for the good hash and razor tricks. This kid who circled the drifting hot dust telling fight stories. The gang members, cross-legged, regarding him over digestive biscuits and chai.
Saif pulled his shirt off as he said, They hit me right here across my back with this chopper, a Chinese chopper. He leaned forward with the shirt over his head, revealing two sleek grooves in his skin, their curvatures dark and parallel along the arch of his spine. I was out in Park Circus More and the motherfucker got me from behind. He brought his shirt back down. I shouldn’t be alive. It is by the grace of Allah I am alive. It was the winter, so I was wearing a thick jacket, otherwise he’d have ripped me open. Thick fucking jacket. You wouldn’t believe how cold it was.
Then what? I fucked him up, then what. I got him. I swear on my mother I got him. I pulled the chopper right out of his hand and fucked him with it.
A gang member nodded. Another grunted, then put out his cigarette on the floor.
What was it over?
Shit, what is anything over? Because they’re chutiyas. But really, I should have died right then. I really should have died.
Whatever money he had left, he sent home for his son. The product came in through the visitation room, brought in by neighborhood boys, little baggies passed on as their palms brushed up against his.
Other days he would gather with the rest around Kalua, the gang leader tall and bare chested with a gamucha draped over his shoulders, sitting there eating peanuts, making calls to promoters on the outside.
My friend, he said, in this country a businessman must pay taxes, no? Is this not how things are done? Now let me tell you how this is going to work.
Some of his men smiled as they passed around a cigarette.
Look, I don’t want any issues. We can help you. We aren’t bad people.
Saif ran a comb through his hair as he listened. Kalua looked at him, nodded. My friend, you’re a reasonable man. I know you are. You believe in God and so do I.
Saif didn’t have much time till the end of his sentence. Three months left. Still, there was no need to think of time, time was meal hours and the morning roll call, the lights cutting off after dark. Time was dead. Time was monolithic. Inside, he marked its passage with what he ate, fucked, killed, or inhaled.
All he could do was stay high and move with the system. Bath time and three square meals. The crowds were brought in and out of the wards, dispersed among the courtyards, the workshops, and the cavernous, subterranean kitchen, the men sitting with their heads down as they ate from steel plates of stale rice and watered-down dal. The days passed in the claustrophobic heat of the courtyard. In the evenings they’d all be pushed back into the wards, where Saif sat with the others, watching movies on a thirteen-inch black-and-white screen. Saif recited the lines in the front row, squatted over; then, playing with his razor, he switched through the off-air channels—broadcasts of white noise and static and slow Hindi music. Around him, the other prisoners waited, acid-washed in the monochrome light.
They all found their own breaks in the routine. You took a hit or slashed your wrists or burned a lizard’s tail with matches. Sitting in the back of the cell, you stared ahead and lit up the brown sugar, taking long, tantric breaths as you sank into the giddy warmth of an overdose. There was no need for concern. The system came through in silence to clean up the bodies, the traces of blood and cum.
Once, Saif and the other inmates woke up to find one of the inmates hanging from a naked pipe in C ward. Hours after the man had died, they could still see his bare feet tracing little circles in the air. The guards came through and carried out the procedure to collect him. Two of them lifted the body by its legs, taking the weight on their shoulders, while the third climbed a stepladder and cut the rope. That night someone else was transferred to the dead man’s mattress. Before lights-out, all the inmates gathered around the television and watched Dabangg for the third time that week.
He looked past these things, just waited for meal times, smoke-ups, and visitors. Though these days people only came by to bring news about Hassan. You’d see Saif in the visitation room as he stared at the wall, his mother across from him with her head in her hands, trying to find something in his eyes. On those days he was quieter. Afterward, he would walk back to the yard and squat with a cigarette as the crew ran games of rummy half naked in the sun. Beyond the walls, above the card players’ circle, he could see the distant burning of the waste fields. He would stay still as he watched the wake of the pyres along the horizon, the traces curved and slender, like strokes of Chinese ink.
When he got this way, the others left him alone. He would sit drinking tea as he looked through the cards his children had sent him. Hassan did the drawings and Soha wrote—scribbles scrawled into a letter Saif couldn’t read.
When he had time with the phone, he sat against the wall and called home. After there was no answer from his wife, he tried his mother, who said Nadima was busy.
Busy, what busy? I’m her husband.
Babu, calm down, she had to take Hassan to the doctor.
I’ve been hearing this for days.
Things are hard now, there’s a lot going on.
It’s not right. She knows it’s not right.
She’ll come soon, when she can. When things are a little better.
It would come and go. Some days he was talking again, some he just sat in front of the TV. For long stretches he couldn’t keep still. Once, he passed a guy from another crew during lunch hour. The others could hear their shouts down the hall as the guards dragged them apart.
Stories about him circulated within the system, the word out about how he’d slashed a debtor in the lavatory, jumped another with a brick. The last was about a man he’d cornered in the empty corridor, a former restaurant manager under Kalua’s protection. Saif liked to talk about how each time he slapped him, the man fixed his glasses. When he retold the story, that part always got a laugh. Saif slapped the man again, and the man fixed his glasses again. And again. And so on. Finally, the man tried to grab Saif’s hand, and Saif lifted him by the collar and threw him against the wall, pushed him down and hit him, over and over, not stopping till he was lying flat, out of breath and writhing. Then nothing. That same night, Saif lay in bed recalling how it felt to have his son climb over his back, a small hand reaching out to touch his stubble. For hours he stayed up and played with his matches, the flame lapsing in and out of life, emerging like a cat’s eye in the dark of the cell.
As they cooked dinner over a smuggled heater, the crew came together and talked about the last suicide.
See, it’s expected, Kalua said, crushing a clove of garlic in his hands. Some people don’t have it in them. In a way it’s not actually the poor fucker’s fault. You almost can’t blame him.
Saif nodded, his hand over his knee. Yeah, actually it’s a mental thing. Not everyone’s got it.
One of the others, an older man stirring the pot, looked up and said, It’s stupid.
Look, Saif said, the son of a bitch was a lifer. What, you just wait out here? What’s the fucking use? That’s no life at all. I’m not saying I’d fucking do it, I can’t respect it, but I get it.
As Saif spoke, he brought out a dark knot of hashish cut with carnauba wax, the cluster resembling a black hole, or a finger imprinted in ink. He tore it over the pages of a men’s lifestyle magazine. The residue scattered across glamour shots of Katrina Kaif.
The older man remained quiet for a moment, then said, It’s not about strong or weak, no. Doesn’t even matter if it’s a life sentence, it’s stupid what he did. Okay, sure things are bad, but you just have to wait. Die a real death. Even if it’s out here. It’s hard, sure. I’m not saying it’s easy, but even if you spend your life out here that’s all it is, a life. One life is nothing, but hell is different. Hell is forever.
Kalua laughed. What, you’re going talk about all this shit again? This fucking guy.
Saif sat there smoothing out the papers, trying to make himself laugh.
He called his mother and asked her to come see him whenever she could. When she came, she told him to wait just a little longer, Hassan would be okay. He’d see his kids again soon. Saif sat nodding. She asked how everything was going and he said it was good. It was fine. That week there had been another suicide attempt in A ward. Another overdose. His mother touched his hand and sat a little longer, watching him. Today, Hassan played with the birds for the first time ever. When he smiles, he reminds me of you.
The day Nadima came for him, he was out in the courtyard smoking cigarettes. Flocks of them sat around with their card games. The dacoits from Jharkhand, coal country, the car jackers from Gorakhpur and Patna, ancient cities further north. They placed bets with biscuits and Navy Cuts. A lone bird wandered among the gamblers. Nearby a group of convicts did yoga in the shade.
Kalua was squatting out there with a Cadbury bar, eating it carefully, breaking off pieces one by one. He looked at Saif as he chewed. That man, Kassim, Kalua said. You didn’t need to go so far.
He was showing attitude, Saif said.
What’s bothering you?
I’m all right.
Don’t get distracted.
There was something chemical in the air, a distinct scent of sulphur. He could feel it on his skin. It came down from the waste fields. Streaks of smoke coasting up from the skyline, dissolving the sun. It would soon be time for the afternoon prayers.
Squatting, he placed his bets. Kalua touched his shoulder, passed him a piece of chocolate. Here, he said. Have something sweet.
After lunch the guards called to say someone was here to see him. They led him through the corridor to the visiting room, where he couldn’t find her at first. A woman raised her hand. She was sitting cross-legged by the far end, a black veil over her face.
Saif frowned as he sat down across from her. What, you wear a burqa now?
She didn’t answer.
What do you want? he asked.
Then what? You come out of nowhere. Why now? What do you want?
I just need to talk.
You must fucking want something. Ridiculous, he said, shaking his head. You’re just ridiculous. How is my son?
I don’t know, she said, her long nails curling over the table. The doctors are useless. They can’t tell me anything.
And what? What was it? You were angry at me or something, is that it? Is this about Aisha?
No, it’s not about that woman. It’s not about anybody but us.
Then what is it? Why are you wearing that?
Saif, this is useless, I came because of Hassan. I need to talk to you properly.
Then talk. What are we doing here? Talk already.
She paused a moment, looking down at the table. I’m scared, Saif.
His face softened, if only a little. We’re all scared. He tapped his fingers against the hardwood, his good eye beginning to twitch. It’ll be okay. Like I said, I’m sending the money.
It’s not about the money, she said.
She was crying now, her head down, a hand over her face.
Don’t do that here, it’ll be fine.
I’m so scared, Saif. I’m so scared.
It’ll all be settled, the bills, the doctors. Everything. Now stop that.
Is it because of us, Saif?
Don’t talk shit.
We’ve done a lot of bad things. We really have.
You’re being stupid.
Saif watched her now, trying to breathe as she said, He’s just a baby.
God isn’t like that.
She couldn’t look at him.
He isn’t like that. He kept saying it. He isn’t like that at all.
He knew it would be a long time till Nadima came to see him again. He called his mother and told her to put on Hassan. They were still for a while, the boy sometimes making noises, laughing. Eventually he put down the phone and started humming as his father tried not to cry on the line.
As Saif waited in the courtyard, he could see the shadows drawing out in the passing morning, drifting over the prisoners like a mist. Kalua was out behind him, telling stories to the crew, but he stayed alone now. Across the grounds some of the older prisoners smoked cigarettes against a wall. A teenager wandered in circles, his hands to his head, muttering something to himself.
Later a group of addicts came by and settled beside him. Thin men squatting in the heat, their heads bowed, their scars fading out like primal etchings. You could see tattoos laced along their rotting track marks. The names of daughters. A swallow in flight.
One of the addicts, a kid Saif sold to, caught his eye and nodded. Saif spat into the dirt and lit a cigarette.
Bhai, the younger man said, turning to face him.
Saif didn’t respond.
Bhai, you’re in C ward right?
You saw the man who hanged himself?
Saif tapped the cigarette on the ground and said nothing.
I knew him actually. We used to play ludo.
I didn’t know him, Saif said.
Ludo, Carrom. He used to work at a bank or something, good job and everything. Just imagine, a guy like that dying in here, no?
I didn’t know him.
The man waited a moment, then nodded again and turned back to his friends.
Saif sat a while longer. Then he stood up, spat in the dirt, and walked out toward Kalua and the crew. When he was coming down from his high, he remembered seeing the man swaying in the air. He hadn’t told anyone this, but even now, even after all the bodies, when he first saw those bare feet hovering he didn’t think of a suicide, but of a séance, the possession of djinns.
Aurko Maitra is an Indian writer raised in Singapore. He now lives in Calcutta, where he works as a freelance journalist. (updated 4/2020)
“Decades” (AGNI 91) is his first published story.