Avtar Singh's last novel is Necropolis (Akashic Books, 2016). It is set in Delhi, and is about crime, poetry, and a woman who may be centuries-old. He's just completed Into the Forest (working title) about the lives of a few women in a German forest in COVID times. There are disappearances, a possible murder, a talking dog. Singh was founding editor of Time Out Delhi and managing editor of The Indian Quarterly. His nonfiction's appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Nikkei Asian Review and elsewhere. "The Leopard," a short story, recently appeared in Prairie Schooner (Winter 2020). A 2018 MacDowell fellow, Singh lives and works near Stuttgart with his wife, son, and singing dog.
“Get the fuck out of here, you motherfucker. One shot from me, and your shit will come out of your nose!”
It is blindingly hot. Rahim mops at his brow, but it is so dry, there is no sweat to wick away.
“Saab, I just want some shade. I’ll be gone in—”
“You’ll go now, you sister-screwing Easterner, before I fuck you in the ass!”
The man yelling at him is tall. He is turbaned. His beard is noticeably neat, even under his mask. His clothes are clean. He should be dignified, thinks Rahim. Then why are these obscenities dripping from his lips?
The people of this city are mad, he whispers to the man next to him. They both lie in the fleeting shade of a tree. Mynahs call to each other as they pick through the leaves above. It is early in the hot weather in North India. Soon the tree will be in fruit. Then there will be monkeys to compete with, and squirrels, each tree an island as this city of 20 million souls breaks and eddies around them. The animals don’t know that the city’s currents have been stilled by the sickness.
Aside from this turbaned maniac, the capital is quiet when it should be shrill.
“Mad,” whispers Rahim, again.
The big Sikh takes a threatening step, but Rahim knows he will come no closer. There is space in this part of town. When you know that precious commodity, you come to respect it.
The restrictions the virus demands can actually be applied here. There is a gate to this colony. There is a park behind them. When it is cool, when there is no sickness, there will be children playing, women walking, men playing cards. Big cars stand outside the houses arranged around the park.
These people can afford social distancing. They can choose when they die. He knows the man, who looks as if he has rabies, will only come so far and no further.
His threats are empty. But Rahim wishes he didn’t have to hear them.
“Sir,” he says again, the tiredness apparent in his voice, “I’ll be gone in a few minutes. Please.”
“What the fuck is that next to you?”
Who, Rahim wants to say. He has a name.
He turns to his friend.
“He’s asking your name, brother.” There is no reply.
The day before:
“Rahim, listen. You want to work close to home, yes?”
“I mean, if you’re willing to go out there, the factories on the border, in the industrial areas, they need people immediately. You can have a position there today.”
“Even with the virus?”
“Arrey, the factory is still there? The goods are still inside? People outside are still hungry and willing to steal?”
“Yes, they still need guards. You can go today. But do you want to?”
“No, you don’t. Who knows what might happen on the way there? How will you get there in the first place? There are no buses right now. Not even rickshaws.”
“I can’t afford those.”
“Of course you can’t. You’ll end up having to sleep there. Eat there. And you know what those bastards are like out there. Animals! Not civilised people like us.”
Rahim was squatting on the floor at his feet, as a supplicant should in this time of contagion. The other man shifted on his chair to make himself more comfortable, hawked and spat on the floor. He missed Rahim’s foot by inches.
“You want to be close to home. That’s what the 10,000 rupees is for. The manager will make sure of that.”
“I’m here, no? Sitting comfortably outside a bank in the middle of town?”
Rahim nodded uncertainly.
“Where I live isn’t ten minutes away.”
“I don’t have the money, bhai.”
“I can lend it to you.”
The shopping centre was quiet. Everything was quiet, these days. Only the guards and the dogs they fed remained. One of those dogs flopped next to Rahim. He tickled it absentmindedly. It turned over with a contented groan.
“You don’t worry about that.”
“I have to worry.”
“You’ll be paid, won’t you? Once you’re getting paid, it won’t matter.”
“I am already in debt.”
Rahim looked away.
“Look, this is an opportunity. There aren’t that many of us around right now, because of the sickness. Once you have the job, once you’re in the chair, it is yours to give up. You understand?”
“Don’t give up an opportunity because you’re worried about the price.”
“Will you get a share of the 10,000, brother?”
“That’s really none of your business, is it?”
No, thought Rahim. It really wasn’t.
“One more thing.”
“Umakant. Isn’t he from your village?”
“What about him?”
“He’s not answering his phone. Can you go by his place and see what’s going on?”
Umakant lived in a basti on the far side of the airport. Normally it would have taken Rahim a bus ride, perhaps two. But now, with the sickness, he had to walk.
He started at night. Partly for the cool, partly for the shelter of the dark. He didn’t want the police asking him where he was going. Nobody was supposed to be outside, and the police in these parts carried sticks long enough to bridge the social distancing divide.
He gave the people who sheltered under the long bridges running to the airport a wide berth. They went about their ghostly business in the LED-disrupted night. How do they manage, he wondered: They have to sleep outside, and they can’t have darkness either?
What will they do when they leave the city and night falls in those distant places? Will they even know it as their home, anymore?
I could never be of this place, thought Rahim. Not even with my wife here. Not even with my son.
He crossed the highway without a glance. Not a truck, not a single car. Not even a police control unit. Just the occasional ambulance rushing past with its siren screaming.
The last bridge; the really long one that ran behind the airport, the one the city’s fabulists claimed could be seen from outer space (as if they had ever been): He didn’t even bother walking under it. He walked up the slope as if he owned it. Cheap homes piled higgledy-piggledy to either side disappeared into the darkness beyond the bright blaze of the bridge itself. He heard the occasional TV, a voice raised in anger, the bark of a dog and its ensuing response.
He stopped halfway across, stretched his arms out, turned in a complete circle. He wondered at the power of a virus to silence a city of 20 million people.
Was every one of them already dead?
Had they all forgotten to turn their televisions off before pulling on their shrouds?
He knew to step across the open drain in the middle of Umakant’s street. The scooters of the other residents lined the narrow edges of the path. Some lights were still on in the narrow homes running shoulder to shoulder to either side; he felt the eyes of the neighbours on him as he walked.
He recognised the stairwell by the now-closed cigarette stand outside. He climbed the stairs till the top, four floors of illegal tilting construction held up by the adjoining structures. Umakant’s bare room was on the roof, a single corrugated sheet protecting him from the elements. It was his alone, though, and for that he had given thanks in this crowded city.
When he was alive. Rahim knew his friend had passed as soon as he entered the airless room.
The light was on. The body lay on a mattress on the bare floor, an empty glass of water by its side. Rahim’s presence had been noticed, and Umakant’s landlord stepped onto the roof behind him.
“We would have called his people, but his phone was locked,” said the landlord.
Rahim nodded silently.
“We called 112. They said they would send someone to pick him up. But right now, in this time…”
“When did it happen?”
“We noticed this morning.”
Rahim looked at the masked man, hesitantly standing as far away as the narrow roof would allow.
“We’re not meeting anyone. Nobody is.”
“No, of course not.”
Rahim looked around, ran a hand through his shock of black hair.
“I’ll come by in the morning, then. With some men to help me take him away.”
“No,” said the landlord with sudden authority. “He goes tonight. I’m not having
a corpse above my head another night.”
“Who knows when he died?”
“Tonight! Or I throw him over the side into the street!”
Rahim looked at him wordlessly, then shook his head.
“Is there a masaan close by?”
Not in regular times. But now there was a plot of land for that purpose not one kilometre away. Yes, it was easy to find: Rahim would know the burning ground by the fires.
Was there a Pandit there?
“Can you not do the prayers yourself? Umakant was a Brahmin.”
The landlord looked away. “A friend?”
“We grew up together.” Rahim closed his eyes against the memory, leant against the wall of his dead friend’s dwelling. “We wanted to see the ocean when we were children.”
This is where they’d ended up. This is where Umakant had died. In this arid city a thousand miles from the nearest sea.
“Can I have a glass of water?”
The landlord indicated the tap against the wall. Rahim thought of using Umakant’s glass, then squatted next to the tap with his hand cupped. He drank deeply.
“Will you help me take him down,” he asked.
“You know I can’t.” Rahim sighed. “His things?”
“We won’t touch them. Not unless his room is taken by someone else. And that’s not going to happen right now, is it?”
No, thought Rahim. At last our things are safe in this city.
He filled Umakant’s glass. He bent to his friend’s side, sprinkled water on his face, smoothed it through the dirty hair, closed the eyes. He wrapped the body tightly with the sheet it was lying on, covering the face as well. He hoisted him with an effort onto his shoulder, straightened his slim back against the weight. He mumbled some words in prayer, for Umakant’s benefit and his own.
“You understand,” said the landlord: “These are not normal times. If it weren’t for the sickness, I would have made the arrangements. I would have come with you.”
Rahim had no breath to spare as he navigated the narrow stairwell with his burden.
“I would have tracked down his people and let them know,” said the landlord as he followed him down.
Rahim stepped into the narrow street, his feet perilously close to the open drain.
He propped the body against the wall, catching his breath.
“I would help, brother. But right now…”
There was a handcart to the side, of the sort day labourers use to lug their cargoes. It looked unclaimed. Rahim looked at the landlord, who shrugged. Rahim dragged the body onto the cart, wheezing with the strain. Nobody told him to stop.
He felt the eyes of the neighbours on him as he stumbled past, their bodies shrinking away from their windows, their gazes averted when they realised what he was pushing in front of him.
“Nobody should have to die alone!”
They really shouldn’t, thought Rahim. He reached the end of the lane, where it opened on the main road. He looked either way, found the flickering light he was looking for, turned his cart towards the burning ground.
“Have you brought wood?”
“I’ve brought a body. Isn’t that enough?”
“You think this is a fucking joke?”
The man looked at the end of his tether. Even by the firelight, his eyes were bloodshot through lack of sleep or too much to drink. His hair was wild, his hands dirty, his soiled vest torn and showing the skin beneath.
“Well? Do you?”
“Brother, please,” said Rahim placatingly. “I didn’t know I needed to bring any.”
“We have none! There aren’t even any trees left in this place. People have brought chairs, tables, their own beds to burn. What do we do?”
“They can go fuck themselves! You think this land has clearance for burning bodies? Do you think I work for them?”
He ran his hand through his matted hair. He hadn’t bothered with a mask.
Perhaps he thought it was too late.
“These people and their fucking bodies. It’s 2am, and they’re still coming.”
Rahim bit his lip. Behind the man blazed a few fresh pyres. Many more smoked down to the sides. At the periphery, beyond the flames, squatted a few sets of masked men. They seemed to be waiting.
“Can we not put my friend on one of those,” he asked, pointing to the vigorous young blazes. The persons already on them wouldn’t mind, surely.
“That’s what they’ve paid for.” The other man gestured towards the waiting groups.
Of course they have, thought Rahim.
“How did you bring the body?”
“Let’s take a look.”
The man cast his eye over the cart on which Umakant still lay. The wheels were no good, he muttered, and the long beams were too hard and old. They would never catch. But the cheap planks of the bed; if Rahim were to help cut them down, he could fit Umakant in.
“Are you a Pandit,” asked Rahim.
“Why? You getting married?”
Rahim looked at him wordlessly. The other man sighed.
“I’m not a Pandit. And I don’t have one here. They’re like everyone else. Waiting to get sick, or already dead.”
Rahim sighed in his turn.
“Where can I find a Pandit?”
“What fucking difference does it make?”
“It matters to his family. To me.”
“Burial would be easier,” muttered the other man. “It always is, when so many die.”
Rahim looked away.
“Trust me, friend. I’m a professional.”
“Where can I find a Pandit,” Rahim asked again.
“The public crematorium in town. Not that you’ll get a slot there. But you should be able to find someone to say his prayers for him. What you do after that is up to you.”
Rahim nodded, set his hands to the cart.
“Sell me the cart.”
“I’ll give you a good price.”
“What will I do with my friend, if I sell what I’m carrying him on?”
The professional looked at him sideways, then stepped back towards the burning ground.
“Get off the bridges,” said a man Rahim met on his slow journey into town. There were police roadblocks ahead. Given his cargo, and his being alone; given the times: Who knew what they would do?
The man spoke in the soft cadences Rahim had brought with him from his home in the East. They were on a bridge, Rahim between the handles of the cart, the man at the other end, the two of them carefully socially distanced. The first light of day lay in streaks across a still-purple sky. The huddled mass of the city was now visible.
It should have been shaking off its slumber, the commerce of this hour colonising the lightening streets. Milkmen, couriers, young people getting off the nightshifts at their call-centres. But there was nothing. Just this man walking in the other direction.
Soon the call to prayer would ping, one minaret to another, across the city. Where would he kneel? At the head of Umakant’s body, or at his feet?
The railway line, said the other man. The goods trains are still running. If you can get on one, it’ll take you in the right direction. Towards the river.
The river, beyond which stretched the long road home, fully 1000 kms away. The previous year, a stream of humans had walked that way, fleeing this city. Millions of men, women and children, Rahim had heard. Faced with an unknown virus, the first lockdown, and the uncertainties of their own lives, they had chosen to walk home instead.
But if that distant place was home, what was this hulking squalid thing to either side of the bridge he stood upon?
People hadn’t fled this time. There was no place, anymore, where the dead didn’t have to wait at the burning grounds.
The other man, mask under his chin, joined his hands in the direction of Umakant, his eyes closed, his mouth shaping a brief prayer.
“Are you a Pandit, brother?”
The other man shook his head, pulled his mask back on, went on his way.
Rahim trundled Umakant up the ramp to the platform. No passenger trains were plying, but his informant had been right. The slow-moving goods trains were still moving sedately between nowhere and no place. Freed now of competition, one trundled glacially past on the platform. Rahim looked at the handcart with regret. There was no way he’d get it on the train.
He hefted Umakant up on his shoulders again and tried to jog beside the train, waiting for an open door. How would they get on? He considered, for a fleeting moment, throwing Umakant’s body in, and then stopping altogether. Let Umakant disappear over the horizon; let his body’s disposal be the responsibility of the man who would find him, leaving Rahim to worry about raising 10,000 rupees so he too could sit outside an ATM.
The slow train rumbled by unheedingly, one closed door after another. What do they have inside that needs to be locked away, he wondered irrelevantly, light-headed with the strain. He felt as if he were running through quick-sand. His breath came in ragged gulps.
Hands grabbed at the body, tugged it off his shoulder. More hands pulled him on board. He collapsed, lungs heaving, eyes closed, the ghosts of fertiliser bags past enveloping him off the foetid floor.
He heard voices, but didn’t trust himself to speak.
“That’s a dead body.”
“Throw them both off. We could catch it off either of them.”
“Nobody’s throwing anything off the train!”
No, indeed, thought Rahim. There’s enough garbage on the tracks already.
“We’ve taken our chances so far. That man needs the help.”
“We’re funeral attendants, now?”
“We’re human, and so is he. There’s air from the door. There’s enough room in here. Just give him some space.”
Rahim sat up after a while. There were five or so other men in the carriage, all of them masked, their backs against the opposite sides. Their eyes considered him.
“Have you water,” he asked.
“We pulled you in, friend. Isn’t that enough?”
“You know we can’t give you any water.”
The men in the carriage all spoke Hindi, but with different accents. “Where are you from,” asked Rahim.
“Did you work together,” he asked.
The others nodded perfunctorily.
“Where are you going,” asked one.
“To the crematorium in the city. I need a Pandit to say his prayers.”
The other man inclined his head in acknowledgement. This was only necessary.
“Where are you headed,” asked Rahim.
“A gurdwara by the river. They have a langar every day. We’ve been going there to eat the last three days.”
“It is still open?”
“So far. If it is closed, we go hungry.”
“How long have you been on the train?”
“Since dawn. It takes that long for these trains to enter the city from where we live.”
The sun was high, now. The train cast barely a shadow as it trundled through the city.
“What happens if the train is late?”
“Then we don’t eat.”
“There is no other way, right now.”
No, thought Rahim. There really isn’t.
“Thank you,” he said finally. “For pulling us in.”
The men were quiet.
“You didn’t have to do it.”
“Yes, we did.”
“We eat because of the kindness of strangers. What kind of men would we have been, if we hadn’t helped you?”
“Those rich Sikhs give because they can,” muttered one of the men to the side.
“And we helped him because we could.”
“At what cost to us?”
“We all have to die sometime.”
“I would rather not rush.”
“We have each other if our time comes. His friend is dead.” Then they were silent.
Rahim watched the sun-bleached city slipping by. The houses and buildings showed their backsides to the dirty tracks. The rail line was an ugly secret that respectable citizens tried to ignore, save to pitch their rubbish over the wall.
“We’re safe, brother,” said one of the other men. “As long as we stay on the train.”
Rahim and Umakant had always taken trains to this city. Never a flight. Those distant landbound, landlocked boys had dreamt of such things as flying and standing by the sea, but these freedoms had remained out of reach. If I could just close my eyes, thought Rahim; if I were to dream: What would I see? My own family?
A child was standing on the terrace of a house that backed on the tracks. He was alone. Perhaps enforced solitude had driven him to the roof in the midday heat. The train was moving so slowly; the day was so clear: the child’s eyes met Rahim’s.
They watched each other quietly, neither one of them looking away.
He was told where to get off. The crematorium was a short walk further. On the city’s streets, now, but he would have to deal with that.
Even at the train’s slow speed, there was no question of being respectful. He had to roll Umakant over the side before he stepped off. One of the men, standing now in the open door, waved as the train rolled on.
Umakant’s winding sheet was beginning to show signs of its hard use. And it smelt. He sighed and bent to his task again.
There was a gate to one side, a path that lay through a small grove of trees. He felt as if he’d entered a glade where there was no sickness or pain. Past the trees was a quadrangle, quiet well-kept homes overlooking the park at its heart. Beyond the park lay the trafficless main road.
His burden now was practically impossible to bear. He could move only a few steps at a time. He saw a tree; dropped Umakant off his shoulder: He collapsed as well.
And then the big Sikh walked across to rage at him.
“Is that a fucking body?”
“Sir, you know it is. Just give me a minute to catch my breath—”
The man’s eyes are almost out of his head, he is so angry. The waxed tips of his moustache bristle visibly beyond the edges of his mask. How can a man who is physically shrinking away still seem threatening?
Another Sikh stands in the arched entrance to the building immediately opposite Rahim, far enough away that he can remain unmasked. He is older, taller, thinner than the man shouting. His voice is equable. But he is unquestionably the angry man’s master. Sewa Singh’s entire body language changes in an instant.
The older man bends his head towards Rahim and his package.
“Do you know them?”
“Of course not! Bastards walked in off the street!”
“Well, one of them did,” murmurs the older Sikh. “You serve people like him with such devotion at the gurdwara, Sewa Singh. Why do you turn on them here?”
“He is welcome at the Guru’s house. Why has he come to yours?”
The older man looks meditatively at Rahim. “Are you looking for the crematorium?”
“You’re quite close. Can you carry him there, though?”
“I don’t think I can. Not anymore.”
“Have you come far?”
Rahim tells him where Umakant had lived. The other man raises an eyebrow, Sewa Singh fulminating to the side.
“Just you? He has nobody else?”
Rahim’s silence gives the other man his answer.
“You’ll need money. Or they won’t take him.”
Rahim says nothing. He knows it is true.
“Have you any money?”
Rahim shakes his head.
“Are you thirsty?”
The man looks at the bottle of mineral water in his hand. He walks a few steps towards Rahim, takes some money out of his back pocket without even looking at it. It is enough, Rahim can see, to satisfy even the greed of his manager. The older man lays the money on the path with the full unopened bottle of water on it so it won’t blow away. He looks at Umakant, closes his eyes, mumbles something into his beard.
“Do you have a car, sir?” Rahim is tired enough to ask without fearing his reception.
The Sikh chuckles. “You’re not getting in my car, son. But the taxis outside the gate; tell them I sent you. There’s enough money there for one of them as well. If he’s willing to go.”
One driver, muttering at his own stupidity, is willing to go. He stops at the gate of the crematorium, pausing barely long enough for Rahim to pull his friend out of the back.
Rahim lays Umakant down in a large open hall. He is grateful for the overhead fans. Men wait all around the hall, distancing as best they can, their still loads strewn across the floor. He notes the absence of women. Rahim had liked that about this city, that women walked its streets without fear. Now their lives are indoors again. Another casualty of the sickness.
A man walks across. There is a small basket of marigolds in his hands. “We have no more slots.”
“I have money.”
Rahim takes out the entire wad, whatever is left after paying the taxi-driver his extortionate price. The man looks at the notes in Rahim’s hand, their denominations, the fact that he doesn’t count the cost.
“Won’t you need some of that for later? For food?”
Rahim notes the eyes above the mask, the kindness mixed with fatigue, where he expected only greed.
“Anything at all?”
I do need the money, he wants to say. I need to eat and pay rent. I have a wife and son at the other end of the world, living on the edge of hunger. I need the money so I can find a chair outside an ATM.
Umakant had had a family as well.
“It is all for him,” he says.
The other man nods briefly.
“Are you a Pandit,” asks Rahim.
“There is one here.”
“Will he do the prayers for my friend?”
The man has a notebook. He asks for Umakant’s information; his name, his father’s name, when he was born, where he was from and the people he leaves behind: The bare particulars of his life, which is to say the entirety of his life. It is for the crematorium’s register, for the Pandit to name as he makes his recitation.
“You can go. We will take care of him.”
“Shouldn’t I wait for the ashes?”
“I can’t tell you when we’ll burn him.”
“I have nowhere else to be.”
“I can’t let you wait. The rules…”
Rahim closes his eyes.
“Brother, am I not supposed to put his ashes in running water?”
“What is your name?”
They look at each other quietly. The crematorium attendant asks Rahim to hold out his hands, into which he drops a flower from his basket.
Rahim looks at him uncomprehendingly, the marigold in his outstretched hands.
“Come with me,” says the other man.
Rahim leaves Umakant for the first and the last time. He follows the man to a small gate at the end of the hall, beyond which he sees steps leading down into a storm drain.
“Follow that drain. Don’t leave it, or you may be stopped by the police. You understand?”
“The drain leads to the river. You’ll have to walk a bit into the plain to find the stream itself, but it is still flowing. When you see the flowing water, throw the flower in.”
“Where does the water go?”
“It joins Mother Ganga.”
“Really? She flows past our home on her way to the sea.”
“Good. Your friend will be carried there.”
Imagine that, thinks Rahim.
He starts down the steps.
“A man’s friends are the true measure of him,” calls the man. “He was lucky to have you, Rahim.”
Rahim bows his head. He reaches the dirty water of the drain, turns east towards the river, the sun now dipping swiftly behind him.
His steps should be lighter, now that his load is gone. But he feels as if his shoulders will break.
His phone rings. It is the man from yesterday, the one who wants to advance him 10,000 rupees.
“What news of Umakant?”
The other man is silent for a space. He must be praying, thinks Rahim.
“What did you decide about the money?”
Rahim disconnects the call, puts the phone in his pocket. Above him soar the Pariah Kites of this city. There is plenty for them to feast on in this season.
His hands are cupped protectively around their load, a dusty marigold bound for his home 1000 kilometres away. Soon, he feels, he will see the river.
And every river leads in time to the sea.